June 28, 2007

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Publisher's Note: Downtown troubles?
By Jody Reese

Southern New Hampshire towns and cities have been working hard to make their downtowns places where people want to walk around and shop or eat at a restaurant.

Derry’s downtown has been completely transformed, making way for several nice restaurants. Nashua, Manchester, Milford and Concord have all seen a resurgence of their downtowns. Much of the force behind this is baby boomers and their older children, Generation X, who, though they might enjoy the suburban house, want a place to eat out and maybe drop in for a drink or shop for clothes, gifts or food not found at the mall.

Manchester, the largest city of the group, had the worst of the downtowns, but about seven years ago that really started to change. All of the boarded-up buildings were rehabbed into restaurants, retail and offices. Some of that is still continuing. The flop house on Concord Street near the corner of Elm Street is being gutted and will be turned into restaurant, office and retail space — a major improvement for that block.

But there could be trouble. A few retailers are looking to leave the street, several restaurants downtown are still for sale and business owners continue to complain about parking headaches. The city is making it worse by doubling the number of parking enforcement personnel patrolling the area. Unfortunately, city government has made parking a money-maker on the backs of the building owners and the small businesses that rent space downtown. The increased parking enforcement will surely make a difficult situation for many small businesses worse.

The bad news for the Queen City might be good news for Nashua and Concord, which both don’t over-ticket. Concord has been having great success in attracting specialty food shops, while Nashua continues to show strength in the restaurant side as well as in clothing and home furnishing retail.

I’m not sure how much, if any, planning went into making Concord a foodie destination, but with Madeleines, Granite State Candies, Butter’s Fine Food and Wine and several other great food stores, it really has been.

In Nashua there has been some talk of the city working with home furnishing retailers to create a marketing campaign to highlight the unusually large numbers of places one can go to buy furniture or decorating services in the Gate City. Both Concord and Nashua have a Pomponoosuc Mills store downtown.

The question for Manchester city government now is how will your downtown stand out with Concord and Nashua offering very pleasing places to romp around and grab a fine dinner? By adding an army of parking enforcers, Manchester stands a good chance of limiting its own growth and redevelopment.

On a positive note for city, this year’s Manchester downtown jazz and blues festival went off well, attracting healthy crowds.