Class Struggle in River City
Citizens Take Sides on BID Plan
By Edward Shanahan
It was a poignant moment in an otherwise marathon session of hot rhetoric during a City Council public hearing on a proposal to authorize creation of the Business Improvement District (BID) aimed at reviving Northampton’s much celebrated, but increasingly fragile downtown
Speaking in support of the BID, Kay Sheehan explained that when she and her friends returned from traveling abroad as a group they always made a point on their return home of traveling along Main Street to reconnect with their beloved city. That is how important downtown is for citizens of Northampton.
I know the feeling, having taken thousands of ritual walks over nearly 40 years from Gothic Street up Main to Masonic, across Main and east to Pleasant Street, then south to Pearl Street, hanging a left and then along Strong Avenue to Lower Main and west up lower Main to the courthouse and returning to Gothic.
So the other day back home after a couple of weeks in warmer climes, I made the same trek, only by car because of the icy temperatures, simply to revisit the downtown architecture, storefronts, street-life and public spaces. There is nothing that is more enduring, more rooted, more representative of community than the physical characteristics of downtown, despite its ups and down.
And based on the testimony the other night, the past, present and future of the downtown elicit strong passions, from a wide range of citizens, all of whom believe strongly in their own special stake in its well-being.
Having watched on the local cable channel the parade of speakers who argued with equal eloquence either for or against the BID plan, I was struck by how the often the unspoken issue of class seemed to emerge.
Under the plan, which was more than two years in preparation, the BID structure, using assessments on participating downtown property owners, would take on significant responsibility and the associated costs of improvements to such amenities as beautification, cleanliness, security and promotion of the virtues of downtown in an effort to drum up more business for merchants and to make the city center more attractive.
Generally, the breakdown of those who favored the BID were the street-level retail businesses—some long-term, some very new—which see an acute need for a more appealing downtown that they understand cannot be achieved through a municipal budget that is under assault. Their livelihood is threatened by the current ragged state of affairs, especially in a time of economic recession that seems to worsen daily.
Daniel Yacuzzo , formerly of the East Side Grill, spokesman for this point of view, sees a need to “rebrand” the downtown, with strong support from such long-time businessmen as Joe Blumenthal of Downtown Sounds and Robert McGovern of Packard’s.
And then there was the rather odd alliance of critics of the BID that brings together the investors who own much of the downtown property—some of whom own several buildings—and those younger critics who see the BID as a kind of privatization of the downtown that w ill take away some of their rights to use public spaces.
The opposition property owners see the BID assessment to fund the improvement budget as a form of taxation that will hurt them as investors. And we know what investors look for – income and profit. They are not particularly eleomosynary (charitable) in their instincts; we have rarely seen Eric Suher or Jordi Herold or Alan Scheinman out planting flowers in buckcts on Main Street as Kay Sheehan does, or sweeping the sidewalks in front of their
And their allies , who spoke with fervor the other night, expressed a fear that the BID was a backdoor way of advancing the anti-panhandling movement through private means, and without any protections of their civil liberties.
I’m more inclined to join forces with those who worry that the funky, irreverent, populist character of Main Street will be lost in the BID shuffle than I am to agree with property owners who have, through the good times, been content to cash the rent checks but make little individual or collective investment in downtown amenities that would make for the “sparkling” downtown that Bob McGovern said he would like the city to display.
And, yet I see a compelling need to spruce up the downtown, and the BID seems, on the basis of testimony the other night, a well-intentioned attempt to do that and a recognition by the businesses that they cannot continue to rest on their oars or on the legacy of the time a decade or two ago when the downtown was the envy of every small city in this country.
There is also a legacy of an earlier time—1971—when we came to Northampton and storefronts by the dozens were empty and, as one speaker reminded the city councilors, you could roll a bowling ball down Main Street at 5 p.m. and it would travel unimpeded, that’s how dead the downtown was.
The challenge is to advance the BID plan, but make absolutely sure in its stated mission and explicit areas of responsibility that every freedom of expression, movement, and enjoyment of public space is guaranteed without qualification of any kind.