October 4, 2010

The Fight For Downtown

Vacancy signs: The economic downturn has taken a toll in downtown Derry, town officials say,
as several storefronts along West Broadway remain empty.

Efforts underway to help downtown businesses speak with one voice.

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY — Tom Hankins and his wife, Mary, moved their florist shop from Crystal Avenue to a storefront on West Broadway three years ago hoping to take advantage of a visible downtown location with large, sidewalk- level display windows.
And now Hankins is hoping that organizing his neighbors into a downtown business association will help to bring in other entrepreneurs to fill the several vacant storefronts still left along Broadway.
“I see Derry as a unique, classic New Hampshire town in the sense that it’s historic and has a nice variety of buildings on the main street,” Hankins said. “It’s not a town that just evolved in a series of shopping centers. We’ve got a lot of strengths, so we want to take it to the next level.”
The association would be an offshoot of the existing Downtown Derry Committee and open to all independent businesses on Broadway from the Marion Gerrish Community Center to the Derry Public Library, including those within one block on either side of Broadway, Hankins said.
While the group would likely organize community events like sidewalk sales or food festivals, Hankins said a main priority would be to serve as a unified voice to address the town, public safety officials and other community groups about the unique needs of the downtown area.
“I think people are enthusiastic and want to participate,” he said. “They feel that it’s overdue and that we do need a voice. The merchants need a voice to highlight areas of concern.”
For Hankins, the main downtown issues to be addressed are parking, pedestrian safety, and the condition of older buildings. Hankins said many businesses are also on edge after a recent string of break-ins in the area and hoped the group would open communication about crime in the downtown.
And with businesses closing downtown — most recently the Depot Square Steakhouse in August — downtown business owner and Derry Town Council Chairman Brad Benson said a business association could help prevent further folds.
“We’re lucky to have a downtown; a lot of communities don’t,” Benson said. “But with the way the economy has been, the downtown businesses have been hit pretty hard, as others have. I think that it’s a great time to start an initiative to try to redevelop the downtown.”
For more than 60 years, Derry Feed & Supply Co. has been a permanent fixture in Derry’s downtown. But with high taxes and costly rent, owner Arthur “Bud” Evans said it’s not so easy for new startups moving in.
“It’s just a bad recipe for trying to get something off the ground because the first couple years are the toughest and a lot of these startups are entrepreneurs,” he said. “They’re on their own and not part of a national chain.”
And while Evans said a business association could be good for those new businesses just getting on their feet, it can be hard to make time for an association with everything else going on, he said.
“There have been other efforts in the past and for whatever reason, things didn’t work out,” he said. “We’re all busy, so it’s difficult. We’re all just trying to survive, working hard and trying to make the best of it.”
Greg Germanton, owner of Gem Jewelers, said he, too, is unsure how much time he could devote to the group.
“We don’t talk to many other businesses now,” Germanton said. “We’re busy doing business.”
Janet Rochlin, office manager of Gem Jewelers, said: “I think (Hankins) has got a great idea and there’s promise, but we’d like to know more about it and be able to go. It’s just hard to get out of here.”
Though business owners are swamped with work, Derry Planning Director George Sioras says they still might be the best people to advocate for downtown concerns.
“They get the pulse of the day-to-day,” Sioras said. “We work in the Town Hall every day, so you hear and see some things, but when you are running your business, you have an idea of what is going on. Public-private partnerships, that’s really the success of what’s happening in the downtown.”
Derry renovated its downtown area about 10 years ago as part of the state’s New Hampshire Main Street program, Sioras said, burying telephone wires and installing brick sidewalks and decorative lighting. But efforts have died down in recent years, he said.
With the resurgence of a designated downtown committee, the proposed business association, and an incoming town administrator charged with economic development, Sioras said things are looking up for the downtown.
“Physically the improvements are being made and after a long time we’re getting some new blood downtown,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of setbacks, but if you knew what downtown Derry was like 20 years ago, it’s like night and day. Once the economy picks up, additional businesses will be opening in the downtown again.”
Hankins said he plans to get in touch with all downtown businesses in the next two weeks, with a first formal meeting in mid-October.
For more information, contact Tom Hankins at 432-2371 or 

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