A Battle Plan is Needed for Springfield’s Downtown

Some of the casualties have been chalked up as ‘coincidences.’ That’s the term that many people used when three restaurants on or near Main Street closed within a few days of each other recently.

Meanwhile, others have been called ‘inevitable signs of the times,’ or something to that effect, and the recent closing of Edwards Book Store fits nicely into that category — the small independent book store is certainly a dying breed in these days of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

But while some of the business closings in downtown Springfield can be neatly explained away, to one degree or another, the sum of these failures is certainly cause for concern and food for deep thought about just what the future can and should hold for the central business district.

The latest blow came several days ago, when the owners of Hannoush Jewelers, long a mainstay in Tower Square, announced that they would be shuttering their storefront amid declining sales. “We tried to hang on,” company Vice President Nabil Hannoush told the local press. “With the traffic flow, it was getting a little tough.”

This was a reference to the foot traffic in Tower Square, which in recent years has been confined mostly to people who work in that tower or within a few blocks of it. It is becoming increasingly clear that this constituency is simply not enough to support many businesses downtown, and that something must be done to bring more people into the downtown — somehow.

Before elaborating, we must note that there are some positive things happening downtown. There is a FedEx Kinko’s opening in the Johnson’s Bookstore building downtown. Meanwhile, a new financial institution, Nuvo Bank, is drawing closer to its planned opening in long-vacant space within Tower Square.

And while some businesses are choosing to leave downtown Springfield for the suburbs (the Novak Agency among them), there are some who are choosing to stay, like Court Square Group, which recently moved into the half-vacant One Financial Plaza (see story, page 48).

But most everyone who doesn’t work for the Chamber of Commerce would likely admit to being concerned about downtown and the general state of vibrancy, or lack thereof. The retail component of Tower Square is fast becoming a ghost town, save for Dunkin Donuts (there are always long lines there) and the banks — and we’re not really sure how well they’re doing with those branches.

It’s clear that the old argument that people will do business where they work holds only so much water, as Hannoush Jewelers and some of those banks would attest. The key, again, is to get people from outside the downtown, outside the city, even outside the region, to want to come downtown.

Anyone old enough to remember the ’70s knows that this is doable. Long-time area residents remember when downtown Springfield was the place to be. Of course, that’s when Johnson’s, Forbes & Wallace, Steiger’s, Herman’s World of Sporting Goods, and other retail establishments were open — and the Holyoke Mall wasn’t. In those days, people had a reason to come to Main Street — actually, many of them.

There are still some reasons, like the MassMutual Center and some surviving restaurants and clubs, but simply not enough of them.

Creating more reasons is clearly the top priority for city planning officials and the administrators of Tower Square. Perhaps the tower can re-invent itself by moving away from traditional retail and into something different, such as outlet stores (not like the one that was there!) or offerings that cater to the creative community.

Meanwhile, there are opportunities with the soon-to-be vacant federal building to create opportunities to stimulate some vibrancy, perhaps even through market-rate housing.

Beyond the coincidences and those signs of the times, evidence is mounting that the downtown needs a battle plan — and a spark. And above all else, it needs to create more of those reasons for people to come.

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