Hampden Thrives on Community Partnerships
Rebecca Moriarty, executive director of the Hampden Senior Center for the past 11 years, equates this small, rural community to the TV show Cheers: a place where everybody knows your name.
“Everybody just knows everybody, and everybody pulls together,” she told BusinessWest. “If somebody gets sick, it’s phone calls, letters, cards; everybody is asking what they can do to help. It’s just a great community.”
That last phrase is one heard often in this town, which borders Connecticut, East Longmeadow, and Monson, but is most closely associated with the community just to the north. If fact, the town was originally known as South Wilbraham when settled in 1878; it would eventually take its own name, but the history — and the links — to Wilbraham run deep.
Even after Hampden became its own entity, separate from Wilbraham, “we’ve always been joined at the hip,” said John Flynn, chairman of the Hampden select board and co-owner of Hampden Engineering Corp. in East Longmeadow. “And we enjoy a terrific relationship with Wilbraham. In fact, we were invited to be a part of their recent 250th celebration because, for a number of those years, we were part of them.”
The towns, through the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, share grades K through 12 (Hampden funds approximately 25%, while Wilbraham funds 75%), including the new Minnechaug Regional High School, which opened its doors in 2012.
Hampden currently has a three-member select board, planning board, and other boards that, in addition to paid department heads, run the town through elected and appointed volunteer roles. The selectmen oversee a $10 million budget, a single tax rate, and a recent bond to cover road improvements. The population, roughly 5,000, has remained steady for the past few decades, following a surge in the mid- and late ’80s with the construction of several new subdivisions.
One such enterprise — the currently shuttered Hampden Country Club — has become a source of speculation and anticipation. The club has been closed for nearly two years now as new ownership undertakes a broad renovation and new-building project, with all eyes focused on the spring of 2015 and the start of a new era for one of the town’s landmark businesses.
For this installment of its Community Profile series, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on a quiet town that is a community in every sense of that word.
Room with a View
One of the most visible business ventures — literally, because it sits high on a mountain, and figuratively, because everyone’s watching it — is the 295-acre Hampden Country Club purchased at auction for $1.4 million in early 2012 by the Antonacci family, owners of USA Hauling & Recycling Inc. of Enfield, Conn.
Guy Antonacci, a golf pro and now owner and general manager of the 18-hole course, told BusinessWest that what first caught his attention, and that of this father, were the stunning views from the clubhouse. But what they could also see was vast potential in a club that had been struggling in the years prior to this acquisition, and thus what had been an eight-year search for a golf operation to add to the family’s business portfolio came to an end.
The process of writing the next chapter in the club’s history has been long and sometimes challenging, said Antonacci, but Hampden officials have been instrumental in moving the plans forward.
“The town has been awesome, very open about it, and it seems they can’t wait for it to go up,” he said, adding, with a laugh, that “it seems that everybody I talk to was married here.”
“So far we have 100% of 12 holes completed, two are partially done, and the other four will be finished next year,” said Antonacci, adding that other amenities will include a pool, tennis courts, paddle tennis, and a driving range.
“The golf course has the potential to become something very special,” he told BusinessWest. “In my mind, it can be one of the top golf clubs in the state, maybe even better.”
As the course construction continues, the mild-mannered Gary Mayotte, owner of Village Food Mart in the center of Hampden, is content to provide what he calls the freshest and most competitively priced meats and deli products in his small grocery store. He is a member of the Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA), an organization of independent grocers across the U.S. dedicated to helping local, family-owned grocery stores remain strong in the face of growing chain competition.
Mayotte, who has owned and managed the 4,500-square-foot store for the past 27 years, describes the IGA as a “company with a conscience.” And a loyal clientele eases his concerns about big-box competition.
“I can’t stress enough how much they’ve helped a small guy like me,” he said, referring to town residents, adding that he really has little competition with larger grocery stores, with none within a six-mile radius. He employs 25, including three full-time butchers for his popular meat department, and purchases as much locally produced and in-season food as possible.
Mayotte gives back in a variety of ways, but the most popular vehicle has been the Minnechaug Booster Club card, which sells for $10 (with all of that going to the school) and entitles holders to discounts with a number of participating businesses.
The 5% discount that the card brings at the Village Food Mart amounts to hundreds of dollars in savings a year for the store’s regular customers, said Mayotte, who said his participation allows him to reward those patrons and help the town at the same time.
“It allows me to offer a customer-appreciation card and still support the school,” he noted. “And I think it’s important to reward our loyal customers.”
What Mayotte is far less willing to talk about are his Good Samaritan efforts that get less press or attention, but that many in town have personally witnessed.
“He’s one of those businesses that goes above and beyond,” Moriarty told BusinessWest. “He has a schedule for deliveries on a certain day of the week, but if someone calls and they’ve been sick or broken their leg, he’ll say, ‘no problem’ and pick what they need off the shelf and deliver it to them. His last-minute help is really personal.”
Moriarty offered another example of good-neighbor relations. She’s received a few calls over the years from the Village Food Mart about seniors who are in need for someone to help get them home. “It’s this community partnership in which we all work together that makes Hampden what it is.”
She also described Hampden as a small community with a very vibrant older adult population. “We keep the senior center in a ‘home-away-from-home’ feel with the fireplace and the library, and we have people come in and have their coffee and read the morning paper. It’s a place to have a routine.”
Moriarty said there is not much she’d change about Hampden, but admits that, due to its almost 20 square miles of rural territory, getting around can be challenging for those seniors who can no longer drive.
Without a PVTA bus route, she explained, many of those older adults have to rely on volunteers or the generosity of residents to help. However, the town has partnered with the East Longmeadow Senior Center for a regionalized transportation program called the Two Town Trolley. That does help a bit, but funding is always an issue.
All for One
Flynn, who could be called a third-generation selectman — his grandfather served on the board for 22 years, and his father for 33 — said the ongoing challenge for Hampden, and most all communities like it, is balancing needs with available tax revenue and keeping the community both affordable and livable.
“Our biggest challenge is balancing our needs versus the revenue. Everybody has a need, which is valid, but the reality is, we also have taxpayers who are just coming out of the biggest recession in 70 years, so we cannot be increasing the bill on them,” he told BusinessWest. “Everybody wants more services, but you have to be pragmatic and run the town like you do your home.”
Elaborating, he said this is possible with the town-meeting format of governance, a system he called the “purest form of democracy,” and one that has served the town well for nearly 140 years.
“It’s their [residents] choice of how they want to spend the money,” said Flynn. “We tell them, ‘here’s our plan,’ and they can accept it or amend it, but we back it 100%.”
During those important discussions — some more difficult than others — good neighbors reach for the same goals, he said. And it certainly helps that everybody knows your name.
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at email@example.com