Northampton Forges Ahead on Innovative Projects
Mayor David Narkewicz says Northampton is a city on the move, leading the way in arenas that range from its energy-efficiency programs to its effort to increase the number of daily Amtrak shuttles when high-speed passenger rail service begins next year, to $67 million of new projects expected to add $3.1 million to the tax base.
“We’re moving in a positive direction, and my administration is committed to continuing to build on success,” he said. “We have a strong local economy with lots of businesses, and we want to support them, reach out to new companies, and maximize the use of our developable land.”
Terrence Masterson, the city’s economic development director, agrees. He said the city’s appeal results from its mix of industry, retail shops, and cultural, educational, and recreational opportunities.
“Northampton has a lot of assets which include the benefits of a living in a rural town as well as a large, livable city,” he told BusinessWest. “It has a culturally rich downtown, is well-positioned off Interstate 91, and hopefully will soon have passenger rail service. We also have a solid educational system, and our parks and open-network system is without peer. You can live in Florence and ride your bike downtown.”
“We have a vibrant and diverse economy with lots of locally owned retail shops and restaurants; it’s one of the things that sets us apart, because it has been hard for cities to hang onto that in other parts of the country,” said the mayor. “People often say that Northampton has big-city charm, but maintains its small-town character.”
The city is also a center for healthcare, as Cooley Dickinson Hospital and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, which is planning to expand its specialty care, serve people across the region.
For this issue, BusinessWest continues its Community Profile series with an in-depth look at Paradise City, which certainly isn’t content to rest on its laurels.
Narkewicz said Northampton’s leadership is evident in its approach to eco-tourism. “We have one of the most well-developed rail trails in Massachusetts and are on the cutting edge of developing new segments,” he said, referring to the 12.5-mile route that runs through the city. “We have also done a lot of work to promote local agriculture.”
In addition to three farmer’s markets, the city has one of the largest community farms in the state. The endeavor known as Grow Food Northampton came to fruition in February 2011 when the organization purchased 121 acres of permanently protected farmland in Florence. The nonprofit is a collaborative effort, and its community garden was so successful in its first year of operation that it is doubling in size this year. The city provides funding to the Farm Education Collaborative, which presents workshops and programs at Crimson and Clover Farm in Florence to benefit schoolchildren and adults.
The mayor also notes the Connecticut River Greenway in Northampton, one of the Commonwealth’s newest state parks, which connects open spaces, scenic vistas, and archaeological and historic sites along the length of the Connecticut River.
“We’re a green community, and were among the first cities awarded green-community status by the state,” Narkewicz said. “We’re way ahead of everyone else, and our green initiatives add to what makes Northampton unique.”
He and other city officials recognize the importance of energy conservation, and to that end, the energy and sustainability initiative called Northampton Leading the Way was launched about two years ago.
“We worked with Columbia Gas and National Grid to create a business concierge program that allowed commercial property owners to make significant energy improvements to their facilities,” said Narkewicz. “It resulted in savings for them and helped add to the city’s overall sustainability.”
The city reduced its own energy costs by 27%, and the nonprofit Center for Eco-Technology conducted the outreach to businesses. The utility companies have continued to fund the program because it has proven to be a real success. “Utility costs are a major part of the bottom line for businesses, and this is also good for the environment,” Narkewicz said.
The city kicked off a second energy-efficiency initiative last month to help residents reduce utility bills and conserve energy through measures such as high-efficiency hot water and heating systems, added insulation, new thermostats, and other weatherization efforts. They can schedule free home energy assessments, and Narkewicz said the program “is another example of how the city of Northampton is helping people and the environment.”
Northampton Crossing (the former Hill and Dale Mall), which sat vacant for about 20 years, was purchased two years ago and is being redeveloped into medical offices and retail shops. The mayor said the space will become home to offices connected to Baystate Medical Center, and added that several new banks and other projects, which include a new hotel being constructed on Conz Street, are in progress.
In addition, two new buildings will offer much-needed office space in Northampton. They are located at the gateway to the city, which officials designate as the area off exit 18 from I-91 near the Clarion Hotel. An office building with 30,000 square feet of space completed about a year ago was fully leased within three months, and a second building is under construction. Masterson says the additional 80,000 square feet of office space will be a significant development for the city. “It is hugely exciting,” he told BusinessWest.
Other growth is expected as the Clarion Hotel hopes to replace its existing structure with a new building and restaurant. “Eventually the whole site will undergo a major facelift and expansion,” Narkewicz noted.
Tourism will also get a boost, thanks to a new Fairfield Inn under construction. It will add 108 hotel rooms, bringing the city’s total to 457. “It will provide more revenue and also allow more people to stay in Northampton,” Masterson said.
And work continues on Village Hill, built on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital, where space has been in high demand. Kollmorgen Electro-Optical (now L-3 KEO) relocated there from King Street, a boutique hotel is being created in a building that once housed male attendants at the state hospital, and 9,000 square feet in a new, 12,000-square-foot office building under construction have already been rented.
The projects promise to enhance the city as well improve its economy. “We are pleased not only because of the growth in economic activity, but because it will allow us to expand our tax base,” Narkewicz said, explaining that taxpayers will vote on June 25 on whether to allow a $2.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override because Northampton is facing significant cuts in service due to a $1.4 million budget gap.
Still, progress continues. “All of the projects we have going on fuel each other,” Masterson said. “But it’s critically important for us to keep adding to them, and we think Amtrak will be another way to bring large numbers of people here.”
Narkewicz agrees, and believes the anticipated commuter rail service will have a positive impact on the city. The return of Amtrak service, which will transport passengers along the west side of the Connecticut River, is part of a larger, $73 million federal project, and calls for a shift next year in the Amtrak-Vermonter’s route, which will include new stations in Greenfield, Northampton, and Holyoke.
The mayor is part of a passenger-rail advisory committee made up of stakeholders in the community who want to maximize the railway’s potential. The Knowledge Corridor Feasibility Study, which the current construction project is based on, indicates that expanded rail can generate economic benefits to a number of communities, and Narkewicz believes it could increase the number of trips between the state of Vermont and Springfield. He would also like to see service extend into New York City.
“The rail service will benefit people in terms of transportation, but will also increase the potential for business, whether the passengers are students, tourists, or people who come here for our art and culture,” Narkewicz said.
He has been proactive in promoting an increase in the number of shuttles, and sent a letter to the secretary of the state Department of Transportation last month, citing numbers from Amtrak showing that regional rail ridership has boomed nationally and locally over the past 15 years.
“We believe this new rail service will deliver many positive economic benefits for downtown/urban revitalization, tourism, residential quality of life, and business/job development,” Narkewicz wrote, adding that the letter was also signed by Greenfield Mayor William Martin and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. “It’s an issue everyone agrees with, and it will be a real thrill for a lot of people to have Amtrak trains here.”
There are also plans to rebuild the old passenger platform at the former Union Station on Pleasant Street. The new, 40-foot platform will include an awning and cover designed to complement the building’s architecture.
Narkewicz said collaborations with residents, government agencies, other cities and towns, and a number of organizations, coupled with efforts to attract new business and spur economic growth, have had a positive result.
“We are moving forward,” he concluded. “There is a lot of activity here, and together, we are making a difference.”