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Developer Edwards Says Springfield Is Poised for RebirthIt’s no exaggeration to say that Glenn Edwards is bullish on Springfield.
“I love Springfield,” the real-estate developer told BusinessWest from his New York office. “My friends call it Glennfield because I talk about it so much — how beautiful my buildings are and how great the city is, with its museums and symphony and everything else.”
The buildings he refers to comprise the Main Street block between Harrison Avenue and Falcon Drive, including Harrison Place, the Johnson’s Bookstore Building, the Northwestern Mutual Building, and several other properties, which he acquired between 2005 and 2007.
That was just before the Great Recession struck, but Edwards more than weathered that storm, reporting more lease activity in the block over the past year than he’s experienced in a long time — at a time when Springfield’s downtown is on the rise, buoyed not just by a probable $800 million casino development, but plenty of other commercial activity, and possibly plans for a UMass satellite campus.
“For me, it’s a freak of nature that it’s not successful on its own because of its location,” Edwards said of Springfield’s accessibility to Boston, New York, Hartford, and Albany. “Yes, it’s had hardships downtown, but so did Harlem, Tribeca, Brooklyn, the Back Bay, the Fens — so many places can identify.”
But Springfield has plenty going for it, Edwards said, and it’s difficult not to put the casino — which MGM Resorts International has proposed to build in the South End of the city — at the top of that list, especially now that voters in West Springfield and, shockingly, Palmer have rejected casino projects in their communities. That leaves Springfield with the only proposal standing in Western Mass. mere months before the state’s Gaming Commission makes its decisions on where to issue licenses for the gaming palaces.
“How can someone turn down a billion-dollar venture?” Edwards said of the stunning defeat of Mohegan Sun’s casino proposal for Palmer. “But I was telling everyone from day one that Springfield was the logical selection. The city is in such need of this investment.”
He compared the city’s central business district to an ocean where a whale — MGM — might splash down, raising all boats. With MGM buying up properties and business tenants facing lease expirations, Edwards hopes other landlords in Springfield get the benefit of their relocations, rather than, say, Longmeadow or Northampton.
“If we take 200,000 square feet of retail and office out of the market, it immediately changes the demand equation for space in the city, and that is favorable, no matter what MGM does,” he explained. “If MGM never builds a casino but takes 200,000 to 300,000 square feet out of the market, the market would benefit. There’s an oversupply of space right now because the population hasn’t been growing in Springfield for 30 years.”
His vision is for other property owners to absorb the displaced tenants and use the influx of capital to further improve their properties, creating more demand to do business downtown. He has already been busy making improvements to his Main Street buildings, but his sense of optimism certainly needs no polishing up.
“The only thing that could get me really shook up is if MGM is not selected by the Gaming Commission — and that’s certainly not guaranteed; there are no guarantees in life,” he said. “Other than that, my outlook is very, very positive.”
Schools of Thought
Edwards says he has long been optimistic about Springfield, well before MGM was a factor. “Over the last year, we’ve had more activity — renewals of major tenants, new prospects looking, and new leases signed — than in any other year. And this is before the demand changes with MGM taking 14 acres and all the tenants to be displaced.”
He says companies are starting to look to Springfield for its reasonable real-estate costs, compared to other cities, and noticing the improvements being made by city officials in the business improvement district, which include everything from better lighting to an increased police presence. “The streets are much safer because of what the BID and Mayor Sarno have done, and all those things are laying the groundwork for a UMass or an MGM to look at Springfield seriously and say, ‘we want to be a part of this.’”
UMass? Quite possibly. Edwards was referring to the state university system’s recent investigation into whether Springfield might one day house a satellite campus.
“We applied for the UMass location,” he told BusinessWest. “When we did, what we said was, ‘we have a bank, we have a Fedex, a sports bar, a convenience store, a coffee shop, we’ll have a sandwich shop soon.”
That eatery will replace a B’Shara’s restaurant that recently closed in the Market Place alley behind the row of Main Street buildings. “We’ve actually turned down a few prospects; we want someone who has a good vision for it. We’re not going to take the first person; we’ll wait. We turned down startups that didn’t have the capital or the knowhow.”
In the upper floors of his buildings, he added, are tenants ranging from insurance and financial-services firms to a chiropractor and a dental office. “We are like a little city by itself. We’re trying to get UMass to embrace the downtown campus, so we’re promoting the Market Place where the street is closed off. It’s immaculate and safe, and cameras and plantings from the BID have changed the whole feel of that.”
Edwards said UMass responded positively to his properties and mix of tenants, but the most important goal is simply for the university to locate somewhere downtown.
“It’s not in our control. We hope and pray they follow through and move downtown; that’s the primary goal, that we end up with UMass taking up to 50,000 square feet downtown, whether they do that in my building or in two or three buildings. That would be an ideal situation for the city, to have all those students and faculty and visitors walking around the city from building to building. We’ll take any piece of that, or no piece, but it’s just so important to keep building on this Knowledge Corridor as one component to whatever else is going on downtown, from Union Station to the Paramount to MGM and sports and concerts. We hope it comes to fruition.”
Edwards has experienced some setbacks, like when the Dennis Group, a major tenant in Harrison Place, moved out in 2009 and relocated to the nearby Fuller Block. “That was the only major loss we had, and we didn’t lose them to going out of business or relocating out of Springfield. We just couldn’t supply them with enough space.”
And he said he wanted Cambridge College, which moved into Tower Square earlier this year, to locate in one of his buildings. But he also believes that success for any downtown landlord is a positive for all property owners, because it helps build overall momentum.
“I want everyone to do well downtown. If they do well, we’re going to do well,” he told BusinessWest. “We thought we had a great location for Cambridge College. But from a psychological standpoint, I’m just thrilled that they have a campus downtown. They didn’t select me, but life goes on. I hope that UMass comes downtown, that Union Station is filled; these are all very favorable things.
“Really, what it comes down to is, people want to go to a place where something is going on; they want their customers to come to a place where something is going on,” he continued. “And Springfield has something going on right now. If I was the only one getting tenants, and no one else was getting any tenants, eventually all my tenants would leave. I can’t do this alone. Kudos to the mayor, the City Council, all the people who are working very hard to make this happen.”
Meanwhile, Edwards said he’s poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his buildings, often in ways that aren’t immediately noticeable, from elevator improvements to security cameras to high-tech wiring. “Now we’ll be spending on cosmetic things, to attract new tenants and enhance the experience of existing tenants. And I’m just one landlord. We’re all going to do this.”
It has often been a challenge to draw tenants to a downtown characterized by a shrinking population and too many commercial vacancies, but the tide might be turning; out of 260,000 square feet in Edwards’ Springfield properties, only 75,000 remain untenanted, and he’s currently negotiating over 30,000 of it.
He laughed when he mentioned his business partner, who’s 89 years old. “It’s hard to get him excited, but he’s so excited about Springfield. He calls me every day, asking, ‘what’s happening today?’ There is an excitement around this city you wouldn’t believe.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org