Arriving at a Crossroads
In April, Mike Vedovelli found himself in a place he wasn’t expected to be — the market for a new job. But just as the Baker administration has gone in a new direction with the Mass. Office of Business Development, which Vedovelli served as Western Mass. liaison, he has gone in one as well. He’s the new director of the Community & Economic Development for Chicopee, and believes he’s in the right place at the right time, from a career-challenge perspective.
Mike Vedovelli says he was taken somewhat by surprise in March when he was told that his services to the Mass. Office of Business Development (MOBD) were no longer required.
But he added quickly that he always understood that the job he held for more than seven years existed at the whim of whoever was governor, and when it came to the MOBD, the Charlie Baker administration decided it wanted to go in a different direction.
The ensuing, and unexpected, job search was undertaken with a mix of trepidation — Vedovelli said he had never been unemployed before — but also a certain dose of confidence that resulted from the experience amassed and contacts made while with MOBD and also while working for nearly a decade in the Community Development office in Westfield.
Together, those resume stops provided skills he considered salable to both the public and private sectors, and as things turned out, he was right. There were several intriguing calls, he noted, adding that the one that stood out came from Tom Haberlin, an economic development consultant for Chicopee, who wanted to know if Vedovelli had any interest in running the department that he once headed for more than 15 years.
To make a somewhat long story short, he did.
And in mid May, Vedovelli became director of Community & Economic Development, a relatively new title in Chicopee and a job with a wide range of responsibilities.
Discussing the sum of those parts, Vedovelli said his new assignment puts him in the right place at the right time from a career-challenge perspective. This is the area’s second-largest metropolitan area, one of the state’s so-called Gateway cities, and a former manufacturing center — everything from tires to bicycles; from golf balls to military uniforms have been produced there — that is in many ways trying to reinvent itself.
Among the projects in various stages of progress are efforts to redevelop the former Uniroyal site and the area surrounding it — a problem that has challenged officials in City Hall (including a half dozen mayors) for roughly 35 years; continued revitalization and reshaping of the Memorial Drive retail sector; efforts to resurrect a long-moribund downtown; and plans to build another industrial park near Westover Air Reserve Base.
Overall, though, Chicopee faces the same basic economic development mission as other area communities — retaining existing companies, attracting new ones, and creating more of what has become the region’s most precious commodity — jobs.And that mission dovetails nicely with Vedovelli’s work with MOBD, where he worked with businesses large and small that were looking to come to Western Mass. — or remain here despite various challenges confronting them in their efforts to do so.
Thus, he intends to call on those experiences, as well as those in Westfield, where one of his primary duties was overseeing deployment of community development block grants, as he takes on his new position.
“This position was attractive because I’m from Springfield, I know this area, I’ve done this kind of work before in Westfield, and I’m versed with local issues and matters such as community development block grants,” he explained. “And my seven years with the state enables me to bring the connections and the business relationships that I have, both on the state side, but also with commercial lenders, commercial brokers, and national and local developers.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Vedovelli about his new assignment, the many issues confronting Chicopee, and the unique perspective he brings to his latest career stop.
Arriving at the Crossroads
As MOBD’s Western Mass. liaison, Vedovelli had a large and diverse territory to cover — essentially everything from Worcester west.
Initially, he needed a GPS system to find some of the communities he was assigned to and businesses with growth issues that needed resolution. He said he eventually figured out the lay of the land, a phrase that, as he applied it, meant more than just geography.
“It was a terrific learning experience,” he said of his time with MOBD. “I learned a lot about the issues businesses are facing and what they need to reach their goals. Working with them to find ways to stay in Massachusetts and grow their ventures was very rewarding work.”
And in the course of doing it, he made a number of contacts on the local, regional, and state levels, and came to understand the value of public-private partnerships when it came to creating economic development opportunities.
When his time with the state abruptly ended, he put out some feelers, and got some phone calls and e-mails back. Some of the correspondences involved opportunities that might develop down the road, while others were more immediate and thus more intriguing.
And it was the chance to lead Chicopee’s various development initiatives that most appealed to him.
“This city is in an interesting place in its long history,” he explained. “It’s a Gateway city, and it’s facing the same issues that those other Gateway cities are facing — job creation, redeveloping old mill buildings, revitalizing once-vibrant downtowns — but it has some unique challenges as well.
“But this city has enormous potential,” he went on. “Look at a map and you’ll see that all the major highways run through it. This is truly the crossroads of the region.”
And the city has reached a crossroads in a figurative sense as well, he went on, adding that while there is some land for development — such as the Chicopee River Business Park on the border with Springfield — city officials need to ready more property for development, a reality that puts an exclamation point behind such efforts as the proposed new industrial park and efforts to repurpose the Uniroyal site.
While he has a great deal of learning still to do when it comes to Chicopee, its players, opportunities, and challenges — he’s spent considerable time in recent weeks meeting with business owners, chamber leaders, and elected officials — Vedovelli was already quite familiar with the city when he took over the large office in the space the city leases on Center Street.
Indeed, he had worked with several individual companies in his capacity at MOBD, and from those experiences came to appreciate that ‘crossroads’ quality the city possesses, something that made it very attractive to companies looking to locate — or relocate — within Western Mass.
Perhaps the best example is Menck Windows, the German manufacturer that settled on Champion Drive in Chicopee as home to its first U.S. operation.
“I had been working with the principals of that company for a while when they were trying to zero in on an area,” Vedovelli explained. “And Chicopee just hit all the right buttons.
“One of the key assets that the city has is Chicopee Industrial Light and the cost advantages they bring,” he went on while listing the many factors that went into Menck’s decision process. “Things like that are very attractive to private industry, and Chicopee has many assets like that — location, access to major highways, an inventory of desirable buildings in the industrial parks that businesses can move into, attractive commercial property tax rates compared to other cities in the area; it’s an attractive package.”
And it has appealed to other clients as well, he said, listing other companies he worked with, such as Lymtech Scientific, which landed on Westover Road, and Chemex, the coffee-maker manufacturer that relocated to the city from Pittsfield last year.
Meanwhile, Chicopee, Holyoke, and Westfield have long been part of the same consortium when it comes to federal housing funds, and the communities are in the same economic target area, he explained, adding that he has experience working with officials in all three cities.
“Long before the buzzword collaboration started getting tossed around back in the early 2000s, we were already collaborating with each other,” he explained.
Looking ahead, Vedovelli said his informal job description is to forge more of those collaborative efforts, and do more hard selling of all Chicopee’s many assets, but from a different office.
He said there are a number of economic development issues facing the city, none larger, more complex, or more historic (in every sense of that word) than the Uniroyal project.
The complex of buildings once dominated the area near the Chicopee River in the Chicopee Falls section of the city, and in many ways, it still does. Some of the factory buildings have been torn down, others are in the process of demolition, and still others, especially the administration building, are targeted for possible reuse.
Since Uniroyal announced it was closing the massive plant in 1980, the city has been involved in an ongoing saga involving everything from taking control of the property to clearing it of hazardous materials; from demolishing the various buildings to devising redevelopment plans; the site was even proposed as a possible site for a new Catholic high school (it was eventually rejected).
It’s been a complicated, frustrating, and very expensive process, said Vedovelli, adding that it is now in the critical phase where the city will attempt to address the question ‘what comes next?’
There are many possible answers, he told BusinessWest, noting that while the new Pope Francis High School is off the table (it will be built on the site of the old Cathedral High School in Springfield) most everything else still is.
That includes the possibility of senior housing or another form of residential development in the former Uniroyal administration building, which is still in good shape and fit for redevelopment.
“There’s a lot of moving parts with this initiative — it’s a work in progress,” he said, adding that a request for proposals will likely be issued for the administration building this summer, and other RFPs will follow for other parcels.
Another priority moving forward is downtown, said Vedovelli, noting that while Chicopee’s central business district is less defined — and was never as robust — as those in other communities, it has potential to become more of a destination.
“The Munich Haus has become a real draw, it brings people downtown,” he said of the German restaurant on Center Street. “We’re looking at attracting another restaurant so they can feed off one another. But overall, we need to look at the storefronts, determine what’s working and not working, and make the area more attractive.”
One possible key to progress in that area is creating more foot traffic through new housing developments, he went on, adding that while there has been little progress with regard to the massive Cabotville Industrial Park and reported efforts to convert some of its space into apartments or condos, there is more promising news on the vacant John R. Lyman mill off Front Street.
“There’s a developer who wants to place 50 to 70 live-work lofts there, which would be a really nice addition to the downtown.” said Vedovelli, adding that a larger population of people living in that area would create a need for additional service and hospitality-related businesses.
As 2015 got underway, Vedovelli could not have envisioned himself tapping a pen on an aerial photo of the Uniroyal plant five months later while discussing possible options for the site’s future. Nor would he have imagined himself mulling strategies for bringing that desired foot traffic to downtown Chicopee.
But circumstances changed the picture in a hurry, and instead of driving across a four-county region hoping to spur economic development, he’s doing essentially the same job on a smaller, yet dynamic playing field.
It’s an abrupt change in the course of his career, one that has taken him to a crossroad — literally. It is not a challenge he sought, necessarily, but one he fully embraces.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org