Senate Report Finds Retailers Impeded by Zoning, Lack of Predictable Policy
BOSTON -- Many of the most successful shopping districts in Massachusetts were built decades ago and would not be allowed under current zoning rules, according to a Senate task force report that examined the state’s retail industry.
The Massachusetts Senate Task Force on Strengthening Local Retail, which released its final report Wednesday, listed numerous barriers to those in the retail business and a lack of attention, in some cases, from policymakers.
“The Task Force finds that the retail industry is often not seen as a strategic sector for the state, and therefore [is] underrepresented in workforce grants, and business initiatives,” the report states. About 3 percent of Workplace Training Grants went to retail businesses, and the teen employment initiative YouthWorks placed about 3 percent of its participants in summer retail jobs in 2016, according to the report.
Retailers in Massachusetts “struggle with increasing costs, and decreasing sales,” and many of the most vibrant retail centers - “dense village and town centers” with a variety of businesses - could not be built under current zoning laws.
“In many cases, the center cannot expand given restrictive zoning,” the report found. “Retailers testified that easing zoning requirements could help drive consumers to shopping centers and downtowns, and allow for more livable, walkable communities.”
Those looking for ready-made solutions to Bay State retailers’ woes still might find the proverbial shelves bare. Senators previously explained that the report would not spell out recommendations.
Sen. Michael Barrett, who serves on the panel, said back in May when the task force discussed its draft report that issuing specific recommendations was not part of its purview. “The press will be frustrated. They’ll want us to make the call on issues like the tax holiday, like the training wage, and if we’re not prepared to make the call, we need to clarify that,” Barrett said at the time.
The task force was led by Westport Democrat Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Plymouth Republican Sen. Vinny deMacedo.
“Now that the Task Force’s work has concluded, I look forward to working with my colleagues to explore ways the state can support retail business growth, and ensure retailers remain a core part of our Commonwealth’s foundation,” Rodrigues said in a statement.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, wrote on Twitter that the report was “well thought out.”
The association is poised to place on the ballot an initiative petition asking voters whether to reduce the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent and institute an annual sales tax holiday.
Retailers support the sales tax holiday, which has been adopted most years over the past decade on an ad hoc basis, as an “important promotional tool,” according to the report, which found that uncertainty regarding the sales tax holiday can be burdensome.
“Retailers need adequate time to properly budget and plan their promotional campaigns for the holiday,” the report said. “They also must order extra inventory far in advance for the holiday, and often get saddled with excess supplies if it is not adopted.”
Internet sellers have increasingly rivaled brick-and-mortar retailers and there are other challenges that appear outside of Bay State policymakers’ control. Generation X is now “in its prime consumption years,” but Americans of that generation number far fewer than Baby Boomers when they were in their buying prime 18 years ago.
Millenials are buying homes later in life, have reduced disposable income because of student debt and rising living costs, and they “prefer to spend money on experiences rather than goods,” the report said.
While the future appears rocky for main street retailers, the report did note a bright spot for Massachusetts compared with the Granite State - where shoppers pay no sales tax.
“Exceeding its pre-Great Recession peak, retail employment has grown faster in Massachusetts than in New Hampshire,” the report said.