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.
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.
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
Area: 28.2 square miles
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.
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]