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Archive for Monday, October 7, 1996

MERCHANTS CONCERNED ABOUT NATIONAL RETAILERS DOWNTOWN

October 7, 1996

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Downtown business owners have mixed emotions of how the proposed Winter block development and the addition of the Gap will affect small businesses downtown.

Debate over the benefits of a Borders bookstore and the Gap in the downtown business district continues among business owners.

"In regard to the specific (Winter block) proposal, in my opinion, there is no question that a retailer like a Borders bookstore would bring more traffic to downtown Lawrence," said David Longhurst, president of Downtown Lawrence Inc.

"It's a destination retailer. It has the potential to strengthen retail traffic downtown."

Lawrence attorney Wint Winter Jr. is behind efforts to demolish everything on the property bordered by Seventh, Eighth, New Hampshire and Rhode Island streets and build residential, office and retail space that includes a Borders bookstore, a national bookstore, music and cafe chain.

While retail traffic may increase with the development of the Winter block, Longhurst said there are other considerations involved.

"In developing that block, it is important to maintain the character of the downtown area," Longhurst said.

"If the scale was pedestrian scale, if there was some orientation to the rest of New Hampshire, it can set the tone for additional retail development on New Hampshire."

Brad Habel, owner of Terra Nova bookstore, 920 Mass., agrees with Longhurst.

He believes that any new development should "fit in" architecturally with the rest of the downtown stores.

Habel said the addition of Borders would "definitely affect" his business, but his concerns go beyond business.

"It's not just protecting my business. If it wasn't a bookstore, I would be just as concerned," Habel said. "The people think we are just trying to keep out all chain bookstores."

In fact, Habel said he just doesn't want to see a big commercial development that goes against the character of Lawrence's downtown.

Habel said when he and other individuals -- business owners or residents -- express their concerns, they are labeled as "special interests groups" against the new development.

"If I'm special interest by trying to save my bookstore, why isn't Wint Winter special interest in trying to sell off his block," Habel asks.

The Winter block corners the market on concerns with most downtown business owners because of maintaining the downtown's historic environs.

The Gap retail store is moving into a preexisting building.

But it still raises a debate with retailers about how a chain store will affect independent stores downtown.

Jeremy Furst, owner of Britches Corner, 843 Mass., said he has already taken evasive action to stave off the competition and continue operating a successful clothing store.

"We've already made merchandising decisions based on the addition of the Gap," Furst said. "We can compete with them downtown. We don't mind competing with the Gap on a level playing field downtown."

But Furst said competition is nothing compared to the compromising of character that Furst believes chains like the Gap bring to downtown Lawrence.

"I'm not as concerned about us as I am about the image of downtown," Furst said. "It's a cookie cutter-type thing, and they degrade the uniqueness of downtown. They degrade the image of stores downtown as a whole."

Furst predicts that developments like the Winter block and the Gap coming to downtown is just a harbinger of how more chain businesses will follow.

But Furst said retailers downtown are able to better compete with chain stores in the downtown than if they were to be built on South Iowa.

"It's the lesser of two evils. If they have to come, I think it's good that they come downtown," Furst said.

"They're (Borders and the Gap) the first so the rest will come."

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