Editorial: Better downtown benefits all

Electrician Bob Morgan, of Lebanon, works on a renovation of the former Traditionally Trendy storefront into a new location for Maven salon in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Electrician Bob Morgan, of Lebanon, works on a renovation of the former Traditionally Trendy storefront into a new location for Maven salon in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Published: 08-07-2023 12:20 PM

The decline and fall of Hanover’s retail empire did not unfold overnight; nor will it be rebuilt in a day, or in the same form. But at least the town’s government, business and college leaders seem to understand the need for a coordinated effort to revitalize what was once a vibrant shopping district for the whole Upper Valley.

As our colleague John Lippman pointed out last Sunday, the downtown took another hit in recent months with the closing of three prominent retailers — Hanover True Value Hardware; the clothing store Traditionally Trendy; and this month, Farmhouse Pottery, which is retrenching to its main location in Woodstock.

These are only the latest additions to a distinguished roll call of signature retailers that have shut their doors over the years: Serry’s clothing store, Eastman’s Pharmacy, Dartmouth Bookstore, Rosey Jekes, Folk, Church’s Children’s Clothes to name just a few that may evoke shopping nostalgia in longtime Upper Valley residents. Unfortunately, these departures have not been matched by a commensurate number of thriving new enterprises filling the void. In fact, the dominant impression left on us by a walk around downtown this past week was a streetscape dominated by empty storefronts with signs for rental agents in the windows, long expanses of uniform brick walls (some without windows), and plenty of signs around that start with the word “no” — entrance, parking, public restrooms, etc.

To be sure, you can still get your hair cut and your head shrunk in Hanover, as well as your wealth managed at any number of financial services firms. You can certainly shop for a second home, or a third, at multiple real estate agencies, and insure it should you find one. Diamonds can be had, along with certain kinds of clothes; and you can eat and drink in a different restaurant or cafe each day for a couple of weeks. Merchants that supply your everyday needs, however, are much harder to find. This, a close observer of the commercial real estate scene told Lippman, is symptomatic of an economy shifting from goods to services. One question is, services for whom?

There certainly are some retail bright spots as well. But returning the downtown to its former bustle is a big ask. There are major obstacles, prominent among them high commercial rents; the undermining of the traditional retail model by internet commerce and big box stores; and the increasing sequestration of Dartmouth students, who can obtain just about anything they want or need without ever leaving campus, from lattes to laptops.

Setting out to solve this puzzle, or at least laying the groundwork for doing so, is a group of business owners who are meeting regularly with new Town Manager Alex Torpey to develop promotional initiatives designed to encourage more people to come to Hanover. Significantly, Dartmouth is signaling its interest by the participation in this group of Emma Wolfe, the college’s new vice president for government and community relations.

The college has a big role to play in revitalization as well as a big stake in the outcome. As a major commercial landlord, Dartmouth can hold down rents to encourage the opening of new locally owned enterprises and to sustain existing ones. It could take steps to encourage students to frequent the downtown (perhaps with the top brass setting an example) and to become part of the scene; and by resetting the academic calendar so the campus is not emptied out during the holiday season. And maybe by not building a 400-unit dormitory well north of the campus, as it is now planning to do.

We think the most effective way to revitalize a downtown is to get more people of diverse interests and backgrounds to live there — just ask White River Junction. It is a time-tested way to achieve the built-in critical mass of potential shoppers and diners that attracts small, independent businesses to serve them. To whatever extent real estate developers or redevelopers, including the college (if it is still in that business), can incorporate apartments into their projects in and near the downtown district, the town should give them every incentive to do so. And it should also encourage architectural departures to create more visual interest.

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If you build it, will they come? With the Upper Valley housing market as tight as it is, we definitely think so. If and when they do, the college will again have a thriving hometown and the Upper Valley another go-to destination.