When John Rhoades, chairperson of the Downtown Northampton Task Force, bought Union Station with two other people in 2013, he didn’t have to worry about whether to opt in or out of BID, a program started by the city for the maintenance and improvement of the sidewalks and downtown area. In 2014 when the BID membershipcame back up, he and his partners were not too happy to be a part of it.
“It put the responsibility on the property owners, and there were a lot of owners who were not part of it,” said Rhoades.
BID has since been dissolved, and various Northampton business owners have formed the Downtown Northampton Task Force to find a replacement solution. In the mean time, the Northampton Chamber of Commerce is temporarily taking over the responsibilities of BID, which include promoting the downtown area, promoting events, cleaning, sweeping, keeping the sidewalks clean, and snow removal.
For business owners like Rhoades, who own both the building and the business, keeping up with the extra maintenance can be a burden. For Union Station in particular, which has its own driveway and sidewalk separate from the downtown, maintenance of the downtown area is in addition to the maintenance of the Union Station property. This added burden has imposed a financial toll on Rhoades' business.
"I've had to fire a lot of people," said Rhoades.
While Rhoades recognizes the benefits of a more beautiful, well kept downtown, there is a little frustration.
“We wouldn’t be spending that money if everyone kept their sidewalks clean,” said Rhoades.
Suzanne Beck, Executive Director at the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, explained BID was originally formed in response to concerns about what was being done to maintain and improve the downtown.
“Business owners were not happy with the day to day maintenance that was happening,” Beck explained.
While critical, Rhoades agreed with the intent behind the BID program.
“The purpose was well founded,” said Rhoades, “but the funding was something to be desired.”
With this new Downtown Task Force, Beck said, the hope is all the key players will be involved in the solution. That frustration, that some business owners were doing their part while others were neglecting their duties was one of Rhoades’ chief concerns with BID. The other concern is the ordinance, which requires business owners to maintain their portion of the downtown sidewalks, is not being enforced.
“There is an ordinance in place in Northampton, but it isn’t enforced. I think it should be enforced,” said Rhoades.
Bud Stockwell, owner of Cornucopia, pays into a common pot so that Thornes can maintain the sidewalks on behalf of all the businesses in Thornes Marketplace. Stockwell didn’t have the option of opting in or out of BID, he was part of whatever decision Thornes made on his behalf.
Stockwell is chairperson of the Downtown Business Committee, one of the sub-committees of the task force. He doesn’t have the pressures of building ownership that Rhoades does, but is still working hard to find a solution.
“As soon as BID dissolved, I was determined to see something rise from the ashes,” said Stockwell.
Stockwell said the task force is focusing on finding a solution by 2016, and is considering the formation of a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. There are restrictions in the kind of organization that qualifies for 501(c)(3) status, including a purpose that is either educational, charitable, religious, scientific, or literary “We are hunting for ways that are out of the box, for programs that are exciting,” said Stockwell.
Beck, Stockwell, and Rhoades all agree that maintaining a busy city like Northampton is a lot of work. “During the years when there wasn’t a BID the streets were pretty filthy,” said Stockwell. “There is a lot of traffic downtown, it isn’t easy keeping it clean,” said Beck.
Now, business owners in Northampton have the opportunity to fashion a solution that meets the unique needs of the city. Keeping the city clean and beautiful and promoting the downtown area are some of the benefits that the task force hopes to accomplish.
“Before BID, whenever we wanted to get something done, like the trees, it was always the same store owners,” said Stockwell.
While Stockwell can’t say if his business suffered due to a poorly maintained downtown area, he does see the benefit of a unified solution.
“There is a lot of economic benefit in having everyone pool together and share the costs of what will benefit us all,” said Stockwell.
Beck believes business owners like Rhoades, who are new business owners in the downtown districts, will be leaders on the task force. “It’s really nice to see younger property owners on the task force and taking on that role,” said Beck. “John is a great leader.”
The Chamber of Commerce has offered to assist the task force in whatever they need. The solution is still in its infancy, so it is unclear what role the Chamber of Commerce will play, if any. “The Chamber of Commerce can be a support to whatever they think is the solution,” said Beck.
The Downtown Northampton Task Force meets once a week, and has met about four times since its formation. Stockwell said the hope is to have a solution thought out by September, and from there work on implementation.
Photo: "Downtown Northampton" by Massachusetts Office of Travel licensed under CC BY 2.0