MANCHESTER, NH — “It’s a ghost town,” Frank Jelev, owner of B&B Cafe & Grill says as he points out the window.
Last week Elm Street was an obstacle course of lighting rigs and camera crews.
The streets were crowded with politicians and campaign staffers trying to woo voters while national tv reporters with their perfect hair and a well-cultivated air of sincerity braved the sleet to hold court on almost every corner.
Today only a handful of intrepid people pick their way across the icy sidewalks.
Locals may grumble about parking and make jokes about the circus atmosphere, but First in the Nation (FITN), the traditional start to the official Presidential Primary tour, is a big deal to our local economy.
February is a slow month for many Manchester area merchants, and the quadrennial FITN event brings a much-needed revenue boost for downtown merchants difficult to sustain in a town where the locals seem to shun Elm Street.
Shelley Collins, the owner of Shelley’s Barber Shop, says Primary week was crazy, “I had a lot of reporters and political staffers from New York, Virginia, and Washington D.C. come in for a trim.”
In spite of the shop’s prime location at 814 Elm Street, she doesn’t normally get many walk-ins. But on-camera personnel and political types need to look good no matter what town they land in and her proximity to the DoubleTree by Hilton made her shop the go-to destination for visiting journalists.
Pop of Color, a gift shop that features mainly New Hampshire made products, has a loyal following of customers from downtown offices. She says they had a few people come in for New Hampshire souvenirs, but most of the walk-in traffic were political supporters urging people to come to the debate.
Queen City Cupcakes fared much better. Shields smiles and says “NBC called a lot for cupcakes.”
No one seems to have hard numbers, but the general feeling is that business was good.
Mayor Joyce Craig says she talked to one local business owner who said their revenues were up 40% during FITN, but it’s anecdotal.
Even the city’s share of the Primary booty is nebulous.
Between politicians, staffers, and news media, the DoubleTree was a hive of activity the entire week between the Iowa Caucus and the Primary.
You’d think it represented a major source of tax revenue, but Manchester’s Deputy Finance Officer Sharon Wickens says the city doesn’t maintain records of Manchester’s FITN Rooms and Meals tax revenues because “the state gives us a lump sum, they don’t break it down so we can’t track specific dates.”
As for how much citywide vendor revenues increase during FITN, the mayor says unless a merchant submits those numbers, her office has no way of tracking them.
Like the other downtown businesses, Jelev and his team at B&B Cafe & Grill have a faithful following.
Most days the small bagel shop is crowded with people looking for breakfast, lunch, or a midday snack, but he’d like to see more people on Elm Street on a regular basis.
It’s a sentiment echoed by all of the businesses I speak with.
They say business during Primary week was very good and they would like to find a way to keep the FITN energy going, but they are stumped when it comes to how to do it.
Manchester’s Economic Development department has been without a director since Melanie Sanuth left in December. While the Mayor is a visible supporter of local business, it’s not the same as having a working staff dedicated to the city’s commercial growth and wellbeing.
An event will bring people to Elm Street for the day, but they need a reason to come back.
The Bookery Manchester is trying to give people a reason.
According to store manager Benjamin Pasley, one of the store’s goals is to become the destination for people coming to Elm Street and they capitalized on FITN to bring in new customers.
Leading up to FITN the Bookery team positioned themselves so they were command central for visiting politicians and reporters.
But it didn’t happen on its own.
In the weeks preceding the Primary, they introduced the #MHTFITN hashtag across social media, encouraged candidates to visit, and plastered their front window with candidate headshots with the dates of their visits.
All their hard work seems to have paid off.
The store has been open for less than three years and Pasley says their energy is changing as they continue to grow.
He says they’re experiencing a surge of event requests since FITN and their calendar is full of meetings and public events that will bring people in.
But today is a slow day.
Pasley looks around the empty store and says “This is the first time it’s been dead since Christmas.”
They’re still working their way through what works and what doesn’t but the store is bright and welcoming and between the cafe, bookstore, and events they have been increasing visibility and sales.
He says they try to be all-inclusive and want people to know that they “treat people like family and everyone is welcome here”.
Manchester has an incredible selection of restaurants, the Millyard and Currier Museums, the Palace and the new Rex Theatre, as well as artists for almost every taste and budget.
We should have a thriving downtown, but we continue to lag behind Concord, Portsmouth, and Nashua when it comes to supporting our downtown.
Some people cite parking, others crime, but looking out my office window on Elm Street l wonder if it’s just that people don’t realize how many businesses are downtown.
Jalev says it’s a lot better in the summer when he opens up the patio, but this is February in New Hampshire and the lazy, hazy days of summer are a long way away.
2/22/20 UPDATED to correct address of Shelley’s Barber Shop to 814 Elm Street and clarify that there is an Economic Development department, but that the director’s position is currently vacant.