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Bringing back the neighborhood business model

Date: 3/30/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

I was visiting Syracuse, N.Y., recently to attend a film festival and I spent time with my friend and former staff member Josh Shear.

Josh is one of the most savvy new media guys I know and I always look forward to speaking with him. He is also someone who is committed to improving the area he now calls his home and is very concerned about urban issues.

He recently made a short move from Syracuse to the adjoining small town of East Syracuse and pointed out where he lived and how many retail amenities were either within walking or biking distance from his apartment.

This discussion got me thinking about our area and how many neighborhoods in our cities still have access to grocery stores, post offices, pharmacies, laundromats, restaurants and bakeries, among other retail services.

If you combine the emphasis on going green with the rebuilding of urban neighborhoods, one realizes that having a diverse retail base in different parts of a city serves two purposes: it allows people to create jobs and commerce within a neighborhood, while they can cut down on using their cars.

For people who don t drive the benefits are even greater. They can stop relying on using cabs or shopping at convenience stores that are typically more expensive.

If you think about how cities were once structured, you recall there was a cluster of businesses in the downtown and then those groups of businesses were repeated in the neighborhoods.

With the growth of the suburbs following WWII, the businesses followed the new housing developments and relocated in many cases along the roads leading toward those new neighborhoods.

Look around your neighborhood. Does it have the basic retail you regularly use within a half-mile? Neighborhoods in urban areas used to have groceries, pharmacies and other services.

Many businesses, though, have re-evaluated just what kind of business they want. The profit margins from smaller neighborhood locations weren t as attractive as those from much larger operations located on shopping strips.

I live in Maple High-Six Corners, a working class, working poor neighborhood in Springfield. There is a convenience store near me, but the nearest grocery stores are in Mason Square and Forest Park " quite a hike.

The pharmacy I use is on State Street and is the closest to me. For produce I frequently travel down the hill to the South End and shop at AC Produce.

If you live in downtown Springfield " and many people do " where can you easily get groceries? Thank goodness for the farmers markets in the city that bring fresh and local produce to people at reasonable prices, but that is only part of the year.

I d love to see a grocery store go into the space at Tower Square where the U.S. Factory Outlets was once located. Sainsbury's, a chain from the United Kingdom, already has a great formula for urban grocery stores. I can t imagine why someone hasn t brought it to the United States.

Think about living in the neighborhoods near downtown Westfield. That city is lucky that there is a major supermarket literally in the city s center. The neighborhoods near Union and Main Streets in West Springfield also have a cluster of retail.

Holyoke still has a market and other businesses around High Street and in The Flats, although for years that area was without a pharmacy. However, as you move away from High Street the concentration of those kinds of businesses diminish greatly.

Chicopee Center has a pharmacy, Fruit Fair and other businesses, but if you live in other neighborhoods, you need to shop along Memorial Drive.

Are the economics against small retail in neighborhoods? Would people want to shop at a locally owned smaller market instead of the larger full service market? I know that I would want to shop at a clean professional operation closer to my home. Walking to a market would be an amazing thing to me.

If I had to pay a little bit more at a smaller business, but save on gasoline, I d be happy.

I think as we consider how to rebuild our urban communities we need to encourage both small entrepreneurs to move into neighborhoods with underserved consumers as well as approach established businesses about looking at different business models.

This column represents the opinions of its author. Send your comments to or to 280 N. Main St., E. Longmeadow, Mass. 01028.