The College’s recent expansion of its real estate portfolio on Spring Street tightens its grasp on Williamstown’s business and economic life. While projects including the new bookstore and the construction of a new Williams Inn will offer valuable services to students and Williamstown residents alike, the College’s bid for increased control over the Village Business District warrants greater scrutiny from the community.
The College currently controls much of the east side of Spring Street, leasing commercial space in College-owned properties to Pappa Charlie’s Deli, Hart’s Pharmacists, The Clip Shop, Tunnel City Coffee and Where’d You Get That!?, among other local businesses. These businesses are currently run independently from the College, but the management of these properties, including the control of rents, by a single owner presents potential challenges to fair and competitive business practices that should not be overlooked. The recent reopening of The Log as well as developments in the plans for the new bookstore and inn extend College ownership and management of businesses on Spring Street to the south and west sides of the street, escalating the potential risks associated with monopolistic practices.
Possible effects of reduced competition include limiting opportunities for new, independent businesses to enter the lucrative village business district, which Spring Street anchors. Especially high rents imposed by the College can present too large a cost to small businesses, deterring them from establishing new enterprises. In addition, the College’s enviable position as a tax-exempt non-profit with virtually unlimited capital affords it opportunities not provided to small businesses looking to enter the Williamstown market. In what would have been a sure nightmare for any entrepreneur, the College pushed its bookstore design and construction proposal through various town and College committees with little opposition as well as no capital or tax-induced impediments.
Despite these legitimate concerns, the College’s bid for increased control of Spring Street has been well-intentioned thus far and is not without some merits. The College is using its advantageous tax status and access to capital to develop the village business district and provide students and residents with improved and valuable services that may not have been developed on their own. Furthermore, the landlord stability that College-ownership provides has the potential to increase the longevity of Spring Street businesses as the tenant-landlord relationship stabilizes over time. In addition, College development can serve to increase foot traffic and economic activity in the downtown area, helping all area businesses and not just the businesses that the College manages directly or leases space to.
There is also an argument worth consideration, albeit a weak one, that claims that if the College did not own many of the commercial buildings in the village business district, chains would come in and push out local businesses anyway. Yet the town already has practices in place discouraging large chains that are not franchised from entering into business in Williamstown. Thus, the College should not be viewed as a benevolent protector of small, local businesses.
The establishment of new contracts with local businesses to supply or manage College-owned commercial enterprises, as is the case with The Log and will be the case with the bookstore, is also not a reason to champion the College’s building and business practices on Spring Street. For example, a local coffee roaster signing a contract to supply the new bookstore is very different from that same coffee supplier opening a brick and mortar store. The latter is an opportunity that is essentially erased by the former.
The College has its own agenda in acquiring and developing new properties. These projects, at times, may help some Spring Street businesses and augment the offerings available on Spring Street. In the long-term, however, such a trend of increased College ownership and control may hurt the economic vitality of the village business district as well as all consumers – students and town residents – by limiting the ability of small businesses to make their own decisions independent of the College’s wishes.
Due to the integral role that local businesses play in the community, the College should reexamine its policies in regard to property development. Expediency should not come at the expense of either public sentiment or fair business practices. Instead, the College should increase transparency in its development of Spring Street, appeal to students, community members and local business owners for input and be particularly mindful of Williamstown residents, who are here for far longer than four years.
Correction: April 19, 2016, 10:10 a.m.
A sentence of this editorial initially implied that College acquisition would decrease the Williamstown tax base. As the College does pay commercial and rental taxes on non-academic or student residential buildings, and as the recent reopening of the Log in fact has increased the tax base of Williamstown, that sentence has been removed.