August 10, 2006

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Manchester Publisher's Note: Getting anchored
By Jody Reese

Holy cripes! It’s just 130 days until Christmas, a holiday that’s preceded by the biggest retail sales of the year. And once again, downtown Manchester will enjoy very little benefit from the season. Once again, the dollars will flow elsewhere.

Why? Because we continue to lag behind the curve in attracting a mix of retail businesses that would make downtown a worthy destination for shoppers. For some reason, retail is a big ManchVegas non-starter.

What’s the missing ingredient? More than anything else, I think it’s the downtown’s lack of a significant anchor store. A store such as a Nordstrom—something we don’t have close by—would be a regional draw. Without such an anchor, there’s no momentum to attract smaller stores that would feed off the traffic that a destination store would generate.

Downtown Manchester had a chance to have a retail anchor a generation ago, when Jordan Marsh, then the region’s leading retailer, proposed to build a giant new store on Elm Street right in the heart of the city.

With Elm Street still riding high as center of local retailing, many longtime local merchants fought to keep the big city behemoth moving in on their turf. So Jordan Marsh built a stand-along store across the river in Bedford, and the rest, as they say is history.

Without new stores to compete with malls, retailing died an early death in Manchester, and still hasn’t recovered. There’s a lesson in there about the dangers of every-man-for-himself small-minded thinking, but that’s a topic for another time.

In terms of retail, other area cities were more fortunate. For many years into the mall era, downtown Nashua had an anchor store in Miller’s Department Store; today, Alec’s Shoes plays this role. Also, national chains such as Sears maintained stores in downtown Nashua as late as 1986, when the Pheasant Lane Mall opened. This kept downtown retail alive long enough for the spark to reignite into the diverse line-up of stores that line Main Street today.

In Concord, the profusion of state employees has always supported that city’s downtown retail scene, plus the city’s shopping malls came late enough to allow downtown a fighting chance. In Portsmouth, the city’s status as an arts hub provides enough critical mass (and generates enough foot traffic) for local retailers to do good business there, though the town is one-sixth the population of the Queen City.

Here in Manchester, we’re not stuck for options. A thriving downtown retail community would be an economic boon that would benefit all of Manchester. Following through on the retail potential of properties such as the now-stalled Pearl Street parking lot development would certainly be worth the time and effort, and, eventually money.

Plus, a thriving downtown retail scene is just as important an economic development asset as good sewers and good schools. The absence of this in Manchester is becoming increasingly conspicuous.

I mentioned Christmas earlier. The holiday provides appropriate metaphor for how an anchor store could reignite retail in downtown Manchester.

You know what to do when a set of Christmas tree lights doesn’t work, right? Find the bulb that’s broken, fix it, and the whole string of lights is aglow again.

In terms of downtown retailing, that’s how I see an anchor store: fix that problem, and the rest of the retail tree will light up just like that.

It’s just a matter of finding that bulb.


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