December 21, 2006

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Concord Publisher's Note: Keep those doors open
By†Dan Szczesny

The holidays are a time for giving, and Concord has given shoppers a pretty nice gift. From now until Christmas, visitors to downtown will be able to park for two hours. Free.

During a season where Midnight Merriment was a wash Ė literally Ė and downtown groups like Main Street Concord havenít been able to spur downtown traffic, the cityís Ďgiftí is a shrewd and well-meaning attempt to make the city more user-friendly.

Itís a simple idea that more cities should adopt. If a first-time visitor or even a long-time resident who has not been downtown in a while is able to park and enjoy and evening hassle-free, the next time they are looking for a night out maybe they will pick Main Street instead of the mall. Itís a lesson a city like Manchester desperately needs to learn.

Itís a pity, then, that some Concord businesses are unwilling to take advantage of such good will.

Like usual, Iíve left my Christmas shopping until the last moment. So, this past Saturday, I decided to spend some time downtown. The weather was still warm around 4 p.m. and parking was free. And although not the shoulder-to-shoulder madness of the local mall, the streets were busy with the activity of shoppers. I even saw a lot of families out and about.

Why then, were so many shops closed? Chains like Bagel Works I can understand, as their connection to the local community and economy is slight. But on the second to last weekend before Christmas, I was shocked to find so many local retail shops and galleries shuttered. Potential customers were walking by darkened storefronts Ė walking by Iím sure and walking right to the mall.

It got me thinking that maybe itís time to run downtown more like a mall. After all, if itís the big boxes and mall convienence that are consistently being blamed for all the bad luck of local stores, maybe itís time to think like a mall.

And the most obvious answer is to force businesses to conform to set hours. It seems like the least that can be done for the privilege and responsibility of setting up shop on Main Street. Businesses in malls are not allowed to close while the malls are in operation or they get fined. Many towns around the country, like Princeton, N.J., require the same thing of their business districts. Main Street Concord or the Chamber should set consistent hours of operation for Main Street businesses and work with the cityís economic development office to pursue enforcement options.

Itís incumbent upon city leaders to maintain a vibrant and economically healthy downtown. Being closed during heavy business times, or during planned events, hurts the whole downtown community. Darkened storefronts just push people to Loudon Road.

City leaders need to keep Concord healthy in spite of businesses that donít understand how much they impact the rest of the business community by shuttering their stores.

In order to stay downtown, businesses need to stay open. They need to take advantage of their location, or make room for someone who will.