Since its study was released, the reaction to WalletHub’s dismal ranking of Westfield as our nation’s least-friendly Town to small business has been one of serious concern among residents. The Mayor’s response was to dismiss the facts and calls for accountability as “partisanship,” and to pass off as the Town’s efforts the help provided to small business via the PPP and local organizations like the United Fund.
We cannot afford four more years of consultants, reports, and assurances that a plan is on the way, or to fritter away surplus dollars and government relief funds. We cannot take a “nothing to see here” approach to our Downtown’s problems; otherwise, there really will be nothing to see here. We need solutions and a commitment to act on them. Here are our initial proposals:
- Return the Downtown Westfield Corporation (DWC) to its core role of small business support, recasting it as a business incubator. The downtowns that are successfully weathering the changing retail environment are doing so by providing their current businesses with support to offset the cost of daily operations, compliance with COVID restrictions, and removing financial barriers to expansion and innovation. We would, for example, build a team of local and home-based professional service business owners (accountants, contractors, attorneys, decorators) to consult with existing and prospective downtown business owners on a complimentary or reduced-fee basis to minimize start-up and expansion costs and create a true network of Westfield business owners invested in each other’s success.
- Support Downtown business using technological innovation and removing barriers to expansion. The ordinance changes that facilitated rooftop dining, craft breweries, and maker-space businesses in Westfield — which the Mayor claimed as her own — are among 57 recommendations made by a Task Force formed by her predecessor and I during her time on council. They are contained in a Report published in April 2017, and supplemented in September 2017, listing recommendations that had already been enacted. These reports are no longer on the Town’s website. Among the recommendations shelved by the Mayor were streamlined government approval processes, expansion of business service hours, and using emerging technologies to enhance access to our local businesses. One way to capture these recommendations is to create parking kiosks tied to a Downtown app that alerts visitors to the location of open parking spots, then geo-targets shoppers with promotions and coupons offered by local businesses as soon as they park nearby.
- Targeted incentives and financial assistance to the small business owner. The Mayor’s decision to designate our Downtown as blighted and an area in need of rehabilitation opens the door to tax incentives only for landlords and developers. We would instead target incentives to our small business owners. One example: using surplus and grant money to reimburse small business owners the portion of municipal taxes passed on to them by their landlords, which can then be used to cover losses, renovate interiors, or fund plans for growth. Local businesses need transformation, not tote bags.
Four years ago, Gannett Publishing voted Westfield “the best destination for shopping.” With our real solutions and true commitment to Downtown, we have no doubt Westfield will be a destination again. Let’s commit to Working — together — for Westfield.