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Northfield begins discussing post-COVID-19 business recovery

  • Plan Facilitator Jeff Maxtutis shares a slide with survey responses highlighting the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Northfield businesses during a virtual forum last week. Screenshot

  • Plan Facilitator Jeff Maxtutis shares a slide showing survey respondents’ business satisfaction in Northfield’s commercial district during a virtual forum last week. Screenshot

  • Northfield business owners and municipal leaders heard a consultant’s report on the results of a business survey, as well as strategies for post-COVID-19 business recovery initiatives on Main Street, pictured, and Route 63 during a forum last week. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2021 3:58:00 PM

NORTHFIELD — Town business owners and municipal leaders heard a consultant’s report on the results of a business survey, as well as strategies for post-COVID-19 business recovery initiatives on Main Street and Route 63 during a forum last week.

It was announced in March that six Franklin County communities — Greenfield, Montague, Sunderland, Northfield, Shelburne and Buckland — were among the 125 across Massachusetts set to split $9.5 million in state-issued awards aimed at alleviating some of the COVID-19 pandemic’s crippling effects on local downtown areas. Grants were awarded based on the size of the communities, with Northfield receiving $30,000 to pay for consultant services.

Northfield partnered with consultants from BETA Group Inc. out of Chicopee, and Plan Facilitator Jeff Maxtutis and Project Planner Charlie Creagh led an informational presentation on June 10. The presentation included collected data from a survey distributed to local business owners by the Northfield Area Tourism and Business Association (NATABA) in March and April, and proposed actionable items to revitalize community businesses.

“We just finished most of the diagnostic and business surveys in the last few weeks,” Maxtutis said. “We’ll also gather additional information.

During Phase 2, which is occurring throughout June, consultants are developing draft recommendations to bring to towns as part of Phase 3 in July and August.

Maxtutis noted the study areas for Northfield are focused on the village area along Main Street, and Route 63 where most businesses are located. According to a study of 26 storefronts, there is about 50,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space in Northfield. Plus, there is about 6,000 square feet of office space.

The business survey received just 13 responses, and while it is a small sample size, Maxtutis said this “doesn’t mean the information is inaccurate.” According to the results, 54 percent of responding businesses said they only have one employee, 23 percent have six to 10, 15 percent have two to five, and eight percent have 11 to 20 employees. Nearly 70 percent of business owners own their retail space, while 30 percent rent from a landlord.

The survey also showed that over 70 percent of businesses reported a decline in revenue; 54 percent reported reduced operating hours and capacity; 54 percent reported temporary or permanent closures; and 62 percent reported incurring expenses to implement health safety measures. Additionally, 23 percent experienced employee layoffs and 15 percent stopped or deferred rent or mortgage payments. About 31 percent of businesses said their revenue declined by 25 percent or more.

“This was back in March and April, and almost all businesses were impacted by COVID in some form or another,” Maxtutis said of these results. “This just puts some numbers to it.”

Results of questions about levels of satisfaction with aspects of the town commercial district saw respondents were “more satisfied” with the conditions of public spaces, streets and sidewalks, as well as with safety and comfort levels of customers and employees. However, respondents were “less satisfied” with the condition of private buildings, storefronts and signs.

Maxtutis said about 31 percent of businesses indicated the regulatory environment poses an obstacle to business operation. Two top objectives include addressing sign regulations, as well as allowed uses, changes of use and other zoning regulations that serve as barriers to businesses.

A top possible strategy for improving the “atmosphere and access” involves renovating storefronts and building facades. Improvement and development of public spaces and seating areas was another top item, along with improvements for streetscapes, sidewalks and bicycle accessibility.

Proposed strategies for attracting and retaining customers include organizing more cultural events to bring people into the area, expanding opportunities for outdoor dining and selling, starting programs to attract additional businesses and implementing marketing strategies for the commercial district.

Speaking to the “physical audit” of businesses in Northfield, Creagh said he and Maxtutis used a rubric from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to assess possible areas of improvement for storefronts. Creagh said they considered decoration, cleanliness and lighting of storefront windows, as well as wayfinding signs advertising businesses.

Providing an example, Creagh juxtaposed the existing, historic buildings along Main Street, like the Northfield Food Mart, with the newly constructed Brewery at Four Star Farms building. He said some older buildings could benefit from superficial repairs, or even structural modifications. Other physical environment improvement strategies for businesses, Creagh said, could include improving or developing public spaces and seating areas.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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