In a town where more than 95% of all property is residential, economic development isn’t about attracting a flood of new businesses to town — if only because there’s nowhere to put them. So Longmeadow takes a different tack.
“Our single biggest economic-development activity is the sale of single-family homes,” Town Manager Stephen Crane told BusinessWest. “So what actions can we take in the town government to sustain those sales and make Longmeadow a desirable community to live in? Foremost among those activities is maintaining our world-class school district, but there are other quality-of-life areas that demand and receive our attention.”
In simple terms, he explained, in a community so heavily weighted toward housing, the ability to provide a high level of services depends on property values.
“If property values go up, it relieves a lot of pressure. So, how do we keep property values going up?” he said, noting that, for starters, Longmeadow officials are looking to coordinate a “real-estate summit” with local agents to talk about quality-of-life matters, school issues, and anything else they see driving — or holding back — home sales.
“There are different things we can do,” he continued. “We can’t roll out large-scale economic projects, so our efforts are really micro-efforts, and there are many of them. Combined, they make a difference, though, individually, they look like pretty small things. If we do as many of them as we can, they can have a meaningful impact on the community.”
One example of that deals with foreclosed and vacant property registrations, Crane explained. “We had noticed an uptick in foreclosed and vacant homes that were causing blighting conditions on some of our residential streets, so a few years ago, we instituted a requirement that foreclosed properties be registered with the Building Department — and then we subsequently added vacant properties to the bylaw because certain homes were vacant but not yet foreclosed.”
This gave the Building Department a point of contact to ensure that such properties are being maintained, rather than having to chase down banks and management companies, he noted. “That has greatly accelerated our ability to get in touch with someone to get the blighting condition cured.”
In addition, the modest registration fee has generated revenue for the town. “It’s not a huge deal,” he said, “but if you have one of those properties next to you, it’s a big deal to you. That’s one example of how we try to sustain quality of life and the aesthetics of the community with the limited resources we have.”
That’s not to say the commercial market hasn’t been active. Fresh on the heels of a 21,000-square-foot expansion of the Longmeadow Shops last year, a memory-care facility is planned on the site of a former synagogue on Williams Street, and the former Brewer-Young Mansion is being converted to professional offices.
“They’re in the planning and design phase that will turn a single-family home into a non-residential asset,” Crane said, noting that such projects are taxable, easing the tax burden on homeowners.
Perhaps most significantly, the $11 million, 54,000-square-foot Baystate Health & Wellness Center — which will share a campus on the East Longmeadow line with a rebuilt nursing home on the site of the East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center — is starting to go up.
The Baystate project’s impact is twofold, Crane said, the first being convenience for town residents. “My guess is, if they’re able to go to that office for an appointment instead of going to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, that’s a significant savings of time.”
For the municipal government, however, it will result in significant infrastructure upgrades along the Dwight Street corridor, including street and sewer upgrades, new sidewalks and bike lanes, and improved traffic-light coordination across the town line.
“Dwight Road is a regionally significant traffic corridor,” he noted, “and when this project came up, the towns of Longmeadow and East Longmeadow worked together, with both the developer of the medical office building and the current owner of the nursing home, so the two separate projects were approached as a campus, like no town line existed.”
The project encompasses three intersections on Dwight Road — two in Longmeadow and one in East Longmeadow. Through an intermunicipal agreement, Longmeadow is managing the entire project, and East Longmeadow is receiving contributions from the nursing-home developer, which will pass through to Longmeadow to offset the cost of the street improvements.
“We get efficiencies of scale in both towns, and the traffic signal upgrades can be integrated so the corridor can have much better synchronization of signals and traffic flow,” Crane explained. “The quality-of-life amenity will be the installation of both sidewalks and bike lanes that currently do not exist.
“It’s going to be a busy summer of construction,” he added, “which is good.”
On the municipal side, the Longmeadow Department of Public Works is breaking ground this summer on a new, $20 million facility on the site of a former tennis club on Dwight Road. The town has also been investigating the possibility of building a new, combined middle school.
Longmeadow at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1783
Area: 9.7 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $24.34
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.34
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available
Meanwhile, the town has been working for several years on a solution to the outdated senior center currently housed in a former elementary school at Greenwood Park. At the May 8 town meeting, residents will vote on whether to authorize a debt-exclusion vote for a new senior center in the amount of $14 million. If approved, the project would be voted on at the annual town election on June 12.
Another way Longmeadow seeks to fund services is through regionalization, Crane told BusinessWest. One example is the two-town regional emergency communications center, or RCC, that Longmeadow is establishing with Chicopee, housed in that city’s Police Department and operated by an independent district called WESTCOMM.
“That regional RCC will enable communities that participate in the district to offer residents a higher level of service for the same or less cost,” he explained.
Town leaders are also working on establishing or joining a regional health district, of which there are currently 16 across Massachusetts. The Board of Health now provides all services required by statute, but Crane believes those services could be regionalized to create an economy of scale for the communities. “We are going to analyze existing districts to see if forming our own or joining an existing one will allow us to provide the same high level of service, but at a reduced cost.”
Atop all these ideas, however, lingers the all-important reality that home values are critical to keeping Longmeadow running, so every decision is made at least partly with an eye toward making sure, when a family moves out of town, there is demand from families who want to move in.
At least the town won’t be dealing with unexpected rising costs from the school system, Crane noted, as the children-per-household rate has been on the decline.
“When looking at projected enrollment — which the school department looks at regularly — it’s either flat or a downward trend,” he said. “Maintaining class sizes the way they are is sustainable, so I personally don’t fear skyrocketing education costs as a result of an influx of new schoolchildren. The data in that regard is pretty solid and has been for a number of years.”
There are two sides to that coin, however. The town’s buildout rate is above 90%, and close to 95% for housing, he noted, “so when we want to do a project like a new DPW or a new middle school or a new senior center, that burden is going to be shared by a finite number of properties.
“We have about 5,800 households, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever be in a place where we have 7,800 households,” he went on. “So that 5,800 properties, plus the commercial properties, have to support the town, which is why we work every day to make sure our tax dollars go as far as they possibly can. For us, it’s a simple question of balancing the efficiency and quality of services.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com