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Can downtown businesses survive?

Vacant spaces are multiplying at Tower Square with loss of Hannoush Jewelers and Edwards Books

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD Janet Edwards sounded very upbeat, despite the fact that she is closing her bookstore that has been part of the downtown business scene for the past 18 years.

She said the out-pouring of good wishes from customers has been "the best bon voyage party anyone could ever had."

The closing of her store, though, was accompanied by the closing of another store in Tower Square, Hannoush Jewelers. Earlier this year, Rein's Deli closed its doors at the urban mall after a run of less than a year in the space.

The question on many people's minds is if downtown Springfield Tower Square can rebound from such losses.

The answer is one of evolution, according to Dr. Paul Costanzo, the chair of the marketing program at Western New England College.

Edwards said her decision to close her business was based on a "confluence of things that came together." She had been planning to move the store from its second floor location to a first floor site, but after further financial analysis she said, "The numbers didn't work."

With pressure from chain stores such as Barnes & Noble, Internet retailers such as Amazon and deep discounters such as Wal-Mart, Edwards said she had enacted strategies to remain competitive, but "at a certain point you run out of ways to save and conserve."

Edwards had long offered next-day ordering of books but couldn't subsidize shipping as some of the Internet retailers do. Customers received personal service, though, as well as parking validations.

What also affected her business was the dwindling foot traffic in the downtown area. As more stores close, fewer people come, she said. And with the moving of offices out of the federal courthouse building in anticipation of the new courthouse opening later this year, there was a decrease in office workers as well.

Edwards said because there isn't a "critical mass" of retailers, time-pressed consumers head to malls or shopping centers.

Consumers "vote with their feet and dollars," she said.

"Across the country we have to decide if you're going to write a check and mail it off-shore," she added, referring to the money spent at a chain store doesn't necessarily support a local economy or, in the case of manufacturing consumer goods, the national economy.

Costanzo said that what Edwards practiced was "relationship marketing," something marketing textbooks emphasize but the larger chain stores ignore. The way customers are treated at an independently owned business is one of the real advantages he added.

The trend in malls, Costanzo explained, is to become more and more a center for entertainment with the additions of movie theaters and restaurants, he said. He said more entertainment choices could help Tower Square.

Fred Christenson, the senior property manager for Tower Square, said there has been discussion with a number of businesses interested in leasing some vacant mall space, but the businesses are more service-oriented than retail. These businesses would look to appeal to downtown offices rather than consumers, he explained.

With indications from reports on consumer buying habits, Christenson said there are definite changes in the marketplace.

He said he has been encouraged in the interest in the former Gus & Paul's/Rein's Deli location as there has been interest from potential tenants.

Edwards said that her customers made her business worthwhile and that over-all her retail career was "beyond wonderful." For the time being, she hasn't any definite plans what she will do next other than garden and read some books.