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Is the downtown in trouble?

Part one of a two-part series

AYER — When the Lucky Find thrift shop on the south side of Main Street went out of business earlier this month, owner Crystal Kurtz was reluctant to give a reason why.

Instead, she listed several factors.

She’s expecting a baby and is moving to Nashua, where she hinted that another shop could be opened in the future.

Past that, downtown Ayer could really use something to draw more people to the downtown, she said. Having been part of the downtown business community for much of the past year, Kurtz noted several shuttered locations near her shop and said she’s heard rumors more are on the way.

“It’s hard for everyone right now,” she said. “I feel bad for a lot of business owners who I want to succeed. This is a lovely little town. It’s a shame.”

When its doors closed in the first week of August, the Lucky Find joined Lady Jane Flowers and Amy’s Provisions on the list of downtown stores that have closed in 2006.

Nearby, the popular Windowbox Gallery frame shop has been for sale since April.

This leads to the question of whether the downtown is in trouble or if this is part of the regular ebb and flow of business?

Edward Kelley, of Kelley Hallmark, acknowledged hearing rumors that other doors may close in the near future. Then again, he’s seen a lot of businesses come and go on Main Street in the 27 years he’s been there.

The situation is likely cyclical, Kelley said, though he confessed some concern about the shrinking number of shopping outlets.

It’s a variety of retail that Kelley has seen leave.

The grocery stores, variety shops and hardware merchants have long since relocated.

More recently, the Bookberry, which Kelley termed an anchor store, moved from the Spaulding building at the corner of Washington and Main to near the rail stop on Depot Square. While the Spaulding building was renovated last winter, it has yet to find a tenant.

In the past couple of years, downtown operations such as Academy Games and the pet shop have closed and been replaced by non-retail services. That shrinking market is a big part of Kelley’s concerns, but he could see the potential quandary for landlords.

“Everything I’ve ever learned about downtown America puts retail on the first floor and services on the second,” he said. “ (but) it’s hard for the people who own these buildings and pay taxes on them to keep it open waiting for some retail operation. There’s always two sides of the story.”

In the big picture, Kelley suggested a new economic development director/planner at Town Hall could be part of the answer. The right person could help unify downtown merchants and get them pulling in the same direction, he said.

However, outside factors taking away the downtown’s market are part of the picture as well, he said.

He noted the two investment groups that have visited regulatory boards in Harvard in recent months that are seeking to establish a grocery store/pharmacy on Ayer Road and the continued development of downtown Devens, which just added a combination flower and card shop.

If that trend continues, Kelley said it’s reasonable to assume customers from those communities will opt to shop closer to home.

“Every little piece is another nibble,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose all those clients.”

While that may be a concern for the future, Windowbox Gallery co-owner Lynne Edson signed on with the cyclical theory for now.

She listed two major factors of attrition in the downtown: startups that go under and successful, long-tenured businesses with owners looking to retire.

At this point, she’s in the latter group after 13 years in the framing business. The last nine have been in Ayer. Having relocated to Ayer just after Fort Devens closed, Edson said it taught her something about the resiliency of the downtown, and the effects weren’t as grim as originally projected.

“You should have been around here when Devens closed. People had this place buried,” she said. “We doubled our business when we left Groton.”

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