Music key to Northampton’s downtown revival: State’s top economic development leader tours city

Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development,  answers a question during a tour of Northampton Monday afternoon with state Sen.  Jo Comerford, left, and other state and city officials.

Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, answers a question during a tour of Northampton Monday afternoon with state Sen. Jo Comerford, left, and other state and city officials. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, answers a question during a tour of Northampton Monday afternoon with  state Sen. Jo Comerford, left, and Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, right.

Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, answers a question during a tour of Northampton Monday afternoon with state Sen. Jo Comerford, left, and Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, right. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Chris Freeman, executive director of The Parlor Room Collective,  talks about the Iron Horse Music Hall   while, from left,  state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa,  Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of the  state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, and Yvonne Hao, the agency’s secretary, listen during a tour of downtown on  Monday.

Chris Freeman, executive director of The Parlor Room Collective, talks about the Iron Horse Music Hall while, from left, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, and Yvonne Hao, the agency’s secretary, listen during a tour of downtown on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra gives Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, a tour of downtown  Monday afternoon. Hao swung through the region to tour Northampton’s revitalized music scene, and also stopped in Easthampton.

Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra gives Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, a tour of downtown Monday afternoon. Hao swung through the region to tour Northampton’s revitalized music scene, and also stopped in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Yvonne Hao, back right, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, and Ashley Stolba, back left, the agency’s undersecretary, listen as Chris Freeman talks about the project to reopen the music venue  during a tour of Northampton Monday afternoon. Freeman is the executive director of The Parlor Room Collective.

Yvonne Hao, back right, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, and Ashley Stolba, back left, the agency’s undersecretary, listen as Chris Freeman talks about the project to reopen the music venue during a tour of Northampton Monday afternoon. Freeman is the executive director of The Parlor Room Collective. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, shakes hands with Steve Sanderson, event producer with the Northampton Arts Council, outside the Iron Horse Music Hall on Monday  during a   tour of Northampton.

Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, shakes hands with Steve Sanderson, event producer with the Northampton Arts Council, outside the Iron Horse Music Hall on Monday during a tour of Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, shakes hands with Steve Sanderson, event producer with the Northampton Arts Council, outside the Iron Horse Music Hall  during a tour to Northampton Monday afternoon.

Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, shakes hands with Steve Sanderson, event producer with the Northampton Arts Council, outside the Iron Horse Music Hall during a tour to Northampton Monday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-30-2024 3:26 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When she was a student at Williams College, Yvonne Hao recalls traveling to Northampton with friends to eat at local restaurants, shop at thrift stores and attend concerts held by the local music scene, although she isn’t quite sure of the venue.

“I know I saw music when I was here, but either I’m getting old and my memory’s not great, or maybe I had too many beers,” Hao said. “But I did have a great time here.”

Now serving as the secretary for the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, Hao found herself back in Northampton on Monday, touring the city’s downtown and visiting the soon-to-be-reopened Iron Horse Music Hall, a venue local officials hope will become a key driver of the local economy.

Hao, together with her undersecretary Ashley Stolba, were joined on the walking tour by several other state and city officials, including Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, City Councilor at-large Garrick Perry, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Sen. Jo Comerford. Vince Jackson, executive director for the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, and Jillian Duclos, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, also attended.

On their way to the Iron Horse, Sciarra showed Hao some of the newer businesses to the city’s downtown, including the Plum Boutique shop and Korean-style eatery Mochinut. The mayor also touted the city’s controversial upcoming project to redesign Main Street. Dubbed Picture Main Street, the $21 million project set to begin next year would narrow Main Street to one lane in each direction with a middle lane for turning. It would also add bike lanes on both sides separated by buffers and expand sidewalks to allow for more room to walk.

“It’s a massive redeisgn, it’s really exciting,” Sciarra. “But we are trying to figure out how to make what will be a significant change the least disruptive to businesses.”

Comerford acknowledged that Northampton has struggled to bring its economy back to pre-pandemic levels, but expressed confidence that the state will be able to help in this regard. She cited the recently unveiled economic development bill known as the Mass Leads Act, a bill based on recommendations of the EOED that contains millions of dollars in cultural and tourism-related grants.

“We’re recovering a little slower than the rest of the state. And the secretary and undersecretary understand that,” Comerford said. “They understand that a rural or suburban area needs a special oomph, a special push.”

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Though noting a few of the empty storefronts that remained downtown, Hao appeared impressed during the walking tour, comparing Northampton favorably to the city of Cambridge, where she currently lives.

“Actually, you guys are better than us,” she told others on the tour. “The Cambridge Urban Outfitters closed in Harvard Square. Yours is still open.”

Inside the Iron Horse, workers were putting the finishing touches on the interior ahead of its grand reopening, scheduled for May 15. Chris Freeman, the executive director for The Parlor Room, the nonprofit that purchased the Iron Horse from Eric Suher, told Hao that nonprofits like his were the key to getting the music scene up and running again.

“Music is an extremely big economic driver for the city of Northampton. It’s one of the reasons why I moved here from Connecticut,” Freeman said. “Nonprofits are the new way that music and that music venues can sustain and make a difference and become viable.”

Hao told reporters later that a return to the vibrant music scene in the city, coupled with the several colleges and universities located in the area, could help attract new industries to the Pioneer Valley and away from Boston, where living costs are much higher.

“If you’re starting a company out of UMass Amherst, how do you stay here? You don’t have to go to Boston. There’s great stuff here,” Hao said. “We’re very excited about that potential here, especially for western Mass. You have all the ingredients here.”

In addition to the Iron Horse, other formerly Suher-owned venues have either already reopened or planning to do so. The Green Room, a cocktail lounge located next to the Iron Horse, reopened in March. The Calvin Theater currently has plans to reopen after having ownership transferred to The Bowery Presents, owner of several venues in Boston and New York City. The Pearl Street Night Club, on the other hand, has been unable to find a new owner and had its liquor license revoked by the city, making a future reopening unlikely.

Earlier in the day, Hao stopped in Easthampton to talk with LGBT businesses owners, as well as visit the Coca-Cola bottling facility in Northampton. Although the bottling plant has announced its intention to close down, a company spokesperson confirmed that the plant is expected to remain open until at least the end of summer.

Though officials didn’t give much details regarding the trip to the facility, Comerford said that both the city and the state were interested in finding a new owner for when Coca-Cola eventually does close.

“Nothing takes the place of being inside a facility and understanding what it can offer,” she said. “Our job now is to find the right next owner for that really important building.”

Sciarra also announced there would be an update soon regarding the ValleyBike share program, which has not been in operation since last year when the company operating it declared bankruptcy and defaulted on its contract with the city. The city put out requests for proposals to restart the program in late December.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.