A Matter of Speculation
A New Potential Developer, Renewed Optimism for State School SiteTo date, efforts to redevelop the former Belchertown State School property have been met with only frustration and some embarrassing moments — the last lead development team bounced a check on the town as it proceeded with initial steps in the process. But there is renewed, if cautious optimism as another outfit, Pennsylvania-based Weston Solutions, goes through the due diligence process on the challenged but opportunity-laden property. Said a Weston executive: “Let’s look at the canvas, see what we’ve got. Then we can figure out what brushes and paint we want to use, and then we move forward.”
Bill Terry made a show of knocking on his wooden conference table when introducing the latest unfolding chapter in the redevelopment of the former Belchertown State School property.
Perhaps he did so because, after more than a decade of stalled or failed plans, the Belchertown Economic Development and Industrial Corp. (BEDIC), current owner of the site, may have finally found the right people for the right job.
And that’s on both sides of the negotiating table.
Terry is the chair of the BEDIC, and he said Weston Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based remediation and redevelopment firm signed a letter of interest this past July, giving it full rein over all past documents, research, and findings from the BEDIC.
That letter of interest begins a relationship between town officials and the employee-owned Weston, and while the process of due diligence is carefully underway, both sides expressed reserved, and not-so-reserved, enthusiasm.
One of the Weston officials on the site these days is Valarie Ferro, senior technical director for the Northeast Division. She told BusinessWest that “there are many fine assets to the property.
“Yes, there’s contamination there,” she continued. “But hospitals are not a new thing to us. We’ve looked at many, and were involved in a couple in various roles. When we walked onto the Belchertown property for the first time, we had a pretty good idea of what the project might entail, and when we got here, it was, ‘yup. That’s what we thought.’”
And that’s the attitude that has local officials betraying their reservations on the potential for redevelopment of the property. A 50-year-old firm with a long and successful history, Weston is no stranger to projects of this magnitude and degree of difficulty.
Weston now has 90 days to assess the property and the scope of the job. The BEDIC, meanwhile, also has 90 days of due diligence on Weston to see if its capabilities and track record are in line with the town’s master plan.
Terry acknowledged that, thus far, he is “reservedly excited.”
“They didn’t just come in and say, ‘we’re interested; we heard about this property from a developer,’” he said. “Their approach is, let’s crawl before we walk, and let’s walk before we run, and make sure that there is a good fit here for all parties involved.”
While others have come before and failed, Weston Solutions is not, as Terry said, “just some guy out of the wooly West who says he’s a developer. This company, they know what they’re doing.”
The halfway point for both parties’ pro forma on this job hasn’t yet been reached. But in separate conversations with BusinessWest, the hope for all involved is to no longer knock on wood when talking about the future of the Belchertown State School.
Strength in Numbers
The last time a developer took on the prospect of repurposing the Belchertown property, a grand resort and spa was envisioned for the remaining buildings and land at the state school, comprising just under 100 acres. Famously, the developer bounced the deposit check for the job, and the BEDIC found itself bounced back to square one — no development, a blighted property, and scant opportunity for a project to move forward.
But that’s history, and what is unfolding has those involved far more excited about prospects in tune with the community.
The details at this stage of Weston Solutions’ examination of the property is purely within the realm of speculation, but Terry allowed himself optimism when expounding on the current players involved on both sides of the property’s negotiations.
For starters, Belchertown has a crack team in its court, and Terry said that, going forward, it’s not now just him and his colleagues, all of whom have full-time jobs in addition to their role with the BEDIC. “We on the board have talents,” he explained, not diminishing whatsoever the solid work he and his colleagues have accomplished over the years, “but it is good to have these professionals in our camp.”
Among those professionals is MassDevelopment, with whom the BEDIC has been in collaboration since this past May. That signed memorandum of agreement, Terry said, puts all the resources of the state agency into play for the Belchertown property.
“These are dedicated professional real-estate people and engineers — big players,” he continued. “We need only write out a request for service, provide some sort of budget, and they get right to work.”
In addition, the town’s state legislators are all on board with any and all help that can be garnered from Beacon Hill, and Terry singled out Sens. Stan Rosenberg and Gale Candaras, and State Reps. Tom Petrolati and Stephen Kulik.
“It’s finally the time where we have the right team assembled to make this happen,” he said.
Finding a Solution
Of course, those players are an important step in maneuvering the Belchertown project toward a positive outcome. But an ace team alone doesn’t get a project of this size and scope closer to a finished product.
Weston’s history of engineering, procurement, property remediation, and development spans several countries and countless properties that were in far worse shape than the Belchertown site. From complex wetland locations to defunct chemical plants, Weston has a stated goal of “zero tolerance for unethical behavior” while working within communities.
Ferro quoted her company’s logo at the beginning of her conversation with BusinessWest: “The trusted integrator for sustainable solutions.”
“We do integrate, we pull it all together,” she explained, “but before that, we sort it all out. It’s an art, and it’s a science, and it’s an art and science at the same time. That’s where developers stumble with blighted or underutilized assets. There are just so many components to these projects.”
Like the team assembled by the BEDIC, Weston has mobilized its own bevy of seasoned professionals. At the Belchertown property that day, Ferro, who has a background in redevelopment planning and community planning, said that in addition to herself, there are three others with specialized interests.
A green deconstruction expert, “not just a landfill expert, but someone who knows how to safely and successfully repurpose any material,” she explained, was on hand along with Weston’s LEED-licensed site professional, to evaluate the environmental aspect. Rounding out the team was the LEED green-development expert, who also happens to be leading Weston’s Northeast efforts in a green-roof technology company it owns.
“That’s just three of maybe four or five other components that we have to sort together,” she emphasized.
When asked about the complexities of the Belchertown site, Ferro said, “by and large we are attracted to challenges. The projects we take on, and are successful at, are where others have failed before us. Or they were just not interested because of the inherent difficulties.”
In addition to all those difficulties, however, is a site that she said comes with just as many, if not more, attributes. She described the brick buildings as “stately,” but it’s the landscape that holds more promise than other projects Weston has overseen.
“The rolling topography, the views, the fact that it’s also a very valuable critical mass of land … you don’t know how much we struggle when working in urban environments, and we have to cobble together eight or 10 property owners just to sew together three acres. Here, we have a great big glob of land, and the surrounding land use is compatible.”
That was a word often repeated in her conversation, and in which lies a core value for Weston Solutions. She said that’s a major difference between her firm and a more traditional property developer, which customarily has a book of clients and end users for projects of this size.
“For us, we might want it, whatever it is,” she said of potential use at the site, “but if it’s not compatible with the town, or consistent with our core values, then we don’t pursue it. We just don’t go there.
“And that’s why, frankly, there’s not a lot of talk up front for us right now,” she continued, “because we’re just trying to understand what the context is — both the town and the property. What’s our canvas? Let’s look at the canvas, see what we’ve got. Then we can figure out what brushes and paint we want to use, and then we move forward.”
That canvas, however, has some underpainting already.
When asked if Weston has been given an understanding on issues of core importance for the BEDIC, town hall, and the voting population of Belchertown, Terry stated unequivocally, “absolutely.”
“They have our master development plan, and they have the 43D plan,” Terry said, referring to the site work made possible through MassDevelopment. “Not only that, we’ve verbally told them what is important to us. We told them we’re not building a new town center here. We’re not being disrespectful, but there are clear things that the community wants and doesn’t want.
“Our development plan says no big-box stores,” he added. “Nothing against ‘Wally World,’ we all go there, but we’re not a community that wants them. Weston knows that too, and knows that we won’t entertain that idea. That could have happened years ago, but we didn’t want it.”
Looking ahead, Terry said the BEDIC has some clear hopes for what might unfold at the state school property. As a town resident with roots that trace back to the earliest settlers, he said that it is important for him, and many others, to keep that intergenerational component in Belchertown.
To accomplish that, he sees health and wellness, specifically assisted living, as a good use for some of the property. He cited a similar project in Ludlow that had designs on full occupancy five years after construction, but successfully met capacity in two.
Belchertown, he maintains, is a middle-class community with good schools and a strong commitment to public services. In keeping with that tradition, he said, is the need to “take care of mom and dad.”
An assisted-living developer has expressed interest in parts of the property for several years, he continued, but has lacked the resources to tackle anything beyond his own slice of real estate.
To further substantiate the possibility of a successful market for that style of development, he noted that several other assisted-living builders have looked at the site and weighed in with their own vote of confidence and an interest in buildable property.
In a separate conversation, Ferro brought up a similar train of thought, giving evidence to her prior comments on collaboration. Weston has looked at the conceptuals for wellness and assisted-living development on the property, and while one of the things it is doing during this period is “going with their gut feelings and considerable contacts,” she agreed with that facet to Terry’s vision.
“I really am attracted to their idea of inter-generational living,” she said. “Right next door there’s the police station, the teen center, and maybe some of this can be expanded so that it represents Belchertown as a whole. I think there’s real potential there.”
But again, she tempered her enthusiasm with restraint. “I think we all wish there was a CliffsNotes on what to do about the Belchertown property. We’re sorting through an enormous amount of information and just literally sopping it up like sponges.”
Just like everyone working on both sides of the project, however, restraint gave way to hope. “My gut feeling is that, seeing what’s there, there is potential to pull this off,” she said.
From his office in Springfield, Terry echoed that sentiment.
“We’re conservatively excited,” he said again. “It’s going to take a lot of care, but it seems like we’re working with the right folks, and this is the best shot we have had since I’ve been on the board.”
Noticeably, he didn’t knock on wood this time. n