August 10, 2010

Who will save the downtown?

Mary Hankins makes a statement on behalf of her fellow downtown merchants.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Mary Hankins adjusted the sign in front of her flower shop yesterday. It had been twisted by the wind, or maybe a reckless bicyclist. Some of the letters were askew, but the message was clear:
The sign was her response to a sad goodbye – after sharing a storefront for years with Dan and Camille Wentworth of Scrapbook Island, the couple abruptly closed shop for good on July 25.
“It hurt. I cry when another place in the downtown closes – I'm sad to see them go – and I'm scared. I'm scared because it could be me who's next,” said Hankins, who has been running Backmann Florist with her husband, Tom, for the past eight years.
“We moved to this location from Crystal Avenue, and I love it here, but no one's walking the strip. Look around – there are so many empty spaces,” said Hankins.
In an effort to get people in the door, Hankins is launching The Twisted Pretzel in the next few weeks, an in-house pretzel shop that will be run by her son, Jeff Hollingworth.
“We felt like it might help bring customers in – it was something different,” said Hollingworth, who is still assembling the small kitchen with counter space in a corner of his mother's floral shop.
Marylee Martin inside her gift shop on West Broadway.
Hankins is not the only one who is feeling the continued pinch of a tough economy. A few doors down, Marylee Martin sits alone behind the cash register of Poles Apart Artisan Boutique.
Her store is an eclectic mix of function and whimsy, personal and household décor handcrafted by local artists. It is spacious and inviting, yet Martin can't seem to assemble even a small following of local clientèle.
“I've been her six years – five years too long,” said Martin, who quickly apologizes for sounding negative.
“I don't mean to be. But it's frustrating. I don't think the town would care if I went out of business – I'm a Main Street business, they should care,” said Martin. “But if I went under, there'd still be someone paying taxes on this building, and I'm afraid that's all they care about.”
Martin said she is a lifelong resident who thought something unique like her shop was just what the downtown needed. She is planning an event to promote local artists, “Art on the Sidewalk,” for Sept. 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which coincides with Derryfest, an annual townwide festival. It will feature more than 40 local artists, an event organized with the help of Aimee Cozza, a student from New Hampshire Art Institute.
“I support other businesses in town – I do all my shopping local. I wonder why more people don't realize how important that is, in this economy,” Martin said.
Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse said yesterday that the long-term fix is for the town to assist with marketing the downtown.
“In the same way the town has invested in the success of the farmer's market, it's going to take that kind of commitment. This is what the whole downtown revitalization is about. But the town will have to step up to the plate and get involved,” Stenhouse said.
Councilor Janet Fairbanks said she had a delayed reaction to the sign in front of Backmann's when she saw it yesterday.
“At first I thought, 'Wow, what a strong statement to make.' I can't imagine anyone wanting to go in and do business with a 'Shop local or else' sign out front. But then I started thinking of it differently. Here we are, focused on the TIF district and spending money to widen Route 28 in hopes of bringing in new businesses, and here we have a group of existing businesses scared for their survival,” said Fairbanks.
Mike Gendron, a founding member of the Downtown Committee, said he still believes creating a merchant's association would help get the ball rolling in the right direction, toward cross promotion of downtown offerings.
“After spending some time on this, it was clear that the problem is these business owners spend most of their waking days trying to make their own businesses successful, so to have to go to a meeting at 7 p.m. to discuss improving marketing the downtown, and cross-pollination efforts, just isn't happening,” Gendron said.
He said it's going to take someone stepping up into a leadership role to spearhead the effort.
“Someone the town hires to pull everyone's hands together, someone with that positive attitude and ability to promote a spirit of cooperation,” Gendron said.
It's important that the town settle on an identity, capitalize on it and then promote it to the thousands of potential customers travel I-93 daily – enough of a draw to get them off Exit 4 and into the downtown.
And new businesses need to fill in the empty spaces.“Maybe the economy is so pitiful that no matter how hard we try we can't get the snowball rolling because it will melt before we get it going. It's a leap of faith, what we're trying to do here, assuming if we build it they will come,” Gendron said. “In this economy, you can't be sure, but we need to remain positive and continue to work toward improving our town.”  

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