NASHUA — There’s a lot of talk on Main Street about the changing face of downtown Nashua, and a sign left in a newly vacant storefront is adding to the conversation.
The message, written on a blackboard in pink chalk at what up until Christmas Eve was Jackie’s Diner, reads, “Due to the corruption between the city of Nashua and Main Street Methodist Church five businesses will be displaced by eminent domain without any compensation so that the city can have another parking garage.”
Jackie’s Diner, Celebrations Catering, Chuck’s Barber Shop, American Tattoo and Showtime Computers learned in October that their landlord, the Main Street United Methodist Church, decided to terminate their leases in December 2014. The church plans to demolish the one-story building where the businesses are located as part of a multi-year, $2 million renovation project.
According to the church’s presentation of the project, “The centerpiece of phase one is a new grand entry unifying our church and education buildings and providing accessibility to all. … We will increase our visibility on Main Street through removal of the storefronts in front of the Wesley Building.”
The announcement caught all five business owners by surprise.
“At first, we all did feel like the mayor wanted us out,” said Susanne Reynolds, owner of Chuck’s Barber Shop, which has been operating in the same spot since 1984.
But Reynolds said nothing was taken by eminent domain, the city did not make the decision and there’s no plan for a parking garage on the table.
“The church is our landlord,” said Reynolds. “They own the building, and they can do what they want.”
Although Reynolds said the sign in the window of Jackie’s Diner isn’t accurate, the emotions that inspired it are very real.
“Jackie’s Diner shut down for three weeks in July,” said Reynolds, adding that owner Carol Montminy redid the dining room, updated the menu and spent about $120,000 in new equipment and upgrades. “She made a gourmet kitchen in the basement.”
Reynolds said the church had to have been aware of the ongoing work at the diner, and she wonders why nothing was said then about the renovation plan, which must have been in the works.
And Jackie’s Diner wasn’t the only business to invest in the 124-year-old building owned by the church. Reynolds and the other three owners have painted, patched up leaks, repaired water damage from flooding and made other improvements.
“I never asked the church for a dime,” said Reynolds, who added she has always paid her rent and her fee for a parking space behind the building on time.
In an interview in November, the Rev. Richard Cullen told the New Hampshire Union Leader that the church’s renovation project is part of a plan to play a larger role in downtown Nashua. Cullen, however, also acknowledges that the decision to tear down the building was difficult.
Reynolds said she appreciates the work the church does in Nashua.
“They feed the homeless and they run a food pantry,” she said.
Still, she questions the decision to close five businesses and put several dozen people out of work.
Reynolds sees the church renovation as part of an overall change taking place downtown, a change that welcomes upscale businesses and shops, but is less enthusiastic about the businesses that cater to working people and the neighborhoods that border both sides of Main Street.
As for the city and the Chamber of Commerce, both have offered to help relocate the businesses while they continue to operate on a month-to-month lease with the church.
But Reynolds said she hasn’t heard much from any city or business leaders about possible sites where her shop can relocate.
“My customers are the ones fighting for their barber shop,” she said.