Downtown Northampton Association shifts focus to community health and stability during COVID (Guest viewpoint)
Thinking back to January 2020, it is difficult to imagine just how trivial the concerns I had on my plate that month would seem once March, then April and then May rolled around. I’ve resisted thinking about 2020 as some sort of gift with silver linings of any sort because the devastation that the year caused (and that is still playing out in downtown Northampton and across the commonwealth) is staggering, forever changing the landscape of our downtown community. But there have been some moments of light and hope and creativity, even amidst so much uncertainty.
The impact of COVID meant that the Downtown Northampton Association’s usual slate of events and community gatherings were (understandably) not possible. By necessity, our focus shifted away from large-scale events and turned inward, focusing on the health and stability of our own community.
If you looked at our calendar of events and inbox prior to last March, you would see many of the partnerships one might expect of a downtown organization such as ours: restaurant weeks; retail sales; holiday community events; and the like. 2020 changed the positioning of our organization, refocusing our efforts and our collaborations to those issues that were critical to the continuation of our small businesses.
Our inbox now? Valley Community Development Corp., Grow Food Northampton, city councilors, local donors and, of course, business owners all working collaboratively on a myriad of issues and efforts designed to keep our independent businesses alive. You won’t find words like “face painting” or “Holiday Stroll.” Instead, “PPP,” “hand sanitizer” and “local grant funding” dominate.
You’ll also find our state legislators, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and Sen. Jo Comerford, repeatedly in our inbox and on speed dial. Before last March, they were enthusiastic attendees at our events and volunteers at downtown clean-up days, important actions in their own right, to be sure. Since COVID, they and the teams that support them have become indispensable partners, making sure that state aid reaches past Worcester and out to the Pioneer Valley. Rather than a name on an email distribution list, they are often our first call when a business is struggling to obtain grants, wrestling with PPP concerns and trying to help employees wade through unemployment issues.
I’ve been immensely proud of new nonprofit collaborations developed during this past year as well. Feed the Frontlines – Nourish Our Community is one such example. Launched in December and building off of the success of our spring Feed the Frontlines effort, this new program is a partnership between the Downtown Northampton Association, Grow Food Northampton and the Northampton Survival Center. It provides meals prepared by local restaurants to include in weekly food distributions already underway through the Community Food Distribution Project (a collaborative effort on its own, providing fresh produce and shelf-stable food to community members experiencing food insecurity).
Individual donations from community members and local businesses are enabling us to pay restaurants to provide these meals. The restaurants in turn are incredibly grateful to be able to do what they do best – cook meals with love for their community – making this a program that supports so many different parts of our local ecosystem.
I’m equally excited about new collaborations formed within our small-business community. This past holiday season, for example, a group of retailers came together to create ShopNoho.com, a website that highlights downtown Northampton retail stores with online shopping, an effort to make it just as easy to shop locally as to hop on Amazon.
Restaurants were just as creative: Belly of the Beast partnered with the I-Collective, bringing a group of Indigenous chefs to Northampton for a local pop-up, to cook out of their kitchen and share not only their food, but their knowledge of Indigenous influence in society, agriculture and more.
And cross-over restaurant-retail partnerships happened as well. The Dirty Truth and Provisions collaborated to create an ongoing program, the “second Wednesday initiative,” highlighting different organizations fighting discrimination and oppression against the Black, Indigenous and people of color community, with the Dirty Truth and Provisions donating 10% of sales to those organizations each second Wednesday.
Ultimately, I think COVID has given all of us a clearer understanding of the struggles, risks and dreams of small-business owners, and the importance and interconnectedness of our community. Every action – no matter how small – has a ripple effect felt throughout our downtown. And while a shared sadness is felt with every loss, a collective joy is felt with every success, every word of thanks, every kind gesture.
Here’s hoping 2021 brings waves of collective joy to our downtown!
Amy Cahillane is executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association. To learn more about the association and its work, go online to northamptondna.com.