Belchertown Project Captures the Imagination

We’ll admit, we had doubts — many of them.

A resort spa? In Belchertown? At the old state school site?

The concept sounded intriguing, but also somewhat far-fetched, given the geography — Belchertown isn’t easy to get to from anywhere — and also the town’s struggles to find a workable game plan for the school grounds, which have been decaying since the facility closed in 1992. People were talking about everything from a jail to a national music center. But it was all talk.

Roughly two years after the resort spa idea was first put on the table, however plans are coming together for what is to be the largest private development in Western or Central Mass. — ever, with a pricetag that could approach $150 million. A purchase–and–sale agreement on the property was inked last week, another important milestone in the development of the 400-acre site by a Chicago-based outfit called Bridgeland Development, LLC.

The company was formed by Paul McDermott, who has extensive experience working on large-scale developments of this type. His resume includes work on the redevelopment of the Glenview Naval Air Station in Illinois, a $1 billion project; another base-closure redevelopment at the Orlando Naval Training Center; and ongoing development of a 1,200-acre site on the grounds of closed a textile mill complex in Rock Hill, S.C.

McDermott will call on all of those experiences as he develops a vision for the Belchertown State School property, which is a blank canvas that he is starting to color in.

Watching the project take shape will likely be an exciting spectator sport in the Pioneer Valley, although many will do much more than sit and watch. Indeed, the project appears to have captured the imagination of residents and business owners across the region, and if that energy is channeled into the venture, what is now being called the Quabbin Resort Development could be a real spark for this area.

And as we’ve said many times, the region needs one. There hasn’t been much in the way of economic development in the area over the past decade or so, and relatively few new jobs have been added. Instead, many businesses — and people — have left.

Regional economic development leaders are working with their counterparts in Connecticut to market the stretch between Hartford and Amherst as one economic market, known as the Knowledge Corridor. The two states hope to take advantage of the many colleges and universities in the ‘corridor’ and their graduates to lure companies across several sectors. Thus far, it hasn’t happened, and people are still talking about ‘potential’ and the future.

That’s why the Belchertown project is so intriguing — and important; it’s happening.

Plans are still preliminary, but the Quabbin Resort Development could include a destination resort spa with related, wellness-oriented businesses and attractions. The planned mix — again, a work in progress — could include everything from a hotel to an equestrian center; restaurants to hiking trails; senior housing to a micro brewery.

But could it really happen? In Belchertown?

McDermott certainly things so, and his resume and track record show that he can, indeed, take massive, highly complex projects from the drawing board to reality. He believes he can put the pieces together, as evidenced by his company’s financial commitment to the venture.

McDermott told BusinessWest recently that these large-scale development projects succeed through the creation of momentum. It starts with a few key players getting involved, he explained, and soon, as the picture comes together, other parties want to become part of something exciting. It happened in Illinois, at ‘The Glen’ development, and it is happening in Eastern Mass. with the ongoing redevelopment of Fort Devens.

The Quabbin Resort Development has a very long way to go. It will take years, perhaps a decade or more for the vision to completely shape. And who knows what the market will deem economically viable for that site.

But the project has already succeeding in capturing the region’s imagination, and prompting people to think about what can happen in the Pioneer Valley — not what can’t, or probably won’t, happen.

We could use some more of that around here.-