Home 2003 April
These certainly haven’t been the best of times for the capital of Western Mass.

Indeed, just reading the newspaper these days can be a depressing exercise. Between reading about budget cuts, who’s been arraigned, and who’s not running for mayor, one might get the opinion that this city is paralyzed and devoid of hope.

It isn’t.

OK, maybe it is temporarily paralyzed while people in City Hall, the Mass. Career Development Institute, the Springfield Housing Authority, and just about every other agency in the city wait to see who gets indicted next. Meanwhile, the budget news isn’t good, and the general feeling that things will get worse before they get better is keeping many people out of the mayoral race.

But there’s no reason to give up hope.

As we’ve said many times, there are some good things happening in the Pioneer Valley, and especially Springfield. But right now, they’re being overshadowed by a war in Iraq, uproar over Gov. Romney’s various efforts to close the state’s budget gap, and a seemingly endless run of embarrassing stories about officials abusing their authority and wasting the taxpayers’ money. The latest allegations concerning Gerald Phillips and his management of the Mass. Career Development Institute are particularly disturbing.

And if it seems that many in City Hall and various economic development agencies are letting the events of the day — not to mention the question of who will be the next mayor — get in the way of progress Ö well, they probably are.

That’s why this is a time when the city desperately needs some leadership — and we’re not talking about the next mayor. We’re talking about this one.

Mike Albano has done too much for the city over the past seven years to spend his last 11 months in office trying to keep anything else bad from happening — which seems to be his MO right now. He has to pump some resolve into City Hall departments, especially those charged with economic development.

We know there’s a war and a recession on — and neither of those are good for business — but right now, it seems like economic development in this city is confined to waiting and hoping for someone to come along and develop the York Street Jail, the Gemini building, or the Technical High School property. That’s not economic development — that’s crossing your fingers.

Now is the time when the city should be putting the next phase of riverfront development on the drawing board and looking ahead to the time when the war and the recession are over. Meanwhile, as we’ve said

before, some work needs to be done to make this city more business-friendly, and the planning department would be a good place to start. More often than not, roadblocks are put in the way of developers and would-be entrepreneurs, not ’welcome-to-Springfield’ signs.

While addressing economic development initiatives, Albano should also take the lead in efforts to restore confidence in the city. This is not a job that can wait for the next person to take over the corner office.

At the moment, Albano seems content to let the FBI do the digging and for his city solicitor to do the talking for his administration. Neither strategy inspires much confidence.

When Albano announced in early February that he would not be seeking a fifth term, we became worried — not for him, but for the city.

Despite the mayor’s assertions to the contrary, lame ducks are not good for any community. And we’re not talking about any crusade against Romney’s budget plan and what it might do to cities and towns — we’re talking about the day-to-day operation of Springfield.

Eleven months is too long a period to wait for the next leader of a city, too long a time to put things off until the next administration takes over, and much too long a stretch during which to operate in neutral and leave the hard decisions for the next person. Albano needs to act now to instill some enthusiasm in a city hall that is clearly in a funk. He also needs to know that his legacy is on the line and what he does before he departs could make all the difference.

Come next January — or before that, if an employment opportunity should arise as many are predicting — Albano will depart City Hall and try to convince people that he left the city better than he found it. For him to say that, he still has some work to do.

An economic impact report on the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College reveals that the facility has generated more than 2,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. The report’s author says, however, that the real return on the significant investments made in the park will come perhaps 10 or 20 years from now, when its various job-creation initiatives bear fruit across the Valley.

John Mullin calls it the "Silicon Valley effect."

That’s a term that some of those studying the nation’s technology sector use to describe the free exchange of ideas, or "cross-pollination," as Mullin described it, that goes on when technology professionals work in the same office complex or even the same community. That exchange helps generate new breakthroughs and, therefore, growth within that technology cluster — or so the theory goes, he explained.

This phenomenon, as hard to quantify as it might be, is just one of the tangible and intangible economic benefits that have resulted from the creation of the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, said Mullin, director of the Center for Economic Development at UMass and one of the authors of a new report on the park’s economic impact on the region.

While the Silicon Valley effect may be hard to measure, most other benefits from the creation of the park are not, he said, noting that the facility has created 860 jobs in direct employment (a number that was higher when the tech sector was healthier) and another 1,223 jobs generated indirectly. Meanwhile, the 18 companies in the park have a total payroll of $22.5 million and annual purchases of $17 million.

The economic impact study was commissioned by Appleton Corp., the company that manages the park, to gauge the contributions the facility has made to the local economy, said Mullin. When put on the drawing board, the park was envisioned as an economic engine that would put valuable industrial real estate back on the tax rolls and facilitate growth of the technology sector. The report has concluded that those goals have been met or exceeded.

"I think that this is a great success story, not because the college quickly filled the park or because they immediately had a return on investment," he explained, "but because they put a major industrial/office facility to a highly imaginative and productive use, and made the thing work.

"The real return on this is not today or in five years; it’s going to be in 10 years or 20," he continued, referring to the park’s many programs aimed at job creation, including the Springfield Enterprise Center.

STCC President Andrew Scibelli agreed, but he said there may be more good news coming out of the park in the next few months. There is one vacant building remaining in the complex, and it may soon become the focus of efforts to grow the biomanufacturing sector in this region.

He said that intiative, still in its formative stage, would, like other components of the tech park, create synergies with programs at the college. Such relationships are perhaps the most important aspect of the facility, he said.

"We didn’t want to be just a landlord," Scibelli said at a press conference to announce the report’s findings. "We’ve had hundreds of students who have affiliated with companies across the street."

BusinessWest looks this month at the grades the tech park earned on its first report card, and what might happen next at the award-winning facility.

Crunching the Numbers

Mullin said that maybe the best thing about the attractive statistics compiled on the tech park (see box, below) is that they were tallied during what he called the "rock bottom" of the current economic slowdown.

Indeed, the direct employment figure of 860 is well below the high-water mark at the tech park of more than 1,000 jobs, recorded when the tech sector was much healthier, he said. Meanwhile, the number of indirect jobs created by the park — a figure derived using a standard multiplier that assumes that each job in the park creates an additional 1.4 jobs in the community — has also been higher.

Mullin, who has studied a number of old mill complexes in the Northeast that have been converted into tech centers, said most companies in that sector have seen employment dip 20% to 25% over the past few years, a number that is consistent with what he found at the STCC facility. Many of those companies are now poised to grow.

Thus, the already impressive numbers could look better in the years ahead, he said, adding that, while the quantity of jobs is an important statistic, the quality is also of note.

He said it is likely that the Digital complex, which had been largely vacant since the company moved out in June 1993, would have been converted to warehouse use if the technology park had not been created with the help of state and federal funding. And warehouse positions would pay considerably less than the manufacturing and management jobs that currently exist in the facility, he noted.

While the technology park has not replaced all the jobs that existed in that location when Digital was at its height, Mullin explained, the more reasonable yardstick when gauging economic impact is what the next probable use of the complex would have been. In that respect, the tech park has become an asset for that area of Springfield and the region as a whole.

Its benefits take a number of forms, said Mullin, adding that while it is reasonable to assume that some of the tenants in the park would have located in other office buildings and manufacturing complexes around the region if the facility had not been created, the combination of attractive lease rates (well below area Class A rates), the resources of the college across the street, and synergies created by having tech companies clustered together made Springfield more attractive to some companies.

"I don’t think there’s any doubt that the technology park made the Springfield market more attractive to some people," he said. "I think this project definitely helped to grow the tech cluster in this area."

Down to a Science

Looking to the future, the college is now training its sights on another emerging sector of the economy — biotechnology and, more specifically, what is now known as biomanufacturing.

As Scibelli explained, companies that are creating new pharmaceuticals and medical devices need trained employees to produce those products. The remaining undeveloped building in the tech park, known as 103B, could be targeted for existing and startup biotechnology companies that would benefit from the college’s associate’s degree program in biotechnology and the students that graduate from it.

Such a program, Scibelli said, would complement the Baystate Medical Center-University of Massachusetts-Amherst Biomedical Research Institute by providing both the physical space and the workforce needed for companies that will be spun off by that initiative.

Meanwhile, another component of the tech park, the Springfield Enterprise Center (SEC), is creating new jobs by fostering entrepreneurship. The center includes a small business incubator, which has already graduated several tenants that have relocated to other sites in the Valley. It also has a student incubator and houses the college’s Entrepreneurial Institute, which includes programs for area elementary and secondary school students, as well as a college degree program.

The SEC model has become so successful that the college is now attempting to sell it — in both a figurative and literal sense — to community colleges across the country.

To that end, the school has formed the National Assoc. for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) and has scheduled a conference for this October to introduce other colleges to the STCC model and educate them on how to emulate it, said Scibelli.

The various educational and job-creation programs at the tech park have earned it several honors. These include the U.S. Department of Commerce’s 2001 Excellence in Urban or Suburban Economic Development Award, as well as the International Economic Development Council’s 2002 Excellence in Economic Development Award.

More important than the awards, said Scibelli, are the jobs the park has created and the promise of more employment opportunities down the road. "When we first conceived the Technology Park, we did so with the firm belief that it would become a source of jobs and act as fuel for the region’s economic engine," Scibelli said. "The economic impact report quantifies what we already knew — that this tech park has become one of the cornerstones of regional economic development."

Technically Speaking

Mullin told BusinessWest that he was not immediately sold on the concept of the Silicon Valley effect. "Let’s just say I needed some convincing," he said, adding that he got it when he listened to a report on how the phenomenon has impacted the growth of the Route 128 corridor in the eastern part of state.

He didn’t need any convincing on the impact of the tech park, however. He said the numbers — and the programs behind those statistics — speak for themselves.

And the best news is that they will only get better.

New England’s largest theme park has room to grow, as evidenced by this year’s major expansion of its water park. Times are good all around, the park’s general manager says, and not just for the company. Agawam is reaping greater tax revenues from Six Flags than ever before, while the park has proven to be a major asset for the region’s increasing emphasis on tourism.

Ron Sevart climbed to the top of a waterslide tower and pointed to the ground below. He then pointed in another direction, and then another.

If he was trying to demonstrate the scope of the newest project at Six Flags New England, a massive expansion of the water park, it worked. The expansion wraps around the existing water area, adding nine slides, a second wave pool, vastly expanded deck space, and a new entrance from Main Street. The end result? Twice as much room for water recreation.

"It was already the largest water park in New England," said Sevart, the park’s general manager. "Now there’s a lot more space."

When it comes to park arithmetic, however, Sevart isn’t content to stop at the doubling of the water park. He also likes to talk in multiples of 10 — that is, the fact that Six Flags brings in about 10 times the tax revenues for Agawam that Riverside Park did eight years ago, an increase from about $240,000 to an anticipated $2.4 million this year.

In effect, entering its fourth year as a Six Flags park — having added attractions in each of those years — the facility is enjoying a better relationship with its neighbors and its town than ever before, Sevart said, and that’s crucial, given that the coming years will bring even more physical growth to New England’s largest amusement park.

Meanwhile, the tourism efforts along Springfield’s riverfront and across the Pioneer Valley offer an opportunity for the park to partner with other organizations in promoting the entire region — an effort that promises to be beneficial to the individual attractions.

Six Flags is indeed making a splash — one that Sevart thinks you don’t have to get wet to notice.

Water, Water Everywhere

Those who do want to get wet, however, need to look no further than Hurricane Harbor, the new name of the water park originally dubbed Island Kingdom. The new name, said Sevart, is one used throughout the Six Flags brand for water parks that reach a certain size; the only three others are in New Jersey, California, and Texas.

The expansion — which cost the company around $8 million — doubles the water park’s size, adding more than 10 new attractions, such as the Tornado, a funnel-shaped tube that ’flushes’ riders into the pool below, the first slide of its kind in the world.

In the center of the new wave pool is Hurricane Falls, which features six body slides, and nearby are Zooma Falls and Geronimo Falls, both of which use ’cloverleaf’ rafts in which three or four guests can ride together. Looking down at the sprawling construction from the top of an existing set of waterslides, Sevart said the park is accustomed to major changes.

"The transition from Island Kingdom to Hurricane Harbor sort of mirrors our transition from Riverside Park to Six Flags," he said. "In each case, you can see the effect of the capital investment."

Access to the water park is still free with park admission, and Sevart said the major expansion is meant to give guests something new — and hopefully make them repeat customers.

"We’d like to increase attendance," he said, recognizing that wet weather in each of the past two summers has hindered those efforts to some extent. "With this facility, people can experience even more, and at the end of the day, they’ll want to come back again."

A new park entrance is being constructed at the south end, beside Hurricane Harbor, but that doesn’t mark the end of the line for physical growth. With plenty of unused land owned by Six Flags south of the existing park — including parking space on the west side of Main Street that stretches to Connecticut — Sevart said the company is by no means done with its expansion plans.

The question arises, of course, as to how big is too big, especially with a park that straddles a riverway. Unlike some theme parks — such as the Disney parks in Florida — which are built in a circular pattern, the Agawam facility is more of a straight line, requiring a longer walk to hit every attraction.

Sevart suggested that some type of people-mover ride, whether a chair lift, a train, or something similar, might be required if the park expands any more to the south. But that ride would be an attraction in itself, he added, asking, "who wouldn’t want to ride a train?"

Besides, he said, some areas of the park, particularly at each end, already form walking loops, and any design for expansion would have to take into consideration the most efficient foot-traffic pattern to save visitors time.

Speaking of saving time, the park’s Fast Lane service, a reservation system for the busiest rides, was a big success after its launch last spring, Sevart said, even though it posed an additional cost to park visitors.

"Time is more important than money for visitors at that point. Once people are here, they want to experience as much as they can without waiting in long lines," he said. "It’s about quality time with family. That’s what we’re selling, and that’s important."

Indeed, Fast Lane was an idea brought about by park visitors’ main concern, which was wasting too much time waiting in line, he added. Another addition last year, the floorless roller coaster Batman: the Dark Knight, alleviated the line issue even more by giving the park another marquee attraction to siphon people away from other long-wait rides, like the hugely popular Superman: Ride of Steel.

In fact, wait times — and park traffic in general — are a key concern for any facility, which is why Six Flags tries to push visitors to midweek dates with bargain prices.

Sevart said he knows of people with season passes — which don’t cost much more than the price of one admission — who arrive first thing in the morning, ride Superman once or twice, and leave. Others like to show up on the spur of the moment after a rainstorm.

"If I didn’t work for the park," he laughed, "I’d get a season pass and come when it isn’t busy."

Hot Property

But weekend attendance — and ticket sales in general — have been steadily on the rise, he said, which is why the Six Flags corporation continues to invest capital in the New England park, which it sees as a growth property, between its popularity and its expansion possibilities. The $8 million water park project comes on the heels of another $8 million in new attractions in 2002, and more than $50 million in the past four years.

"We’re seen as a park that’s experiencing growth, and we’re fortunate to be part of a company that invests in parks that are successful," Sevart said. "We’re competing on an ongoing basis with the other parks for capital investment."

And the park is succeeding even when measured against Six Flags parks in warmer climes that are able to stay open more than six months a year. However, Sevart said, it’s not a huge disadvantage because the high season of most amusement parks corresponds to summer vacation for students, which is why Six Flags parks are typically open only on weekends until school lets out in June.

A more important consideration in Western Mass. is how the park complements — and in some ways spearheads — a developing tourism industry in the region, characterized by a number of driving destinations, from the new Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield to Yankee Candle in South Deerfield.

Park management sees an opportunity in those attractions, not competition. That’s why Six Flags has teamed up with the Hall of Fame on marketing materials that promote educational programs at each facility, such as a student ’physics day’ at Six Flags. Sevart is aware of how hotels, such as the successful new Hilton Garden Inn bordering the Hall, are doing, and he’s encouraged.

"The attractions are working together," Sevart said. "We know what’s going on in each other’s business."

The town of Agawam is certainly aware of Six Flags’ business side, he added, considering that the tax revenue has exploded in the past decade, which helps to keep down residential taxes. In addition, the park pays for the town’s police and fire services itself — this on top of a recent $9 million investment in parking and development of a workable traffic plan.

Meanwhile, Sevart talks to the facility’s immediate Main Street neighbors a few times a year and sends them newsletters to keep them apprised of new developments — a necessary part of life when running such a sprawling operation 145 days a year. "I’m finding that it’s the best relationship we’ve ever had with the town," he said.

Exciting Ride

That relationship will be a plus as the park looks to further expansion. It has been open about those plans and aggressive so far in bringing something new to the banks of the Connecticut River.

From his office, Sevart can look directly down on the front corridor of the park, which stretches from the front gate and the classic carousel past the old Thunderbolt roller coaster, now one of eight coasters on the grounds.

Because of those attractions and others, that pathway certainly retains some of the old-style feel of Riverside Park. But now, there’s something new being added every year, and the success of those ventures can be measured simply with a look out the window. "I can tell what kind of day we’re having by how crowded that walkway is," Sevart said.

Similarly, he can tell what kind of year it’s been by what the Six Flags corporation has in the pipeline. And by all accounts, the old amusement park on the riverside in Agawam still has plenty of growing to do.