East Longmeadow Embraces Change, Progress

Community Spotlight

 

Denise Menard

Denise Menard says low taxes, streamlined permitting, and quality of life are all factors in making East Longmeadow an attractive landing spot.

When East Longmeadow switched from a town-meeting style of government to a Town Council and town manager, Denise Menard said the change wasn’t meant to be simply cosmetic.

Rather, noted Menard — who came on board as interim town manager in 2016 before shedding the ‘interim’ title earlier this year — creating her position and replacing the three-member Board of Selectmen with a seven-member, elected Town Council provided the momentum to launch several new municipal departments aimed squarely at improving quality of life.

That included East Longmeadow’s first-ever Human Resources department; a new director of Finance and director of Planning and Community Development; and a three-member Board of Health overseen by a full-time director.

That latter division has launched two successful vaccination clinics — to prevent flu, shingles, tetanus, and other maladies — while the town has also boosted recycling efforts, launched an innovative 911 database that collects resident information to be used by first-responders, and is looking to begin town ambulance service.

“We don’t sell widgets; we only provide services,” Menard told BusinessWest. “So we try to provide the best service we can. That’s really paramount in my eyes. I’ve had people come in and say they’re very happy with the way things are going.”

The health, emergency, and recycling services all target healthier or greener lifestyles for residents, she added, and the town’s new charter has given municipal leaders a strong foundation from which to further expand programs to benefit citizens.

East Longmeadow at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 15,720 (2010)
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.77
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.77
Median Household Income: $62,680 (2010)
Median Family Income: $70,571 (2010)
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Cartamundi; Lenox Tools; Redstone Rehab and Nursing Center

“I think we’ll see more great things in the years moving forward,” she said. “People need to know they’re valued and that their tax dollars are going to good things.”

There’s a strategy to those quality-of-life efforts that do more than make residents happy, however. A town’s amenities and services speak directly to its ability to attract new business, and so does how many barriers a town throws into their path.

“People coming into the community have a much more streamlined process now,” said Don Anderson, one of the Town Council members and a business owner in East Longmeadow for 28 years with the Cruise Store.

“We have a full-time town manager in office as opposed to a part-time board of selectmen with a town administrator who has no real power,” he went on. “Also, in terms of permitting, we now have a Building Department and Planning Department and Zoning Department under one umbrella.”

At the same time, he added, the town was wise to keep certain things intact, like taxing businesses and residents at the same rate. “That policy did not change, so that’s also a welcoming sign to outside businesses wanting to come into East Longmeadow.”

From the Ground Up

As for companies setting up shop and expanding, a few big projects have given a shot of energy to the town’s economic-development landscape.

Last year, L.E. Belcher broke ground on a 6,500-square-foot convenience store on a lot at 227 Shaker Road that was empty for many years. That project stalled when Atlantis Management Group bought out the property, but after a second round of permitting and approvals — the proposed hours will shift from 24/7 to 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day — “they seem very anxious to get started,” Menard said.

Also underway is an 18,000-square-foot medical office building at 250 North Main St. being constructed by Associated Builders for Baystate Dental Group, which will have 90 parking spaces. The dental office will occupy the first floor, and the second floor will be rented as medical or office space.

Another, more complex project in the health realm is a joint venture with the town of Longmeadow — a medical complex that will add to East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center at 305 Maple St., cross town lines, and provide benefits to both communities.

The project includes four structures on a 20-acre site: a 50,000-square-foot medical office building in Longmeadow that would be occupied by Baystate Health; a two-story, 25,000-square-foot office building in East Longmeadow; and an assisted-living facility and expansion of an existing skilled-nursing facility run by Berkshire Health.

One of the most exciting current projects, to hear Menard tell it, is the Planning Board’s discussion of an overlay zone for the former Package Machinery building at 330 Chestnut St.

“The building is in pretty poor shape, and the planning proposal is to create a mixed-use site which would have commercial, retail, and possibly small offices in the front part of the building, and above will be some residential apartments or condos,” she explained.

We don’t sell widgets; we only provide services. So we try to provide the best service we can. That’s really paramount in my eyes. I’ve had people come in and say they’re very happy with the way things are going.”

With sensitivity to the environment, the proposal includes preserving green space around the property and creating walking trails to encourage outdoor activity, she added. “There will be a real New England feel to it, and it’s going to be be a pretty upscale development. It’s shaping up to be a good project.”

Anderson noted that East Longmeadow has been home to a number of retail and restaurant ‘firsts’ in Greater Springfield, including the region’s first Boston Chicken franchise, its first Homegoods store, and its first 99 Restaurant.

“If they’re picking East Longmeadow, that says East Longmeadow has the economic range to support businesses,” he told BusinessWest. “People like the fact that the tax basis goes beyond just housing, that we can generate taxes through business as well. There’s a good balance there. When they look at a community that gives a clear message of supporting business, then businesses feel welcome. Personally, I haven’t been disappointed.”

Menard hopes others feel the same way. “People are coming to live and work and develop businesses here. We strive to be business-friendly, and I think we’re getting there.”

Spreading the Word

Change has been positive in East Longmeadow, Anderson went on, but it takes more work than just changing the charter and streamlining processes. One challenge has involved the various town departments and the Town Council learning how to work together. “People coming in fresh don’t always realize how matters before the Planning Board affect the council. Something the Board of Health might be doing may impact the Town Council as well, and we have to be aware of that.”

Another challenge has been spreading the word about how the municipal changes and new services benefit people, as local media haven’t always been diligent about covering the town’s day-to-day business.

“There has been a lack of interest in the government by the media,” Anderson said, “I saw that was happening, so I’m chairing a new commission on media relations. We’re working on strategies to find more organized ways of getting messages out to people, such as through social-media methods. We need to find modern ways to get the message out when the media is not covering us the way they used to.”

And East Longmeadow does have news to share, he went on. “Things are happening. You can drive through and see the construction going on, see properties that have been vacant for a number of years come to life, how the old Vanguard Bank on North Main Street is going to be a dentist’s office, or the interest in the old Package Machinery area. Obviously, people are attracted to this community.”

It’s a civic-minded community as well, he noted, evidenced by the 32 people who ran for the first Town Council seats last year.

“We have beautiful housing, some of the best schools around, some beautiful parks, and we have a healthy mix of commercial and residential,” Menard added. “It’s a well-rounded town with a reasonable tax rate, and people just seem to be amenable to coming here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com

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