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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Downtown revival requires more unity

Telegraph Editorial

Nashua has had its share of studies and recommendations over the years on the vitality of the downtown business district. Some longtime residents might be jaded at the prospect of yet another committee with yet another report on how to revitalize Main Street.

But those cynics should stop and take a look at the 66-page document recently submitted by mayor’s Services Advisory Committee, which emerged from the Business Improvement District initiative of 2009.

The mayor appointed the committee after the Great American Downtown group proposed a Business Improvement District similar to one that has operated for years in Manchester. The Business Improvement District would fund improvements by imposing a tax on property owners within the district, mapped out from the Hunt Building southward along Main Street to the Hunt Community, and stretching out a block or two in either direction.

The BID Committee evolved into the Services Advisory Committee after the tax district was rejected as the principal funding source.

Yet in its new report, the committee includes a special tax on downtown property owners to fund improvements. But there are other revenue sources proposed as well. In the draft report, the committee outlines five funding sources: revenue from an increase in parking meters and leased spaces downtown, a 50 cent per $1,000 tax on properties within the district, a commitment of 4 percent of federal block grants the city receives each year, private fundraising, and advocating for downtown projects on the state transportation department’s 10-year plan.

In addition to proposing a funding plan that is diverse and realistic, the committee in its report does an excellent job of summarizing the progress made over the years, some of the more recent setbacks, and the areas most in need of improvement.

The usual suspects, such as parking and sidewalk repair, surface as expected, along with some creative approaches to generating pedestrian traffic through a mix of residential, commercial and retail use in the downtown area.

But the one intangible the report did not address – and the most formidable obstacle to success – is the lack of unity among downtown merchants, many of whom believe it is their prerogative to run their business as they see fit with no concession to the collaborative efforts of their peers.

This is evident in obvious ways, such as the complete lack of consistency in evening and weekend store hours, and in some subtle ways, such as participation in the Great American Downtown organization. Some businesses are members of GAD, some are not. But all benefit from its activities and events that draw traffic to Main Street.

For months, while the BID was in discussion, there appeared to be some emerging consensus, only to have opponents surface at the 11th hour to protest the plan before aldermen, thus setting the stage for the mayor to take a different tack.

And now that the new committee has included a BID-style tax, albeit at a much lower rate, in its proposal, these same opponents are likely to surface again. Only this time we hope they will make their concerns known early and up-front.

It’s certainly their prerogative to oppose any additional tax, but it would be in everyone’s best interests if they did so through the advisory committee process, rather than waiting for a critical vote before aldermen to show up in force.

It’s not easy sustaining a downtown these days, and Nashua is fortunate to have all the ingredients that made for success in cities like Portsmouth, Lowell and Manchester – waterfront location, historic buildings, unique shopping, world-class restaurants.

Those cities have two things lacking in Nashua – entertainment venues and a united merchant community. Nashua may not have the resources to address the former, but will have no hope for success without the latter.