Bidwell Advisors
December 27, 2019
To neighbors and friends, Ward 2 and elsewhere,

Last Thursday I attended my last City Council meeting as your City Councilor - a bittersweet evening. I offered an appreciation of my time on the Council, and of Northampton as a whole. I was quoted (accurately) in the Gazette as saying "Northampton really gives me hope." Below I expand on my reflections after four years on the Council.

Please join me January 2, 4:30 to 6:00, at the Northampton Brewery, for an informal gathering to greet constituents and friends. I hope to see you there!
One aspect of our City that I've been focused on throughout my term on Council is the state of our fascinating and ever-complicated Downtown. I wrap up my term on Council with some further observations about our Downtown. 

Please read on about these and other topics:
Finally, let me conclude with a heartfelt thank you to the many people who - in sharing their thoughts, concerns, suggestions, and appreciations - have made this a tremendously rewarding experience.
Best wishes to Karen Foster, who is poised to hit the ground running as your next Ward 2 City Councilor. I know she will do a great job representing the interests of Ward 2 and the City. 

I have told Karen that I would make available to her the email list (about 850 names) I have accumulated over the years in the course of producing this newsletter. I will assume this is acceptable to you unless you notify me otherwise. 

Best wishes also to the other newcomers to Council who will also bring vitality and fresh ideas - John Thorpe, Rachel Maiore, Michael Quinlan and Alex Jarrett. These five new councilors are fortunate to have as colleagues and mentors returning councilors Gina-Louise Sciarra, Bill Dwight, Jim Nash and Marianne LaBarge. And finally, I'd like to express my appreciation to those Council colleagues who are also leaving the Council: David Murphy, Ryan O'Donnell, Maureen Carney and Alissa Klein.

Best wishes and Happy Holidays to you all!

Dennis Bidwell

PS. Karen Foster, who will be sworn in with other City officials on Monday, January 6 at 5:30 pm at the Northampton Arts Trust (33 Hawley), can be reached at:

While striving to represent the interests and values of the residents of Ward 2 during my time on the City Council, I have sought to bring a broader perspective, reflecting the view that very few issues lend themselves to bumper sticker slogans or black-and-white analysis. This has meant that sometimes I found myself exploring nuance, and that's not always an easy position to hold in a time where local issues are infused with the polarization and intense emotions of the national political scene. In times like these it's easy to get drawn into politically expedient grandstanding at the expense of the nuts and bolts of governance.

Some people viewed me as representing the views of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, on whose board of directors I served for six years. While it's true that I learned a great deal during those years, it's also true that I learned from associations with Northampton High Crew, land conservation organizations, the National Priorities Project, Cancer Connection and the various other non-profits I've supported and fundraised for over the years. In fact, I have drawn on all of those experiences, and many more, in an attempt to bring a balanced perspective to the Council.

I'm proud of my attention to constituent services, and my periodic publication of this newsletter in the interest of promoting a better understanding of, and more participation in, the workings of City government.

I'm pleased to have sponsored resolutions on a wide range of important matters, highlighted by an unwavering support of public education. I sponsored resolutions opposing a lifting of the cap on Charter Schools in the state and I led the Council's opposition to the expansion of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School. I sponsored resolutions supporting the CHERISH and PROMISE acts aimed at increasing state support to elementary and secondary schools and to public higher education in the state.

I have championed several public health issues by sponsoring a resolution advocating elimination of the much-abused religious exemption to vaccines (spurred on by the alarming rate of unvaccinated school children during an outbreak of measles), and by introducing an ordinance to cap the number of retail marijuana stores that would be permitted in Northampton. (This ordinance did not pass.) I sponsored a resolution supporting a state carbon pollution pricing bill, and another proclaiming Northampton to be a water-conserving Blue Community. I sponsored resolutions encouraging the legislature to pass the End of Life Options Act, and a resolution advocating the reprogramming of large portions of our bloated federal military budget to human and environmental needs. I was especially proud to sponsor a resolution calling attention to the Greensboro Massacre 40 years ago (and its connection to local residents), drawing parallels between the white supremacy of that era and the rise of white supremacy today. I have come to recognize the value of such resolutions - in spurring legislative action at the state level, in drawing attention to issues through press coverage, and in setting an example for other Massachusetts communities that look to Northampton for innovation and progressive leadership.

I certainly have had my share of defeats and disappointments while on Council. My urgings to treat our police officers and our extremely well-led Police Department with respect and to avoid simplistic comparisons to corrupt police departments elsewhere were not always well-received. My encouragement to the Mayor to convene a working group to look at the issues of panhandling and the at-risk people on our streets was criticized by some. My effort to adopt Council rules focused on civility and the welcoming of all voices in Council Chambers was defeated. I believe the new Council has an opportunity to strike a new tone of inclusiveness, civility, and broad-mindedness.

At last week's Council meeting, I offered a variety of reasons that Northampton "gives me hope." I have appreciated the intelligent level of conversation with Council colleagues and constituents. I have admired the excellent management and leadership of Mayor David Narkewicz, and have developed a deep respect for the quality of our Department heads and the other men and women who serve the City with integrity and professionalism. We are extremely fortunate to have very talented and widely knowledgeable volunteers step up month after month to serve on our City's boards, commissions and committees - truly the nuts and bolts of our democracy. I have greatly enjoyed interacting with the many non-profit organizations, big and small, that contribute so mightily to the quality of life that continues to attract people to Northampton -social service, health and housing organizations, arts and cultural groups, religious organizations, conservation and recreation groups, think tanks and social justice groups. And even though it means Council meetings that sometimes run past midnight, I look forward to the passion and advocacy and surprise in Public Comment at the start of every meeting, where advocates, organizers, activists, poets and citizens of every stripe bring their concerns and pleadings to City Council Chambers - which essentially serves as a twice-a-month Town Hall Forum.

So yes, taken altogether, Northampton does give me hope. And despite our tendencies to exceptionalism, I know that there are hundreds of other communities around the country buzzing with similar levels of local democracy and progressive activism.

But we aren't perfect. We could do a better job of treating one another as distinct human beings, not stereotypes occupying simplistic labels. As a community we have room for improvement in treating one another with civility and open-mindedness - which is why I'm proud to be a co-founder of Northampton Connects and a big supporter of our Human Rights Commission. And I believe we will be a stronger community if we work harder at finding ways to live in community with one another even as we associate ourselves with national movements of resistance and change.

Best wishes to the City Council that will be sworn in on January 6. I offer my support and assistance whenever it's desired.
I have been fascinated with our vibrant and multi-faceted downtown since moving to Northampton 22 years ago. By chairing the Chamber of Commerce's Economic Development Committee, getting to know many owners of downtown properties and businesses as well as the dedicated staff of non-profits based downtown, paying attention to the good work of the Downtown Northampton Association, and by way of Northampton Connects' focus on downtown, I have been trying to make sense of our downtown for years.

When I was elected to the Council, I helped shape a series of Community Resource Committee hearings on the state of downtown, where we heard a great deal about retail vacancies, the Amazon threat, wage theft, drug use, panhandling and many other issues. We also heard reminders from many that despite its imperfections we have a downtown that is the envy of almost every other small city and town in the Northeast, because of our vibrant mix of stores and services, our historic architecture and broad streets and sidewalks, the resilience of our locally-owned businesses, our vibrant arts and entertainment scene, and our compassionate citizens.

As I depart the City Council, here are some thoughts on our downtown today.

Panhandling. I convinced the Council's Committee on Community Resources to ask the Mayor to convene a working group on panhandling and the at-risk population that spends time on our downtown sidewalks. To his credit, the Mayor did so, and I was pleased to serve as the Council's representative to this group for our many months of study and deliberations. I strongly recommend reading the final report, "A Downtown Northampton for Everyone: Residents, Visitors, Merchants and People At-Risk" that emerged from this process. (At least read the executive summary if you don't have time to tackle the whole report.)  

In debunking the myth that our City is filled with professional panhandlers who are on our sidewalks because this is what they want to do, the report concludes that a confluence of societal issues, illnesses, underfunded government programs and addictions are behind the presence in our downtown (and downtowns elsewhere) of a group of people who would rather be doing something else. At the same time the report concludes that the range of behaviors on our downtown sidewalks, some of them threatening, do indeed have adverse impacts on our downtown businesses and the people who work in them, and that we can't put our heads in the sand and pretend that this is not an issue of consequence.

The Mayor has held a series of listening sessions around the City where he has presented the report's findings and recommendations. He has gathered extensive feedback on such possible approaches as:
  • Create a public messaging campaign
  • Create a giving fund to provide increased resources to entities serving at-risk populations
  • Create options for giving/ways to give through technology
  • Support a multi-discipline de-escalation team
  • Create a living room model/community day center site
  • Increase opportunities for educational attainment
  • Establish downtown storage units
  • Create low threshold housing units/safe havens model
  • Create a Youth Advisory Board (YAB) for Northampton
  • Create a flexible/day labor/flash job program
  • Install a vending machine for personal hygiene items and food
  • Code of ethics for givers and receivers

There is no one silver bullet that will remedy the situation to everyone's liking. And the City can't make any of these things happen by acting alone; partnerships with non-profits, houses of worship and businesses will certainly be necessary. But I think the Mayor will need to continue leading on this, by proposing specific approaches, by committing City dollars (in conjunction with the City Council) and by negotiating specific partnerships.

Vacant storefronts. Much is made of vacant storefronts in our downtown. The long-term and highly-visible vacancy in the former Spoleto's space keeps this issue front and center, as does the Faces vacancy. But when we look at downtown vacancy rates from a historical perspective, we see that we are experiencing, more or less, a typical turnover of businesses and typical vacancy rates. (Vacancy rates were higher ten years ago than they are today.) I recently went to a Historic Northampton presentation on the history of Northampton's restaurants, and was reminded of the huge rate of turnover in Northampton's restaurants in every recent decade. Also, many of the stores that appear vacant today are in fact leased, or under option, to retail marijuana operations that have a space under contract in order to pursue the state licensing process.

There have been many solutions proposed for downtown vacancies that in fact just aren't possible. We can't by law impose a property tax surcharge for vacant properties. (Also, it's a myth that when a property is vacant the owner pays less in property taxes than when the property is rented.) The City has no authority to take vacant properties by eminent domain and repurpose them. We have no authority to order a landlord to reduce the rent they are seeking from tenants. (It's also a myth that downtown Northampton rents are outrageously high. Many downtown retail rents are in the vicinity of $25 per square foot, approximately what they were twenty years ago.)

There may be a few things that the City can do, however. One possibility that has been tried elsewhere is empowering the City to fine the owners of vacant storefronts if they don't make their store windows available for community art.

Our downtown, like every downtown, faces an enormous challenge from E-commerce, and faces a variety of other bottom line pressures that are real. But I think it is misguided to think of our downtown as in some sort of crisis. We should appreciate, and support, what we have, embrace the owners and workers of downtown businesses as valued members of our community, celebrate the large number of downtown businesses that have transitioned to the next generation of worker-owners, and continue to search for creative ways to address our challenges.

Marijuana and our downtown. There is no question that the arrival of legalized retail marijuana will have impacts, good and bad, on our downtown and throughout the City. The extent of these impacts remains to be seen. Marijuana tax revenues have allowed the City to squeeze one more year out of the last Prop 2 ½ Override, postponing a decision on another override to this next March. And meals and lodging taxes suggest that our restaurants and hotels have benefited from the presence of NETA to date. Nonetheless, I don't believe anyone wants to see Northampton develop a primary identity as a Pot City. Although my proposed ordinance that would place a cap on the number of marijuana establishments in Northampton was defeated last year, there might be a time when it would make sense to revisit such a cap. And I think in the months and years ahead we should listen carefully to what the professionals in our public health community have to say about the dangers of marijuana on the developing brain, and we should pay attention to what our law enforcement officials are learning about the public safety implications of retail marijuana (and soon, on-site consumption in marijuana cafes) in our City.

Revisioning Main Street. The City's Office of Planning and Sustainability is many years into a long-term project to re-imagine our downtown and to rebuild aging sidewalks and critical intersections and replace other infrastructure. It behooves us all to pay very careful attention to this process and be certain that a wide range of perspectives are taken into account. This process will inevitably involve decisions about priorities given to parking, bike lanes, lane striping and other traffic control measures, and pedestrian flow. Everyone is a stakeholder of one sort or another when it comes to our downtown, and all voices will need to be heard as this process moves forward.

We all have a stake in our downtown. And we should all support the good work of the Downtown Northampton Association by joining as members, wherever we might live or work. 
I have been particularly pleased to work with the owners of properties on Ward Avenue and Vernon Street, and with Wayne Feiden, the City's Director of Planning and Sustainability, to bring permanent protection -- as well as City responsibility for trail maintenance-- to portions of the historic footpath that runs along the Mill River from Federal Street to the Smith campus. This trail crosses private property, but property owners have traditionally not interfered with public use of the trail, though they could theoretically do so. When a property owner donates to the City a trail easement over the small portion of their property where the trail runs, they assure that that portion of the trail will remain accessible to the public in perpetuity, regardless of who owns the property in the future. They also convey to the City the right to maintain the trail, remove fallen trees, etc. To date five owners have donated easements covering 50% of the length of the trail. (This is in addition to one couple who donated their riverfront land itself - not just an easement- to the City.) Discussions are underway with other property owners, with a goal of eventually obtaining permanent protection over the entire trail.

I commend the community-minded generosity of the property owners who have taken this step to assure that future generations will continue to enjoy access to this beautiful and historic riverside trail.
Dennis Bidwell City Council Ward 2
19 Forbes Avenue
Northampton, MA 01060