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Square One Returns to Its Roots in the South End

Joan Kagan

After more than two years of turmoil, Joan Kagan says Square One is happy to be back home in Springfield’s South End.

Joan Kagan says she never really settled in to her office at what is now known as the Business Growth Center in the Springfield Technology Park across from STCC.
She made it comfortable, finding some non-matching office furniture from various sources — including a table to replace the cardboard box that her printer sat on for months — and securing a print depicting landmarks at her alma matter, Columbia University, that was intended to somehow fill in for the diplomas that were lost when a tornado tore down Main Street in Springfield on June 1, 2011 and essentially leveled Square One’s facilities there.
But the suites in the growth center that housed several administrators with Square One, an early-education provider with facilities in Springfield and Holyoke, were always intended to be temporary, said Kagan, adding quickly that she knew going in that this is, indeed, a relative term.
And as it turned out, the stay was less temporary than she hoped, a development forced by another calamity roughly a year ago — the natural-gas explosion that took out another of Square One’s facilities, this one on Chestnut Street — and difficulty securing a place to rebuild in the city’s South End, the institution’s long-time home, because of speculation and relative uncertainty regarding MGM’s bid to locate a resort casino there.
But in what would have to be considered one of the company’s rare instances of good fortune lately, space unexpectedly became available for lease at 1095 Main St. (the former Grape Vine liquor store), just a block or so from Square One’s former location. A few months ago, elaborate ceremonies were staged to mark the opening of the company’s Family Square center, a family resource facility, on the first floor of that three-story property, and by March, Kagan expects other programs and personnel to be moved into the renovated second floor.
The 14,000-square-foot facilities are not exactly what Square One leaders had in mind as they conceptualized plans for the next chapter in the institution’s history following the tornado, Kagan noted, adding that the preference was certainly for new construction and ownership of the eventual new home. But they represent a chance to return to the South End, which has been home since the late 19th century, and an opportunity to bring back together programs and employees that had been scattered after the twin calamities.
“It’s exciting to be back in the South End — that’s our home,” said Kagan, adding that relatively long-term leases (five years for the first floor and seven for the second) have been inked, giving Square One time and opportunity to determine what ‘home’ will be in the years and decades to come.
Much will be determined by if, where, and how the MGM facility — now the only casino proposal for the Western Mass. region still on the table — takes shape.
For now, though, Square One is focused on the immediate future and proving John Updike wrong when he wrote “you can’t go home again.”
Back in September, there was a different kind of literary look and feel to the grand opening at 1095 Main St. Indeed, students, in a nod to that classic line from The Wizard of  Oz, wore T-shirts that read “there’s no place like our new home.”
The ceremonies came a tumultuous 27 months after the June 2011 tornado changed the landscape on Main Street. The Square One facilities there were so extensively damaged that they had to be torn down.
Programs and personnel were then relocated to a number of sites, said Kagan, listing facilities on Wilbraham Road, the MCDI building on Wilbraham Avenue, and, eventually, the Technology Park at STCC, among others. “We put people anywhere we could find a desk and an office.”
After a short period devoted to stabilizing operations, preliminary planning for building a new, larger facility in the South End commenced.
This was complicated by delays in obtaining an insurance settlement, but moreso by MGM’s announced plans to build an $800 million casino in the South End, mostly on underutilized, vacant, or tornado-damaged property directly across Main Street from Square One’s former home.
“We had owned one piece of property, and we were looking to expand that piece of property,” Kagan explained. “But people were talking to MGM, and MGM was optioning some land; people were hoping that MGM would come to them and make them an offer. There were simply too many moving parts for us to do anything.”
Plans then shifted, with a new goal of finding property to lease, she went on, adding that it was serendipitous that the property at 1095 Main St. became available when a tenant slated to move in backed out of the deal.
In August, Square One opened its Family Square center, as well as one 20-student preschool classroom. The center houses a number of what Kagan called “parent education support services,” and also hosts a number of programs and services, such as a group for mothers of 5-year-old children.
There are also computers at the facilities, on which parents can search for jobs, she said, adding that the new location on Main Street enables Square One to expand services offered at the center and bring under one roof a number of programs and initiatives that were scattered across the city.
And with a new home secured, Square One officials can continue efforts to realize the growth that was anticipated in early 2011, but then essentially shelved due to the loss of facilities from the tornado and gas blast.
Elaborating, Kagan said the company had planned to bring an additional 200 children into its expanded facilities on King Street in Springfield, but that additional capacity was absorbed by the displacement of students following the tornado and gas explosion.
“Those events essentially blew my business plan out of the water,” she said, adding that process of rewriting that document is ongoing.
Growth opportunities will likely accompany an MGM casino in the South End, she said, adding that provisions for day care for the children of employees are part of the agreement between the city and the corporation, which has already had preliminary discussions with Square One about where and how to provide those services.
Meanwhile, possible expansion into Union Station, which is currently undergoing extensive renovations, remains a possibility, she said, adding that a child-care facility has long been one of the potential reuses of the station — because of its location and the public transportation that will be based there — and it remains an option for that landmark.
Looking down the road, Kagan said she’s not sure what Square One will do long term, again, because of the uncertainty regarding the MGM proposal, how it will take shape, and what additional property the casino giant may acquire.
But she says the company is committed to the South End, and to being part of that community. And as it goes about writing that next chapter, Square One will adhere to a philosophy that was actually in place long before the tornado roared down Main Street, but has been reinforced by the events of the past few years.
“We never gave up … we simply said, ‘this is what we’ve got, now how do we move forward given that this is the reality?” she explained. “One of our mantras has always been to be solution-oriented; there’s always a solution, and you just have to get creative and figure it out. But it’s there.” n

— George O’Brien

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