Greenfield’s Location, Technology Aid ReinventionAs a former economic-development director for 13 years with the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass., Robert Pyers was consulted several times by various Greenfield municipal employees about growing the town at the intersection of Interstate 91 and Route 2. The answer was always the same.
“We told them you’re not going to get any traction on anything until you change your system of government,” said Pyers, now Greenfield’s economic development director, a position he’s held since Mayor William Martin unseated Greenfield’s first mayor, Christine Forgey, in a write-in campaign in 2009.
Forgey served two terms after the town applied for, and was granted, a city form of government in 2003; under her leadership and, now, with four full years under Martin’s guidance, the city’s unemployment rate has fallen from 8.3% to 6.7% — lower than both the Commonwealth and the nation, Pyers said.
“We’ve been very successful since converting from the selectman style of government to mayoral; it changed things because you have greater impact in terms of designing your business plan,” he said, noting that a mayor’s decision comes much faster than the colliding opinions of select board members and their executive council. “In the old system, it was very difficult for decisions to be made because there was always a naysayer.”
The critics are far fewer these days, Pyers continued, because the city is seeing traction in many areas, like a visible solar farm on a capped landfill and the invisible addition of underground broadband for high-speed Internet, VoIP, (voice over Internet protocol, which facilitates multi-media sessions over online networks), and future wireless Internet for businesses and residences.
“Reinventing itself” is how Martin characterizes Greenfield’s current efforts to become self-sustaining, just as it used to be just after the Civil War through its own gas and electric companies, which were sold to larger corporations in the 1930s. The mission is to now return to that efficient and environmentally sound existence.
“We’ve always had this opportunity, surrounded by rivers, roads, and land,” he said, “and we’ve got quite a population that is interested in sustainability and active in cooperatives — in fact, we’re the city with the most number of cooperatives in Massachusetts — so everyone contributes to the economy, the culture, and the governance. It’s wide-open; every opinion is valued.”
The reinvention of Greenfield, which is central to almost a half-million residents within a 25-mile radius, is possible, both told BusinessWest, because of the city’s best natural attribute: its location.
Greenfield has historically prospered in its Upper Pioneer Valley setting as a nexus for walking the famous Mohawk Trail — which became the well-traveled Route 2 that crosses over I-91 — and connecting with roads that lead to Boston, Springfield, Albany, and even Montreal, Martin said.
Revitalized Amtrak passenger service coming online along the Connecticut River in the next year, Pyers added, will help the city — the administrative center of Franklin County — continue to act as a net importer of diverse forms of labor, including manufacturing, retail, tourism, and public-services jobs.
“In the old-fashioned sense, Greenfield is the county seat,” Pyers explained. “We’re the center of the population and the center of all public services, as well as employment.”
For this issue’s Community Spotlight, Martin and Pyers explained how those in Greenfield are using this central location, and the transportation and new technology it supports, to spur future growth in a number of different ways.
Investing in the Future
Of Greenfield’s 9,500-strong workforce, 8,500 of those live in town, Pyers said. But a couple of years ago, the town lost a growing IT firm called HitPoint that moved to Amherst because the infrastructure it needed just wasn’t available in Greenfield. Once in Amherst, HitPoint grew from 10 employees to 35. Pyers said that isn’t going to happen in Greenfield again.
To that end, Greenfield, in partnership with the Department of Public Utilities, is in the last stages of approval to create what’s called a Municipal Aggregate Plan, providing the town with affordable high-speed Internet, broadband, and VoIP, preparing a level, high-tech playing field on which new and existing businesses can grow.
The project is being tackled in conjunction with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Martin said the MBI has the authority to invest up to $40 million in state capital funding for broadband-related infrastructure and improvement projects. The MBI works closely with municipalities like Greenfield, broadband service providers, and other key stakeholders to create new, statewide digital opportunities. To that end, the MBI has ‘ringed’ Greenfield with seven miles of broadband, with access to about 25 large buildings, said Martin.
The three-phase effort will begin with updating the town’s current IT infrastructure; phase two will expand that hard-wired infrastructure to 25 more major businesses, and the third will benefit the public in the form of free wi-fi — downtown first, and then further outside the town center. Part of that effort involves a promising study by the Franklin County Council of Governments regarding the feasibility of a proposed Internet interconnect facility for a city-owned, 100-acre brownfield-turned-industrial park abutting I-91 — essentially a server farm and switching station for other providers.
As the city solicits private developers, Pyers said, there are two benefits: spinoff businesses that need to be located near high-speed connectivity, and the fact that the extremely expensive mechanics on the property would be privately owned — and the largest taxpayer in Greenfield.
Additionally, when Martin was elected in 2009, he immediately took advantage of the Green Communities Act of 2008, legislation that encourages investment in renewable energy. During the recession, Greenfield was able to build a revenue-generating, 17-acre solar farm on a capped landfill, and is instituting new energy upgrades for residential properties through a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program by working with the Department of Energy Resources. By mid-spring, the plan will allow Greenfield to purchase all the electricity for the town’s businesses and residences.
“It won’t cost the town anything, just our investment in looking for the best deal, which should be lower than any other entity, and our distributor, Western Massachusetts Electric Co., will handle house calls and billing,” Martin explained.
While a small community like Greenfield can’t influence the economy, it can prepare its infrastructure and sustainability efforts for when the national and state forecast picks up, said Pyers. “So we’re concentrating on making our investments in things that will make the cost of production in Greenfield, and for service industries, much more competitive.”
Regardless of the industry, businesses take seriously both cost of production and availability of high-tech services, and both Martin and Pyers said several Greenfield firms will immediately benefit from the city’s investments.
They include New England Natural Bakers, producer of granola and tofu; Real Pickles, producer of naturally fermented pickles; PV2, an installer of solar farms and solar applications for business and residential use; Argotec, producer of plastic film for other manufacturers’ applications; Bete Fog Nozzle Inc., a high-precision maker of spray guns and devices used in industrial applications; and the Sandri Company, which provides a diverse combination of energy products (its leader, Tim Van Epps, was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2013).
While Country Hyundai recently moved to brand-new headquarters in Northampton (see story on page 31), Dillon Chevrolet and Toyota of Greenfield have recently expanded in the west end of the city. More retail business development includes more than 200,000 square feet on the Mohawk Trail; a possible 100-acre parcel on French King Highway, targeted for manufacturing in the power-services industry; and a 40,000-square-foot expansion of an existing food-service business in town.
The renovation and expansion of the Franklin County Courthouse from 60,000 to 96,000 square feet is another bright spot, but one challenge will be to fill the 48,000-square-foot vacancy on Main Street left by the Juvenile Court when it moves to the larger courthouse, Martin added.
But it’s the renovation of a still-to-be-named, 52-unit boutique hotel on the upper floors of the former Greenfield Hotel, above Wilson’s department store on Main Street — one of the last remaining privately owned general-merchandise department stores — that has many excited about more rooms for business travelers and tourists, and the smart reuse of 30,000 previously empty square feet.
Scheduled to open within the next two years, the hotel will help support a new cultural-district initiative centered around the stately, but vacant, First National Bank building right off the Town Common, and the many events that the Greenfield Business Assoc., a division of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, produces each year, including the three-decade-old Green River Festival on the grounds of Greenfield Community College, which attracts thousands each July.
Residents take much pride in Greenfield Community College, Martin noted, adding that, while the city is surrounded by public and private schools, the newest addition to that list is the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, or ‘MAVA @ Greenfield,’ the first of only two distance-learning schools of its kind in the state.
As part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School, the MAVA is a K-12 public school, similar to a charter-school model, that operates independently under a board of trustees. Its 28 certified teachers primarily teach from a remote location using the Internet, Martin explained. Now serving 500 students, MAVA has the ability to serve up to 2,500. The state has indicated that there are approximately 19,000 resident students that would want to participate who are international musicians or athletes, have health issues, or are home-schooled students requiring hybrid classes.
Meanwhile, the MAVA is joined by the new $66 million (80% reimbursed by the state) Greenfield High School, which replaces the original 1950s structure. Classrooms will open this September to 500 students, allowing for growth up to 685, he explained. The entire new school will be fully complete by September 2015, and the original structure demolished.
“We’ll now have a combination of a 1,000-seat auditorium in our new high school and a Cultural Arts District in the downtown,” Martin added. “It’s going to be another catalyst for creating and maintaining momentum in Greenfield.”
Spreading the Word
After the high-school completion, a possible consolidation of public-safety departments, the need for a new senior center, and refurbishment of other 75- to 110-year-old structures are all up for discussion. As those plans develop, the return of improved Amtrak passenger service — for trains topping 75 mph, running between New York’s Grand Central Station and Montreal — will allow more people to discover a reinvented Greenfield.
“When people come into Greenfield, they have that ‘wow, this is quite an interesting place’ type of response,” said Martin. “We’re hearing that more and more, and that spreads the word.”
While the physical changes in Greenfield include new building facades on Main Street that replaced older ones, the city’s biggest changes in the works can’t be seen because they’re either underground, in the form of broadband, or soon to be in the air, as wireless Internet.
“There’s a new vitality, and we’re moving at a different speed now,” Martin said. But while he’s always striving to create a more efficient city, Greenfield — true to its heritage as a county seat — also continues to benefit in every way from its advantageous natural setting.
“Obviously, the Mohawks, the Iroquois, the settlers, and the colonists all noticed the location,” the mayor said. “It’s location, location, location — so let’s use it.”
Greenfield at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456 (2010); 18,168 (2000)
Area: 21.9 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: 20.72
Commercial Tax Rate: 20.72
Median Household Income: $38,219
Family Household Income: $46,412
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Argotec, Bete Fog Nozzle Inc.
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Elizabeth Taras can be reached at email@example.com