In two months, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge that leads from Holyoke into South Hadley Falls will be closed for a day for a “River Roll and Stroll” event.
The family festival is designed to promote healthy living and is being co-sponsored by the Holyoke Bike-Pedestrian Committee and the South Hadley Bike-Walk Committee, a grass-roots effort to help promote recreational opportunities for bicyclists and pedestrians.
“The River Roll and Stroll will give people a look at the Falls and allow them to see the potential that exists while providing an economic boost to businesses there,” said Mariann Millard, co-chair of the event steering committee and chair of the South Hadley Bike-Walk Committee.
One of their goals is to make people aware of the natural resources and hiking trails that wind through conservation land in the town, which will help to expand efforts by town officials who believe increasing recreational opportunities will foster the growth of economic investments.
“We don’t have a rail trail, but want to show the public what we have to offer,” Millard said, adding that the South Hadley Falls Neighborhood Assoc. has put together a walking map of the area that highlights historic buildings and the Bicentennial Canal Park that overlooks the Connecticut River.
The newly created map; River Roll and Stroll on May 7, which was initiated by Sean Condon of Holyoke; and upcoming annual FallsFest Music & Arts Festival on July 29 that attracts thousands of people are part of a growing force aimed at introducing newcomers to the Falls and promoting economic development there.
“We believe the strategic use of public funding and local enthusiasm will encourage more people to live, visit, and work in the Falls and become a catalyst for private investment,” said Frank DeToma, a selectman and chair of the Redevelopment Authority. “Our ultimate vision is to develop a ‘canal village’ that will consist of commercial and residential establishments that capitalize on our historic canal and adjacent riverfront as well as the architectural character of some of the original buildings.”
Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said that, although the Redevelopment Authority is concerned with the entire town, bringing new life to the Falls will provide a significant boost to South Hadley’s economy as a whole.
We believe the strategic use of public funding and local enthusiasm will encourage more people to live, visit, and work in the Falls and become a catalyst for private investment.”
Ira Brezinsky agrees and says collaborative efforts that include work by government officials and businesses have coalesced to shine a light on the Falls and attract people who might not otherwise visit the area.
“It’s an ideal time for business people who want to get a taste of the community and neighborhood to come here, and we will put our best foot forward to welcome people from throughout the region,” said the selectman, co-chair for the River Roll and Stroll, and president of Music and Arts South Hadley, a grass-roots effort that became a nonprofit last year and hosts the FallsFest.
The town has also partnered with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to map out walking trails that need improvement and places where bike lanes and chevrons are needed to increase recreational opportunities.
In addition, a five-year, $5 million infrastructure project that involves improving parks, adding benches, new landscaping, crosswalks, traffic-calming devices, and new sidewalks in the Falls is well underway. So far, $2.7 million has been spent, and this year another $1.2 million will be poured into the redevelopment effort.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at what the Falls has to offer, plans for its future, and why officials and residents are bullish on the idea of redeveloping the area.
Sullivan says the Falls is overdue for attention, and holds unlimited potential. It is less than a mile from the $4.3 million Holyoke passenger rail platform, and has centralized sewers and great access to the Connecticut River. In addition, South Hadley has its own municipal light plant, and work is being done to be able to offer secure, high-speed Internet in the future.
The Falls is also rich in history: the first navigable canal in the U.S. was built there in 1795, which made Falls Village (then South Hadley Canal) a busy shipping center and tourist attraction.
Unfortunately, its former vibrancy has been greatly diminished, mirroring what has occurred in many towns and cities across Western Mass., where businesses along riverfronts shut their doors or moved, and disinvestment slowly occurred.
But revitalization efforts began in earnest after a study of the area that was completed about five years ago became a springboard for change. As a result of recommendations in the final draft, the Falls Neighborhood Assoc. was formed, and in 2014 two important advances were made. The first was the long-awaited construction of a new $12 million public library on 2 Canal St. It was dedicated a year ago and contains meeting and reading rooms, and large banks of computers that businesses can use to conduct training classes.
The second advance occurred when a town meeting approved the creation of an advisory board to develop a comprehensive plan for the area.
The final draft is almost complete and will be presented to the public by the Redevelopment Authority, which is the name the advisory board was given, at a special town meeting held expressly for that purpose on June 7.
“A tremendous amount of work has gone into this,” Sullivan said, noting that the committee members are all unpaid volunteers.
There are many components to the plan, which include a focus on the east-west core of the area that is part of a larger, recently established ‘Smart Growth’ overlay district in the Falls.
“Developers who wish to construct relatively high-density housing in Smart Growth districts can do so by right, thus eliminating their need to apply for special permitting from a local planning authority,” DeToma told BusinessWest.
The proposed plan contains many other elements, including repurposing some town-owned properties and redeveloping a number of industrial properties.
But progress is already occurring, and the first residential construction project in decades is underway. Orange LLC is building 12 condominiums in three units directly across from the new library on 1 Canal St. that will each have their own garage and extra parking.
“This is a beautiful spot, and the Victorian look of the buildings is expected to enhance the neighborhood,” DeToma said, adding that Orange LLC also has plans to develop six other condominiums in the old library building on 27 Bardwell St. “The design is very imaginative and interesting, and there will be a great room in every unit.”
Sullivan told BusinessWest that condominiums in South Hadley have appreciated significantly over the past six months. “New ones are selling more quickly than they can be built,” he said, noting that construction on the Rivercrest Condominiums on Ferry Street began last year, and 16 of the proposed 28 units have already been sold.
Business growth has also taken place in the Falls. Over the past 18 months, Mohawk Paper and E Ink Corp. moved there, and South Hadley Fuel scrapped its plans to move out and expanded in town instead.
Sullivan explained that the decision came about in large part because Town Planner Richard Harris alerted South Hadley Fuel owner Steve Chase to an existing but unused underground tank farm near E Ink Inc., which he described as an “opportunity found.”
“As a result, they have opened one of the largest propane storage and distribution facilities in Western Mass,” the town administrator said. “We do all we can to introduce businesses to opportunities that exist here.”
Brezinsky agreed. “South Hadley and particularly the Falls has been very welcoming and engaging to businesses that want to move or expand there. We were able to steer Mohawk Paper through town meeting very quickly to get them what they needed to move here, and there are other examples like this,” he said, explaining that Mohawk Paper moved to the Falls two years ago into a group of buildings formerly known as the U.S. Gaylord properties, and opportunities exist for professional space, retail businesses, manufacturing, and incubator space.
“I believe one of the benefits of the Falls is its scale,” he continued. “It has a small footprint and is very walkable, unlike some former industrial areas where there are blocks of old buildings. The Falls never rose to those heights, so I don’t believe it will take much to get it to the tipping point where it can become a vibrant place again where people live, work, and play.”
DeToma said the northwest corner of the gateway Bridge/Main intersection is a prime location for redevelopment. It consists of three parcels owned by three different entities, but each lot is too small to be of interest to a developer.
“Our proposed redevelopment plan calls for the consolidation of those properties in order to increase their potential for private development,” he said.
South Hadley recently lobbied to have Pioneer Valley Transit Authority’s Tiger Trolley change its route. Today, it runs over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge on Route 116 rather than the bridge on Route 202. Sullivan said that was important because the Falls is densely populated and town officials wanted to provide access to jobs in Holyoke and South Hadley, especially since Mohawk Paper and Mount Holyoke College are two of the largest employers. He added that the X90A Route that runs from Chicopee to Main Street in South Hadley is one of the fastest-growing routes in the area and also goes over the Route 116 bridge.
Parks in the town are also receiving attention. The town administrator told BusinessWest that Bicentennial Park, which is situated a quarter-mile away from the new library, will be renamed Belsky Park after Ted Belsky, a longtime member of the Select Board, and $97,000 will be spent to install lighting and a deck that will overlook the Connecticut River.
In addition, the town is creating a one-mile loop called the River to Range Trail that will begin in a field near Brunelle’s Marina and offer access to people of different abilities.
“We worked with the Pioneer Valley Planning Council on this,” Sullivan noted, adding that, eventually, the trail will connect to the Summit House on top of Mount Holyoke. “We see it becoming part of a recreational economy. That market is exploding, and we are getting requests for groups for camping areas. Although we are not proposing to open any right now, we have to be cognizant of opportunities as they present themselves.”
The Buttery Brook area is another area of focus. It runs east-west and roughly parallel to Gaylord and Bridge streets, crosses under Main Street via a culvert, and empties into the Connecticut River. DeToma said it is overgrown, but the Redevelopment Authority hopes to restore it to its original, attractive condition and install a multi-use recreational path along its bank.
“There will be two benefits to this,” he explained. “First, it will be a major recreational attraction in our Canal Village central area. Secondly, because this area is part of our Smart Growth district, it should stimulate the interest of developers in constructing affordable, higher-density housing nearby.”
Plans are also in place to build a new bridge over Bachelor Brook as well as a parking lot for 12 cars. The estimated cost is $2.1 million, and South Hadley has already received almost $1 million toward that amount from state and federal grants.
Sullivan said major efforts are taking place to help people rediscover, reconsider, and reinvest in the Falls, and the Redevelopment Plan is the underpinning of the future.
“South Hadley has many opportunities; a lot of cool things are happening here,” he told BusinessWest, noting that South Hadley Electric is planning to create a hub for data storage and hired a new manager to help develop its high-speed Internet plan. “Their rates were key in bringing Mohawk Paper here, and enthusiasm about the area is growing. It has become an organic movement with its own energy, all for the benefit of the Falls.”
DeToma concurred. “The grass-roots efforts are taking on a life of their own. As we point out the value and potential of moving here, many groups are getting involved, and events like the River Roll and Stroll will help South Hadley and Holyoke to grow.”
Which bodes well for the future as residents and officials work together to bring new life to South Hadley in a way that will benefit generations to come.