Monday, December 7, 2009

Looking Beyond the Doom & Gloom Facing Downtown Nashua

By Sandy Belknap

This morning, I was disappointed to see so many window banners with bad news as I drove down the six or so city blocks of Main Street that make up the center of Downtown Nashua.

“Store Closing! 20% Off!”

More and more of Downtown Nashua’s small, independent store and restaurant owners are falling victim to the prolonged economic downturn and have no choice other than to close their doors.

Of course, there have been stories over the past few months in the local paper about Downtown store closings. But a newspaper headline is sometimes not as impactful as driving or walking down the street to actually see the signs on empty storefronts announcing the demise of so many businesses.

As a long-time local resident who has seen many starts and stops to a thriving Downtown community over the years, I am concerned. But, I also have hope.

I am concerned because our independent business owners are the backbone to our community. Many give of themselves beyond the four walls of their businesses to make Nashua a better place to live and work, especially for the people that have fallen on hard times. If more of these business owners have to make the tough choice to close their businesses, that backbone of our community will start to break.

But there’s good news. And if you dig deep enough, there may even be more good news than bad news.

That is why I have hope.

The first piece of good news is that the City of Nashua is seriously looking to create a Business Improvement District (aka: BID) for the Downtown area. In a nutshell, a BID would add an additional tax to property owners in the district and the monies collected would be reinvested directly to that area. The ‘talk’ about creating a BID has really heated up over the past 6 months, since the Aldermanic Board approved to move ahead to investigate if a BID would be good for Nashua. Since then, a task force has been appointed by the mayor and includes community members who are pro, con and neutral on the concept.

Whether the BID concept actually becomes a reality or not, the good news is that the City and community members are communicating and starting to come together for a common cause: Bring some life back to Downtown. (I purposefully chose not to use the word resurrect because I truly do not believe that Downtown is dead.)

The other good news is that many of the Downtown business owners are doing some very creative marketing activities to attract customers into their stores and restaurants. (This is great news for consumers, especially during the holiday season!)

Some of these innovative programs include the “Eighth Annual Downtown Ladies Night” on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Scontsas Fine Jewelry, a Downtown fixture since the early 1900s, started the Ladies Night concept back in 2001 and now partners with many of the Downtown stores and restaurants to create a special night with steep discounts, mini-spa treatments, refreshments and lots of fun. There’s nothing like a free manicure, a Cosmo and 20% off to pull shoppers into a jewelry store!

DesignWares is a gift shop on Main Street where the owner brings her dog, Molly, into the store from time to time. Molly is a definite draw with animal lovers, especially when her furry friend Annie is there too. Customers go in and pat the dogs and can’t help but to look around at all of the unique gifts while chatting with the owners about what’s going on in Nashua. The shop host events throughout the year - they bring in local artists for signings as well as host their holiday “Bubbles & Bling” event. Again, shoppers are treated to more than just shopping. And they leave with a memorable experience and usually a full shopping bag.

A few days ago, local florist and gift shop, Fortin Gage hosted Gerald Charles Dickens for two performances of A Christmas Carol. Having a long tradition of sending their florists to the White House in Washington, D.C. to decorate for the holidays, this year, the business focused locally to start a new Nashua tradition by bringing the great-great grandson of author Charles Dickens to town and hosting a food drive for two local organizations.

The audience reviews were fantastic. Over 500 people learned about Fortin Gage’s business and association with their vendor Byers Choice Carolers in just one day.  Two local organizations received several hundred pounds of food and several hundred dollars from the donations of show patrons. And, new customers have been visiting Fortin Gage's two stores everyday since.  (Yes, Fortin Gage actually opened a second Nashua store this year while so many others closed.)

So, in the spirit of the telling of a Dickens’ tale in Nashua last week, and in looking at the current challenges that our community faces, it seems fitting to think about the current situation in Downtown Nashua as our own version of A Tale of Two Cities. The Downtown that is thriving and the one that is just barely surviving.

I really do hope that we will be able to look back in a few years, reflect for a moment and say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”

...and the best of times won!

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