If you drive around Bedford, it doesn’t take you too long to notice all the empty storefronts.
One big victim of the pandemic has been the world of retail. You don’t have to leave town to see that the retail landscape has changed a lot since the start of 2020. The two big retail shopping centers in town – the Bedford Marketplace (Whole Foods) and the Great Road Shopping Plaza (Stop & Shop) have some very visible empty stores. Home Goods, The Paper Store, Painted Burro, and B-Good are all vacant.
Bedford is not unique: The pandemic fundamentally changed the way people shop. The already common practice of online shopping became even more mainstream. Restaurants were especially hard hit during the pandemic. Some of the big vacancies in Bedford are the result of decisions that have nothing to do with our town.
Home Goods and The Paper Store were part of a corporate restructuring with both companies closing several stores. Both Painted Burro and B-Good specifically closed the Bedford locations, but still have several restaurants operating nearby. When researching this story, I came across a list of the monthly openings and closings of area restaurants, which shows that Bedford is not alone. Check Restaurant Closings and Openings in the Boston Area. Operating a restaurant has always been a tough endeavor.
I talked with Jeffrey King, Bedford’s Housing and Economic Director, to see what is happening in town and what can be done.
King agreed that the vacancies are obvious, but overall, the vacancy rate is the result of two big, visible stores being vacant at both shopping plazas. King said that the fundamentals are still very strong for retail in Bedford. Traffic, median income and the size of the workforce all point to a good environment to open a store or a restaurant here in town. He says the overall commercial vacancy rate is very low, and that the retail rate is a little higher, but the stores that are empty happen to be big and very visible.
King says the town is working on helping retailers in Bedford. One of the things he mentioned was the town sponsored a class on entrepreneurism and starting a business, recently hosted at Middlesex Community College. There are also plans to increase signage at the end of the bike path on Loomis Street to attract people to the restaurants and shops on The Great Road.
He also mentioned that his office is planning some promotional support to reach the businesses out on Crosby Road, letting the employees know what is available in town in terms of restaurants and shopping.
Here’s more of what he had to say:
1. Overall Vacancy rate
For all commercial/retail in the entire town that includes commercial services such as doctors’ offices, lawyers, professional services, dry cleaners, travel agencies, insurance, etc., the vacancy rate is very tight at .69 percent.
For retail, the rate is clearly elevated. It is hard to put a number on because there are many different submarkets in greater Boston. In addition, vacancy rates are also often broken down by type – malls, strip centers, neighborhood centers, and others. In Bedford, the high rate is driven by four spaces more than 5,000 sf: 29,000 sf and 12,000 sf vacancies at the Stop and Shop Center, 6,500 sf at Bedford Marketplace, and 7,920 sf at the Emerson Place on North Road. (Emerson Primary Care, Chestnut Dental, etc.)
It is important for those four spaces to be filled due to their outsized impact and high visibility. Once you get past those four larger spaces, the first-floor space that is available gets very tight. The good news is that the underlying marketplace demographics are very strong. This has also been told to us by the brokers as well. A number of those stores in those largest vacancies were due to larger corporate decisions and there is every belief that these will be short-term vacancies. There is also on-going investment in Bedford such as the former Papa Gino’s site, a proposed multi-unit housing project on Carlisle Road, several smaller multi-unit housing developments, and millions of dollars in funds for renovations and retrofits on industrial buildings on Crosby Drive and Middlesex Turnpike. This growth bodes well for commercial and retail support.
2. What we are doing as a Town
As previously mentioned, it is important to get these spaces filled for a number of reasons. It ultimately comes down to the brokers and property owners and available tenants looking for space, all in a competitive environment. So how do we stand out? There are several steps that we have taken:
- Develop relationships with brokers to assist with fast responses to any questions or issues they have.
- Offer excellent customer service – including to prospective tenants, whether it be permitting, zoning, finding financing, assistance with finding employees, workforce incentives, etc.
- Marketplace, demographics, and socio-economic profiles and data. We have some of this information and are in the midst of purchasing additional profiles and data which is expected to be completed in the next week. This will help brokers, property owners, and prospective tenants better understand the local marketplace.
- Increased exposure of available space in Bedford, including amount of space, location, contacts, and amenities. This is placed on our website and can be emailed on demand.
- Encourage new small business start-ups and entrepreneurs. This includes small business seminars, information on our website brochures, and making connections with resources. These may be new businesses or existing ones emerging from their home now looking for bricks and mortar retail/commercial space.
3. The future of retail and commercial in Greater Boston-Trends
Clearly, there have been two major disruptors: the pandemic and shopping online (a trend that began pre-pandemic, but then accelerated during the pandemic.) It will be interesting to see how those shake out and what the new normal will be. Hybrid workplaces seem to be one result. This will hurt urban cores the most such as downtown Boston. Possibly less for residential-heavy suburban communities such as Bedford and surrounding towns.
The projections I have seen for Greater Boston have slow, but steady growth as the area recovers from the pandemic. Overall retail growth is in the 0.5 percent range annually and then almost flat after late 2024. Also by that time vacancies are expected to very slowly tick up.
I talked to some of the tenants of the two big retail places here in town to see what they think.
Great Road Shopping Plaza (Stop & Shop Plaza)
Shirley O’Connor of Bedford Jewelers:
Shirley says it’s been slow, and the empty stores do not help, but Bedford Jewelers is doing all right. She says the jewelry industry in general had a slower than usual holiday season this past Christmas. The rent has been held steady for the last couple of years and there were a couple of potential people looking at the two empty spaces in the mall. Shirley and her brother Gordon Bishop took over the business from their parents, who started the jewelry store in 1954 in the Bedford Marketplace and then moved to their current location in 1968. She says they were ok during the pandemic, they have their regular customers. She also mentioned that although you can shop for jewelry online, jewelry is something people really want to see and hold.
Jim Morris of Peppers Grille
Jim says business is pretty good. One thing that has really picked up is the catering part of the business. More lunches are being delivered as employers are trying to entice people back into the office. Jim just applied for an entertainment permit and is planning on adding various shows. He also says they are hosting more events in the restaurant.
“If I were younger I would love to expand the space and have a stage and regular entertainment, but I’m not planning on doing that now,” he commented.
Nancy Tripodi of Bedford Florist
Nancy has been in this location for 40 years. She says business is really good. She has many clients that she has had for a long time. The two vacancies near her do obviously keep the foot traffic down. She would often have people stop in for a card or a gift on the way in or out of Home Goods. One thing she did mention is that she has a great assortment of cards, and that with the Paper Store gone, she wants people to know about what is available.
Caitlen – Learning Express
Caitlen said The Learning Express was recently acquired and the new owner is very optimistic about Bedford. She said, “We love Bedford and our location. It’s great to have the middle schoolers walk up and hang out on early release days.”
One of the toughest challenges is hiring and keeping staff, but she says they do a good job of keeping in touch with their High School staff. Caitlen also mentioned that they will be opening up the play area very soon which was closed during the pandemic. She says they are optimistic.
Natasha – Barre 3
Gyms, exercise, and dance studios were among the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic. Barre 3 moved into the Bedford Marketplace in 2017. Business had been very good; Natasha opened up a second studio in Sudbury and was doing quite well. Then March 2020 arrived and she needed to pivot quickly. She said they moved to streaming workouts almost immediately and were able to make it through the lockdown. However, she did say they closed the Sudbury studio. Her classes are coming back on, although she says they are still operating at a lower capacity to allow more room for the athletes.
Although they continue to stream the classes, Natasha says she loves her space and loves the Bedford community. She says the rents in the marketplace are high and wishes the owners of the mall would have been a little more accommodating during the shutdowns. She also says the two empty stores near her don’t help much. All in all, though, she is still optimistic.
So hopefully those stores will be filled sooner than later. Other than the return of Luigi’s (not going to happen), what would you like to see in those open stores?