An Important Step Forward

It was encouraging to see that work will be starting again soon on the Innovation Center in downtown Springfield. Very encouraging.

It’s been almost a year since the work stopped, creating a strange and at the same time troubling blip in what seemed like an otherwise uninterrupted flow of progress, good news, momentum, and positive vibrations.

The center is just one project, but the halt to work — the result of what has been called a severe miscalculation of just how much this project cost and a resulting cash-flow problem that prompted the contractor to cease and desist — was unnerving on a number of levels.

Indeed, while all those involved were confident that work would start again soon and the project would live up it to its considerable hype, as the months went by and the quiet continued on Bridge Street, doubts grew about whether this important link in the chain would become reality.

Now, it seems likely that it will. And that’s good news on many levels.

Let’s start with DevelopSpringfield, the agency that conceived this project and saw its reputation take a small hit when the venture ran aground, if you will, just as its former director was leaving to take another opportunity.

The optics weren’t just bad, they were terrible. But the agency has bounced back from this setback to a large degree, and we will remind people that, from the beginning, and from a projects standpoint, DevelopSpringfield has taken on what could only be called the ‘hard ones.’ Make that the ‘really hard ones.’

This portfolio includes the Gunn Block in Mason Square across from the Springfield Technical Community College campus, a building that may be beyond rehabilitation at this point. But it also includes sites such as 77 and 83 Maple St. and 700 State St. (the former River Inn) — properties that have been successfully rehabilitated.

These are projects that no one else would seemingly touch. When you target longshot projects like this, things are not always going to go smoothly.

But there is a bigger-picture perspective when it comes to the Innovation Center. As we said, it is an important link in the chain, or important ingredient in the recipe for a successful downtown, if that analogy works better.

Indeed, for a central business district to work, it needs many different constituencies coming together. It needs workers (downtown has always had those); it needs residents (downtown has many of those, but it needs more, especially those in higher income brackets, and it will likely get more if talks for more market-rate options become reality); and it needs visitors, and downtown should have a much larger volume of those given the opening of MGM Springfield, the rehabilitation of Union Station, some new restaurants, and the possible revitalization of a moribund Tower Square.

But it also needs startups and young entrepreneurs, people who can make Main Street or Bridge Street, or any number of other streets in the downtown, their mailing address. In cities ranging from Cambridge to Seattle to Brooklyn (OK, that’s a borough, not a city), startups have been a huge factor in the off-the-charts growth of those communities.

They bring jobs, residents, commerce for service business, vibrancy, and something else — more startups.

The Innovation Center won’t do that all by itself, but it will be a huge contributor to that movement as it serves as home to not only Valley Venture Mentors, but eventually some of the startup businesses VVM mentors.

Given everything else going on downtown and all the things that have gone right, the restart of work on the Innovation Center may seem like a minor story.

It isn’t.

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