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It’s Not That Simple: Nobody goes downtown anymore; it’s too crowded

If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems. This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.”  (Listen to the podcast here.) We look […]

If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.”  (Listen to the podcast here.) We look at issues facing Great Barrington and explore the question, “why don’t they just fix it?”   

We discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.

We do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.

Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column. 

 *     *    *

Main Street is the life blood of Great Barrington. Sure, the town is attractive for its landscapes, trails, cultural attractions, peaceful living, (has there ever been a better place to raise children?), and many other reasons, but without our downtown core we would lose the vitality that makes the town unique.

Yogi Berra said, “Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore, it’s too crowded.” We hear the same thing said about Downtown Great Barrington. We also hear, “All the stores are geared toward tourists and second homeowners, there’s nothing for locals,” and “Everything is too expensive.”

Is the perception that there is nothing to bring citizens of Great Barrington downtown correct?  And if it is, what can be done to keep it thriving as a center that attracts jobs, businesses, and visitors and still has relevance to locals?

Railroad Street, in the heart of Great Barrington’s commercial district, is packed with cars.

Before we answer these questions, we should begin by defining “Downtown.”  For this discussion we are talking about the Main Street “core” which is usually defined as either Town Hall to the post office, or the somewhat longer stretch of the police station to the Brown Bridge, sometimes referred a “liquor store to liquor store.”  There are other shopping districts in GB which we will not be discussing here, including State Road and the two grocery store shopping centers. There are also retail businesses scattered around town, such as Taft Farms, that are more stand alone. (Our apologies to all of the great stores we didn’t just mention here, there are many of them and perhaps they warrant a separate show.)

Then there is Downtown Housatonic, once a thriving downtown, but the mills closed and the school closed, and so there are fewer people walking around to support businesses. There are still thriving businesses in Housatonic center, with more coming soon, which is another subject for a future discussion.

This week we welcomed two longtime local retail business owners, Eric Bruun of SoCo Creamery and Brooke Redpath of Matrushka Toys & Gifts, to discuss the complexities, competing interests and less obvious costs of maintaining a business in downtown GB.

The Streets Are Full. Are The Stores?

Is it true that no one shops in Great Barrington anymore? While retail has never been an easy business, and it’s only getting harder with online and big box competition, there is an obvious disconnect between the simultaneous perceptions that no one comes downtown and there’s no place to park.

What brings shoppers downtown? Main Street has three other names: Massachusetts Routes 23, 41, and U.S. 7. The convergence of these roads creates a geographic advantage that is the reason Great Barrington is the commercial hub of South County. People will always drive through downtown GB which is a huge advantage for local retailers. But how do merchants get them to stop and shop, and how do they get people who live here go downtown?

How Do You Get People In The Door?

Possibly the most difficult aspect of running a retail business today is creating a desire among customers to be in a physical location as opposed to shopping online. The online experience has diminished the fun of discovery that comes along with browsing a store’s shelves; and at both SoCo and Matrushka as well as most of the other downtown stores, creating a unique experience is their most important job.

Looking north on Main Street in Great Barrington, Mass.

At Matrushka, the focus is to have a space and an atmosphere that allows for the discovery of the unexpected. There is no “pre-selection” in a brick and mortar store such as is done online “Stores fill a niche that  Amazon cannot,” says Ms. Redpath. “It’s nice to have a broad range of experiences, to see something that you wouldn’t have expected… and to have a positive experience with a shopkeeper.”  That isn’t available online or in the big box stores, so enhancing this difference is crucial for local businesses.

Similarly, SoCo recreates the decades old experience of an ice cream shop. “There is a nostalgic value when standing in front of tubs of ice cream that invokes the little child in you,” said Mr. Bruun. “Ice cream is an enjoyable product, a treat… What stores can offer that Amazon or the internet cannot is an experience. The places that can help a person build a sense of identity, through an experience that’s more than just a product, are going to be successful.”

As soon as one walks into SoCo that is obvious. The exposed tubs of ice cream behind glass, friendly, local servers, even the sometimes-long but quickly-moving line, offer an experience that brings joy beyond what is provided by the product alone.

Is Downtown GB For Tourists?

“I have a big percentage of local customers. I think because of the longevity of the store, people have come to know it over time,” says Ms. Redpath. “I am still surprised, though, when local people come into the store and say, ‘Oh, I never knew you were here!’”

There are advantages to having tourists who spend money here.  Say’s Bruun, “I feel fortunate that we have customers who can afford the extra expenses because they allow for a greater diversity of products for the people who live here.” But both of our guests were very clear that they are not tailoring their businesses to out of town visitors or second home owners. They obviously want to carry the items that local customers want to buy.

Main Street from the Bridge Street intersection.

Still, there is a perception that GB is lacking the merchandise for people who live here, that there may not be enough to warrant a trip into town from someone living out of walking distance. “I do think that a lot of downtowns are facing this problem. With the K-Mart closing there is a gap for necessities and larger goods,” Ms. Redpath says.

While doing research for this program, we discovered that there is hardly anything one cannot get downtown. Downtown retailers offer almost everything.  Some, notably Carr Hardware, actually asked customers what they bought at K-Mart that they couldn’t find anywhere else, and then added inventory to meet that need.

“In our downtown it is hard to get a few basics but I love to hear from people when they can’t find something downtown. It is great to get that kind of feedback.” That’s an added benefit to shopping with other human beings; it can become a collaboration, and if one wants a particular item most stores will be able to accommodate them. There are limits. One cannot buy a baby stroller downtown. Matrushka carries toys, children’s books, and baby clothes, so strollers would be an obvious addition. But space is limited and strollers are large.

It’s Cheaper Online

Sometimes, but not always. “It is very hard for a downtown business to compete strictly on price,” says Mr. Bruun. “The Internet and box stores on the outskirts have cheaper rents. In the case of the Internet, there is no rent.” They also pay less for their inventory when they buy in bulk, and they have fewer employees, as anyone who has tried to find anything in a Home Depot already knows.

“It’s simply a question of economics. If local merchants are paying more for the store and the products that we are selling, we have to create a different reason for being there. We also have to pay people! And we pay fairly good wages for people who are not second homeowners who are scooping the ice cream.”

Research for this program also revealed that downtown merchants have a range of products and a range of prices. They know they need business from locals as well as more affluent tourists, and their inventory and prices reflect that.

“Having a business downtown is a collaborative experience. The consumers choosing to shop downtown do several different things,” Ms. Redpath says. “They provide jobs for local people, it cuts down from packaging associated with online shopping…There are so many benefits that come from shopping downtown. When I have guests from out of town, I love bringing them to downtown. Walking around the downtown area, visiting downtown restaurants…if the stores weren’t there it wouldn’t be the same experience.”

How Are We Doing?

We have a very healthy downtown compared to almost every other downtown anywhere. Just look around. Downtowns have empty stores and empty streets, yet our downtown experience is steadily improving. The town and the state have invested in the downtown, first with the Main Street project, followed recently by Railroad Street and surrounding streets. With these investments in the infrastructure have come new developments such as the new Coop building, the former Pearls/Martins buildings, and the Flying Church, all of which will add retail space, jobs, and in some cases, housing, making GB more walkable. The building above Subway is about to finish a huge renovation to create many offices all with high speed Internet which will bring employees to town.

There are festivals and celebrations that bring locals and families into downtown annually as well as new cultural facilities bringing performers from around the world to town. A new Downtown GB Cultural District helps businesses and cultural venues downtown work together to attract customers. All of these efforts will likely continue to add to the life of Great Barrington’s walkable downtown.

‘But,’ we hear you say, ‘there are so many empty storefronts downtown.’ Well, sort of. First, we are well below the national and Massachusetts average for downtown vacancy. Accurate numbers are hard to find since downtowns vary so much by size and character, but recently vacancy rates have been between 7 and 12 percent with many faring much worse. The online revolution has hit small towns particularly hard.

It is never easy to run a successful business, but because of the state highways we mentioned, and the tourists, and the fact that nearly every business in our downtown is locally owned, we are hanging on, even doing well. Yes, there are vacancies, but most of the perceived empty stores are empty for unique reasons such as the building being for sale, a restaurant temporarily closed for retooling, a new bar not yet opened, a cannabis store waiting for a state license. If you wanted to open a store downtown, you have a few options for location, but very few.

We encourage you to click here to listen to the WSBS podcast of It’s Not That Simple for more details than we are able to cover in print.

Is there’s an issue you’d like to discuss on the show? Do you have comments about this or previous episodes? We invite your contribution of topics and concerns that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution we haven’t thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple.

Email your suggestions or questions to NotThatSimple528@gmail.com, of find us at Facebook.

Next Show: November 8, at 9:05 on WSBS, 860AM, 94.1FM, Your Hometown Station

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