Veritech Corp. owner Steve Graziano says he started thinking years ago about taking the facilities that were spaced over three floors in an office on Prospect Street in East Longmeadow and moving them into a more efficient, more professional-looking one-story structure.
He told BusinessWest he would often get such thoughts while driving past the new buildings going up in the East Longmeadow Industrial Park on his way to and from the post office.
"Weve been looking at that industrial park for a while … but it seemed that we always got distracted by the business at hand or the recession at hand, one or the other,"said Graziano, founder of the interactive multimedia and video solutions company. "But this year, we got serious about it."Thus, hes part of an ongoing building boom in this community, and his new, expandable, 16,000-square-foot facility, to be built at the corner of Benton Drive and Denslow Road, will be part of a growing commercial and industrial base that is providing much-needed balance to a surge in residential building here.
And hes helping to give Westmass Area Development Corp., the Chicopee-based, non-profit industrial park developer that is affiliated with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC), a quick return on its investment on the purchase of more than 100 acres of former tobacco fields on the southwest corner of the town.
Two projects are already underway construction of a 12,000-square-foot building for a company specializing in design and installation of trade show displays, and a 30,000-square-foot facility that will be subdivided for industrial tenants. And more building is planned, including Grazianos facility (groundbreaking is set for this fall); a new, 41,000-square-foot home for Maybury Material Handling that will be located just down the street from its current location; and a 100,000-square-foot plant that will be built by the German-owned papermaker Suddekor LLC in the nearby Deer Park Business Center.
EDC President Allan Blair said the spate of new building is the product of several converging factors, including an improving economy, interest rates that remain favorable (although theyre rising), and the towns very attractive commercial tax rate $20.73, which is much lower than surrounding communities such as Springfield ($34.54), Chicopee ($33.16), and Westfield ($29.58). Also, theres East Longmeadows location, with easy access to I-91 to the south. "This is a great place to do business if you dont need to be in an urban setting."But the primary reason people are building in East Longmeadow, said Blair, is because thats where much of the permitted commercial property happens to be at the moment.
And thats the only downside to an otherwise positive story, he said, noting that the East Longmeadow property is on pace to be absorbed much faster than originally projected, which means that while developing this parcel, Westmass is also scouring the area looking for new business park sites.
"Were filling this park quickly thats the good news, and I guess its the bad news as well,"said Blair, adding that as the inventory of buildable land dwindles, Westmass will have to become more imaginative and look toward revitalization of brownfield sites as well as raw, undeveloped land.
"Thats the next big challenge where do we go next?"he said. "Where do you go where you already have road access, utilities, the right infrastructure, and a community thats receptive? It gets harder to find locations, but we have to if we want to bring more jobs here."Right Place, Right Time
As he stood at the entrance to what will soon be a road into the 60-acre Deer Park site, Blair, the long-time president of Westmass, said there are inherent risks with the acquisition and assembly of any industrial site.
One need look no further than Westmass purchase of farmland in Westfield for the Summit Lock Industrial Park in 1988 (see related story, page 18) to see what can go wrong. The purchase came just as the region was going into a deep recession, and the economic tailspin, which brought new building to a virtual standstill, precipitated the corporations fall into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Additional evidence can be found with the creation of the Chicopee River Business Park, a facility that straddles the Chicopee- Springfield line. More than two decades in the making, the park came on line in 2001, just as the technology sector was crashing to earth. Only one parcel has been sold in the park, which has yet to capture the attention or imagination of the high-tech businesses it was created to host.
There were and still are risks with the East Longmeadow acquisition as well, said Blair, adding quickly that the agency felt very good about that transaction, negotiated with the Wetstone family, which had been farming the property for more than a century. Westmass eventually acquired about 40 acres off Denslow Road that abut an industrial park that has developed over the past 30 years, as well as another 70 acres adjacent to the Deer Park Business Center, a small cluster of office buildings developed by the Wetstones.
"We were confident that this was going to be a sound investment for us,"said Blair. "All the right conditions were in place an improving economy, companies looking for places in which to expand, the zoning, the tax rate … it was all there."
Blairs confidence in the East Longmeadow property has proven well-founded. Within months of the acquisition in late 2002, there was building underway and the promise of several other deals.
The RTH Group, a British-based trade show display-design company, has moved into its facility, which represents an effort to expand and consolidate operations that had been run out of leased offices in East Longmeadow and warehouse facilities in Connecticut.
Expansion and consolidation are also what Graziano and Maybury President John Maybury have in mind.
Graziano said his company, which specializes in the production of educational CDs, was looking to build a new facility that was more efficient, but that would also reflect the changing nature of the companys client list.
"Our patient-education business, which involves work with many of the nations largest health care providers, is growing rapidly,"he explained. "We will be hosting some of the top Fortune 500 health care provider companies, and we want to be more conducive to their expectations from an image point of view.
"Thats why were making this move now,"he continued. "Our business has taken a big step on a national strategic alliance basis, and as their executives come to visit us and talk about relationships and expansion of alliances, we want them to feel that were in their league."Meanwhile, Maybury Material Hand-ling, which distributes fork trucks, shelving, catwalks, and other products for moving and storing materials, will break ground later this month on a 41,000-square-foot facility that will house all its operations. The company has been cramped in its present, 28,000-square-foot facility, said Maybury, and it has seen enough encouraging news from the nations still-struggling manufacturing sector to act on expansion plans.
"We need to expand again … were limited in terms of growth by our current building,"he said, noting that while the existing facility is expandable, the company opted to build a new plant and lease out the present site.
Maybury will build on a 15-acre site, adjacent to its current location, that includes a small pond. "We really like this parcel,"said Maybury, "as opposed to an open field."That open field is the 70 acres Westmass acquired from Wetstone behind the Deer Park Business Center, and it will soon become the home of Suddekors new $15 million paper-treating facility.
The company, which located its first area plant at the Westmass park built on the site of the former Bowles Airport in Agawam, plans to break ground later this month. The plant, expandable to 300,000 square feet, will be built on a 22-acre parcel.
There have been other inquiries about the Deer Park parcel, said Blair, who expects that real estate and the 10 acres remaining off Benton Drive and Denslow Road to be absorbed over the next three to five years, well ahead of the original timetable of seven years or more.
Thats good for East Longmeadow, he said, which needs to balance its residential growth with new industrial and commercial development, and, in many ways, good for the EDC and Westmass. But the pace of building also underscores the need to bring more property on line.
Westmass will stick to its guns on the Chicopee River Business Park, Blair said, and continue to pursue high-tech companies for that site rather than merely filling space with local companies looking to expand.
"Weve been stubborn in our dedication to the original design principles there that this park, because of its location, should be reserved for the highest-value companies that we can attract to the market,"he said. "So we have turned away opportunities that would otherwise be appropriate in a light-industrial setting.
"Thats frustrating for Chicopee,"he continued, "but in the end, I think our patience will be rewarded."
Maybury told BusinessWest that back in 1981, when his family built the companys current home, it was one of the few businesses on Denslow Road.
"Benton Drive didnt even exist then,"he said, referring to the street running perpendicular to Denslow that has seen widespread development. "Theres been a lot of change here that has been very good for the community."And more changes to the landscape are in the works, development that promises more jobs, more tax revenue, and new opportunities for the companies engaged in expansion. The rapid absorption of the real estate might be a problem, said Blair, but for now, its a good problem to have.
George OBrien can be reached at[email protected]