READING – Her position is Economic Development Director and her Master’s thesis was entitled “Comparative Analysis of Maori of Aotearoa and James Bay Ceree of Eeyou Istechee Cultural Heritage Values and Political Histories of Land Tenure Systems.” But her UMass Amherst days didn’t prepare Erin Schaeffer for a question from a longtime – and maybe nosey – resident/journalist.

What’s going on with the old Walgreens on Main Street?

In truth there were other questions too, like Haven Street stores Rite-Aid, the Old Reading Butcher Shop, and Subway. A nosey neighbor? Or a seasoned reporter needing a story during Christmas week? Probably a little of each.

In a Zoom call Monday, Schaeffer was joined by Reading’s Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios and Director of Administrative Services/Ombudsman Matt Kraunelis. During recent Select Board meetings Delios and Schaeffer have been upbeat and excited about what lies ahead for Reading. But a drive around downtown might suggest otherwise. And what about the old Walgreens?

“You know how many times I’ve sat in meetings about this,” said Delios of the drug store that has been closed since 2014.

Actually, no.

“Many. Many, many, many meetings. When the property was sold, we worked with the new property owner. We gave lots of ideas. The stuff that we do is probably not visible because we’re trying to shape things and move things forward that we think the community can support and that would work for the different properties. And that’s what we did when this property changed hands.”

Despite the town’s efforts, Reading isn’t high on Walgreens’ to-do list. In fact, said Delios, the Deerfield, Ill., company knew little about Reading, despite the presence of the current store on Bolton Street.

“It’s a dot on a spread sheet for a big company like Walgreens. It’s of no consequence. Bob [LeLacheur] has reached out to them personally when this whole thing started, however many years ago and they said we don’t even know where Reading, Massachusetts is. We’re looking at a spreadsheet of property and stores and we know we have to keep paying rent and that’s that.”

One of the discount Dollar stores – Delios couldn’t recall which one – had an interest in the store a few years ago but that fell through.

As anyone driving down Haven Street has seen, the transition of the old post office to the new development, Postmark, is nearing completion. Postmark includes retail space. Which means that an area that already has empty stores, is adding even more empty stores. What gives?

“I would argue, and I’m excited to say, that we have some interest in those properties,” said Schaeffer. “I would say we’re really excited that we have a lot of interest in the town of Reading. In particular I know it’s a really challenging time because of Covid and particularly for our local businesses. However, there are some other businesses that are interested in expanding or are in the process of expanding, which is exciting. We also have some other businesses in the region that are looking to move into Reading as a strategic opportunity. So, we’re seeing a lot of things are happening in Reading.”

Schaeffer wouldn’t say what businesses are eyeing Reading, mainly because it’s not good business to make announcements before anything is official. Delios also jumped into the issue of empty store fronts.

“When you see an empty store front that doesn’t necessarily mean that the location or the property is failing in some way. Like with Walgreens, there’s something else going on. Like with Subway, there’s something else going on. Like when D’Amici’s left, guess what, something else happened. Sometimes we get a peek into what might be going on there, like we know something might be going on at Subway but we can’t say what that is.

“We rezoned the whole downtown back in 2009 to have more foot traffic, more commercial activity, more mixed use and that is exactly what is happening now in 2020. It’s not visible right now when you drive by or walk by, but it’s in the works.”

One thing that is visible is construction. Just down Main Street from Bagel World is an area buzzing with activity. That empty lot will soon be the site of three-story multi-family housing.

There’s no news on the old Rite-Aid building, which is owned by something called the 25 Haven Street LLC. As for the Butcher shop, which closed in 2016, Schaeffer said a “cyber security company” showed interest in that space but currently she believes it’s on the market again and available for lease.

And Subway?

“There is some interest in that property and that’s all I can say,” said Delios.

Often times there’s little the town can do to influence what business fills a space. Would you rather have Sense of Wonder back on Haven Street or another nail salon? If the business doesn’t need a permit, except for maybe a new sign, there’s little the town can do.

“A lot of times when businesses come and go, they might not even need a building permit,” said Delios. “When people come to the town for permits and we are able to look at what the impacts might be and we have a very collaborative process, when they come to apply, that’s when we get involved. Is the site going to work? Are the codes going to be met? There’s a pretty high bar for what goes into reviewing a new business going in.”

One of Reading’s most successful businesses, Bagel World, was back in the news recently as the Main Street fixture known for great bagels and terrible traffic went before the Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) looking for ways to stay out of the police log.

Delios thinks this is a great first step in resolving an issue that has plagued the town and police for years.

“Oh ya. What I hope will happen is that they’ll come up with an even better plan than they’ve proposed. And CPDC is really good at getting to that point with applicants.”

Back to those vacancies. Not surprisingly, Delios and Schaeffer share the same feelings about those empty buildings.

“Every community has some sort of level of vacancy,” said Schaeffer. “A lot of businesses are really having a hard time with Covid and I totally get that. At the same time, we’ve been really proactive in responding to needs. For example, I applied for a grant and received $210,000 this season to help our local businesses thru some CARES Act funding … Many businesses have benefited from that. We’ve provided additional business resources, incentives, workshops, programs, expanded partnerships, particularly with the Chamber. So, I am optimistic in that way because there’s a lot more going on than just vacancies. Unfortunately, we have a few vacant spaces but I wouldn’t say they’re vacant in my eyes because we have so many opportunities and businesses really looking at Reading. We’re very lucky in that way. That’s why I’m optimistic.”

Delios reminds residents how far the town has come.

“If you go back about 10 years, the MF Charles building was vacant, on the corner of Main and Haven. Before I came to work for the town, I took on a ride with my husband and walked around the downtown and there was nothing. I mean, boarded up buildings … talk about vacancy. The Atlantic was closed. This was the impetus for becoming a smart-growth district, to get these buildings into productive use.

“Now you can see with all the construction that’s happening and all the new buildings that have come on that Reading is a desirable place. As we’ve introduced more residential, more commercial, they’re both going to feed off each other. There’s going to be more people living downtown, more people patronizing the businesses downtown, and more synergy with a walkable community. And that’s really what we planned for. It’s just going to take a little more time, I think.”

Much of the work being done is detailed on the town’s website. From ReImagine Reading to Available properties/land, there’s a lot for business owners to look at on the Economic Development page. For many, it’s the starting point for investing in Reading.

At the May 20 Select Board meeting, in a discussion about Walkers Brook Drive, the town manager mentioned axe throwing coming to Reading. There’s already an Urban Axes in Somerville.

Could that be one of those exciting new businesses looking at the town? When is Urban Axes coming to Reading? Come on guys, give me something. Laughter was followed by a “who knows.”

We’ll take that as a maybe.

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