November 5, 2010

The Enemies of Vacancies

Commercial real estate brokers gather in an empty downtown store and talk about ways to stop the bleeding. 
Bob Cavanna, right, a local real estate broker, invited fellow brokers downtown to
consider the possibilities in filling up the empty spaces.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- What do you call a room full of commercial real estate brokers?
Before you answer, you should know there’s no punchline. In this town, real estate is serious business.
Which is why, if you are Bob Cavanna of Grub & Ellis Northern New England, you call a room full of commercial real estate brokers a potential gold mine in promoting one of the vacant storefronts located downtown in desperate need
 of a tenant.
For Cavanna, it became personal when, as a longtime resident, he started attending the Downtown Committee meetings held to bring more momentum to revitalization efforts along the town’s main drag. Cavanna realized that
 getting the word out about all that’s good in the downtown is a big piece of the puzzle.
“There are more empty spaces downtown than anyone would like to see, but the town is handcuffed in their efforts,”
 said Cavanna. “Where does a town government start and the wishes of a building owner stop? If you get a deep-pocketed out-of-town owner that’s complacent just to put a sign up in the window, that’s fine, but it’s always intrigued me why they wouldn’t want to get a good tenant in there as soon as possible.” 
Yesterday about 20 brokers milled around inside the spacious 5,400-square-foot office space, adjacent to Bachmann Florist. It was vacated July 25 by Dan and Camille Wentworth, who for years ran a craft shop there, Scrapbook Island. 
Building owner Ronald Dupont, of Red Oak Properties, was pleased with the turnout. 
“I’ll do whatever it takes to rent this space,” said Dupont. “This is a toughest economy of a lifetime.” 
He said any comparison to other vacant storefronts would be an unfair comparison. 
“I’m an involved owner. I’m on top of things, and I maintain things. I have a passion for what I do, and I think you can see that here,” Dupont said. “There are other owners out there, just like me. They’re human beings who haven’t done what they should be doing. I hate to throw stones, but one of those is owned by a quasi-Derry company.” 
Declining further comment, Dupont was referencing the building at 6 West Broadway, owned since 2007 by Derry Depot Square Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of the Derry Economic Development Corporation. It is currently for sale. 
“There’s no reason for this to happen in a town like Derry. I have a vision of what the downtown should be, and if things are going to change, it’s got to start with leadership — from the town manager and the councilors to the managers of town departments,” Dupont said. “With 16,000 cars traveling through here daily? There’s no reason for this to happen.” 
Dupont said he believes the time is right for Derry, now that “downtown America” is making a comeback based on what he’s hearing from within the industry. 
“It’s where young people want to live in a happening downtown — Manchester’s getting there and there’s no reason why Derry can’t be effective in transforming its downtown,” Dupont said. 
Cavanna said when he first came to town he was drawn by the downtown, which reminded him of where he grew up in Glens Falls, N.Y. 
“If anybody knows what the right elements are to a vibrant downtown, it would be easy — I suppose a blank slate and an endless supply of money,” Cavanna said. “It’s hard to figure out which comes first — like the chicken and the egg; does a great retail environment come when they see vibrant activity, or does the vibrant activity happen with the right mix of retail?” 
During the brief presentation to brokers, town economic development consultant Stu Arnett showed several proposed blueprints for downtown development. Questions raised by some of the brokers included population projections, the status of the Depot Steakhouse, which went out of business in August, and the proposed Exit 4A, which has for decades been on and off the NH DOT drawing board as a way to bring traffic from I-93 into town. 
Arnett emphasized that Derry needs to ride the wave of what’s been proposed in neighboring Londonderry, the 600-acre Woodmont Orchards development, featuring town centers, retail shopping and residential neighborhoods. 
Chris McMahon, a broker with NAI Norwood Group out of Portsmouth, said it was a good opportunity to see what Derry has to offer. 
“One thing I can say is that, compared to other towns, you can see that Derry wants this — there’s an energy around economic development that you don’t necessarily find elsewhere,” McMahon said. 

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