In Northampton, Sidewalk salegoers weigh in on state task force

By BERA DUNAU

For the Gazette

Published: 07-28-2017 11:48 PM

As the state moves ahead with the creation of a new task force to study the challenges facing local retailers, businesspeople at the Northampton Sidewalk Sales Friday had plenty of thoughts on the matter.

The Senate Task Force on Strengthening Massachusetts Local Retail will contain 13 members. It will be composed of seven senators, five representatives of retailers, and one member from the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

The goal, according State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, is to find ways to help businesses compete effectively in an ever-change landscape.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Suzanne Beck, when she was told about the task force.

She said that brick-and-mortar retailers have been extremely challenged by the price and convenience of online retailers, who enjoy a price advantage due to a lack of sales tax on their transactions. She also noted tbhat independent retailers and restaurants create the character of the community in downtown Northampton.

“Without retail, that whole experience starts to fall apart,” she said.

The state task force will address many challenges, including competition with online retailers. Other issues to be studied are how business closings impact local economies and property tax bases, how local retailers can increase their market share and how state and local governments can encourage people to shop local.

Business owners interviewed by the Gazette at Friday’s Sidewalk Sales tended to focus on super-local concerns.

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Barry Goldstein, who serves as one of the owners of Inspirit Crystals, said that his business has issues with panhandlers intimidating his customers, the majority of whom are middle-aged women. He advocated for the state to give more money to fund services for people in need.

“There are agencies in town that could certainly use the money,” said Goldstein. “If the state could help out with that that would be great.”

Goldstein also noted the need to reconfigure the downtown, saying that parking was an issue, and praised the aid the state had given in the redevelopment of Pulaski Park.

Melissa Lewis-Gentry, who serves as the manager of the Modern Myths comic book store, noted that the affordability of commercial property in Northampton is a major issue.

“Especially for new businesses coming in,” she said.

Lewis-Gentry suggested subsidies or grants to help solve this issue.

“We will all do better if there are more places filling in the empty spots downtown,” Lewis-Gentry said. “Helping new businesspeople get on their feet is really important.”

Bob Burdick, proprietor of Harlow Luggage, didn’t think a state task force could do much to solve the issues that retail faces. However, he did say more could be done to help businesses locally. He pointed to the city doing work on the sidewalks before one year’s Northampton Sidewalk Sales, and its unwillingness to reschedule Northampton Pride when it fell on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, as examples of times when the city could have done better.

On the Pride scheduling issue, he said that hardly anyone comes downtown to shop during Pride, and that the day before Mother’s Day is one of the biggest shopping days of the year, meaning that the retailers lost a major day of shopping because of this.

He also said that he would like to see an online sales tax, but that such an action was out of the state’s hands.

The desire for an online sales tax was also strongly expressed by Beck.

“It would be a start,” she said, when asked if it would help brick and mortar retailers stay competitive with their online rivals.

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