Pretty Vacant


“Isn’t it a shame about all the empty storefronts downtown?”

“Which ones are empty?”

“Well, I haven’t been downtown lately. Nobody goes there anymore because there’s too much traffic and not enough parking.”


There’s one myth almost as persistent as the one that Wakefield has become so overdeveloped that there’s no room for an autumn leaf to fall. It’s the fiction that Wakefield’s business district is a ghost town riddled with boarded up properties and “For Rent” signs.

Yet, somehow these contradictory canards exist side-by-side in local lore.

Every week, there’s at least one social media discussion about our “deserted” downtown. Armchair economic development experts assign blame and spout facile solutions to fix this vexing “problem.”

Distressed by these reports, I dispatched my investigative team to the downtown business district. Their findings were disturbing.

I – I mean, my investigative team – discovered that along Main Street from the Rockery to North Avenue there are a total of 69 ground-level business spaces. Of these, barely 63 (a paltry 92 percent!) are occupied or soon-to-be occupied. In other words, a shocking 8 percent of downtown storefronts are sitting idle!

Of the six vacancies, just one – the former Ski & Sport Shack location – is in what most people consider the downtown proper. The other five are between Main Street and North Avenue. Three of those vacancies are in the same property, so you can draw your own conclusions.

For the record, I – or rather, my team – didn’t count spaces as vacant that are currently in transition.

For example, the former Nonno’s Pizza at 340 Main St. is being renovated and will soon be home to the resurrected “Piece o’ Pizza,” which should come as good news to local hippies looking to relive their youth. A pizzeria with the same name occupied the same space back in the Sixties. I just hope they plan to bring back those tableside jukeboxes with tunes like Crimson & Clover and A Whiter Shade of Pale.

We also didn’t count as vacant the former Ristorante Molise property. The Boys & Girls Club has an agreement to purchase this storefront for its local headquarters. It has taken a little longer than expected to hammer out the details, but I confirmed last week that it is still happening.

One of the other vacancies is Stylecraft, which only recently closed after falling on hard times. We did count it as empty, but maybe we could cut this longtime mainstay of the downtown a break. It’s difficult and expensive enough to sustain a small business for a year, much less decades.

It’s true that there have been times when we’ve had more empty store fronts in the downtown. Some businesses don’t succeed. Bad economic times happen. This is not one of those times. But for some reason, once people get the idea in their heads that the downtown is a barren wasteland, it’s harder to remove than a Coexist bumper sticker from a Prius.

I’m no economist, but I don’t think a downtown with 92 percent of its ground-level commercial space filled is ready for the Last Rites just yet.

No matter. When social media speculation becomes reality, facts are irrelevant.

It’s a fascinating psychology – this steadfast determination to believe the absolute worst about your own town. We see the same thing on a national level. To some, the United States is a horrible country that everyone on the planet is trying to move to.

Those who carry on about “vacancies” in the downtown have no end of ideas to solve the “problem” – as long as it doesn’t involve them risking their own life savings and working 16 hours a day, seven days a week to establish a successful business.

I have an idea for these keyboard critics. Leave the house and spend a little time and money downtown. But before heading out, take heed of the sage advice of Yogi Berra.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

[This column originally appeared in the January 31, 2019 Wakefield Daily Item.]

Piece O Pizza photo by John Devlin.

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