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SERIES ON DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT CONTINUES
Chamber Executive Dir. Says Downtown Needs Home Furnishings, Clothes for Working Women
By PAUL J. PEYTON
Specially Written for The Westfield Leader
Editors Note: This marks the second in our series on the positives, concerns and future of the development of the downtown shopping district. The series is being published periodically throughout the summer.
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In order to fill the needs of downtown Westfield shoppers, the town needs to push financial firms out of the shopping district while also taking a closer look before approving parking variances for additional restaurants, according to the head of the Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
Although not questioning the downtown as a viable marketplace for business, Chamber Executive Director Katherine L. Broihier said last week she is concerned over the types of businesses moving into town.
Mrs. Broihier said she wishes downtown landlords would make more of an effort to recruit businesses which will improve not only the scope of businesses in the central business district, but also help raise property values in the area.
Mrs. Broihier said a few landlords control "such vast quantities" of property that, "They are not starving to death. They are not worried about leasing a property out immediately to put food on the table."
"They are shooting themselves in the foot, I feel, in the long run by not waiting and finding the things that will continue to increase their future property values," she added.
In that regard, she said she wished the owner of the building which housed the now-defunct Westfield Drugs & Surgical had waited a little longer to find a business more suited for the downtown.
Liberty Travel, a national travel agency, received preliminary approval earlier this month for the variances it needs from the Planning Board for exterior signs. The site had been used as a pharmacy since the turn of the century.
Mrs. Broihier said the site is a "prime real estate area" in that it is the first glimpse many motorists see as they enter Westfield via East Broad or Elm Streets.
"Its the first exposure people get coming from that side of town," she said. She said a travel agency at the spot will not help the downtown.
She noted that block of East Broad houses such popular stores as Garden Botanika and The Gap "which are really elegant and add something to the town."
"Those two things (stores) have increased property values in this town tenfold over the last several years," she said.
The head of the chamber for the past four years, Mrs. Broihier said Westfield needs to recruit quality "second-tier retail" businesses. She said these types of small merchants each need between 2,500 to 4,000 and 5,000 square feet.
"They would add such a variety" to the town, Mrs. Broihier said. She said these types of firms are both regional and national by nature.
The chamber director noted that a European chain is looking at the East Coast, including Westfield, as part of its expansion plan.
"People know about Westfield. The calls come in here all the time. The commercial brokers in town as well as those in the city are well aware of it," she said.
Mrs. Broihier said Westfield needs more quality clothing stores for the needs of working women.
"This town in the last several years is now a center for banking, brokerage houses -- all kinds of financial things. Close to 50 percent of their employees are women," she explained.
She said the chamber has fielded complaints by these women regarding Westfields lack of working womens clothing such as upscale suits and other professional attire.
Another need Mrs. Broihier sees is for a home furnishings retailer which would sell linens, towels, bedding and related "soft" products.
She said the demographics of the town show dual-income couples who want to be serviced quickly at their convenience. She said shoppers are willing to spend more money for the convenience of shopping in town; however, "they cant find the product that they need."
Another area needed is mens clothing. Mrs. Broihier said men who work but dont live in town are not likely to shop in Westfield. She did say, however, that a store such as Brooks Brothers "would do very well in this town" since it would offer both professional and casual clothing.
In the past few years Westfield has witnessed the closing of a number of mens clothing stores; including H. Wyatt Clothier, Marc Jeffries and John Franks.
One area which Westfield has covered is that of childrens clothing and toys. For instance, the town has stores such as Sealfons Young World, Gap Kids, Baby Attic and, for shoes, Castle Bootery.
One area Mrs. Broihier said has put pressure on the downtown parking problems, and thus has hurt, is revisions made to the Master Plan in the early 1990s which allowed for the location of brokerage houses in the central business district.
She said the fact that Westfield is a "very desirable downtown" led to an influx of financial firms relocating to Westfield. Mrs. Broihier said the increase in such firms, which, unlike other stores, have many employees, has "fed the restaurant frenzy" in the downtown.
Restaurants, she noted, also have many employees. She said both cases have put a strain on parking in the downtown. Restaurants, according to Mrs. Broihier, also have added to sanitation concerns.
Westfield has a number of brokerage houses in the downtown including Paine Webber, Wheat First Butcher Singer, Legg Mason Wood Walker, Olde Discount Brokerage and Merrill Lynch.
"That has put some pressure on property values increasing, too," she said. "There is nothing wrong with that but when a town has a tremendous financial sector you dont have the retail; you dont have the shopping that comes with it. You are still losing because there just isnt room for expansion."
She said most brokerage firm employees eat but dont shop in town since they are not residents. Mrs. Broihier said the Chamber would like to see the town encourage financial and other commercial institutions to locate out on to Central, North and South Avenues.
She said this would not only free up the downtown for more retail types of businesses but also improve these other areas in town.
Mrs. Broihier said the relocation of just one of these types of businesses would help encourage other firms to help better develop these areas.
She noted East Broad Street used to be the center for retail shopping in Westfield. That business, though, has been transferred over to Quimby and Elm Streets the past few years.
Mrs. Broihier said by shifting commercial developments out of the business district, the town would in effect be "nudging the free market in the right direction."
The chamber director said she believes the town zoning and planning boards need to look more carefully at whether there are good reasons to approve variances to more restaurants in what she believes is already an oversaturated market in town.
Mrs. Broihier noted that any space in the 2,500 square foot range is leased quickly.
She said Westfield is "too vibrant" for available space of a smaller nature to sit that long.
Mrs. Broihier said Westfield has "a whole new lease on life" with the addition of the chain stores which have opened in the downtown over the past few years. She said new competition sort of "shakes up" existing stores to strive to do better in order to compete.
The chamber director gave high marks to those property owners on East Broad Street for the renovations to the Gap and Kay Bee Toys buildings. She noted that major renovations are difficult on buildings in the downtown which date back to the pre-Revolutionary War period.
In terms of the parking situation, Mrs. Broihier said the southside train station lot "would be perfect" for employee parking.
She said after alternatives are looked at, including implementation of the towns Parking Task Force report from a few years ago, she would favor a parking deck. She said the deck would have to be paid for by both residents and businesses.
She also favors speed humps in the downtown to slow traffic down, thus protecting pedestrians shopping in the downtown. These traffic-controlling devices consist of a slow incline on roadways.
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