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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Folks in Western Mass. know they’re often dismissed by residents out east, Lisa Stowe says. So how does a city like Westfield make its case as a vibrant destination for a business looking to plant roots?

By working together.

That’s exactly what a handful of partners — municipal leaders, Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank — have done by launching Go Westfield, a still-evolving engine to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“We worked on this for six or eight months,” said Stowe, marketing and communications specialist for WG+E. “We want to use this opportunity to highlight what makes Westfield unique and a good place to do business. So many people think Massachusetts stops at 495, but there are a lot of things that are not so great about living in that part of the state — cost of living, high traffic, the cost of buying a piece of land. We wanted to draw attention to the things that make Westfield really attractive for people who are looking to relocate.”

The partners in Go Westfield had been doing that, to varying degrees, in their own ways, she added, but a focused partnership allows them to broadcast the message more efficiently.

“If you’re a site selector, we check a lot of boxes,” Stowe said, citing not only the city’s access to Mass Pike, an airport, and rail service, but its strong inventory of developable land — not to mention the municipal utility.

“If you’re a commercial customer, you pay 18% less than the state average for electricity, and 13% lower for gas rates than the state average,” she added. “If you’re an organization doing manufacturing, that’s significant. We feel that’s a good piece of the story to tell.”

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it. It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?”

So is Whip City Fiber, a division of WG+E that now reaches 70% of residences and businesses with high-speed internet. “The fiber project is a big deal,” she said, noting that customers like not only the speed, but the fact that service comes from a local company, not a national behemoth. “We’ve easily met the targets we had set in the business plan.”

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said early meetings with the Go Westfield partners focused on how to promote the economic-development landscape in Westfield.

“We wanted a way to really persuade businesses to come to Westfield,” she told BusinessWest. “There are the usual assets everyone knows, like the turnpike exchange, airport, and rail, but we wanted to get a group of stakeholders together and come up with a marketing plan for all of it. We’re very excited about this initiative. There’s a local component to it, but the bigger initiative is a push outside the region to get companies to look at Westfield for commercial developments.”

The group has been discussing marketing strategies as well as ideas like industry-specific focus groups.

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it,” she said. “It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?

Westfield also boasts strong schools, a state university, and proximity to numerous other colleges, she added, as well as a chamber of commerce that continually strives to keep businesses informed of state and national trends and developments that could affect them.

In short, the Whip City has a lot going for it, and Go Westfield is just starting to broadcast that message far and wide.

Heart of the City

Meanwhile, the Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, focuses on revitalizing 4.88 acres in a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. The city has also directed funding to revitalize the so-called Gaslight District adjacent to it.

One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017. The transit center was designed to both catalyze related economic development and increase the use of public transportation. The state-of-the-art center includes parking space for four buses with bicycle racks, as well as a bicycle-repair station, which speaks to the proximity of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail only a block away.

The Westfield Redevelopment Authority also demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The city recently issued a request for proposals for the project, taking advantage of the area’s designation as an ‘opportunity zone,’ a state program that provides tax relief for people willing to invest in certain neighborhoods in need of economic development.

“The PVTA project was the first phase of renewal,” said Peter Miller, Westfield’s director of Community Development. “We’re looking for private development to get some mixed-use retail space on the ground floor, and residential space on the top floors.”

Joe Mitchell, the city Advancement officer, noted that Millennials in particular are drawn to urban, mixed-use living, one reason why such projects have popped up around the region in recent years.

“A three-bedroom house and a white picket fence on a half-acre is not what young people are looking for,” he said. “They want a coffee shop downstairs and a bike rack, and being part of a tight-knit community where there’s activity going on right at their doorstep.”

Another $25,000 in state money will soon fund a wayfinding project for downtown, not just to point visitors to destinations off the main thoroughfare but to help them access parking as well. “We have sufficient parking in our downtown, but people don’t always know where it is,” Miller said. “This infusion of money from the state will allow us to better direct people to where the parking is.”

Phelon noted that the city recently switched all on-street parking, which had been a mix of one-hour and two-hour time limits, to two hours across the board — a small change, maybe, but a good example of how quality-of-life issues can be communicated and remedied across departments.

The momentum downtown has spurred some organic growth, too, Mitchell added, noting that Myers Information Systems is relocating there from Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it.

“They’re moving from an urban, walkable space they’ve outgrown in Northampton to buying one of our old buildings and investing private dollars here,” he added. “It was an extremely underutilized building, and they’re converting it into modern office space. They have a real vision for it.”

He doesn’t think Myers will be the last to make that move. “One of the reasons to relocate to Westfield is that we’re at the cusp of something, and people want to be a part of it.”

Back to School

Phelon says Westfield has accomplished more in recent years because of its culture of collaboration. One example is the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent.

At a time when the state is looking for public schools to forge more meaningful pathways to economic development, she added, the alliance puts the Whip City at the forefront of an important trend.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $36.82
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State College, Baystate Noble Hospital, Savage Arms Inc., Mestek Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

She said the next phase could be an adopt-a-classroom program in which area businesses could engage repeatedly with a teacher and his or her students. “I also think we need to get students and teachers into the business world on a regular basis. The work environment is changing so rapidly, with technology and robotics and social media.”

Because of this, she went on, it would benefit teachers to see what employees at area companies do on a day-to-day basis, and how. “That’s what they need to be teaching, so they need to see that.”

The Westfield Education to Business Alliance also facilitates a career fair at Westfield High School that gives students exposure to the types of career opportunities available at local companies — and, more important, what skill sets they will need to take advantage of them.

The goal of the next career fair will be to attract 75 companies, up from 51 last time, to interact with the 500 or so students who show up.

“It’s not a job fair; it’s a career fair,” Phelon stressed. “The message is twofold: for students to see what companies are here, and see that they can go away to college and come back here and get good jobs. It’s also good for these students to talk to these employees about their hiring practices, what degree do I need, should I expect a drug test or a CORI check, what are your procedures. And they could talk to students about internships and co-ops.”

The alliance one of many examples of how Westfield continues to bring people and organizations together to raise the fortunes of all.

“The mayor [Brian Sullivan] has been very supportive of these collaborations,” Miller said. “He made building bridges his theme. That’s how we’ll get the most out of the assets we have — not by operating in silos.”

Phelon agreed. “We have our individual purposes and missions, but there’s a bigger picture of working together and collaborating. It’s such a great city, and we’re fortunate to have the assets we have.”

Now it’s time to let everyone know it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

While Laurie Whitten doesn’t think the recent opening of MGM Springfield, a few miles north over the Massachusetts border, is a negative, neither is she convinced the incoming traffic does much for nearby Enfield, Conn. The same goes for a casino expected to open in East Windsor, Conn. in the spring of 2020.

“For the most part, casinos are pretty much on their own,” said Whitten, Enfield’s recently appointed director of Development Services. “A lot of people think if you’re across the street, you’ll get all sorts of business, but for the most part, people leave and don’t go shopping or out to eat.”

The way she sees it, any benefit to nearby towns, like Enfield, might be in housing or hotel development, as workers new to the area might be looking for somewhere to live, and casino visitors increase demand for hotel rooms. “That’s where the trickle-down would be when it comes to development.”

But Enfield isn’t looking to surrounding towns for energy, she added; instead, it’s busy creating its own — and she’s excited about the future.

Take the planned transformation of the Thompsonville neighborhood on the Connecticut River, with an intermodal transit center as the centerpiece of a walker-friendly village.

Part of this effort is a river-access project to be funded through a $3.4 million Federal Highway Administration grant. The bulk of the money is being used for riverfront improvements, including the construction of a biking and walking path from Freshwater Pond to the riverfront.

In addition, last year, Eversource signed an access agreement with the town to allow environmental site assessment work to be done to determine the extent of contamination on its North River Street property near the station. TRC Solutions is under contract to perform the work.

Depending on the results of that survey, if the site needs to be remediated or capped, the transit center could be looking at a three- to five-year timeline. In the meantime, the state will build a basic rail station, with an elevated, double-tracked platform on each side. Later on, the town will build in some parking, bus facilities, and outdoor recreation, including walking trails and overlook areas so people can enjoy the view of the river.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $33.40
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.40
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

“There are a lot of different things happening down there,” Whitten said. “We’re certainly working toward being prepared for a new train station and focusing on some adapted reuse of dilapidated buildings down there. We will also be adopting new regulations for downtown Thompsonville, promoting mixed use and higher densities in that area.”

Meanwhile, a Complete Streets plan with new bike paths is under consideration, and renovations at the former St. Adalbert School, which stood vacant for 12 years, are almost complete as developer William Bellock turns it into an apartment building with 20 one-bedroom units, less than a quarter-mile from Town Hall.

“When you’re developing transit-oriented development, the idea is to create higher density,” Whitten said. “Millennials, especially, like to live someplace where they don’t need a car. With high density, they can walk to the train station or ride a bike.”

Moving In

Speaking of housing, development in that sector is on the rise, Whitten noted. “We have some high-end apartments under construction on the north end, and we just adopted some new regulations to allow apartments in transition zones along the I-91 corridor — that would be the transition between commercial, industrial, and residential.”

Meanwhile, a design-district overlay was approved for the Hazardville area of town to promote some historic-style achitecture and mixed use, Whitten said. “We’re also working with developers about the reuse or expansion of some of the larger buildings in downtown, and we just approved a large industrial warehouse distribution center on the south end of King Street, in Metro Park North.”

Enfield has seen an influx of manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution businesses over the past few years, which is a positive for a town that continues to diversify away from its traditional reputation as a retail center. The corridors of Routes 220 and 190, bordering Enfield Square Mall, continue to be a bustling mix of restaurants and retail, but the mall itself, heavily buffeted by store departures over the past decade, doesn’t draw nearly the traffic it used to.

An example is Panera Bread, which was recently approved for an outbuilding in the nearby Home Depot plaza — but will be leaving the mall to get there.

“We’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

Still, Enfield’s growth in the manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution sectors, as well as a strong uptick in small and sole-proprietor businesses over the past few years — reflecting an entrepreneurial wave the entire region has experienced — remain positive signs.

So are community-building events like the popular Enfield Regional Farmers Market, which runs every Wednesday from July through mid-October, featuring farm-fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan goods, musical entertainment, and a food truck.

Meanwhile, the Thompsonville Community Garden, established a decade ago by the town of Enfield, the University of Connecticut Master Gardener Program, and a grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, has been a popular program as well.

The garden features 50 raised garden beds, which are rented for the planting season; the rental includes use of tools, seeds, starter plants, compost, water, and educational sessions — and a sense of community for Enfield gardeners who want to grow their own organic vegetables.

Location, Location, Location

Organic growth is something Whitten would like to see on a town-wide basis, of course, noting that Enfield is an attractive location for a number of reasons, including its location between Boston and New York, along I-91, and close to Bradley Airport. “I think there’s a lot of potential in our location,” she told BusinessWest.

That said, she called Enfield a town in transition in some ways, especially when it comes to economic development. “We have a lot of new members on the Town Council, and there’s been a complete reorganization of the Land Use Department. They lose a lot of their top people, so we’re trying to get reorganized and get some good people in there and work as a team.”

Meanwhile, “we’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

And the development potential is there, she added, pointing again to Enfield’s surplus of available land and possible reuse sites. To that end, officials will be looking at establishing some tax-abatement policies to help businesses access some of those opportunities. “We’re going to be here to help them through the process.”

With the Thompsonville transit center on the horizon and the town continuing to leverage its location and amenities, this community that lies between what will eventually be two casinos is betting big on its future as a business and lifestyle destination.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years, an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies, and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms

* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

To encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says that West Springfield’s biggest challenge may be a lack of developable land, which places a priority on maximizing existing real estate.

Like just about everyone else in this region, Will Reichelt has circled August 24 on all his calendars.

That’s the day MGM Springfield opens, as most everyone knows, and it’s a day of high expectations and some anxiety. Especially in West Springfield, where Reichelt has served as mayor for nearly three years now.

West Side isn’t the host city for MGM, but it is certainly among those to be the most impacted by the $960 million development that has gone up just across the Connecticut River.

The Eastern States Exposition will handle MGM’s overflow parking on August 24, with a shuttle running between the two locations. And the annual 16-day Big E will begin only a few weeks after MGM opens, creating considerable talk — as well as that aforementioned anxiety — about just what traffic will be like on Memorial Avenue, I-91, the Turnpike’s exit 4, the Memorial Bridge, Route 5, the North End Bridge, and other arteries in and around the city.

“It’s certainly going to be an interesting weekend and couple of weeks, with the Big E opening three weeks later,” said Reichelt, in a classic bit of understatement. “It will be interesting to see how Big E traffic interacts with MGM traffic.”

He added, as others have, that traffic and parking issues in the wake of MGM Springfield fall into the category of good problems to have, at least from a vibrancy standpoint. And looking beyond August 24 and the days to follow, Reichelt is hoping, and perhaps also expecting, that MGM will generate, in addition to traffic issues, some additional development opportunities.

“It will be interesting to see what happens long term as a result of MGM, especially just over the Memorial Bridge, where there are certainly some development opportunities,” said the mayor, referring to some of the retail areas on the eastern end of Memorial Avenue. “People have talked about a hotel, restaurants, and maybe redevelopment of the whole Memorial Avenue/Main Street area.”

More specifically, he was referring to redevelopment of some vacant or underutilized properties there and in other areas within the community, which has been the basic M.O. for this city for quite some time.

Indeed, unlike neighboring Westfield and many other area communities, West Side is, as they say in development circles, ‘land poor,’ meaning that most all developable parcels have been developed. That goes for residential development — although a few new small projects seem to materialize each year — and especially commercial development.

Most of the projects in that latter category have involved reuse of vacant or underutilized property, and examples abound — from the conversion of the former Yale Genton property and some neighboring homes on Riverdale Street into the site of the massive Balise Honda, to the conversion of the former Boston Billiards site just north on Riverdale Street into a new Marriott Courtyard.

The most recent example is the stunning transformation of a former auto body shop just off Memorial Avenue into the home of Hot Brass, an indoor firearm and bow range that opened its doors in early August.

“It will be interesting to see what happens long term as a result of MGM, especially just over the Memorial Bridge, where there are certainly some development opportunities. People have talked about a hotel, restaurants, and maybe redevelopment of the whole Memorial Avenue/Main Street area.”

Reichelt said MGM could help trigger more developments of this kind on sites ranging from the old Medallion Motel property just over the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge linking the community to Agawam and across from The Big E, to the United Bank building on Elm Street street (the bank is moving across the street into space once occupied by Webster bank), to some properties north of I-91 on Riverdale Street, which are in less demand than those on the south side of the highway.

“South of I-91 is the real hot spot; whenever there’s a vacancy, it usually fills quickly,” said Reichelt, adding that the city’s board goal is to the make the area north of the interstate just as hot.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Reichelt about ongoing efforts to bring more economic development to West Side and make the very most of the property that can be developed.

Developing Story

The ambitious Hot Brass venture, which combines a retail sporting goods store with a 17-lane recreational archery and shooting range, is, indeed, only the latest example of how underutilized properties have found new lives in this community.

And, as the mayor noted, this is out of necessity, because there are very few, if any, developable spaces left in this city, for either residential or commercial development.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,391 (2014)
Area: 17.49 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.05 
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.90
Median Household Income: $54,434
<strong>Median Family Income: $63,940
Type of Government: Mayor, Town Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

“When I was on the Planning Board four years ago, we approved a subdivision, which I assumed would be the last one,” Reichelt recalled. “But then, when I was a lawyer for the city, they approved another one, and I said, ‘that must be the last subdivision in West Side.”

Developers keep finding ways to shoehorn in smaller residential projects, he went on, but on the commercial and industrial side, the city has essentially run out of real estate.

And, as has been the case for some time now, most development — or redevelopment — efforts have been focused on the two main retail thoroughfares, Riverdale Street, home to countless auto dealerships, the massive Riverdale Shops, a cinema complex, several hotels and motels, and more, and Memorial Avenue, home to more auto dealerships, more retail plazas, and, of course, the Big E.

Both are doing very well, and are in seemingly constant motion, development-wise, said Reichelt, adding that over the past few years, Memorial Avenue had added new Fathers & Sons Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, a Chipotle, a new Florence Bank branch, and, most recently, Hot Brass, and a Sketchers outlet store.

Meanwhile, on Riverdale Street, additions to the landscape include the Marriott Courtyard, a new Pride store (the first one with a full-service kitchen), and a Balise carwash, among others.

But there are opportunities on both main drags for additional development, said the mayor.

On Riverdale, these include the site of the closed Bertucci’s restaurant, just south of the new Marriott Courtyard, and some vacant or underutilized property on the north side of the highway.

As for Memorial Avenue, there’s the former Medallion Motel site, but also the closed Hofbrauhaus restaurant, the site of the closed Debbie Wong restaurant (across the street from the Big E), and others.

The United Bank building on Elm Street

The United Bank building on Elm Street, soon to be vacated by the bank, is one of the keys to bringing more vibrancy to the downtown area.

The Medallion Motel site, at the corner of Memorial Avenue and River Street, is intriguing because of its size and proximity to the Big E, although its location, just over the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, a site of persistent traffic congestion, is seen by some as a drawback, said the mayor, adding quickly that reconstruction of the bridge and a broad plan to redo all of Memorial Avenue from the Morgan Sullivan Bridge to the Memorial Bridge may change that outlook.

Work is slated to begin in 2021, said Reichelt, with plans calling for maintaining four lanes between the Memorial Bridge and Union Street, with some turning lanes carved out in the center (lack of such lanes leads to considerable congestion), with three lanes between the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge and Gate 9 of the Big E, with turning lanes added on that stretch as well. Meanwhile, there will be a bike path constructed on the Big E side between the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge and Union Street, with bike lines on both sides between Union Street and the Memorial Bridge.

As for the much-anticipated reconstruction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge itself, that work is expected to commence after this year’s Big E concludes, said the mayor.

Back on Riverdale Street, one of the main goals at present is to stimulate more interest in the section north of the highway. And for many retailers, it remains a much tougher sell.

“We need to help more people understand that north of I-91 is still Riverdale Road and it’s still a high-traffic area,” he explained. “There are many businesses that have been there forever and they’ve done extremely well.”

But while Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue get most of the attention, community leaders are also focusing efforts on an often-overlooked asset — what’s considered the downtown area, the stretch of Elm Street beginning at Park Street.

That section boasts the Majestic Theater, a few restaurants, including B-Napoli, the town library, a few banks, and some retail, and has considerable potential as a destination, said the mayor.

“Every mayor says they want to have a Northampton-like downtown,” he told BusinessWest. “And in a way, our downtown suits itself to that, because we have a huge common on Park Street and a smaller common on Elm Street.”

The downtown section is hampered by a lack of parking, as many downtowns are, he noted, adding that a recent renovation of the municipal lot by City Hall to add more than 100 spaces will help.

One key moving forward is the United Bank building, which sits adjacent to the Majestic Theater and is around the corner from the city’s offices.

Years ago, the space occupied by the bank was home to a number of small retail shops, said the mayor, adding that a similar mixed-use role — with residential as possibly part of the mix — could help bring more people, and more vibrancy, to that section of the city.

Meanwhile, there are a number of municipal projects ongoing, everything from construction of a new elementary school, to infrastructure work including water and sewer projects, to ongoing improvements to Mittineague Park, all aimed at making the city a better place to live and work.

Some Solid Bets

Projecting ahead to August 24 and the days to follow, Reichelt said West Springfield residents, those who commute through the city, and even retailers on Memorial Avenue should be ready for what’s to come because they’ve dealt with Big E traffic for years.

“They know what to expect,” he said, adding that long-term, it’s a little harder to predict just what will transpire.

Overall, for the city across the river from the casino, the changing landscape presents many new opportunities to put some older properties to new and exciting uses.

There’s been a lot of that in West Springfield over the past several years and there are very good odds (yes, that’s a gaming industry term) that there will be much more in the years to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight: Wilbraham

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith say they’d like to see more civic participation in policy discussions and planning town events.

Being pro-business, Jeff Smith says, doesn’t mean letting just any business set up shop in Wilbraham — but it does mean giving every business a fair shake.

Take, for example, Iron Duke Brewing, which is moving to town after a successful but eventually contentious stay at the Ludlow Mills. Because Wilbraham had no zoning for microbrew and brewpub establishments, the town’s Economic Development Initiative Steering Committee (EDICS) recommended a zoning change that eased the path for not just Iron Duke, but also Catch 22 Brewing, which is setting up shop at the former Dana’s Grillroom on Boston Road.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do,” said Smith, the town’s Planning Board chairman, giving one example of how a zoning change can have effects beyond its initial motivation.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22 Brewing] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do.”

“When somebody comes into town and is interested in locating a business here and we don’t have specific zoning for it,” he added, “the Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the town itself take a hard look at the zoning and say, ‘is this the type of operation we’d like to see here? Maybe we should put zoning in place, and we can pitch it to the town, and if it’s not appropriate and the town agrees, they can vote accordingly at town meeting.’”

The same thing happened when the town lifted a long-time moratorium on new gas stations. As soon as that happened, Cumberland Farms bought some real estate in Post Office Park along Boston Road, with plans to open a 24-hour facility.

“We tried to have some foresight,” Smith told BusinessWest, adding that the Route 20 corridor used to have five gas stations, but that number had shrunk to two since the moratorium went into effect. “We said, ‘OK, why don’t we allow gas stations?’ It was something a previous Planning Board had put it in, but we said, ‘why? Things have changed. Maybe this is a good time to take a look at this.’ And as soon as we did, Cumberland Farms came in and located here.”

Bob Boilard, who chairs Wilbraham’s three-member Board of Selectmen, said he’s not an advocate of locking up decent, buildable land in perpetuity, or keeping out entire classes of businesses for no reason.

“There’s got to be a common-sense approach,” he said. “There are people in town that would say, ‘let’s stop now. No more building in Wilbraham.’ But you can’t do that. You have to have a tax base and controlled growth to support the town. It’s a balancing act. Open space is great, and we do a great job with that, but we have to consider each individual thing that comes before us.”

Smith added that town officials try to be both reactive and proactive, recognizing current needs but also anticipating future ones. “We want more businesses and more enterprises to locate here in our business district.”

Open for Business

Boilard said the town has worked in recent years to streamline the process for businesses to set up shop there.

“Planning and Zoning have done a great job adjusting things to make it easier for businesses to come in, and when they do come in, they complement us on the ease of communication, the ease of getting things done,” he said. “We don’t put up brick walls every so many feet for these guys; we try to make it as easy as possible to come in and do business in Wilbraham.”

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.64
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

The nine-member EDICS has been integral to that effort, Smith said. “Let’s say you’re XYZ Inc., and you want to locate your business in Wilbraham. What do you do? What’s your first step? Where do you go? How do you know if there’s zoning for your business?”

One project the group wants to tackle is creating a comprehensive section on the town’s website to answer all those questions.

“They’re proposing updating the website to a more modern platform that’s more user-friendly, and then adding a business or a ‘locating your business here’ page that would essentially have a checklist: the first step is to talk to this person, here’s their phone number, here’s their e-mail.

“That way, people come in prepared,” he went on. “As a member of town government, we hate to have somebody come in unprepared and then have to tell them, ‘hey, you’re going to have to come back to the next meeting, and that’s a month away.’ So if they can get a lot of questions answered and come prepared, it’s smoother for everybody.”

The committee is also looking into creating marketing materials, both online and in print, outlining what Wilbraham has to offer — such as its access to rail and a single tax rate — that make it appealing to locate a business here.

Not every development proposal has gone according to plan. A recent effort to allow a mixed-use development in the town center, in the area of Main and Springfield streets, failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes.

“It’s a very sensitive area,” Smith said. “One thing I’ve learned in my six years on the Planning Board is that people are very hesitant to change. In the long run, I think we take our time in this town and we do things right, and the end result is good. But in the beginning, there’s an air of skepticism toward changing something — which I don’t think is a bad thing.”

But it can be tricky, he went on, when a developer wants to move forward with a proposal that could create added energy in the center, especially when other mixed-use facilities, grandfathered in when the town put a hold on others like it, already exist.

“People understand there’s some vacant buildings there, and we could make changes that would probably make them not vacant and make it more vibrant,” he explained, “but I think there’s a fear that would be a change they may not like. So we have to tread lightly and move carefully with the center of town and make sure we get as much input from the people of the town as possible.”

In the end, he said, town officials didn’t do the best job conveying why such a development would be a positive. “It was a close vote, which is good because there are a lot of people in favor of it, but at the same time it tells me we have more work to do.”

Changing Times

It’s a challenge, Boilard said, to build a more vibrant town in an age when people’s lifestyles have been altered by technology, declining school enrollment, and a host of other factors. “The generations are changing, and society changes, and that happens everywhere.”

For example, Smith said, the Boston Road business corridor was originally built around retail, but bricks-and-mortar retail establishments struggle in the age of Amazon, and the concept of what a downtown or business center looks like today has shifted immeasurably since the 1970s, or even the 1990s.

“When I was a kid, I would get on my bicycle — I lived near Mile Tree School — and I could drive to the center of town. My dentist was there, Louis & Clark filled all of our prescriptions, the gas station would fix your car or come jump your car in your driveway, my pediatrician was right on the road there, the post office was there, and the village store was there, selling sandwiches and stuff. Everything you needed was there.”

Today, he went on, “you don’t see as many kids out riding their bikes. Those things that I mentioned aren’t really there in one convenient package. Things are different. So we’re trying to put in or modify zoning, potentially bringing some mixed-use components or do something to revitalize those areas, and it’s tough to balance that with … I don’t want to say a fear of change, but there’s an apprehension toward change in the wrong direction.”

Boilard said Wilbraham remains an attractive destination for new residents, with a well-run and well-regarded school system, although real estate in town can be pricey. “It can be hard for new families to come in and be able to afford Wilbraham. I wish we could have an impact on that, but it’s the way economics and demographics are.”

That said, several new subdivisions have gone up in recent years, with a trend toward modestly sized houses, which are selling faster than larger homes, and developers are designing projects accordingly, Smith said.

“Residential growth, in my time here, has been pretty consistent — I would say slow but always moving in the right direction,” he explained. “There’s not a ton of available land in town. The last subdivision to go in was an old farm that was in a family for a long time, and it wasn’t being used as a farm anymore. So a developer purchased it and divided it up and put in a subdivision.”

Compared to other towns in the area, he went on, Wilbraham does a good job of protecting and managing open-space and recreation parcels. “Every time a parcel is brought to the town to be purchased or donated as open space, the town is seemingly in favor of those purchases.”

But controlled growth is the goal, he added, and a balance must be struck between commerce and open space. “There’s a tax base that has to be built, and we try to build it with as much business as we can. We’ve turned down pieces of open space offered to the town — ‘no, we’re all set; put it on the open market, develop the property and get some tax revenue going.’”

Getting to Know You

One area Wilbraham does need to improve, both Boilard and Smith said, is in the area of volunteerism and civic involvement.

“Town events are well-attended, and that’s great,” Smith said, citing examples like the Spec Pond fishing derby, the Run for Rice’s 5K, the Thursday night concert series, the revamped Peach Blossom Festival, and the Christmas tree lighting. “But I would love to see more participation in the planning.”

Boilard agreed. “People complain we don’t have an event, but nobody wants to volunteer to run it. It’s always the same core people stepping up to volunteer,” he said, adding that this trend applies to town-meeting attendance as well.

For example, a recent public hearing on raising the minimum smoking age in town to 21 drew mainly support from the residents in attendance. “Then the phone calls started rolling in — ‘I can shoot a bullet in the Army at 18; why are you doing this?’ I said, ‘where were you Monday night? Why didn’t you come in and talk to us?’”

Smith called the numbers at town meetings “painful” — particularly considering the work that officials put into preparing for them. “I like it when there’s an angry mob in here. That’s good. We want some feedback. But participation could be better.”

After all, he and Boilard said, engaged residents are informed residents, all the better equipped to steer Wilbraham into its next phase of controlled growth.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers, and in collaboration, when it comes to promoting a city and its region.

As executive director of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, Moe Belliveau has a good view of what has become one of the region’s more unique and energetic small cities.

“There’s a lot of great stuff here, different stuff,” she told BusinessWest. “I think Easthampton has a very eclectic flavor to it, and that just continues to grow. I believe the community really enjoys that about itself and embraces that part of themselves, and helps to nurture that. It’s lovely to be a part of that.”

From its well-established arts culture to its rehabilitated mill complexes to its walkable, dog-friendly downtown, she said Easthampton is, quite simply, a place residents and businesses are happy to call home. “We even have a pond in the middle of our city — who else has that?”

It’s also a community where a raft of businesses have launched recently — many of them catering to leisure time and quality of life, like arts establishment #LOCAL Gallery; restaurants like Daily Operation, a casual eatery, and Kisara, a Japanese and Korean barbecue; and additions to Eastworks like Prodigy Minigolf and Gameroom, the Coffee Mill, and Puzzled Escape Games.

“I like to say that Easthampton’s hip, cool, wow, and now — as is its chamber,” said Belliveau, who arrived to lead the body four years ago after a stint with the Westfield Business Improvement District. Since then, she has been leading a shift from simply organizing events to a more holistic, collaborative approach that brings value to chamber members and creates more vibrancy in the town’s business community.

In short, the chamber has become not only more member- and community-focused, through events like ‘listening lunches’ with area businesses, but also more collaborative with other area communities and their chambers.

“We’ve continued with our listening-lunch program because it’s a good opportunity for us to hear not only what people like, but what people are perhaps yearning for in their chamber, and how we might be able to do things differently — or even to be made aware of things we might not know about. It’s helpful.”

One development from those sessions was the chamber’s universal gift card, which is redeemable at dozens of area businesses. “The chamber gift card was a direct development from that collaboration, and that continues to grow; it’s really popular,” Belliveau said. “I’m very excited and very proud of that.”

It’s one way Easthampton’s is creating energy and buzz in its growing business community — and it’s far from the only way.

Regional Approach

Take, for example, a new partnership with the Amherst Area and Greater Northampton chambers, called the Hampshire Regional Tourism Council. Among its first accomplishments was the publication last September of the first Hampshire County Tourism Guide, a colorful, comprehensive compendium of the three communities’ restaurants and hospitality businesses, tourist attractions, recreational opportunties, shopping and wellness options, and more.

“I’m really very proud of this; I don’t know how many tourism guides actually have this look and feel,” Belliveau said. “As Easthampton continues to grow into — or already is — a destination city, it’s a really great tool that highlights who we are, what we do, and why we do it.”

The concept behind the three-city collaboration is that Easthampton, Northampton, and Amherst are all known for arts and culture, food, and a generally eclectic mix of businesses that both serve residents and draw tourists — but they’re different from each other in many ways, too, and by promoting themselves as one mini-region, the hope is that all will benefit.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $16.00
Commercial Tax Rate: $16.00
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., Williston Northampton School; National Nonwovens Co.
*Latest information available

“Don’t we all have our own flavor?” she asked rhetorically. “Yet, we add to each other’s energy and strengths, and we work quite well together. We enjoy partnering, and we do it quite often during the year. We’re looking to publish our second edition this coming September, so we’re currently pulling that together.”

Such collaborations, Belliveau said, have always been important to her. “I feel like we all have our own voice and our own character and identity, but I think when we come together, we add value for our members, and there’s strength in numbers.”

Another example is “The Art of Risk,” a women’s leadership conference the Greater Easthampton Chamber presented last fall in collaboration with the Greater Holyoke Chamber. It featured keynote speaker Angela Lussier, founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, a business devoted to helping women find their voice.

“That event was a sold-out success, so we’re looking to do that again,” Belliveau said, referring to the second annual conference, slated for Sept. 28 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, featuring keynoter Valerie Young, an author and public speaker who’s also an expert on the impostor syndrome, a common psychological pattern that breeds doubt and fear in potential leaders, and keeps them from realizing their potential.

The event will also feature morning breakout sessions in “The Art of Self-promotion,” “The Art of Leadership,” “The Art of Balance,” and “The Art of Storytelling,” followed by an afternoon panel featuring local women sharing personal stories of personal or professional risk.

Other workshops organized by the chamber, both alone and in collaboration with other groups, have convinced Belliveau there’s an appetite for such outreaches, especially those that are interactive in design.

“It’s really helped me to see what kinds of information the business community finds helpful. It’s not just sitting all day listening, but adding tools to their toolbox,” she told BusinessWest.

“I like to say it’s not your grandfather’s chamber anymore,” she went on. “What’s really very exciting to me, in addition to these events, is the relationship that we’ve been able to foster and nurture with the city. We value them, and they value us as contributing partners to the economic-development team. So that’s been pretty exciting.”

Art of the Matter

Even the city’s cultural events reflect this desire for collaboration. For example, #LOCAL Gallery will open a new exhibit on July 14. The 12 artists displaying their works in “An Excursion in Color,” organized and curated with the help of color consultant Amy Woolf, will be joined by Prindle Music School owner Dan Prindle and musical guests to provide entertainment. Meanwhile, flowers from Passalongs Farm & Florist will add more aesthetic appeal to the event.

“There’s a lot of great partnerships, a lot of great collaborations going on,” Belliveau said. “A lot of nonprofits like to collaborate and work together, from the schools to the arts community. I really enjoy being a part of that.”

The city also continues see a continued reuse of old mill buildings — as one example, Erin Witmer opened the Boylston Rooms, a quirky meeting and event space, in the Keystone building on Pleasant Street last year. Meanwhile, Easthampton’s three breweries — Fort Hill, Abandoned Building, and New City — continue to grow, while Valley Paddler, launched last year, has been a success offering paddleboats for use on Nashawannuck Pond.

An eclectic mix? For sure. Bealliveau says Easthampton is a community that continues to attract residents and businesses to its navigability, the services offered by a wide range of small businesses, its focus on the arts as an economic driver, and much more. And she plans to continue bringing as many of those entities together as she can.

“Nobody needs to be out in front, if that makes any sense,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re all running in the same race. Actually, it’s not even a race. The goal is the same, and we all have our different perspectives on that, which just makes the endgame all the richer. And I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. It’s exciting.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Agawam Mayor William Sapelli

William Sapelli inherited a long to-do list when he took on his new role as mayor, from infrastructure projects to economic-development concerns, and has only added more items to that list.

Very soon after William Sapelli announced he would be retiring as Agawam’s superintendent of schools — ending four decades of work in education — people started suggesting that he run for mayor that fall.

“They said, ‘you have the skill set — you have a $45 million school budget, which is half the town budget, you deal with 700 employees, you’ve negotiated five contracts, and you know all the city departments,’” recalled Sapelli, who took the suggestions under advisement and eventually took the idea to his family.

At first, he recalled with a laugh, he interpreted their unbridled support as perhaps a loud hint that they weren’t ready to have him home full-time. But soon they convinced him, as did others, that their backing was grounded in the belief that Agawam needed a change — and a fresh perspective — in City Hall. And that he could provide it.

Although he eventually embraced the calls for him to seek the corner office, Sapelli rejected recommendations that he formally announce his intentions before he actually retired almost a year ago (early July, to be exact) because he wanted to avoid any and all suggestions that he might be using the resources of his office as superintendent to help gain the mayor’s chair and focusing on his next job before he finished up in the one he was in.

“I got in late — I was really behind the 8-ball, and people said you can’t get in that late,” said Sapelli, who nonetheless triumphed in the September primary and then the November election. And he attributes that victory, in large part, to his message of needed change and the promise that he can provide it.

“This sounds corny, but I grew up here in town, and I care about this town,” he told BusinessWest. “I personally didn’t like the way things were going; it seemed that elected officials weren’t really getting along. It seemed like things were going off the rails — people not communicating, people sniping at each other — and I thought we could do better, and do better for Agawam.”

Five months in, he said the office is, well, busier than he thought it would be, in part because there are a great many meetings and official functions at which his attendance is required, or at least requested. But another big part of it is that Sapelli inherited a lengthy to-do list, and he’s only added more to it.

Among those line items are a host of important infrastructure projects, especially the rebuilding of the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam to West Springfield. There are also specific business concerns, such as the nagging question about how to inject new life into the tired commercial district known as Walnut Street Extension, home to the now-infamous Games & Lanes, which no longer exists; however, the problem of finding a new use for the property does.

And then, there are broader, more complex business and economic-development concerns, such as Agawam’s notorious — and in many ways debilitating — spot-zoning practices.

“There’s so much spot zoning in Agawam … our system is so archaic,” said Sapelli with some exasperation in his voice. “In most communities, it’s an issue; in our community … well, I’ve had the experts from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission get involved through a grant we received, and they used the word ‘unique’ to describe the problem.”

To address it, Sapelli has created a zoning-review committee, which is expected to make some recommendations in the months to come.

An even bigger issue — although the zoning problem is quite extensive — is the recognized need (on Sapelli’s part, anyway) to make the city more business-friendly.

Walnut Street Extension

Improving the Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution in Agawam.

“People ask how we can become more business-friendly, and one of the ways is to expedite the permitting process,” he explained. “From what I was hearing from individuals who came in and tried to start businesses and get permits for different things was that it took longer than they expected. I thought it was important to go out and try to make this community attractive to businesses.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with Agawam’s mayor (he’s no longer the ‘new mayor’) about the challenge he accepted and how he’s working to fulfill that campaign pledge of bringing positive change to the community.

Learning the Ropes

As he provided a chronology of a career in the Agawam school system that began when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Sapelli said there were a number of stops.

They started with a stint coaching junior-varsity hockey and substitute-teaching assignments at the high school. A year later, he was coaching the varsity team and teaching social studies at the junior high. Later, he taught science for six years, then became assistant principal at the middle school, then an elementary-school principal, assistant superintendent, and, starting in 2011, superintendent.

During the campaign last fall, he encountered — and earned a good deal of support from — people who were students during each one of those stops. When it came to people making such claims about the earliest stages of his career, he admits to having to take their word for it.

“People will say, ‘remember when I had you in school?’” he said. “And I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you looked like this when you were 10 or 12, so I don’t recognize you, but I believe that you were one of my students.”

Support from all those former students and colleagues was certainly a factor in Sapelli’s rather large margin of victory over former City Council President Jimmy Cichetti last November.

As was, he believes, the desire for change in a community that had seen little progress on many of the key issues facing it — and his ability to bring about that change.

“I really thought we could do a better job of having local, city, and state government be a kinder, gentler group, if you will,” he said, “and be able to have open, honest discussions and not take things personally.”

While working to stimulate change and progress, Sapelli is also leading efforts on a number of issues, or fronts, that, as noted, have challenged several of his predecessors.

At or near the top of that list is the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, the rebuilding and widening of which has been talked about for years. State funding has been secured for the project, and a bid should be awarded shortly, said Sapelli, adding that work was to have started this spring.

But it’s already late June, and construction still hasn’t started, said the mayor, adding that, since work is due to be halted during the 17-day run of the Big E — which is just a few hundred yards to the east of the bridge — in September, there is now a good chance the project may not see much progress this calendar year.

“They may be doing some preliminary set-up work this fall,” said Sapelli, adding quickly that there will be more definitive timelines for this project emerging shortly. “But I don’t think anything major will happen until next spring.”

The bridge, projected to be a two-and-a-half-year project, is an important initiative, he went on, referring to the traffic bottlenecks that are regular — and problematic — for residents and businesses trying to attract people to that area. And during the Big E, the traffic problems reach nightmare proportions.

To ease those problems, the city plans to improve not only the bridge intersection, but also the one a few hundred yards to the north at Springfield and Walnut streets.

Meawhile, improvement of another key intersection, in Feeding Halls on Route 187, is on the drawing board — it has been for some time, actually, said the mayor, adding that is part of approximately $8 million in road, sidewalk, and intersection improvements that will be undertaken city-wide.

While addressing those infrastructure matters, there are a number of specific business and economic-development-related issues that demand attention as well, said Sapelli.

Chief among them is the ongoing issue of Walnut Street Extension. The Games & Lanes property has been razed, said the mayor, and the property’s owner reports there has been some interest, but nothing likely to translate into redevelopment in the near future.

Meanwhile, that property is just part of the story. The Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution. Last spring, the City Council first rejected a $5.3 million streetscape-improvement project for that area and then a subsequent, scaled-down, $3.6 million initiative.

The strategy moving forward, said Sapelli, is to create what’s known as a DIF (district improvement financing) program for that area. With a DIF, a community can pledge all or a portion of tax increments — additional tax revenue stemming from development or increases in property value — to fund district improvements over time.

“That money gets set aside and earmarked strictly for development in that area that’s mapped out, and that area alone,” said the mayor. “It’s a way of creating a fund to improve that depressed area without using taxpayer dollars or increasing taxes on the people in that area.”

A DIF is a close cousin of the better-known TIF, whereby municipalities may grant property-tax exemptions to landowners of up to 100% of the tax increments for a fixed period. Agawam intends to use both DIFs and TIFs to generate economic development, said Sapelli.

Other specific initiatives include redevelopment of the former Buxton property, later Southworth Paper and Turners Falls Paper, on Main Street, said the mayor, adding that the emerging plan is to subdivide the sprawling plant and attract multiple tenants.

There are also the many smaller retail centers and strip malls within the community, he went on, adding that the town has seen some new businesses come in and fill vacancies, and the goal is to attract more.

As for work on the town’s archaic zoning, Sapelli said his administration is “attacking” the problem.

“It’s going to be a big job, so we’re taking it little bites at a time,” he noted, adding that the Planning Commission has been a big help in this regard. “But we’re going to get it done.”

By the Book

Sapelli said he’s not sure if he’s the only the school superintendent to move the corner office in this region in recent times. But he does know that his route is certainly one that’s not well-traveled.

As his supporters note, he brings considerable experience to the job and knowledge of city departments and how they operate. Those skills have certainly helped him make the transition and advance many different kinds of initiatives.

But his comments — and his body language — convey the message that behind every challenge … there are many more challenges.

He says he’s up for them, because of that dedication to the town where he grew up, and also because he brings a new school of thought to managing this community — literally and figuratively.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

An architect’s rendering of the Ludlow Mills complex, redevelopment of which is an ongoing process.

An architect’s rendering of the Ludlow Mills complex, redevelopment of which is an ongoing process.

Eric Nelson said he recently had cause to look over the occupancy permit issued to Westmass Area Development Corp. for the property now known as Ludlow Mills.

The date on the document — April 2012 — gave him both pause and more evidence that time does, indeed, fly.

Yes, it’s been more than six years since this ambitious project — a blend of both brownfield and greenfield development — was launched, and, for the most part, it is on schedule, said Nelson, president of Westmass for roughly half the duration of this effort.

And by on schedule, he was referring to the pace of development, or redevelopment, at this complex of 60 buildings and adjoining undeveloped land. When it started the clock back in 2011 when the property was actually acquired, Westmass said this would be a 20-year project that would generate $300 million in public and private investments, more than 2,000 jobs, and a more than $2 million increase in municipal property taxes.

To date, there have been several high-profile initiatives on the site, most notably the building of a new HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital ($28 million), WinnDevelopment’s overhaul of the structure known as Mill 10 into over-55 housing ($24 million), and several smaller developments.

And there is more on the drawing board, most notably WinnDevelopment’s planned conversion of Mill 8, the so-called Clock Tower Building — because it’s home to the clock tower that is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in this community — into a mixed-used project featuring commercial space on the ground floor and more housing in the floors above. That’s a $50 million project, according to current but very preliminary estimates, that was announced nearly two years ago.

“So far, we’ve either constructed or leveraged $127 million in private and public investments,” said Nelson, tallying up the two completed projects, the announced Clock Tower initiative, and a host of smaller line items, if you will, such as brownfield cleanup, infrastructure work, and other publicly funded initiatives.

The next key milestone for the project is the construction of Riverside Drive, which will open up approximately 60 acres of pre-permitted light-industrial property in the easternmost area of the mill site. A $3.5 million MassWorks grant from the state was earmarked for the project, and Westmass and town officials are working with congressional leaders to secure a matching $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to cover the $7 million cost of the roadwork.

The Ludlow Mills project is on schedule, if not ahead of it, in another respect, said Town Planner Doug Stefancik. This would be what could be called the trickle-down effect to the town and the region in terms of jobs and other benefits.

Doug Stefancik says the ‘trickle-down effect’ from redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills complex is already in evidence.

Doug Stefancik says the ‘trickle-down effect’ from redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills complex is already in evidence.

That list would have to include the riverwalk that was inspired by the project and has become a popular recreational facility within the town, as well as the jobs created and kept in Ludlow by the mill project (HealthSouth would certainly fall into that category), the new housing option of the form of Building 10 (many of those with that address were already town residents) and the promise of more at the Clock Tower Building, and early signs of additional vibrancy and new businesses to support those residents and business tenants at the mill.

“As the mills develop, they will generate additional interest outside that area,” he explained. “That’s because now, you’re putting people down at the mills; you have people who are 55 and over in that housing project, and that’s going to carry over into the community.”

Within walking distance, he added, are a post office, a library, restaurants and shops on East Street, and convenience stores. “There is a trickle down; people are getting into their routines [at Mill 10], and it’s going to be a positive for the whole area.”

The mill project is the story in Ludlow, but it’s not the only story, said Stefancik, adding that the community continues to add new residential projects — it has large amounts of developable land, and as the housing market continues to build momentum, more building permits are being issued — and there are infrastructure projects planned that should spur more private investment.

Chief among them is a $6 million project to improve the aptly named Center Street, the town’s main commercial throughfare and the one that handles traffic getting onto and coming off turnpike exit 7 (more about that later).

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus onto Ludlow and especially a project that recalls the town’s past and will play a huge role in its future.

Milling About

As he talked about the mill project, Nelson said there are obviously a lot of moving parts, and the broad goal is to keep the initiative moving so that those ambitious goals for everything from jobs to tax revenue can be met.

And the construction of Riverside Drive is a linchpin to those efforts, he said, adding that there is an existing road, but it is not adequate to support development of the 60 acres of greenfield in the Ludlow Mills master plan.

The MassWorks grant, secured with the help of State Sen. Eric Lesser and state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, was a big step forward in the effort to secure the needed federal funds, said Nelson.

“It’s a pretty effective argument when you can say to grant-funding agencies, ‘you’re going to pay 50% because there’s another entity that will kick in 50%,’” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a very competitive environment for grants, and it helps to have that kind of support from the state.”

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.01
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.01
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital; Mass. Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

As noted earlier, there has been considerable momentum created at the site since it was acquired by Westmass. The first triumph was the HealthSouth project, which amounted to new construction, but with use of many materials from the mill complex itself.

And last fall, the Mill 10 over-55 project opened to considerable fanfare. The complex is fully occupied, and there is, according to some reports, a lengthy waiting list for units that do become available.

Not all has gone according to plan, most notably the very public pending loss of high-profile tenant Iron Duke Brewery. A disagreement developed between tenant and landlord concerning the former’s taproom, which, Westmass argued, had become more of a tavern, attracting large numbers of patrons taking up a considerable amount of the mill’s available parking spaces.

The discord has been marked by acrimony, considerable press coverage, and even a little humor — Iron Duke created a brew called ‘Eviction Notice Black IPA’ at one point — and the company is apparently set to take its act to Wilbraham when its lease expires.

But there is still plenty of forward movement at the historic site, developed by Ludlow Manufacturing and Sales Co., which made a variety of products out of Indian-grown jute and employed more than 4,000 people at its high-water mark.

The goal moving forward is to have people working, living, shopping, dining, recreating, and receiving a wide range of services at the site, said Nelson.

And housing will be a big part of that mix, he noted, adding that the success story that is the Mill 10 project provides ample evidence that there is a need for more housing, including units in the affordable, or subsidized, category, and there are 68 of those among the 75 units at Mill 10.

Actually, what’s planned for the Clock Tower Building is what’s called ‘workforce housing,’ meaning that it will not be for those over 55 exclusively, and will be priced for teachers, firefighters, and others at the lower ends of the pay scale.

Nelson noted that $300,000 in Massachusetts historical tax credits have been secured for the project, said Nelson, an important foundation on which to build in the challenging task of financing the initiative.

Meanwhile, there are other forms of progress on the site, he said, including early movement toward locating a restaurant on the property, one that will have views of the river, and reuse of more of the so-called stock houses once used to store jute and other raw materials.

There are roughly 30 of them, and maybe two dozen are occupied by companies doing everything from precision machining to car-seat repair, said Nelson, adding that the goal is to bring more of them into use and thus continue that process of creating a critical mass of people and businesses that generates more traffic at the mill and, ultimately, more momentum.

“The residential component of Mill 10 presents opportunities for other uses that might come in there and pivot off that residential component,” he told BusinessWest. “If we get a critical mass, and HealthSouth certainly helps with this, we get more traffic, more interest, and more people are exposed to the mill; we’re trying to get more interest from that 8-to-5 window.”

And as momentum swells inside the mill, there is a trickle-down effect, said Stefancik, noting, as just one example, that the river walk has indeed become a popular new attraction in town.

“A lot of people now have that as part of their walking routine,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the amenity is drawing people of all ages and making the river something it really hasn’t been for some time — a community resource.

The town is looking to create more momentum with the planned reconstruction of Center Street (Route 21), a project that will include work on the roadway, shoulders, sidewalks, curbs, drainage, and more.

This will be a $6 million project that bring some inconvenience to people traveling on this main commercial throughfare, but ultimately, it will improve traffic flow through the city. Work is scheduled to start this summer.

Overall, there have been a number of new developments in recent years, he explained, listing everything from solar-energy installations — three of them in all — to new condominium and subdivision projects to another brewery, Vanished Valley, all providing ample evidence that Ludlow is a place where people want to live, work, and even generate electricity.

Bottom Line

Time really does fly, and the Ludlow Mills project offers plenty of evidence to that effect.

A project that was launched six years ago amid considerable fanfare and expectation is, as Nelson noted, on schedule when it comes to those measurables such as a jobs, tax dollars, and public and private investment.

It is also on schedule, as Stefancik said, when it comes to the trickle-down effect and creating more momentum within the community.

And, by all indications, the project — and the community — will only build on what has already been accomplished.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Northampton’s downtown, Amy Cahillane says, is nothing if not eclectic.

“We have a great mix of businesses,” said the director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., a two-year-old organization dedicated to boosting vibrancy in the city’s center. “We have a lot of different clothing stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars — there’s a lot of room to find your niche here.”

She said business owners downtown are very much a network of mom-and-pop outfits that take pride in the district’s economic vibrancy and work hard to welcome new shop owners into the fold as they’re launching their enterprises.

“We’re a community that really works hard to make things attractive and make sure there’s stuff to do downtown, and welcome people in our downtown. We’re not just a Walmart and a Target and a parking lot.”

It’s a place, Cahillane said, where small-business owners, many of them first-time entrepreneurs, have no qualms about asking each other about the smallest details, from the best point-of-sale systems to how to keep customers coming in despite a raft of construction projects making it more difficult than usual to get around and find parking.

“All of our small businesses know it’s tough to take that risk and open your own business,” she said. “Business owners who have been around 30 years have had these conversations a million times — they’re very happy to share information, share stories, and lend support. Nobody wants to see a vacant storefront; people want to support other fellow business owners that are taking that gamble. And a lot of times, these business owners are our neighbors or friends, or kids of our friends.”

Aimee Francaes, who opened Belly of the Beast a year ago with her partner, Jesse Hassinger, can vouch for the support of downtown businesses, adding that such an atmosphere suits a restaurant that has forged some other important relationships — with local farms.

“The concept is ‘comfort food mindfully made,’ she said, noting that all meats are sourced from farms throughout the Northeast — and are smoked and cured on site — and 90% of produce in season comes from the Valley, or just over the border in surrounding states.

“We’re very much focused on being part of the community,” she went on. “And we feel like the community has really welcomed us and brought us into the fold. People tend to be very warm and welcoming, and happy to have us here, and happy to have us so active with local farms. Being on Main Street, right across from Thornes, gives us wonderful visibility.”

Speaking of Thornes Marketplace, which houses its own eclectic range of small businesses, it recently undertook a major renovation of its iconic front entrance, making changes both aesthetic and aimed at preserving the building’s historic elements.

It’s the sort of project that pleases the DNA, a voluntary organization open to property owners, businesses, and city residents, whose members work to improve the business and cultural strength of the downtown area through investments in programming, beautification, and advocacy.

The DNA handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like the first Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales. The city has also given the DNA a full-time worker who cleans and maintains public property in the downtown business district.

Beyond that, Cahillane said, “we do advocacy, and we make sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall, that people feel their voice is heard, and that there are public meetings and community forums on issues that will impact downtown, so everybody has a chance to voice their opinions and thoughts.”

The organization rose up after the dissolution of the Northampton Business Improvement District, and has since taken under its umbrella events and projects once handled by the BID and other entities.

“We’re always looking to do new events and create new partnerships,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re open to it all. The focus this year is to tighten up events we already do, but we’re always game to bring new stuff into the fold.”

Positive Trends

Several years into a strong regional economy, indicators such as property taxes, meals-tax revenue, and the number of visitors to the city show plenty of life, and Northampton’s downtown district, home to unique retailers, eclectic dining choices, and active arts organizations, reflects that health.

It can be slightly more difficult to navigate the area, however, thanks to a good reason — the city’s investment in infrastructure on Main and Pleasant streets, which includes ongoing roadwork and utility upgrades, supporting, among other developments, two housing complexes going up on Pleasant Street. Work along that thoroughfare also includes a small park, more parking spaces, and improved sidewalks and bike lanes.

Northampton
at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.04
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
*Latest information available

Cahillane said new businesses like Belly of the Beast have entered this landscape with aplomb, while occasional special events shine a spotlight on other businesses, like Sutter Meats on King Street, which ran a successful, two-day pop-up event in conjunction with the Little Truc food truck, serving up pho to sellout crowds.

Typically, she added, retail establishments participate enthusiastically in special events downtown — such as a fundraiser for Hampshire County Friends of the Homeless, in which music groups were stationed downtown, performing and passing the hat — but it’s harder for restaurants to do the same.

“The retailers are always game for everything. The restaurants, when we have events, are so busy with the people who come downtown for these events that it’s hard for them to also simultaneously staff a second, separate thing on that same day. So we try to bring the people downtown and then encourage them to eat at the restaurants. But they’re very supportive of our organization.”

Homestead, which set up shop in the former Ibiza Tapas location on Strong Avenue, is another fairly recent addition to the restaurant scene.

“They are doing very well and have made a lot of local relationships to bring products into their restaurant that are locally sourced,” Cahillane said, before adding that such a designation is par for the course in this city.

“I would say just about every restaurant in our downtown does some version of locally sourced,” she noted. “We have thought about ‘let’s do some sort of downtown festival where each restaurant could feature maybe a locally sourced dish,’ but that’s their whole menu at every restaurant. That’s not a Northampton festival; that’s an everyday reality. But some of them have had some really interesting or unique things that they have done with those local partnerships.”

Cahillane added that there should be more news of new businesses on the horizon. “They’re not ready to make it public yet, but I’d say, over the next six months, there will be some exciting storefronts popping up.”

That’s always a welcome development, she said, because even Northampton, known regionally and beyond for its downtown life, does grapple with occasional vacant storefronts. But in context, and relative to the struggles of many other communities, Paradise City is in a good place.

“I think it’s a great downtown,” she said, “and I think people are looking to come downtown.”

Making Contact

To cultivate that spirit, the DNA conducts monthly meetings with downtown businesses on a variety of topics.

“That’s a great opportunity for them do some networking with new businesses — and older businesses, too — and talk about things that might be mundane to the outside person, but are still important,” Cahillane said. “Recently, there was going to be construction, and some of them wanted to know how people dealt with the scaffolding outside and putting a banner on it. Other businesses were able to say, ‘make sure it’s really big, and make sure there’s not a lot of words on it, because no one’s going to stop and read it.’ So, things like that, which would not necessarily occur to me, are real issues, and we’re able to facilitate some of those conversations.”

Thornes Market

These connections are important in the big picture — one in which individual success stories become shared successes, she added.

“There is a feeling that all boats rise with the tide, that having a beautiful downtown can only help encourage people to come downtown, and there’s a recognition that is only going to happen if everybody pitches in.”

After all, Cahillane noted, Northampton isn’t the only downtown destination in the region, and shouldn’t rest on its laurels or take its visitors for granted.

“We’re fortunate to live in the Valley where there are a lot of great communities, and there are some, like Turners Falls and Easthampton, that are becoming up-and-coming, hip, trendy places to go and hang out,” she said. “Then there’s the casino that’s opening in downtown Springfield.

“We love our downtown,” she went on, “but we don’t want to just assume that everybody else knows and loves it, and I think you risk getting stagnant and a little boring if you don’t work to improve or at least maintain what you already have. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Francaes appreciates the effort, as she does the business owners downtown, from the owners of Thornes Marketplace to established restaurateurs, who acted as informal business consultants when she and Hassinger were getting ready to open their doors.

“We haven’t talked to anyone who hasn’t been supportive,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s part of the reason we chose Northampton — that vibe and warm, welcoming spirit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Downtown Greenfield may look the same as it did decades ago, in many respects, but it has evolved considerably and morphed into a true neighborhood.

Downtown Greenfield may look the same as it did decades ago, in many respects, but it has evolved considerably and morphed into a true neighborhood.

Greenfield Mayor William Martin acknowledged that it isn’t exactly a scientific measure of either his downtown’s vibrancy or the efficiency of his long-term strategic plan for the central business district. But it certainly works for him.

He’s being told there’s a parking problem downtown. Actually, he’s been told that for some time. Until recently, the commentary involved the east end of that district by Town Hall, and the chorus was so loud and so persistent that the community is now building a 272-lot parking garage in that area, due to open in the fall.

But now, he’s also hearing that complaint about the east side of downtown, and he’s expecting to hear it a lot more with the opening of the Community Health Center of Franklin County on the site of the old Sears store on Main Street, a facility that will bring more than 100 clients and employees to that location every day.

In the realm of municipal government, parking problems generally, but certainly not always, fall into that category of the proverbial good problem to have, said the mayor, adding that a far worse problem is to have no parking woes — not because you have plenty of parking, but because no one is coming to your downtown.

And that was more the state of things in Greenfield for some time, Martin intimated, putting the accent on ‘was.’

Indeed, while Main Street may look pretty much the same as it did a few decades ago, at least at a quick glance, it is vastly different, and in some very positive ways, said the mayor, adding that his administration’s broad strategy has been to bring people downtown for goods and services and let this critical mass trigger economic development on many levels. And it’s working.

“We thought that, if we can bring people downtown and provide what they need, the free market will take care of people want,” he said, adding that the theory has been validated with everything from new restaurants to live entertainment to offices providing acupuncture and cardiology services.

Jim Lunt agreed. Now the director of GCET (Greenfield Community Energy and Technology), a municipal high-speed Internet provider, and formerly director of Economic Development for the community, he said the downtown has evolved considerably over the past decade or so.

Getting more specific, he said it has morphed from a traditional retail district, as most downtowns are, into more of a combination entertainment district and home for small businesses and startups.

“We’ve focused on small businesses that we can bring in, and we’ve worked a lot to build up the creative economy; our downtown, like many downtowns, looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago,” Lunt told BusinessWest. “There are a lot more restaurants, a lot more opportunities for more social gathering, as opposed to what people would think of as traditional shopping.”

In addition to social gathering, there is also vocational gathering, if you will, in the form of both new businesses and also a few co-working spaces that are bringing a number of entrepreneurs together on Main Street.

To get that point across, Lunt, sitting in what amounts to the conference room in Town hall, simply pointed toward the window, a gesture toward the building next door, the Hawks & Reed Entertainment Center, which, in addition to being a hub of music, art, and culture, is also home to Greenspace CoWork.

That space, on the third floor, is now the working address for writers, a manuscript editor, a few coaches, a social-media consultant, and many others, and has become, said Lunt, maybe the best example of how Greenfield has put the often long-unoccupied upper floors of downtown buildings back into productive use.

MJ Adams, who succeeded Lunt as director of Economic Development, agreed, and she summoned another term to describe what downtown has become: neighborhood.

She said it has always been that to some extent, but it is now even moreso, with more living options and other amenities in that area.

“We’re starting to look on downtown as more of a neighborhood,” she explained. “We’ve always looked at it as the civic and service center for the county, but people are starting to perceive downtown Greenfield as a neighborhood that has a mix of housing styles, is attractive to a wide range of people, especially young people, has a lot to offer, and is very walkable.”

Greenfield didn’t get to this state overnight, said those we spoke with, noting that the process has been ongoing and more strategic in nature since the official end of the Great Recession and the arrival of Martin in the corner office (both of which happened in 2009).

Mayor William Martin says his broad strategy since being elected a decade ago has been to transform downtown into a hub for a wide range of services and make it a true destination.

Mayor William Martin says his broad strategy since being elected a decade ago has been to transform downtown into a hub for a wide range of services and make it a true destination.

That strategy has involved a number of tenets, everything from creation of GCET, which gives downtown Greenfield an important asset in a county where high-speed Internet access is a luxury, not something to be taken for granted, to a focus on making downtown a destination for a wide gamut of services, from education to healthcare.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest examines how these pieces have come together, and also at how they have positioned Greenfield for continued growth, vibrancy, and maybe even some more parking issues — the ‘good-problem-to-have’ variety.

Hub of Activity

To explain his broad strategy for Greenfield’s downtown, Martin essentially turned the clock back more than 200 years. Sort of.

Back in those days, he explained, Greenfield, anointed the county capital, was a supplier of goods and most services to the many smaller communities surrounding it.

Small steamships and rail would bring goods north on the Connecticut River to Greenfield, he explained, and residents of surrounding towns would make their way to the center of Franklin County to get, well, pretty much whatever they needed.

“I consider that a tradition and also a responsibility,” said Martin, now serving his fourth term. “And that’s what we’ve based our downtown on — providing what people need.”

It also has always done that with regard to government functions, he said, citing everything from the county courthouse, post office, and jail to Greenfield’s library, the largest in Franklin County. But Martin’s goal was to broaden that role to include education, healthcare, and more.

And specific economic-development initiatives, technology, societal changes, the community’s many amenities, and some luck have helped make that goal reality.

In short, a large number of pieces have fallen into place nicely, said those we spoke with, enabling downtown Greenfield to become not only a destination, or hub, but also a home — for people and businesses across a diverse mix of sectors.

These pieces include:

• A burgeoning creative economy that features a number of studios, galleries, and clubs featuring live music;

• A growing number of restaurants, in many categories, that collectively provide a critical mass that makes the city a dining destination of sorts. “There are 13 different ethnic restaurants, there’s some really good bars, several places for live music that weren’t here just a few years ago, and art galleries,” said Lunt. “I think that’s the biggest change downtown”;

• Greenfield Community College, which has steadily increased its presence downtown with a campus that brings students, faculty, administrators, and community leaders to the Main Street facilities;

• The community health center, which will bring a host of complementary services, including primary care, dental, and counseling for emotional wellness together under one roof in the downtown, where before they were spread out and generally not in the central business district;

• Other healthcare services. In addition to the clinic, a cardiologist has taken over an old convenience store downtown, said the mayor, noting that there is also an acupuncturist, a holistic center, a massage therapist, and other healthcare businesses in that district; and

• Traditional retail, of which there is still plenty, including the landmark Wilson’s Department Store.

Actually, these pieces haven’t just fallen into place by accident, said Martin, noting, again, that they have come into alignment through a broad strategic plan and specific initiatives designed to make the downtown more appealing and practical for a host of businesses, as well as number of existing qualities and amenities.

“We decided that we should do everything we can to provide the infrastructure necessary to attract people and entities when the economy turned,” he explained. “And we worked on a number of things that were real problems.”

High-speed Internet access was and is a huge component of this strategy, said Lunt, noting that it has been directly responsible for a number of businesses settling in the city.

Meanwhile, other parts of that strategic initiative include renewable-energy projects that have helped bring down the cost of energy; creation of a Massachusetts Cultural District, which has made the community eligible for certain grants; a façade-improvement project that has put a new face on many properties downtown, and many others.

Destination: Greenfield

The community already had a number of strategic advantages when it came to attracting both businesses and families, said Lunt, noting that, overall, while Greenfield’s location in rural Franklin County is limiting in some ways — contrary to popular opinion, there are actually few available parcels for large-scale developments, for example — it brings advantages in many others.

From left, MJ Adams, Mayor William Martin, and Jim Lunt all see many positive signs in Greenfield’s downtown.

From left, MJ Adams, Mayor William Martin, and Jim Lunt all see many positive signs in Greenfield’s downtown.

Elaborating, he said that many younger people prefer a rural setting to an urban one — for both living and working — and can find most of what they’re looking for in Greenfield.

That list includes a lower cost of living than they would find in Boston, Amherst, or Northampton; outdoor activities ranging from hiking to whitewater rafting; culture; a large concentration of nonprofits serving the county; and, yes, high-speed Internet access, something people might not find 20 minutes outside of downtown.

“It’s a beautiful area, and real estate is quite affordable compared to much of the rest of the state,” said Lunt. “And the Springfield-Hartford metropolitan area is now 1.2 million, and that’s not that far down the road; a lot of people would happily commute for 45 minutes to live here and get to jobs there.”

This combination of factors has attracted a number of young professionals, many of whom may have gone to college in Boston or another big city and started their careers there, but later desired something different, said Adams.

It has also attracted entrepreneurs, said Lunt, including several video-game developers, many of whom now share a business address — co-working space known as Another Castle.

Located on Olive Street in space that until recently housed the Franklin County registry of Deeds, it became home to the video-game developer HitPoint, which was located in Greenfield, relocated to Springfield, and has now moved back. And it has created a co-working space that enables other small game designers to take advantage of shared equipment and facilities, effectively lowering the cost of doing business.

Moving forward, the town’s simple goal is to build on the considerable momentum it has created through a number of initiatives. These include work to redevelop the former First National Bank building, vacant for decades and the last of the properties on the stretch as Bank Row to be given a new life.

The town’s redevelopment authority has site control over the parcel, said Lunt, adding that the next steps involve working with the state, private grant writers, and the city to acquire funds to convert the property into a downtown cultural center to be used for everything from a farmers’ market to perhaps a museum of Greenfield history.

If all goes according to plan, all the properties on Bank Row will be back in productive use for the first time in 40 years, he told BusinessWest.

Another initiative is the parking garage, which has been years in the making, noted the mayor, noting that it took several attempts to secure funding help from the state for the project.

The facility will ease a well-recognized problem, exacerbated by the new county courthouse in that area, and provide yet another incentive for people to come to downtown Greenfield.

As for parking at the other end of Main Street … well, that’s a good problem to have. For now, anyway.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]