|By G. Michael Dobbs|
There are many things that keep mayors up at night snarling, unruly city councils; citizens questioning tax rates and the threat of cuts to state aid are among the favorite nightmares I would imagine.
Here's another one that I know causes some headaches: unfilled retail space.
In Chicopee the slow death of the Fairfield Mall was of great concern to elected officials. It's hard to fathom why an enterprise that was so healthy became terminal, but competing developments such as the malls in Hadley and Holyoke, plus the addition of Wal-Mart in our market and the deaths of Caldor's and Bradlees helped pave the way to oblivion.
In Agawam the former Food Mart complex was also high on the radar of at least one mayor, not including the present one. The complex still isn't completely occupied, although Steve & Barry's made a significant dent.
And the retail health of downtowns is a re-occurring theme in Chicopee, Holyoke and Westfield. I worked at the newspaper in Westfield in 1978 and even then people were trying to come up with ways to redevelop downtown. They are still addressing the problem.
The same issue dominated many people's minds in Holyoke in the early 1980s, especially when Steiger's closed its High Street store.
The trouble is that elected officials can only do so much often times really nothing except being a cheerleader about encouraging private sector retail development.
Today in Springfield we have the downtown problem and the shopping center problem intersecting at Tower Square. It's no secret there are many vacancies in what was called Bay State West a combination office tower and retail complex designed to draw people to downtown and away from suburban malls.
One Springfield resident, Lois Smith, has a possible solution, which she spoke about the City Council public speak-out on Nov. 10.
Smith, who has a background in retail and publishing, would like to see the empty Tower Square stores turned into a "Garment District comprised of rack stores."
She explained, "Rack stores sell off season merchandise, over-purchased merchandise and a few loss leaders. Rack stores take unsold merchandise off of the hands of stores such as the Gap, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth, Ann Taylor, Talbot's, FAO Schwartz, Banks for Men without having upscale stores constantly running 50 percent off sales."
She would like those stores to have a cooperative marketing campaign to make Springfield be a destination point for shoppers.
She believes the restaurant space on the first floor that was formerly Gus & Paul's should be the site for a culinary school, perhaps one run by the Massachusetts Career Development Institute.
An art center with a gallery could also be a component, she said.
Smith, who has experience in this field, is offering her services and expertise to make this happen. The question is whether or not the owners of Tower Square MassMutual and the management company are willing to speak with her in depth.
Everyone downtown is waiting to find out what will be the new use of the former Federal Building. As goes that building so might go the building next to it, the former Asylum nightclub.
Whatever the new use of the Federal Building might be, Smith's plan deserves a real hearing.
This column represents the opinions of its author. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or to 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, Mass. 01028.
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