NORTHAMPTON — In the ongoing attempts to revitalize the city’s downtown, local nonprofits and the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce have pitched in to try to help bring some renewed vibrancy to the city.
The Northampton Vibrancy Project, launched a year ago and expected to run to the end of the year, is a coalition of 40 community volunteers and business owners known as the Economic Development Committee, in partnership with the Downtown Northampton Association and the city of Northampton. The goal of the project is to help revive the downtown business community and surrounding commercial areas in the wake of the pandemic, according to the project’s website.
“What we were able to do is try to highlight how important a place Northampton was for business,” said Leslie Laurie, who chairs the EDC and is regional director at NETA, the first legal marijuana dispensary to open in Northampton, during a City Council Committee on Community Resources meeting last month. “I think it’s given great morale to many of the boosters of Northampton, to feel like they can do something to really revitalize the city that they love.”
The Vibrancy Project has been involved with a number of recent initiatives, including removal of graffiti around Pulaski Park, a “Rediscover Downtown” walking tour done in partnership with Historic Northampton, and the founding of The Sphere, an organization to support women and nonbinary entrepreneurs in the city.
Several grants awarded by the city in February using $4 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds were either given directly to the Vibrancy Project or to projects affiliated with the effort, including the somewhat controversial $20,000 grant for manhole covers depicting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
For Laurie, however, the widespread press coverage that the manhole covers received was an overall positive for Northampton.
“We did kind of make it, in a really important way,” Laurie said. “I think that kind of publicity is really great for the city.”
Another program to come out of the Vibrancy Project is the Main Street Move-In program. Run by local nonprofit Valley Community Development, the program is an eight-week course for existing businesses who have been open for at least a year, or those considering making the move to Northampton.
“These learning sessions are supposed to help provide businesses with benchmarks to look within to determine if making a move to a Main Street location is the right choice,” said Sarah Sargent, the small business program manager at Valley Community Development. “It could be somebody who has a location in another town but wants to open another one, and thinks that Northampton or Florence is a good fit.”
The courses cover a variety of topics useful to business owners, such as leadership, working in competitive markets, human resources and managing finances. There are also peer group sessions where business owners discuss what they’ve learned in the courses, and each participant receives a weekly one-hour consulting session.
Though the inaugural start of the program, which began on May 31, has been booked with new businesses, Sargent said that her organization plans to have the program again in the fall.
“Our program does not mean you are committing to moving in,” Sargent said. “It is an opportunity for people to determine if they can move into a downtown area, and when they may do it.”