Friday, March 27, 2009

Public Funding Relieves Scarcity of Teen Jobs

Boston will spend almost $9 million this year on summer jobs for young people ages 14-24. The announcement about jobs funding took place today at the Mission Hill Main public housing development in Roxbury.

Helping to pay for the jobs over the next two years is more than $21million in funding for Massachusetts from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition to the stimulus money, the state’s providing almost $10 million from the YouthWorks program and public safety funds. Boston's level-funding its contribution to summer jobs this year at $4 million.

Mayor Thomas Menino says the funding will provide Boston with 5,000 jobs. To meet a goal of 10,000 jobs, the city hopes once again for additional support from the private sector.

City officials say they still need to find jobs for as many as 4,000 more teens. The city’s job registration period ended March 16.

“Eight thousand young people applied to the HOPE Line this year,” said Menino. “That’s why we need the private sector to step up to the plate.”

Menino says public funding for summer jobs is “favorable” compared to amounts in past years, and Governor Deval Patrick noted increases in summer job spending by the state since he was elected. But his Secretary of Labor & Workforce Development, Suzanne M. Bump, says the overall job market for teens across the country is at a 60-year low. She said teen employment was currently at 38%, and 21% in low-income communities.

Applicants and employers can get more information about the YouthWorks program by calling 1 866 968-8461 . Also: information about jobs for teens from low-income families provided by ABCD.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Retail Districts Try to Survive Recession

On Newbury Street in the Back Bay, even parking tickets are down.

As an enforcement officer puts it, “Everybody’s being smart.”

They might also notice the window signs offering steep discounts, by as much as 60%. Most of the shops and stores along the upscale retail artery are still open, but vacancies are on the rise. Flanked by the glow of survivors, the dark pockets of empty space are hard to miss. So are the rental signs, some of them fronting lit-up interiors with bare shelves.

An agent with the C. Talanian Realty Co., Tom Brennan, says it’s normal for Newbury Street to have more vacancies and turnovers at the end of winter, though he acknowledges, this year, the number is “more than usual.”

“We are in a recession now,” says Brennan. “There are a lot of businesses on Newbury Street that are marginal and not surviving.”

Some of the recent departures include a fashion boutique, Whim, and a home furnishing boutique, Comptoir de Famille, but also the more familiar national clothing chain, Gap.

The president of the Newbury Street League and owner of the G2O Spa & Salon, Joyce Hampers, agrees the vacancies reflect the season and the economy, though she recalls more vacancies during the last downturn, about six years ago.

“It’s probably more the fact that everything is down,” she said, “and the fact that Newbury Street is not able to escape it completely.”

Like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, another high-end retail district slowed by the economic downturn, Newbury Street relies heavily on the buying power of visitors. And, to judge by figures from Boston area hotels, visits are down, especially bookings for the most expensive rooms.

If the downturn on Newbury Street is largely global, the president of the Back Bay Association, Mainzer-Cohen, says it might be made worse by the run-up in the area’s commercial property values, resulting in higher rents for retail tenants.

“My guess is that there are going to be more closings,” she said, “and some landlords will have to rethink what they are charging people. And some already are.”

Mainzer-Cohen says the potential for recovery might also be hampered by the long-running conflict between retailers and preservationists. The Back Bay Architectural Commission is working on new design guidelines for the commercial area. Mainzer-Cohen wants them to allow more large windows and to require fewer embellishments such as planters. In other words: more display and less clutter (whether planters or sandwich signs on the sidewalk).

But Mainzer-Cohen says it might also be wrong to predict the summer on Newbury Street based on how it looks in March. So does the CEO of C. Talanian Realty, David Coughlin. He says some retailers report a pick-up in business in recent weeks, and he says there are “a lot of people looking” at possible rentals.

“We need to react to the tenant market,” he said. “We’re not going to sit on space that’s empty.”

Should there be an upswing anytime soon, and should there be less restriction on retail display, Newbury Street won’t necessarily be more like a suburban mall. That fear has been increased over recent years with the influx of national chain stores. But Coughlin says there will be fewer of those tenants surviving the downturn.

By comparison with Newbury Street and the stretch of Washington Street from Downtown Crossing to School Street, vacancies are more difficult to spot in Boston’s other retail centers, even in neighborhoods with high rates of housing foreclosure.

In Dorchester’s Codman Square, on Washington Street, retail vacancies are scarce. Further along the street, past Four Corners, there’s even some business growth. What began as a women’s clothing boutique, Mod Boston, has expanded with space for men’s clothing.

Mod Boston Manager Shantae Romain says most of the store's customers are from Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, with some from the suburbs. The store also does business online. If business is slow everywhere because of the economic slump, operators of Mod Boston can at least look forward to reasons for buying, whether it’s spring break, parties, or a job interview. They can also look forward to more traffic from a new commuter rail stop close by.

Located near another stop on the same commuter rail line is the clothing store, Final Touch With Class. Owner Danny Hardaway talks about expectations from the high volume of potential shoppers, whether from trains or from the four lanes of traffic along Morton Street.

Hardaway envisions a cluster of shops and other businesses, like in Greenwich Village. And his strategy is to divert more customers from malls by offering more services, even classes in etiquette. His schedule includes a hat show in April, but it will take more time before the adjacent site of a long vacant former police station is redeveloped as housing.

At Dudley Square, vacancies are hardly abundant, but some are noticeable. Like so many stores that mainly sold recorded music, Funky Fresh Records has closed, despite a last minute upsurge in community support.

Another fixture in Dudley Square, A Nubian Notion, has downsized, after vacating space that was used for a gift shop in the renovated Dartmouth Hotel building. While the renovation has been acclaimed for improving the look of Dudley Square, the retail tenants are faced with higher rents.

The director of the Dudley Square Main Streets program, Joyce Stanley, says there have been some other recent closings in retail district, though not necessarily because of the downturn. And she says there has also been some growth, especially in businesses run by Somali immigrants.

Dudley Square’s also scheduled for new development. Last September, the city invited designs for a new municipal office building on the site of the old Ferdinand’s Furniture complex. The project has raised hopes for new customers, and some apprehensions for current businesses. The project hinges on plans to build a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront—which, in turn, would entail redevelopment of the current site of City Hall in government Center.

In the meantime, according to Stanley, some businesses that survived earlier downturns in Dudley Square are adapting, even by reducing their product line. And she says their chances are better if they own their commercial property.

“All of the merchants are saying their business is down,” she said. “It’s really slow.”