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Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

This Community Within a Community Is a Constantly Changing Picture

Back in 1997, Will Bundy and his wife, Paula, had a vision for the sprawling vacant mill in downtown Easthampton that had most recently been home to Stanley Home Products — to not only lease space to wide array of businesses, but create both a destination and a community. That vision has become reality, but this canvas, known as Eastworks, is still being filled in.

By Elizabeth Sears

The mill at 116 Pleasant St. in Easthampton was looking for a new purpose when Stanley Home Products shut down after 40 years of operation. The former mill had seen a variety of owners throughout the century, starting with West Boylston Manufacturing Co. in 1908. General Electric and even the U.S. Department of War had at one point called this building theirs.

Over the past quarter-century, 116 Pleasant St. has transformed into something entirely new, and it is a picture that is constantly changing and adding new dimensions.

“When we started, 25 years ago this March, the idea of the mill district was a very distant thought and idea, and so I feel like the artists and businesses and residential tenants who took a chance on Eastworks in its bare-bones stages really helped to form and define what the mill district could become,” said Will Bundy, owner and managing partner of Eastworks, referring to the broader effort to transform a number of Easthampton’s old mills into a home for artists and an eclectic mix of businesses.

When Bundy and his wife, Paula, bought the property, their vision was a broad one, and it involved not only filling its vast spaces, but creating both a destination and a community. And while the vision has become a reality, it is still very much an intriguing work in progress.

Heather Beck

Heather Beck says she’s developed not only a gratifying business at Eastworks, but many meaningful relationships.

Certainly one appeal of Eastworks, where it all started, is the sheer amount of space offered in the building. The former mill has nearly 500,000 square feet of space, most all of it with high ceilings and large windows, many with views of nearby Mount Tom. The property has become home to a wide range of businesses looking for room to grow in unique, comparatively inexpensive spaces.

Ventures like Easthampton Clay, a pottery school and studio that set up at Eastworks late last year. It offers classes, individual and private group lessons, workshops, and memberships that rent out shelf space and allow people 24-hour access to the studio.

“When we started, 25 years ago this March, the idea of the mill district was a very distant thought and idea, and so I feel like the artists and businesses and residential tenants who took a chance on Eastworks in its bare-bones stages really helped to form and define what the mill district could become.”

“We had four studios at one point, but they were all little spaces, and I just felt like that wasn’t conducive to community,” said Liz Rodriguez, owner of the venture. “I wanted us all together; I felt like the students really benefited from seeing what the members were doing. We occupy a lot of space in the building now.”

Eastworks is assuredly more than just an awe-inspiring building. What really brings the structure to life is the people who are occupying the space — a quality that has continued to grow and thrive throughout the years — as well as the sense of community that prevails, as we’ll see.

And while Eastworks has become a unique success story, there are chapters still to be written, said Bundy, noting that he still has roughly 100,000 square feet to be developed.

Efforts to bring that space to life are gaining momentum, most notably with the addition of another restaurant, Daily Operations, which opened its doors on Feb. 11.

“The mill district is becoming so vital and is changing so much that we, at least Eastworks, were looking at how do we finish our work,” said Bundy, noting that he is looking to meet an emerging need within the region by adding more residential units at Eastworks, complimenting the artists’ lofts on the top floor.

“We have a model that works; we have a very dynamic arts and entrepreneurial community, we have a significant nonprofit community,” he said of the current mix of tenants. “The next phase is … trying to create some additional housing in Easthampton, which is a really critical and important issue. Somewhere on our property, we’re looking at bringing in up to 150 units of housing.”

Easthampton Clay to Eastworks

The large amount of space available was a big selling point in bringing Easthampton Clay to Eastworks.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest revisits Eastworks 25 years after it was conceptualized to see how this community within a community continues to grow and evolve.

 

Golden Opportunity

Heather Beck is a fine jeweler, metalsmith, and educator who runs Heather Beck Designs at Eastworks. A highlight of Beck’s business is something she calls “legacy jewelry” — made from family heirlooms that are repurposed into new pieces. Her clients get to carry the memory of their loved one with them through the new piece of jewelry while also helping to positively contribute to the environment through ethically sourced, recycled jewelry.

Beck is one of many tenants who spoke of the closeness that can be felt in the Eastworks community, and how she is aware that many tenants have become friends with each other and have stuck together through all the happenings of both the pandemic and regular work life.

“Erin McNally of Tiny Anvil, she’s down the hall, she’s one of my best friends … I get to have lunch with her and Trevor of Healy Guitars,” she said. “We get together almost every day for lunch, and we talk about our days, what’s going on with clients. We call ourselves the ‘lunch bunch.’ It’s an invaluable resource to have them in the building and down the hall for support.”

Beck said most of her custom clients are people who were referenced to her from other businesses at Eastworks or people she was able to meet at the property.

“Eastworks has such a great vibe … you’re always meeting new and interesting people,” he said. “I also love to ask people if they’ve been to Eastworks, because if you haven’t been here and seen the grandness of this old mill building that’s been converted into all these spaces, it’s just a really neat space to walk through.”

After a single visit and a few conversations with tenants at Eastworks, what becomes clear is a synergetic relationship between the businesses and their clienteles. The strong community aspect of Eastworks is abundantly apparent and reflects the spirit of the city of Easthampton itself.

“There are a lot of very dynamic parts in the puzzle that make us even stronger. That has to do with Easthampton, and it also happens to do with us having the kind of space people are seeking out,” said Bundy, adding that the unique, wide-open spaces have attracted many different kinds of businesses, many of them not exactly arts-related.

Like YoYoExpert, which has been at its Eastworks location for almost a decade. This venture brings yo-yo toys in from all over the world and teaches people how to use them through the internet.

André Boulay of YoYoExpert spoke enthusiastically of both the lively community experience at Eastworks and the impressiveness of the physical building itself.

“Eastworks has such a great vibe … you’re always meeting new and interesting people,” he said. “I also love to ask people if they’ve been to Eastworks, because if you haven’t been here and seen the grandness of this old mill building that’s been converted into all these spaces, it’s just a really neat space to walk through.”

The wide range of businesses at Eastworks lends itself to visitors enjoying a one-stop trip to complete many of their day’s errands.

“I get my hair cut in the building at the Lift. If I’m hungry, I just go upstairs to Riff’s,” Beck said. “I get my acupuncture done at the Easthampton Community Acupuncture with Cassie. I go to yoga classes upstairs at Sacred Roots.”

 

Passing the Test

The community at Eastworks has certainly been tested by the pandemic. Many of the businesses rely on foot traffic, and they have been impacted by a distinct lack of it since March 2020. And while the pandemic may have slowed the pace of new arrivals and expansions to some degree, there have been some notable additions, such as Peacock’s Nest Studio, a henna and body-art business at Eastworks that moved into the building in March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. Since then, it has actually expanded its offerings, including a line of body-care products and different fabric projects like face masks.

“Coming out of COVID, one of the more vital parts of the building seems to be our creative community,” Bundy said. “Our maker community is very solid … it’s a reflection of the Easthampton arts community.”

André Boulay, who has been at Eastworks for almost a decade

André Boulay, who has been at Eastworks for almost a decade, praised the facility’s physical features, community experience, and “great vibe.”

After a long stint of ghost-town hallways and virtual everything, the maker portion of the Eastworks community came together for a vibrant event in early November of last year: Open Studios. This is an annual event during which all the art studios at Eastworks come together for an open house, allowing the public to come in and experience the breadth of what the local artists at Eastworks are doing by participating in a variety of activities.

Easthampton Clay’s first open-house event at Eastworks was part of Open Studios; it was an Empty Bowls event for the Easthampton Food Bank that drew more than 300 participants.

“We had lines out the door waiting for people to come in and throw bowls for charity, which was so sweet and amazing … it was really a mind-blowing experience,” Rodriguez said.

Lauren Grover, owner of Peacock’s Nest Studio, fondly recalled selling masks at Open Studios and spoke about how nice it was to finally have an in-person event after everything was held up by the pandemic for so long.

“It was a lot busier than I expected it to be; it was lovely,” she said. “As the pandemic eases, I look forward to having more events like that.”

Grover also noted the abundant amount of precautions that were taken by Eastworks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which was echoed by Rodriguez of Easthampton Clay.

Another sentiment shared by several tenants at Eastworks was that the Open Studios event was important because it helped them gain more exposure to Western Mass. locals after the pandemic hampered their visibility in the community for a long time.

“No one had seen my work in almost two years, and then we finally did Open Studios in the fall,” Beck said. “I had a lookbook created, and our entire community came out for that event. It was probably the best-attended Open Studios we’ve ever had … people were able to finally see the work that had been hidden away behind my doors for two years.”

She noted that the exposure she received from Open Studios led to a complete turnaround in her business, and now she is busier than she has ever been, with a waitlist of orders.

 

Art of the Matter

What started as a vision for a vacant, 500,000-square-foot mill building back in 1997 has become a reality.

As it turns 25, Eastworks has become everything Will and Paula Bundy had hoped it would. It has become a destination, certainly, and a community — a bustling space for artists, entrepreneurs, innovators, and more — within a community.

The best part is the fact that the picture keeps changing, and the canvas continues to add more features and more color.

Which certainly bodes well for the next 25 years.

 

Commercial Real Estate

Fighting the Fight

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin says a mural planned for this wall near Stearns Square will pay homage to that area’s important role in Springfield’s history.

Evan Plokin was joking — well, sort of — about just how well his team seemed to manage while he was home battling mesothelioma and rehabbing from complicated surgery to help rid his body of cancer.

“I learned that this place could function just fine without me,” he said, tongue in cheek, noting that his company, NAI Plotkin, completed several deals during those weeks while he was out, putting a cap on a busy year, despite damage done to the economy by the pandemic. “The four months I was pretty much out of action I was thinking the worst, but when I came back, all the deals that were in the pipeline that I thought were never going to close … things suddenly started to happen.”

Overall, this lengthy, ongoing ordeal — he was officially diagnosed with mesothelioma in March 2021 — has been a learning experience on many levels, starting with the disease itself.

Plotkin confessed to knowing little about it when he was diagnosed, other than the only way to be stricken with it is through prolonged exposure to asbestos — or, as he has learned since, through heavy use of talc. And a “review of his life’s story,” as he called it, revealed that he falls into that category.

“I had rashes when I was a youngster, throughout my elementary schools, and I can always remember my grandmother putting the powder on me,” he recalled. “As I got into sports, when I would sweat a lot, I would break out, and the baby powder helped. And I remember when I was playing football in high school, I would douse my shoulder pads with it before every practice and before every game.”

This review of his life and has led to a different kind of learning experience, this one concerning ongoing legal action against Johnson & Johnson — maker of the baby powder he put on those shoulder pads — which he is now a big part of.

“I’m on the creditor’s committee — we just had a meeting recently; five of us are representing 40,000 claimants in this litigation,” he said, noting that these claimants are pushing back hard on J&J’s efforts to form a separate company to capture all asbestos claims related to its baby powder and then, presumably, file bankruptcy. “Every one of us who has this disease wants our day in court, and not have this piled into a bankruptcy settlement.”

While waging battles on these various fronts, Plotkin, who firmly believes he’s on the road to recovery and is now back in his office several days a week, is continuing another fight — his decades-long struggle to return downtown Springfield to the vibrancy he knew when he was young.

Long a staunch advocate for the city and firm believer in the power of the arts as an economic-development strategy — he’s one of the organizers of the annual summer jazz festival in the city — Plotkin said considerable progress has been made in recent years to make Springfield a more attractive place to live and work, but there is still much to be done.

He talked about the need to become creative with the hundreds of thousands of square feet of vacant office space in the city (again, see the story on page 38), to renew and escalate efforts to revitalize the properties on Main Street across from MGM Springfield, and to continue work to use the city’s open spaces, especially its parks, to draw new residents — and businesses as well.

With that, he turned his attention to his latest project, a giant mural that will occupy a wall facing Stearns Square on Worthington Street.

Working in tandem with John Simpson, an art professor at UMass Amherst whose murals grace Elm Street and the I-91 viaduct, as well as the Springfield Improvement District, Plotkin, through a nonprofit he created called City Mosaic, won a grant to transform that wall — currently featuring faded images of cameras and related products sold at a store there in the 1940s — into a history book of sorts.

“It’s going to be a composition — we’re going to give a nod to many of the historic and important people from Springfield, right up to the present,” he said. “It’s going to be the largest mural in the city.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Plotkin about the many battles he’s waging, and the progress he’s making with what could be considered the big picture — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

Joining the Battle

Plotkin, who has long prided himself on taking good care of his body, exercising, and eating the right foods, said his cancer diagnosis nearly a year ago caught him off guard and left him searching for answers.

“To suddenly be told that you have this terrible disease … that was very traumatic,” he said, adding that, while he became consumed with understanding how he contracted mesothelioma, the more immediate concern was confronting the disease.

He underwent what is known as a HIPEC (hyperthermic chemotherapy) procedure in August. After removing visible tumors through standard surgical procedures, a surgeon will administer HIPEC treatment, during which a heated sterile solution — containing a chemotherapeutic agent — is continuously circulated throughout the peritoneal cavity for up to two hours.

The 10-hour procedure was followed by three months of rehabilitation, said Plotkin, noting that he lost more than 50 pounds through the ordeal, suffered a few setbacks while recovering, and endured a few trips to the emergency room.

But he believes the worst is over and that he is on the road to recovery.

“I’m feeling really good right now, so I’m very optimistic about my future,” he said. “I feel almost as good as I did before the surgery; I just have to watch it … but I’m back to normal, and everything is good for me.”

While knocking on the nearest available wood, Plotkin noted there isn’t much available data on HIPEC. “And the doctors and the oncologists — they don’t have any predictions for you,” he went on. “They just say they want to take film every six months and go from there.”

Meanwhile, he said many others in his situation have not been as fortunate in their fight.

“You hear some of the stories from some of the people you meet, and their stories are not as good. I just learned about a 28-year-old boy who had the surgery who died from complications — kidney problems after the surgery.”

Such stories put more emphasis on the ongoing lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, which, by many accounts, involve more than 38,000 claimants and nearly $4 billion in damages being sought.

At present, that fight is on a pause of sorts after a bankruptcy judge in North Carolina halted the lawsuits against J&J after that company formed a subsidiary in Texas, known as LTL, to absorb the parent company’s asbestos liabilities. LTL promptly filed for bankruptcy in North Carolina.

The move, known as a ‘divisive merger’ as well as a ‘Texas two-step’ (because that’s where LTL was formed) has been slammed by lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Plotkin said claimants in the various suits are girding for a protracted battle.

“Everyone is lawyering up, and they’re ready to have hearings,” he said. “All this is going to be hopefully resolved, one way or another, in February.”

While the court fight against J&J is now capturing some of Plotkin’s time, he also has his work — a broad phrase, to be sure — keeping him busy.

He said he worked remotely for some time but is now back in his office at 1350 Main St., the one with the view facing south toward MGM Springfield. And he referenced what he can see out his window when talking about the major challenges still facing Springfield.

He said that, when MGM was originally proposed, the thinking — if not the promise — was that the casino, with its front door on Main Street, would bring more vibrancy, not to mention additional commercial development, to both sides of the street and that broad area.

That hasn’t happened yet, in part because most all casino visitors have been entering and exiting through the parking garage (especially during the pandemic), leaving little foot traffic on Main Street and, therefore, a minimal trickle-down effect.

“People go right back in the garage, and they’re out of here,” he said. “And that needs to be fixed; we need to get those people into the downtown.”

Turning his attention back to Stearns Square, he said that area has seen progress on several fronts in recent years, including the park itself, which underwent major restoration efforts a few years ago. Around it are new businesses, including Dewey’s, a jazz club; the promise of new restaurants; and prospects for that area once again being the centerpiece of a walkable city.

The new mural will be part of all this, he said, adding that it will turn back the clock in many respects.

“In one part of the mural, there’s going to be an image of what Stearns Square looked like more than 100 years ago,” he explained, noting that this look back will show how the ‘Puritan’ statue now at the corner of Chestnut and State streets near the Quadrangle was originally in Stearns Square, with the Puritan facing a globe at the turtle fountain in the south end of the park.

“The narrative behind that is the fountain has a giant globe on it with fish and turtles around it, and there’s water,” he explained. “It was the Puritan looking at the new world, and he knew he had to cross over the water to get there.”

 

Body of Evidence

As he related the history of the park and spoke about his mural project, Plotkin said he’s always believed the Puritan statue should return to its original setting.

He admits he’s probably not alone with that view, but he acknowledges that such a move would certainly be a longshot at this point and an uphill battle.

Speaking of uphill battles … he’s been involved with many of them lately, from his fight against mesothelioma to the drawn-out court skirmishes with Johnson & Johnson, to his campaign to revitalize downtown Springfield.

All of them are ongoing to one extent or another, and Plotkin is waging them the only way he knows how: with passion and determination.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate

COVID and Property Value

By Laura Bellotti Cardillo

 

Laura Bellotti Cardillo

Laura Bellotti Cardillo

When property-tax assessments in Massachusetts came out at the end of 2020, many business owners were surprised to find their values had stayed the same or increased. Those assessments were premised on income and expense data from calendar year 2019, and therefore did not factor in the beginnings of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Now that property-tax assessments for fiscal year 2022 are being determined, commercial property owners whose real-estate assets were negatively impacted by the pandemic should take another look. Assessors must rely on calendar year 2020 income and expense data to determine current values and assessments, and after almost two years of living with COVID-19, the question remains whether the pandemic is a temporary anomaly or the economic impact will be of longer duration.

If your commercial real estate has been hit hard by the pandemic, here are some best practices that could help you achieve a reduction in your property assessment and lower your real-estate taxes.

 

Provide Extra Data and Projections

If the pandemic has continued to hamper your property’s performance through 2021, provide data through the third quarter of this year. While the assessment is based on numbers through year-end 2020, proof that things have not improved undercuts the argument that the pandemic is merely a blip.

Projections for 2022, 2023, and 2024 can be helpful in this regard as well. Many industries anticipate that a full recovery will take years. Demonstrating that you are not anticipating a swift bounce-back can support your argument that a reduction now is warranted.

“If the pandemic has continued to hamper your property’s performance through 2021, provide data through the third quarter of this year. While the assessment is based on numbers through year-end 2020, proof that things have not improved undercuts the argument that the pandemic is merely a blip.”

 

Document Use of PPP and Other Relief Funds

In some cases, assessors have asked if businesses received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other relief initiatives. It is highly unlikely that these funds would have been used in a way that would increase the value of your real estate, so they should not factor into the fiscal year 2022 assessment.

Because PPP was designed specifically to cover payroll, utilities, and operating expenses, demonstrating in detail how these funds were spent (using materials you likely already have from your loan-forgiveness application) should help assessors put the receipt of these funds in proper context.

 

Values and Assessments Can Change Annually

Municipalities in Massachusetts have the ability to adjust assessments annually. Because values can be recalibrated year to year, now is the time for assessors to lower the values for the commercial property types hit hard by the pandemic.

Assuming certain commercial real-estate markets have begun to tick back up already or will begin to do so in 2022, assessors can make the necessary adjustments if and when the various sectors of the commercial property market roar back to life.

 

Laura Bellotti Cardillo is vice chair of the property-tax and valuation practice at Pullman & Comley. She heads the law firm’s Springfield office.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Activity Report

 

Mitch Bolotin, left, and partner Kevin Morin

Mitch Bolotin, left, and partner Kevin Morin stand near the entrance to 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield, which recently welcomed a new tenant, Millipore Sigma, which absorbed 27,000 square feet in the office building.

Looking back, area commercial real-estate brokers, managers, and developers said 2021 was a busy year with activity across all sectors and especially the retail side and the white-hot industrial segment of the market. On the office side, there was less movement and more question marks due to COVID-19 and uncertainty about when and under what circumstances workers will return to the office. The expectation for 2022 is for more of all of the above.

Area commercial real-estate brokers, developers, and property managers spoke with one voice when they told BusinessWest that there can be activity in their sector — and sometimes lots of activity — even when the economy is not hitting on all cylinders.

And this fact of life certainly helps explain why most brokers said 2021, year two of the pandemic, was one of the busiest years they’ve seen recently.

Indeed, there were some business closures and companies moving on from their leases, said those we spoke with, and other businesses downsizing for one of many reasons — all of which created movement in the market.

But there were many other forces contributing to this movement, and most of them were positive, said Mitch Bolotin, a principal and vice president of Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services.

Listing them, he noted everything from low interest rates to the continued growth of the state’s cannabis industry, which has been absorbing industrial and retail space in communities across the region; from the improved health of the manufacturing sector, which has also contributed to the white-hot market for industrial spaces (more on that later), to the continued growth of delivery and warehousing operations, which has created ever more demand for those spaces. There’s has also been a noticeable increase in the amount of entrepreneurial activity in the region, inspired in part by COVID-19, which has created interest in retail space and some of the restaurants that have fallen victim to the pandemic.

“There is going to be some creative reuse of office space, and retail space, in this region.”

“This past year was one of our busiest years, and there was a lot of activity on all ends of the marketplace,” Bolotin said. “We’ve had deals in the retail world, the industrial market has been very active, the office market has been active, and there have been some development deals. We’ve seen it all across the board.”

Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, agreed, noting that some of the movement on the retail side and office side has been as a result of COVID and its ill effects, but there has been positive movement as well, especially on the industrial and multi-family residential sides of the ledger, where the laws of supply and demand have forced prices higher as competition for available properties escalates.

There has even been some movement in the office market, said those we spoke with, but overall, this is the category still clouded by question marks. Large question marks.

Indeed, while all those we spoke with expressed the opinion (and we’ll paraphrase) that many workers now toiling remotely will eventually return to the office because employers realize there is more and better collaboration and more productivity when a team is in one place, there was also something approaching general consensus that things won’t be like they were before the pandemic.

And this means that some office space — just how much comprises one of those question marks — must be repurposed.

“There is going to be some creative reuse of office space, and retail space, in this region,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates. “I don’t know want it’s going to be or who is going to do it, but the malls and some office buildings are going to turn into something that no one foresaw, something they weren’t designed for.”

Paul Stelzer, president of Holyoke-based Appleton Corp., which currently manages more than 2 million square feet of property in the region, agreed.

Citing a movement to convert large amounts of office space to lab facilities in Boston, Cambridge, and Worcester to feed a biotech sector ravenously hungry for space, he said this might be one possible course for Western Mass. … if it can attract workers for that sector.

“We need to look at how we can maybe take two floors of a building that might never be leased again and convert to some type of bio, some type of medical, some type of related spaces,” he said, “because when you talk about quality of life, we have an incredible quality of life here in Western Mass., and I think there’s some desire for people not to be going up and down a 30-story elevator every day or taking the subway to work.”

For this issue, BusnessWest talked at length with area brokers and property managers about the current scene and what they project for the future, both short- and long-term.

 

Moving Story

As he talked about the commercial real-estate market and the year that was, Bolotin said there was considerable movement across the region — and in all sectors.

And he pointed to properties Colebrook handled in 2021 — and is still handling in many cases — as evidence. The portfolio includes:

• The leasing of 27,000 square feet at 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield to Millipore Sigma. The company, a life-sciences R&D firm and subsidiary of Merck, was in a small office in Wilbraham and expanded into the space;

• The sale of the industrial property at 2024 Westover Road in Chicopee, one of many such properties that saw considerable interest, went fast, and sold for a good price;

• The successful leasing of the property at 95 Elm St. in West Springfield, formerly home to United Bank. The large office complex is home to a broad mix of tenants, including Tandem Bagel;

• The sale of 100 Water St. in Holyoke, a large former mill complex, to GFI, one of the many cannabis companies that now call Holyoke home;

• The sale of 5 South Maple St. in Hadley, once a PeoplesBank branch, a sign of continued movement in the retail market;

• The sale of the former Troy Industries property on Capital Drive in West Springfield; and

• The sale of the 68,368-square-foot, fully leased warehouse space at 87-147 Avocado St. in Springfield to Woodrow Studios LLC, a deal that closed roughly a month ago. “That’s an example of an industrial investment property that had a strong amount of activity,” Bolotin said.

Collectively, these transactions speak to those many forces mentioned earlier — everything from the cannabis sector to tremendous growth of warehousing, distribution, and delivery businesses to growth within the manufacturing sector — that made 2021 one of the busiest years the company has seen recently.

“And 2022 is shaping up to be more of the same,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of demand, a lot of positive activity; we see the market being resilient, and, overall, there is a good deal of optimism.”

Plotkin agreed, citing his company’s portfolio of activity in 2021 as more evidence of what has been happening, even with some sectors struggling to fully recover from the pandemic and its many side effects.

Paul Stelzer

Paul Stelzer

“We need to look at how we can maybe take two floors of a building that might never be leased again and convert to some type of bio, some type of medical, some type of related spaces, because when you talk about quality of life, we have an incredible quality of life here in Western Mass., and I think there’s some desire for people not to be going up and down a 30-story elevator every day or taking the subway to work.”

On the industrial side, the company handled the sale of a large property in South Deerfield being leased by Yankee Candle, and Plotkin said it continues to receive calls from companies actively seeking warehouse or light manufacturing space with highway access in Springfield and surrounding towns.

On the retail side, it handled a number of transactions, from the former Hafey Funeral Home in Springfield to the former Manchester Hardware store in Easthampton to the Golf Acres recreational facility in Westfield. It is also negotiating the sale of a large shopping center in Pittsfield. There has been less activity on the office side, but the company did handle the sale of 480 Hampden St. in Holyoke to Girls Inc., among other deals, and has handled several leases and a few sales for companies reorganizing or downsizing space.

Overall, the two sectors seeing perhaps the most activity are retail and industrial, said those we spoke with, with cannabis impacting both in a positive way, although there are other factors as well.

Pat Goggins, president of Goggins Realty in Northampton, said the cannabis sector has certainly helped that city’s downtown, one that has seen several stores close due to the retirement of long-time owners, but also complications from COVID. But there have been other types of entrepreneurial activity, including some new restaurants and clothing stores.

Overall, he said it was certainly a much more “nervous time” in Northampton a year or so ago as vacancies started piling up in and around the downtown in a way that hadn’t been seen in decades, and there was uncertainty concerning when and under what circumstances those vacancies would be filled. Now, with many of those storefronts leased or under contract, including the Silverscape Designs property, there is far more stability.

“We’re making some nice progress in the level of activity that we’re seeing downtown, and it’s something that more closely mimics what we had been accustomed to,” he said, adding that, while there are still some vacant storefronts to be addressed, the overall tone is much more positive than it was a year or 18 months ago.

Plotkin agreed, noting that, overall, while retailers are seeing increasingly higher volumes of online sales, most of them still need a bricks-and-mortar presence, and this is contributing to ongoing movement in that segment of the market.

Ken Vincunas says the market for industrial properties is white hot

Ken Vincunas says the market for industrial properties is white hot, with immense competition for available properties pushing prices higher.

“They may shop for something online, but they want to go to the store to try it on,” he explained. “And that’s why I believe retail will remain strong.”

But it is the industrial market that is seeing the most activity, said Bolotin and others — and it would see considerably more if there was inventory.

At present, there isn’t much, said Vincunas, noting that what exists generally goes quickly and at high prices, which makes this category much like the residential real-estate market (see story on page 6).

“The industrial market has very little inventory, and for the few things that come up, there are a lot of takers, and the pricing has increased significantly, because people have products that people want, they’re making money, and they need that new building,” he said. “There’s been a lot of demand, things don’t stay on the market for long, and prices are way up.”

“There’s a lot of demand, a lot of positive activity; we see the market being resilient, and, overall, there is a good deal of optimism.”

As just one example, he cited the former home of Work Opportunity Center in Agawam, an 18,000-square-foot industrial space, which was under contract just a few weeks after it went on the market. Many other properties have moved in similarly quick fashion, and at prices — and here’s another parallel to the residential housing market — that have prompted buyers to also become sellers.

“We’re actually selling properties, which we hardly ever do, because the pricing is so high that you have to take some chips off the table and reposition the properties you want versus the ones that are in your past,” Vincunas said, noting that the company is in the process of selling a multi-tenant property in Chicopee.

“The price seemed right, and we thought it maybe it was time to change that in for something else,” he explained, adding that many property owners are thinking along similar lines to take advantage of the white-hot market.

 

Space Exploration

As noted earlier, it’s the region’s office market that has perhaps struggled the most, and it’s the one confronting an uncertain future.

Vincunas, whose company manages several office facilities, including the Greenfield Corporate Center, said the past 23 months have been a struggle on many levels, especially as companies find new ways to do business, with many employees working remotely.

Like others we spoke with, he believes employers will eventually bring workers back the office, for reasons involving productivity, communication, efficiency, and other factors, and when that day comes, the market will see a surge in activity.

Pat Goggins

Pat Goggins

“We’re making some nice progress in the level of activity that we’re seeing downtown, and it’s something that more closely mimics what we had been accustomed to.”

In the meantime, this will remain a tenants’ market, with many of the companies looking to downsize or just reduce their monthly rent expenditure finding landlords willing to make attractive deals, another trend that is expected to continue into 2022 and perhaps beyond.

As for the longer term, those we spoke with said that some (again, how much remains to be seen) of the traditional office space in the region will need to be repurposed, and it is incumbent upon those who own and manage it to start looking at viable options.

Stelzer noted that biomed is simply one of many possible alternatives.

“We have to do a really good job moving forward of cataloging what we have available, what we can pivot, what’s available for us, what the economic-development agencies can push,” he said, “because the days of the 200-person call center or 300-person call center are probably gone.

“So we have to turn around and figure out where people have to congregate, and lab space is one of them,” he went on. “There’s also an incredible demand for social services and mental-health space, which is partly driven by COVID and partly driven by the large amount of funding available for it; you may see some of these nonprofits that would typically be in a class B space or in space that doesn’t work as nicely for them taking the plunge and coming downtown or coming to a class A building; they can afford to do it, and demand for their workers is high.”

Stelzer said he’s already seeing such movement at one of the properties managed by Appleton, the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College. One of its major tenants, Liberty Mutual, has moved out of most of its space in the park (47,000 square feet) — part of a larger movement to have employees work remotely — and new tenants that have moved in include Mental Health Associates and Clinical & Support Options.

Since almost the very beginning of the pandemic, Plotkin has noted that, in this region, where the office market has traditionally had a comparatively high vacancy rate, the additional stress from COVID will force some property owners to think outside the box and find new uses for their square footage.

For the building he co-owns, 1350 Main St. in Springfield, and others, he has proposed housing or perhaps a hybrid concept, what he calls a “remote-work hub,” a facility in which people would live and work.

“There would be a living space, something like a dormitory, but done in an upscale way, with a lot of amenities,” he explained. “And then you have a work hub. The idea is to have a living space and then a floor where you can lease an office, so you’re not working at your kitchen table.”

Whether the remote-work hub is the answer remains to be seen, he went on, adding that, from his view, it’s clear that something — and something imaginative — needs to happen within the office market, especially in downtown Springfield.

“We have to look at the half-million square feet of vacant office space that we have and examine how we repurpose and reposition that,” he went on. “We also need to look at what kind of help we need from MassDevelopment and the state to incentivize business owners — people like me — to take a building like 1350 Main St. and convert half of it to co-living space.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead to the rest of 2022, those we spoke with said that COVID makes it difficult to project exactly what will happen. Stelzer equated the landscape in the sector to “shifting sands,” and said that, until the ground stabilizes, more uncertainty will prevail.

Overall, the experts are predicting more of the same for the foreseeable future, meaning this will continue to be a tenants’ market in the office realm, and the laws of supply demand will create more movement in the industrial and retail segments of the market.

And it means more hard thinking — and some action — when it comes to deciding what can and will happen within the office market.

In other words, it’s shaping up to be another busy year.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Time to Think Big

 

With more than $3 billion being directed to area cities and towns through the American Rescue Plan Act, there is no end to speculation about these funds should be put to use. While infrastructure projects and other municipal needs certainly need to be addressed, area economic leaders and developers are urging communities to think big and make investments that will spur additional private-sector development and allow these cities and towns to take full advantage of the changing times and the opportunities they present.

‘Unprecedented.’ ‘Once in a lifetime.’ ‘Once in a generation.’ ‘Transformative.’ ‘Totally unique.’

These are just some of the words and phrases people are using to describe the federal money now flowing into the state and its individual cities and towns from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help them, their residents, and their businesses recover from the hard sting of COVID-19. Area communities are in line for windfalls ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars for the smallest of towns in Franklin and Hampshire Counties to more than $130 million for Springfield. And the state itself is receiving more than $5 billion.

By and large, there are few strings attached to this money, so the $64,000 question (or the ‘fill in an amount’ question, as the case may be with individual communities) concerns how this windfall will be spent.

Keith Nesbitt

Keith Nesbitt

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit. But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

The debate is continuing on Beacon Hill and all across the region as mayors, city and town councilors, selectmen, and town administrators mull myriad options for spending these funds — and how other federal money, such as that included in the infrastructure bill recently passed into law, might be put to use.

Much of the talk on the local level concerns infrastructure — roads, bridges, sewer and water lines — as well as new roofs, HVAC systems, and more for municipal buildings, new parking garages, parks, etc., etc., etc.

And while these options have merit, those who spoke with BusinessWest on the broad subject of how this spending spree, especially the ARPA money, should be conducted said that, from an economic-development standpoint, area cities and towns — and the state itself — would do well to think bigger, and more long-term, with an eye toward using this money in ways that justify that word ‘transformative,’ and also spark private-sector development in housing (especially market-rate housing), new businesses, and more.

“These can’t be ‘bridge-to-nowhere’ kinds of investment — they have to be meaningful investments that all of us can benefit from,” said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass Development Corp., who also warned against a rush to commission studies that would likely yield reports that sit on shelves for years.

Keith Nesbitt, Berkshire Bank’s senior vice president for Business Banking for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut, agreed.

“There are investments that are needed, and I think they come in a variety of forms,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to attract significant private investment without that pump priming that government resources are going to provide. I think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and I really hope that local leaders are bold enough to dream big when it comes to how we use these funds.

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit,” he went on. “But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

What falls in that category? Nesbitt, who is also hiring manager for the bank and understands the workforce issues facing area businesses and the lack of qualified talent across the board, cited a community in Minnesota that is earmarking some of its federal money to ensure that all high-school graduates can attend community college.

Joy Martin

Joy Martin

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area.”

“They recognized that need to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future,” he said. “The investment in free, two-year community college is what they’ve decided to do, and I’d love to see something that like here.”

Meanwhile, Joy Martin, director of Asset Management with Davenport Companies, which has worked on MGM Springfield, recently converted the former Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street into market-rate apartments and is redeveloping the former Registry of Motor Vehicles building on Liberty Street, said Springfield and other communities need to think about investing the federal money in ways that would make it easier to undertake such projects.

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area,” she said, adding that many projects need help from state and local government to make the numbers work for developers.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who can speak to this subject from various perspectives (he’s the former mayor of Springfield and a current city councilor), concurred, and also stressed the need to invest the money and not just spend it.

“I do think it’s a chance to look at the bigger picture and look down the road,” he told BusinessWest. “And not just fill a gap that might exist today, or not just make some repair that might be necessary, but really further your economy or the quality of life in your community you’re living in.”

 

Money Talks

While certainly advocating for longer-term thinking when it comes to how the ARPA money should be apportioned, Sullivan and others noted there are some immediate concerns that may also have some ramifications down the road.

That’s especially true when it comes to existing businesses and especially the smaller ventures across many sectors that are still struggling from the effects of not only COVID but some of the side effects from treating it as well.

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting,” he told BusinessWest. “They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.

“And it can’t be loans because loans come with interest,” he went on. “It has to be either grants or no-interest loans that have a forgiveness provision — it goes away after a short period of time, be it two years or three years or five years; if you stay open and you’re moving forward, the obligation to pay goes away. Some of this money needs to go to your smallest businesses.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting. They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.”

That said, Sullivan and others stressed repeatedly the need to think big when it comes to ARPA, meaning a focus on investments that will pay off the long term, with benefits for generations of residents of a given city or town. That could mean investments in everything from education and training initiatives to faster and more reliable internet, to initiatives that will unlock the development potential of unused and underutilized properties.

Seth Stratton, a business lawyer and managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, said the focus should be on economic-development-related investments, a broad term to be sure.

“The programs and initiatives that should be funded with these resources should be intentional, impactful, and innovative — all with an eye toward a continuing spark; it has to be transformative,” he said, putting support for new housing projects high on his list of priorities. “We want to see economic development and a rising tide that lifts all boats. If we just do one-off projects here and there, that can be helpful, but it won’t have this comprehensive effect of economic development in what many of us see as somewhat of a new economy.

“What do restaurant, food and beverage, and entertainment venues look like going forward?” he continued. “We ought to be thinking about what they look like moving forward and how to embrace that and use funds in a smart way that would have exponential impact, rather than talking about one-off items.”

Daley agreed, and mentioned, as one example, Ludlow Mills, the sprawling former jute-making complex along the Chicopee River that Westmass now owns. He said investments made there by the state and perhaps the town of Ludlow could bring property in line for development and create jobs for several generations of area residents.

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects,” he said, adding that he hopes the ARPA money and funds in other federal programs, such as the infrastructure bill that was recently signed into law, trickle down to Western Mass. and help it attract the attention of the development community, which has often found it difficult to take on projects here for a number of reasons, including the market lease rates and the costs of renovating old mills and other properties.

“With a small investment — small relative to the numbers they’re talking about Congress and feds giving the state — we could recapitalize those dollars and give a return on investment that would be a million times what they would give us,” Daley said. “We have very, very large properties in Ludlow, specifically, that, without an infusion of cash, it’s going to hard to redevelop. With a small infusion of cash, several million dollars, we can generate a return on investment of $300 million or $400 million, realistically, within five to 10 years — and create a lot of jobs and tax dollars; there are three or four projects we could do that would change the face of Ludlow.”

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects.”

Martin concurred, noting that this infusion of federal money comes at an intriguing time, as many forces are coming together to make Western Mass. a more attractive option for individuals and businesses alike. These include the much higher cost of living in other areas such as Boston and New York and the opportunity to now work in those areas but live in a lower-cost region like the 413.

“Western Mass. is getting more attractive to investors and to people in general. Overland Lofts is 97% leased, and it has been 97% leased for some time,” she told BusinessWest. “We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

Elaborating, she said one of the units is being leased by an executive with a Boston-based firm who is now able to work remotely, and chose to do so in downtown Springfield.

With these trends, or developments, in mind, those we spoke with said area cities and towns need to be thinking about ways to utilize the ARPA funds to take full advantage of the opportunities currently presenting themselves.

 

Impact Statement

Returning to that town in Minnesota using ARPA money to send young people to community college, Nesbitt said this is the kind of long-term, high-impact investing that state and area leaders should be thinking about as they consider options for allocating funds in the broad realm of economic development.

“These kinds of human-capital investments need to be prioritized,” he said, adding that the workforce crisis now impacting every sector of the economy must be considered a long-term problem and not one that will correct itself in a quarter or two or with the end of additional unemployment benefits.

Seth Stratton

Seth Stratton

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments. We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Stratton agreed, noting that expanding vocational-education programs to assist the trades and the region’s large manufacturing sector should also be a priority. Meanwhile, he noted that other forces are converging that might bring more people into the local workforce, such as the ability to work remotely. He said there are more individuals like that executive now living in Overland Lofts, and, moving forward, they will need places to live.

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments,” he said. “We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Meanwhile, with these changes in how and where people work, communities like Springfield have to think about the large amounts of office space currently unleased and the potential for those numbers to climb, he went on, adding that some thought should go into repurposing some of this space into flexible workplaces.

Getting projects like these off the ground is often difficult because it’s not easy to make redevelopment projects like the Overland initiative “pencil out,” as developers say, meaning make the numbers work. Often, historical tax credits or other forms of funding are needed to bridge gaps, said Martin, adding that the state and individual communities should look at using the federal funds flowing to them to make such projects more feasible and doable.

“We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

“We run into a gap between the cost to build something and the actual asking price for something,” she said, citing the Overland project as an example. “We got 60 apartments out of it and rents that fit the area, but none of that would have happened without historical funds and state housing funds. So if the city had something that could bridge some of the financial gap between new-build and the current economic conditions in Springfield, that will help to bring developers here.

“It’s hard to justify an $18 million project with $2-per-square-foot rent,” she went on. “But if there’s some way to help bridge that gap, I think you’d see more developers willing to come in and give you a good product.”

Daley agreed, noting that the developers of the so-called Clocktower Building at Ludlow Mills, another housing project, have had to wait the better part of six years for the historical tax credits needed to move that initiative off the drawing board.

“We have another mill that’s 600,000 square feet; if we were to start today and try to get those kinds of tax credits, it would be 12 to 15 years before they were all distributed,” he said. “If the state wanted to have an impact on development of those kinds of projects, it should make more money available for good projects that are shovel-ready.”

Martin said the gap in funding facing those looking to develop existing but older and challenged buildings is one of the key factors impeding redevelopment of the buildings across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

“It’s not that people don’t want to be there,” she said. “It costs a lot to redevelop these buildings, and then to charge a rent that fits the community … it doesn’t pencil out without some kind of help,” she said. “Using these funds in a smart way like that would help bring back the Main Streets in Western Mass.”

Sullivan agreed, and said such investments are part of that process of looking beyond today and to tomorrow, and what communities want and need to look like in a rapidly changing landscape.

“I do think this is an opportunity for communities to look at the bigger picture regarding where they want their communities to be 10 years down the road, what they want their downtowns to look like, and what sectors — be it a restaurant district or an entertainment sector, travel and tourism, for example — they want to attract,” he said. “It’s about determining what you want your future to look like, and investing in it.”

 

Paying It Forward

Summing things up, Sullivan said these are what he hopes are once-in-a-lifetime windfalls that have come to area cities and towns.

“Hopefully, we won’t ever have to go through this again,” he noted, adding quickly that this unique moment in time represents an opportunity to pause, think about the future, and make some investments in it.

Fixing a bridge or putting a new roof on the fire station might be a suitable use for some of the money, he went on, but overall, cities and towns have to think bigger. Much bigger.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Blast from the Past

Springfield’s Trolley Barn, the property at the corner of Main and Carew streets, has had an important place in the city’s history since it opened back in 1897. It was long home to the Springfield Street Railway Co. and, later, Peter Pan’s Coach Builders operation. Today, it has a new life as home to J.D. Rivet, a roofing and sheet-metal company, thus ensuring that this link to the past will have a place in the city’s future.

At top, the Trolley Barn sign

At top, the Trolley Barn sign is joined by others announcing the newest owners. Above, past and present come together in the second-floor conference room.

Jim Trask says the search took the better part of four years.

That’s because, as he and other members of the leadership team at JD Rivet & Co. Inc., a roofing and sheet-metal company, went about looking for a new home to replace the one on Page Boulevard in Springfield, they had a lot of boxes that needed to be checked.

Chief among them was — and is — location, said Trask, the company’s president, adding that several crews hit the road for jobs each day, and easy access to highways is a major consideration. But there were others, including large open space for a warehouse, parking, and more, as the company, working with a broker, considered a number of options, including property at the Deer Park Industrial Park in East Longmeadow.

Eventually, the search ended at a rather intriguing place, the corner of Main and Carew streets in Springfield, home for nearly 125 years to a building known as the ‘Trolley Barn.’

“That’s a nod to the days when there were actual stables for horses that would pull carriages,” said Trask, adding that the property certainly has seen a great deal of history and change; from the horse-drawn cars to the electrically powered trolleys of the Springfield Street Railway Co., to far more recent uses. These include it being home to Peter Pan Bus Lines’ Coach Builders repair and restoration facility, and, simultaneously, a methadone clinic in the front-office section of the facility.

Trask and Sean Gouvin, the company’s vice president, recalled that, when they were first introduced to the property by Brendan Greeley, a broker at R.J. Greeley Co., they saw both opportunity and challenge, in perhaps equal amounts.

The former was represented by those aforementioned boxes being checked, especially the location part; the property is just a few hundred feet from an on-ramp to I-91, a few blocks from I-291, and a just a few minutes from the Mass Pike. The latter came in the large amount of work that needed to be undertaken to ready the property for the planned new use, especially transforming the portion occupied by the methadone clinic into modern office and warehouse space.

“I liked the building — I could tell it was really strong,” Trask said. “I loved the space in the warehouse, but the office at the time was all broken up and I didn’t really like the office space at all.”

Eventually, though, they decided seizing the opportunity was worth the challenge. Thus commenced more than six months of cleanup and restoration work that yielded some surprises — sheetrock was covering original brick and intricate woodwork in that office area — as well as a few artifacts, and a workspace that speaks to the early 20th century but certainly works in the early 21st century.

At left, from left, Robert Ostrader, Sean Gouvin, and Jim Trask in the new first-floor conference room.

“There are a lot of reasons why we’re here — location, price, everything,” Trask said. “But I love old buildings, and this is one of the most historic buildings around.”

And it provides what the company needs most — a long-term solution to its space needs, he added, noting that JD Rivet has worked through the many hurdles created by the pandemic (although some stern challenges remain, especially supply-chain issues) and is in a growth mode.

Founded in 1960, the company specializes in the installation and maintenance of commercial, industrial, and residential roofing systems. The company has worked on everything from churches to hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base.

From its new headquarters in Springfield’s North End, it can see the past — and the future as well.

 

Pulling Out All the Stops

As for those artifacts … there are several of them, including old pictures of the trolleys that were once housed there (one now graces the second-floor conference room), a boiler alarm bell (just like it sounds, it’s a bell that would ring if there was a problem with the boiler) that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and some old fire-insurance maps, found on the property, that offer a glimpse of the dramatic growth that came to that section of Springfield in the early 1900s.

These items would be considered a bonus, said Bob Ostrander, JD Rivet’s chief financial officer, adding that what the company really wanted from its new home was a chance to consolidate operations — it was spread out in several different buildings on Page Boulevard — as well as have better, easier access to highways and that room to grow.

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall.”

It got all that and more at an address — Carew and Main — that has seen a lot of history and certainly changed with the times. Indeed, the owner for decades was the Springfield Street Railway Co., which opened in 1870, and originally operated a single line of track — served by four cars and 24 horses — that ran from the North End of the city down Main Street, past State Street.

The original line soon expanded to other parts of the city, and by 1891, the lines were all electrified to run trolleys. By the end of the century, the network had extended to several area communities, and connections were made to other networks in other cities, including Holyoke, Westfield, Northampton, and Hartford. To handle all this growth, the company built the facility, named the Trolley Barn, at the corner of Main and Carew.

Like all trolley lines, Springfield’s became obsolete in the 1950s as cars and buses became the dominant modes of transportation. The Trolley Barn would eventually be acquired by Peter Pan Bus Lines to house its Coach Builders operation, which painted and repaired buses.

When the management team at JD Rivet first looked at the property, Coach Builders was still occupying the large area formerly used for housing and maintaining trolleys, and a methadone clinic had recently moved out of the office portion of the property. That later operation required privacy for its clients, said Ostrander, adding that the relatively large area had been carved up into many smaller spaces covered by sheetrock.

Before-and-after shots of the office area show the amount of work needed to restore the historic Trolley Barn to its former luster.

Before-and-after shots of the office area

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall,” he said, adding that their collective imaginations managed to see through all that. And they liked what they saw.

“We had a demolition contractor, Associated Builders, come in and tear down all that sheetrock, and when they did, it revealed all this beautiful wood,” he told BusinessWest, waving his hand across the space that has become his office. “So we decided to restore all that wood — the floors, the wainscoting on the walls, the ceilings, the doors.”

Only small portions of those hardwood floors could not be fully restored, said Ostrander, adding that the company has effectively blended the past — specifically those floors, walls, and ceilings — with the present, including a new, glass-walled conference room created on the ground-floor office area.

Gouvin agreed. “From the beginning, we treated it as historic renovation — every turn was thoughtful,” he said of the efforts to preserve historic qualities of the property (and there are many of them), yet make the property suitable for modern office and warehouse operations.

Elaborating, he said the structure is in a historic district, so any alteration to the building that faces Main Street had to be approved by the Historic Commission. That includes the windows and the front door, which had to be restored and not simply replaced.

The past and present come together in a number of spaces within the building — the warehouse still bears evidence of where trolley cars were kept and maintained, but the there’s now high-efficiency lighting there and elsewhere — but perhaps none better than the second-floor conference room, which takes advantage of large windows, more of that ornate woodwork, and a fireplace (one of several in the building) to provide a unique, homey setting.

“I don’t think we’ve had to turn the lights on in there yet — the windows let in a ton of light,” said Trask, adding that it’s the same throughout the office portion of the property.

 

Past Is Prologue

The business cards for those at JD Rivet list 2257 Main St. as the address.

That’s a location steeped in history, one that brings three different centuries together in the same building.

Those at the company are proud of how they’ve blended the past with the present. But mostly, they’re excited about the future and the opportunities presented by this new facility.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Getting Down to Business

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

The primary role of the Westmass Area Development Corp. — as the agency recently stressed in a letter to area stakeholders — is to “to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion.” How it performs that role is changing and expanding, however — not just in its portfolio of development and property reuse, including its industrial parks and the ever-intriguing Ludlow Mills project, but as a valuable consultant for businesses and communities with a vision.

The letters, 150 of them, went out earlier this month.

They were sent to mayors, economic-development leaders, and other officials in communities across the four counties of Western Mass., dozens of area cities and towns, and served as introductions, invitations, and reminders all at the same time.

Officials in those communities were and are being invited to take full advantage of the talent and resources available at Westmass Area Development Corp. — the not-for-profit economic and real-estate development firm established in 1960 by state-enabling legislation — to help with a wide range of projects, from urban-renewal plans to environmental permitting; from complex site-related issues to specialized tax incentives.

The reminder part? Well, Westmass has been offering this kind of assistance to area communities almost from the start, but under the leadership of Jeff Daley, who took the helm at the agency in the summer of 2019, consulting work has become a much larger part of the business plan for the agency, which is promoting such services more heavily — and in a number of ways.

Like with those those letters, which quickly get to the heart of the matter.

“Every community, no matter its size or complexity, requires an ongoing economic-development effort to ensure financial stability of that community,” it reads. “Ideally, through the public-private partnership process, commonly shared economic-development goals can be identified and ultimately achieved. The primary role of Westmass is to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion — and [be] engaged throughout all stages.”

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers. But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

There are already some good examples of how Westmass with worked with area communities to achieve stated goals, said Daly, citing assistance with managing grants that helped land the Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke and some similar assistance with bringing the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center to reality.

The goal moving forward is to add to the portfolio and become more of a contributing force when it comes to economic development and property reuse in the region.

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers,” he explained. “But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

That background he mentioned includes his own private consulting firm, CJC Development Advisors, and a stint as director of the Westfield Redevelopment Authority, during which he worked on several projects in the city’s downtown. He is now part of a team that also includes Sara la Cour, vice president of Operations for Westmass, and Sean O’Donnell, Economic Development planner and leasing manager for the agency.

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, is expanding his operation at the Ludlow Mills, making the complex more of a destination.

Overall, this consulting arm is now one of three main prongs to the Westmass operation, with the others being industrial-park management — the agency oversees several parks, including facilities in Agawam, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Hadley, and Westfield, most of which are fully leased — and redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills site, a 15-to 20-year project that Daly believes can serve as a model for what other communities can do with old mill buildings and complex brownfield sites.

The mill now boasts 30 tenants, including a senior housing complex, a rehabilitation hospital, and a host of smaller businesses, including several recent arrivals. That list includes Kamil Peters, a contemporary metal sculptor who relocated to the mill from Holyoke (more on him later); Westnet Inc., a medical-supplies distributor, which moved in earlier this year; and Herron Automation, a machinist and CNC operator.

It also includes a tenant that isn’t new but is intriguing nonetheless. That would be Iron Duke Brewery, which almost left the mill in the protracted legal battle over whether lease conditions were violated, but wound up staying and is now in an expansion mode, with work on a new beer garden slated to begin later this year.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how Westmass intends to broaden its impact in the region by helping area cities and towns take complex projects off the drawing board and make them reality.

 

Not Run of the Mill

Returning to that letter sent out to area communities, it’s part of a larger effort on the part of those at Westmass to create more visibility for the agency, make its expertise and resources known to more municipal officials and developers, and, in general, tell its story. A move downtown, to offices in Monarch Place, is part of that initiative.

“We’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Other components, part of a new multi-year strategic plan being reviewed by the Westmass board, include a revamped, far more modern website and more extensive use of social media, said Daly, adding that many in the region believe Westmass is only in the business of developing industrial parks. That’s a big part of the mission, he noted, but it’s not the whole story.

And he wants to write more chapters in the broad realm of consulting, where, he believes, there is considerable room for growth. That’s because of the wide range of experience the agency can bring to the table, including assistance to both communities and developers in many realms.

These include everything from business-improvement districts (la Cour ran the Amherst BID for many years) to district-improvement financing, one of Daly’s areas of expertise.

“When I started my own private business, it was a shot in the dark because I saw what communities didn’t have and what developers were missing,” he explained. “And it proved to be very successful very quickly. I’m taking the same passion I had for that kind of work in my private practice and rolling it into Westmass’ purview to help area communities, because that’s what we’re here to do — develop properties, help communities, and create jobs.”

Daly said Westmass is targeting all communities west of Worcester when it comes to its consulting arm. And while smaller communities without economic-development staffs can certainly benefit from such services, larger municipalities can as well, and some already have.

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills that are giving the complex a different look and feel.

The full list of areas for which Westmass can assist developers and municipalities also includes strategic planning for integrated project permitting, project financing and incentives, public procurement and grant management, and site acquisition and redevelopment of historic buildings, greenfields, and brownfields.

That last category brings us back to Ludlow Mills, which encompasses all three of those types of property. It is certainly historic — the mills played a huge role in the growth and development of Ludlow, and there is a large mix of brownfields and greenfields being redeveloped.

And with its experience in redeveloping the mill complex, Westmass has established itself as a leader of sorts in this kind of large, very complex redevelopment.

“This is the biggest mill in the region, and it’s very time-consuming and capital-intensive,” he noted. “But we’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Often with such projects, environmental issues are a key consideration — and a major stumbling block, he went on, adding that this was certainly the case with Ludlow Mills. Over the past 11 years, Westmass has applied for and received several million dollars worth of grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state to clean the site and make it ready for redevelopment.

The latest EPA grant, totaling $461,000 (word of approval was just received), will enable Westmass to clean 10 buildings on the site with roofs loaded with asbestos, preparing them for eventual demolition and redevelopment of five to six acres of property.

“It was a competitive and comprehensive program that we applied for,” said Daly, “and we’re grateful to the EPA to get selected for exactly what we asked for.”

The property in question, just south of the Ludlow Senior Center, includes several of the stockhouses that populate the site. Some may remain standing, said Daly, but the ‘clean dirt’ that will result from demolition of those deemed unsavable will give Westmass a real opportunity to add to its eclectic mix of tenants in the mill complex.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years. My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

That tenant base has evolved over the years, said O’Donnell, and now includes a number of storage-related ventures, several light manufacturers, the brewery, a battery sales and servicing company, the senior housing complex, and even a wholesale florist.

Then, there’s Peters, who has transformed one of the high-ceilinged stockhouses into a new studio. On the day BusinessWest visited, he was working on a number of wooden benches (he does woodworking as well) for a new client that is transforming what was the late actor Christopher Reeves’ estate in the Berkshires into a mix of Airbnb and event space. He was also doing some work for Harold Grinspoon, one of BusinessWest’s recently honored Difference Makers, who is, in addition to being a successful business owner and philanthropist, a prolific sculptor.

Known for his metal masks, Peters said he found Ludlow Mills at the suggestion of a few friends and colleagues who thought the space would provide him space to work — and grow.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years,” he noted. “My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

The plan moving forward is to make the mill more of destination, which could attract many different kinds of businesses, said Daly, adding that, as noted, this is both a brownfields project — redevelopment of the old mill buildings — and greenfields, specifically 37 acres of undeveloped land which is drawing considerable interest and will certainly attract much more when a private road to that property, one of many priorities for Westmass at this site, is constructed.

Meanwhile, a $7 million project to construct a public road along the Chicopee River, which will create frontage for several properties, should also put the mill property on more radar screens.

Overall, the evolving mix of tenants is “changing the dynamic” at the mill complex, said Daly, adding that, with the beer garden and tenants like Peters, who has a goal to create an artists’ gallery in his space, the mill does become a destination.

“Businesses like this are bringing people here after work, on weekends … it’s not just a 7-to-3 manufacturing facility anymore,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s driving a different economy of scale with who comes here and the money they’re spending. It’s a neat concept that we’ve stumbled into, if you will.”

 

Bottom Line

It’s the kind of concept that Westmass would like to help other area communities stumble into.

With those letters that went out earlier this month, as well as other initiatives undertaken recently to improve its visibility, Westmass is not exactly broadening its mission, but rather putting more emphasis on what could be called another ‘growth area’ for the agency.

It’s all part of a larger strategic plan aimed at making an agency that has been a driving force in economic development in this region an even more powerful engine.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Progress Report

Roughly 14 months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., the commercial real-estate market is showing some signs of life, especially with industrial properties, which are in considerable demand, with limited supply. But as companies start to return to their offices, questions remain concerning just how much space businesses will need long-term and how much demand there will be for the large inventories of space now, or soon to be, available.

Pat Goggins has been selling and leasing real estate in and around Northampton for almost a half-century now. It’s very safe to say that he knows that market better than anyone.

And he feels comfortable now, a full year and change after COVID-19 first arrived in this region, in saying that the Northampton market has “bottomed out, and is starting to work its way back to what it had become.”

He bases this assessment on a number of things — from new leases being signed for some vacated properties downtown to interest in some other buildings for sale and lease, to the lease rates themselves, which, he said, haven’t changed appreciably in 20 years now.

“We’re seeing some new activity that is creating some positive vibes,” said Goggins, president of Goggins Real Estate Inc., adding that, while challenges remain and COVID continues to take a toll on Northampton, there are many signs that a corner of sorts is being turned.

Using slightly different words and phrases, other commercial real-estate brokers and managers we spoke with said essentially the same as Goggins, that the market is moving back toward — here comes that phrase again — ‘something approaching normal, or a new normal.’ Meaning, they believe, that the worst is likely over.

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy,” said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, who is using, among other things, the parking-lot test when it comes to what’s happening within this market.

Pat Goggins

Pat Goggins

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy.”

Indeed, he said the parking lots at the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke, 1441 Main St. in Springfield, and the Basketball Hall of Fame complex in Springfield, just some of the properties managed by the company, are more populated than they were just a few months ago, and much more full than last fall. The cars in those lots are evidence that businesses are, in fact, returning to their offices and the buildings are moving closer to pre-COVID levels of occupancy and vibrancy.

Still, hard questions remain about just how many more cars will be returning to those lots — and when. And these questions — which are being asked in urban areas across the Northeast and, indeed, across the country — will likely determine to just what extent the market fully recovers. Indeed, as leases have expired over the past year, some companies have downsized, said Bolotin, a few have actually upsized to give employees more space in the wake of COVID, and others are essentially standing pat.

Meanwhile, when it comes to negotiating new leases, most tenants have been able to take advantage of a market that favors them and secure a number that certainly isn’t higher, and in many cases is lower.

Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates, which manages several office buildings in this region, including the Greenfield Corporate Center and Agawam Crossing, said that nearly 14 months after COVID forced many people to work remotely, questions linger about when and if businesses will summon employees back to the office, and how many will actually come back.

“I think people like to work at home,” he said. “Businesses want them to come back, but I’m not sure the employees will want to go back.”

Meanwhile, some segments of the commercial market, especially industrial properties, are vibrant, if not white-hot, said Vincunas, noting that there isn’t enough inventory to meet a growing need.

Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active

While COVID has slowed some segments of the commercial real-estate market, Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active, with inventories struggling to meet demand.

“The bulk of our portfolio is industrial, and that’s all pretty strong right now — inventory for that is very low, and prices are very high,” he said, adding that the market for medical real estate — and his company has some of it in the portfolio as well — remains strong.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening within the local market and what may happen as the region continues its pursuit of ‘normal’ — whatever that means.

 

Down on Main Street

As he talked about the Northampton market and what has happened within it over the past year or so, Goggins used the word ‘generational’ to describe the changes to the landscape.

By that, he meant many of the businesses that have become synonymous with Paradise City were started by people his age — Baby Boomers at or now approaching retirement.

“Downtown Northampton took off in the ’70s, and it was fueled by people who were contemporaries of mine who came into town or who were part of the community and decided to open restaurants and shops,” he said. “It was fueled by the Baby Boom generation.”

And what COVID did was push some of those entrepreneurs into retirement maybe a little sooner than they were planning, he said, adding that this led to some high-profile vacancies on Main Street, a phrase he uses to connote both that specific thoroughfare and the whole of the downtown. Those vacancies include the massive Silverscape Designs building, a former bank; 147 Main St., formerly Cathy Cross; 162 Main St., formerly Artisan Gallery; and others.

In recent weeks, though, new tenants have been secured for many of these properties, he said, noting that Rebekah Brooks Jewelry has moved into the Cathy Cross space, 25 Central has taken the Artisan Gallery space, and Cotton Gallery has moved into 153 Main St., formerly Thelo. This movement reflects his earlier-stated sentiments that the market has, in fact, bottomed out and is moving back up again, although there is still work to do.

“The vacancy rate is higher than what we would prefer, but we’re nipping away at it,” he said, adding that the emerging cannabis industry has played a factor in these efforts, and it could play a still-larger role moving forward, with nearly a dozen ventures at some stage of the permitting process.

As for the Silverscape property, he said there has been some interest expressed in it, but it is a large space with some accompanying challenges when it comes to a new use.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the former bank spaces, like teller windows, were imaginatively integrated into the jewelry store’s design, they may in some ways limit what can easily be done with the space now.

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton, now on the market, will present opportunities and challenges to its next owner, said Pat Goggins, adding “it’s not for the feint of heart.”

Assessing the office market, Goggins echoed others in noting that, while more businesses are returning to the spaces they completely or partially vacated last March, there are questions about whether businesses that had to rely on people working remotely will bring everyone — or anyone — back to the office.

Vincunas said he has a diverse list of tenants at the Greenfield Corporate Center, including some state agencies that he is not concerned about when it comes to downsizing or not renewing, but also some financial-services and technology-related tenants for which there are some questions moving forward.

“People have learned to work outside the office, so we can’t be sure what will happen long-term,” he said, adding quickly that, for the short term, the property has benefited from COVID in one respect — the regional jury-pool operation has moved into 25,000 square feet of space at the facility for at least a year.

“They couldn’t space people out for jury-pool selection at all the courthouses — there just wasn’t room — so they created an off-site central-clearinghouse type of space,” he told BusinessWest. “We had a big piece of space, so they took it.”

Boloton said he’s seeing some evidence that, while the experiences of the past year have shown that remote working can be effective, most businesses want their workers back together in one place.

“I’ve seen it with a number of businesses … they’ve said, ‘we’re working at home, we’ve figured it out, but there’s still a need to be in the office, and, over time, people want to be in the office,’” he said, adding that the parking-lot test, as unscientific as it is, provides some evidence that companies are working their way back to their office spaces. “It’s a matter of want to, and need to, and there’s a slow progression back. There’s a steady return toward coming back to the office; we’re not there, but we’re getting closer every day.”

For other evidence of progress, he cited the recent closing of a deal with a business to lease 27,000 square feet of office space in a property at 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield. He could not disclose the new tenant, but said it was an existing Western Mass. business that is expanding.

“It’s a market that has some areas of slowdown reaction to the pandemic,” he said, listing retail in that category. “But there are other areas that are busy, and we can’t find inventory. Industrial is very strong, and we have a lot of transactions for users buying buildings, so we have a number of properties under contract.”

 

Bottom Line

Between the parking-lot test, some new leases being inked, and tight inventories in the industrial market, the commercial real-estate landscape seems to be changing in this region — and for the better.

That said, many questions remain about the market and especially the office buildings that are not only home to many types of companies, but also generate business at neighboring service- and hospitality-related enterprises.

It may be some time before all those questions are answered, but for now, it seems the worst may well be over and, as Goggins and others noted, this sector is moving steadily closer to something approximating normal.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Coronavirus Special Coverage

A Matter of Speculation

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky is transforming 14,000 square feet of what was retail space into Venture X, a co-working concept, one of many signs of change within the region’s commercial real-estate market.

It was time to face facts, Ned Barowsky recalled.

For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies left at Barowsky’s property at 98 Lower Westfield Road by the departure of Pier One Imports and Kaoud Oriental Rugs. And they had gotten … nowhere.

“I met with them on the phone weekly, and they sent me a sheet of everyone they talked to and e-mailed, and all the responses they got,” he said. “For six months prior to COVID, not one bite. And they worked it. I felt bad for them; I wanted to pay them, but they didn’t get me anybody.”

Faced with this handwriting on the wall and an uncertain future for the Holyoke property he has owned for nearly 35 years, Barowsky is doing what so many are doing in the midst of COVID-19, and in general. He’s pivoting — big time.

Indeed, he intends to remake those vacated storefronts, and some additional space at the complex, into a franchise for the emerging co-work concept known as Venture X, which bills itself as “the future of workspace” (more on that later).

This intriguing pivot is just one indication that the local commercial real-estate market is in a state of flux, if you will, with perhaps profound changes to come as the pandemic continues and its impact on this sector grows.

Indeed, there is already significant movement in the market when it comes to additional vacancies and properties becoming available. Meanwhile, there is widespread speculation that the office market in particular may see considerable disruption as businesses with some or most of their employees working remotely consider making such arrangements permanent.

“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live.”

And even if they don’t swing that far when it comes to working arrangements, there are questions about how much of their present space they’ll retain when their lease is up.

“We have lost a few tenants, mostly due to non-renewals as companies look for ways to be more efficient and perhaps consolidate if they had multiple locations,” said Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and co-owner of 1350 Main St. in Springfield, noting that Bay Path University, which occupies roughly 12,000 square feet, is one of these tenants.

But as some are downsizing or not renewing, others are actually taking more space to accommodate pandemic-era guidelines on social distancing and keep employees safe, said Plotkin, noting that he’s already seen such upsizing from a few tenants and expects more in the months to come.

In the meantime, new leases are being signed, and properties are being acquired, said Demetrios Panteleakis, a principal with MacMillan Group LLC, which has authored what could certainly be called a stunning turnaround at Tower Square in downtown Springfield.

Over the past 24 months or so, Panteleakis said, MacMillan has successfully backfilled roughly 80% of the 150,000 square feet of office space in the complex that MassMutual vacated, with about a third of that coming in just the past few months.

The latest additions in the office tower include Wellfleet and Farm Credit Financial Partners, which moved into 37,500 square feet on the sixth floor, but also a few law firms and a civil-engineering firm. Meanwhile, on the retail side, the Greater Springfield YMCA moved several of its operations last winter, White Lion Brewery is completing work on its brewery and eatery in the former Spaghetti Freddy’s space, and a nail salon has moved in. And all this is on top of a massive renovation of the hotel on the property into a new Marriott.

“Tower Square is absolutely on fire,” he said, adding that he believes the success at that address has been a function of providing an attractive product in a good location, in this case an urban area in the midst of what has been called a renaissance.

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square in recent months, with new leases signed for both retail and office space.

Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, agreed that there has been activity within the market despite the pandemic, noting that his firm has completed a number of transactions, including the sale of the property at 95 Elm St. in West Springfield formerly occupied by United Bank, the Newman Center on the UMass Amherst campus, and lease of the former Chandler’s restaurant space at the Yankee Candle complex in South Deerfield, among others.

The $64,000 question is … what happens now?

No one really knows the answer. Many brokers are encouraged by numerous stories in recent weeks about both productivity being down as a result of remote working and pent-up desire to return to the office. But these sentiments are juxtaposed against others indicating that remote work has been a success and, as a result, less office space will be leased in the future.

Speaking for others, Panteleakis said there will likely be a lull or pause in the action until perhaps the end of the first quarter of next year as business owners sort some things out.

Work in Progress

Plotkin calls it a “remote work hub.”

That’s a term he borrowed from a request for proposals he’s likely to respond to, and it describes … well, a place where people can both live and work. But not like the current work-from-home environment many are now experiencing.

“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live,” said Plotkin, adding quickly that he’s thinking hard about whether 1350 Main St. can be shaped into one of these remote work hubs. He thinks it can.

“I have a design here that works great,” he told BusinessWest. “We have some empty floors, and if we created maybe 20 units per floor and used the three floors that are empty, that would be 60 market-rate housing units. And if you had another floor that was a COVID-19 pandemic remote work space, which has yet to be designed, I think you’d have something very attractive.

“The idea is to make people feel that they can go someplace to work and not be in their kitchen, not be in their living room, and actually have some socialization and see other people,” he went on, adding that such a facility would help attract people of all ages, but especially young people, to downtown Springfield.

The fact that Plotkin is thinking about such a dramatic pivot provides more evidence that the commercial real-estate market is changing and there are certainly question marks about how — and how profoundly — the landscape may change.

The remote-work phenomenon, if it can be called that, is certainly at the heart of much of this speculation. Indeed, as more workers toil from home for longer periods — some of the massive tech companies have told employees they won’t be coming back for a year, at least — questions are raised about whether such arrangements will become permanent, and what this means for major urban centers and individual office facilities.

Barowsky, for one, believes that companies will be less likely to want to tie themselves down with long-term leases for large amounts of space. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s moving forward with Venture X.

A Holyoke native who has seen a number of economic cycles and an ongoing evolution of the area’s retail scene, Barowsky believes this co-work space is certainly the right concept at the right time — and especially the right place.

“I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”

Indeed, the site, just a few hundred yards from the Holyoke Mall, is right off I-91 exit 15 and only minutes off exit 4 of the Mass Pike.

“This is literally the crossroads of New England,” said Barowsky, adding that this address makes the Venture X facility attractive for businesses across a number of sectors.

Add all these factors up, and Barowsky doesn’t see this dramatic pivot — away from retail and into co-working space — as much of a gamble. And if it is a gamble, it’s one he believes will pay off eventually, perhaps sooner than later.

Indeed, he said the current timeline doesn’t have him opening the doors for another six months, but he’s already received a number of inquiries about his concept.

Questions and Answers

While Barowsky doesn’t have any doubts about his new development, there is a growing amount of uncertainty when it comes to the larger commercial real-estate market.

And it crosses many of the sectors within that realm, including retail — which was already under considerable stress before COVID-19 due to online buying and now is under even more — and especially the office market because of questions about the future of work.

“At this point, I think the jury is still out — the verdict is not in yet,” Plotkin said. “There’s been an abrupt change in how we work, and it has required us to work remotely. It’s been a complete lifestyle change, and it’s created a fair amount of fear. And those converging factors may prevail over a long period of time; we just don’t know.”

Panteleakis agreed to some extent, but said he concurs with JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who recently told American Banker that he sees economic and social damage from a longer stretch of working from home.

“Between 2002 and 2005, there was a big movement happening — commercial real estate had become so expensive that everyone was trying remote working,” he recalled. “Jamie Dimon is saying the same thing that everyone was saying back then — that they see a decrease in productivity. So I think real estate is coming back; I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”

Plotkin concurred. “Today, people can work from anywhere, and it’s appealing to people to work from anywhere. But the reality is that working from home is isolating, and I don’t think that’s a long-term solution.”

Added Bolotin, “there is a lot of speculation on both sides of that fence. I believe that the office market will still have a future — there will still be demand. Working from home is fine on a limited basis, but people will eventually migrate back to an office setting.

“Needs might change,” he went on. “They may need to consolidate, or they may wish to add more space for social-distancing purposes. But what the net effect of this will be … time will tell.”

Returning to the present, those we spoke with said there are certainly some deals getting done, and the market remains active. Panteleakis cited not only Tower Square, but also neighboring 1550 Main St., which he also handles, and which is fully occupied.

Bolotin, citing those recent transactions in West Springfield, Amherst, South Deerfield, and other communities his firm was involved with, said they provide evidence of a resilient economy and an equally resilient commercial real-estate market, one that has seen a number of downturns — and recoveries.

“We’re very active, we’re busy, there are transactions happening,” he said of his firm but also the market overall. “Over the past few months, we’ve had deals close across a number of categories — office, retail, industrial, land, investments. We’ve had activity in all segments.”

Some of these transactions bode well for the region and some of its individual communities, he noted, such as the sale of 95 Elm St. in West Springfield. Considered a key to development of the downtown area, the property is being targeted for a mix of office and retail, said Bolotin, and his firm is currently negotiating several potential leases in that building.

Meanwhile, other deals have been closed involving retail (two Family Dollar stores), industrial (more than 500,000 square feet in total), and even a few church properties.

“It is certainly a challenging time, and there are people who have been negatively impacted,” he stressed. “But there is still activity within the marketplace.”

Bottom Line

As for the immediate future … Panteleakis said a pause, or lull, is common just before presidential elections. And this year, COVID-19 has given business owners and managers more reason to be cautious.

“People are in a wait-and-see mode,” he explained. “Most of the executives that I’ve spoken with are waiting to see what happens in the first quarter of 2021. So I think the jury will be out until that first quarter of next year.”

After that … no one really knows when the jury will actually be back and what the verdict will be.

But some are already anticipating long-term changes to the landscape. That’s why Venture X is taking shape in Holyoke and why Evan Plotkin is drafting plans for a remote work hub.

Plenty of questions remain about the future, and the answers won’t come easily.

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections Special Coverage

Hitting ‘Pause’

 

 

Evan Plotkin calls it the “trickle-up effect.”

He was referring specifically to the pressures placed on the owners of multi-family dwellings and apartment complexes — and also to those landlords’ vendors — when, as a result of job losses forced by COVID-19, tenants cannot pay their rent, yet they’re protected from eviction by state and/or federal legislation.

“Multi-family property-management companies and landlords may be impacted disproportionately to the extent that there are forgiveness rules being discussed that would loosen rent-payment obligations and allow residential tenants to defer rent payments,” he said. “Clearly, unless there are provisions for the property owners to be made whole on the deferral or forgiveness of rent, it could create a variety of economic hardships to those property owners.”

But the trickle-up effect applies to virtually all types of commercial real estate and fallout from COVID-19, said Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, who tragically lost his mother to the virus earlier this month. He and other property managers who spoke with BusinessWest noted that the pandemic has forced the closure of all kinds of businesses and severely impacted the cash flow of almost all others. And this has obviously made it difficult for some to the pay the rent.

Some tenants have requested deferrals or other forms of help, but others didn’t exactly ask. They essentially just took them.

“I have some tenants, large, strong companies, that have sent letters saying they have stopped all payments to all vendors, landlords, etc. — period, without any time frame,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Development Associates, which has co-developed and now manages a number of office and retail properties in Western Mass. and Connecticut. “There was no explanation, really, just ‘we’re strong and we’ll be back, but … we’re not paying you.’”

Vincunas, who was in the process of writing e-mails to those at the top levels of those companies saying that such tactics were “un-American, like hoarding, and not the right thing to do,” said many other large companies have been far more diplomatic, with actual requests for 50% of rent payments, with offers to pay it back over the next six to 12 months.

Meanwhile, others we spoke with said they are working with tenants while also introducing, or reacquainting, them with the phrase force majeure (more on that later).

Ken Vincunas

Ken Vincunas

“There was no explanation, really, just ‘we’re strong and we’ll be back, but … we’re not paying you.”

But issues with collecting rent comprise just one of the many COVID-19-related challenges now facing commercial real-estate brokers and managers. Others include trying to do business differently, with many people working remotely; a dramatic slowing of activity within the market as companies pause to assess the damage and debate whether to move forward with planned deals; and emerging concerns that, as time goes by and companies see the advantages to having people work at home, companies may adjust their needs for space downward in the years to come, creating more problems for building owners.

“Businesses are getting a test run right now with working from home,” said Plotkin. “And if that works for them, there’s a strong possibility they might want to continue that, which would create havoc in the office-leasing market — and the office-investment market.

“Everything flows from the occupancy of your building,” he went on. “If your building becomes less occupied, it’s worth less, the market value goes down, and it triggers all kinds of things that are not necessarily good for the office-business market; that’s a clear fear that we have.”

Jack Dill, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, which manages a number of properties across the region, agreed, but offered the hope that these ongoing experiments will lead some to conclude, as he has, that having people working in one place promotes collaboration.

“Work is a social enterprise — it’s about relationships, and it’s about trust,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s about the free flow of information, and that’s a lot harder when people are disbursed.”

Vacancy Signs

As he talked with BusinessWest in mid-April, Vincunas noted that he had recently sent in his application for relief from the SBA-administered Paycheck Protection Program.

The application was made to essentially cover the costs of keeping the staff at Development Associates’ small office in Greenfield — located at the Greenfield Corporate Center, which the company manages — on the payroll.

And that’s just one of a long list of COVID-19-related hardships that the company is coping with. Indeed, Vincunas noted that one staff member, concerned about the health risks associated with coming to work, abruptly retired several weeks back, prompting some shuffling of duties and leaving the company generally short-handed.

“She didn’t want to leave the house,” he noted. “And that really set us back. She retired, and that was that, leaving us to pick up the slack.”

The story is generally the same with other property managers and brokers, who are, like businesses in virtually every other sector, coping with new realities when it comes to where and how work is being conducted.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin

“Businesses are getting a test run right now with working from home. And if that works for them, there’s a strong possibility they might want to continue that, which would create havoc in the office-leasing market — and the office-investment market.”

As for business itself … on the brokerage side, things have slowed considerably, as might be expected given the vast amounts of disruption, fear, and general uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

But some deals have been completed. Vincunas said he signed on a new tenant at the beginning of the crisis, and some smaller build-out efforts — being undertaken “slowly and carefully to ensure social distancing” — are in progress.

Dill said the ‘deal flow,’ as he called it, is still moving, and his company closed on a few leases early in April. Properties are still being shown, he went on, albeit carefully, and while observing certain protocols, such as frequent use of hand sanitizer and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces.

But, like others we spoke with, he noted that, as the crisis has continued, the pace of business has slowed, and many who were in the exploratory stages of a potential move have backed off, waiting for the skies to clear.

“We’ve had some say, ‘interesting, attractive property, we’re interested, but things are so unsure, let’s let this settle down and we’ll re-engage at the other end of this.’”

Vincunas agreed. “At the beginning of this, I lost three hot deals that were going ahead, and none of them have come through,” he said, noting that one involved a building in Agawam he was going to buy and lease to an interested tenant. That interest is now gone.

“I had two other tenants who were going to lease space in a building we own already, and both of them said, ‘we have to slow down, things are changing … we don’t know,’” he went on. “Everyone has this uncertainty, and they’re thinking, ‘let’s not do anything for a while.’”

As for existing tenants, while some are experiencing something approaching business as usual — Vincunas has a kidney-dialysis venture and an ambulance company in his portfolio of tenants, and they certainly fall into that category — many have been forced to close their doors because they’re not essential, and most others are hurting to some degree.

Therefore, property owners are working with these tenants, offering some deferrals on at least a portion of their rent, Plotkin explained, noting that there is what amounts to a ‘base rent’ amount in each lease, as well as an additional amount to cover operating expenses, including security, cleaning, utilities, and others.

“The base-rent amount can be deferred, not abated, for a period of time,” he explained. “But the amount for operating expenses can’t, because we still have to keep the lights on, and we still have to pay the bills.”

Extraordinary Times

This brings us back to ‘force majeure,’ a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability and obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance — such as a war, riot, hurricane, or flood — prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

A pandemic certainly fits that description because some businesses have been forced to close by state decree, and almost all others have been negatively impacted in some way. It’s the force majeure clause that no doubt prompted those letters that Vincunas described earlier.

Dill said Colebrook is working with clients on a case-by-case basis, and is working with tenants experiencing hardships. Like the others we spoke with, he referenced the trickle-up effect, or the ripple effect, that tenants not being able pay some or all of their rent will generate.

“When you go to the next circle out … if landlords have tenants who can’t operate and therefore don’t have the cash flow to pay rent and other changes, that immediately impacts landlords and their ability to meet their obligations, including debt service,” he explained.

While coping with the present, those we spoke with are also looking to the future, and they project that the pandemic will change the landscape in perhaps profound ways.

For starters, Vincunas believes that the current trend toward more purchases being made online, with items — from groceries to books to sporting goods — being delivered to the home will continue, and it will drive need for additional warehouse space.

“So many things are drop-shipped,” he explained. “The warehouse and logistics business is due for a big infusion of activity, just by the nature of a growing reluctance among people to leave the house.”

Conversely, this trend will negatively impact the retail side of the business, a trend that’s already playing out on Main Streets and in malls across the country.

But it’s the office sector that has those looking down the road most concerned. Indeed, those we spoke with said it’s possible, and perhaps likely, that companies will learn from this pandemic that there are advantages to having some people working at home and fewer people at the office. And, eventually, this will lead to downsizing and less overall demand for office space.

“The office market, and retail, are the two sectors of real estate that will be most impacted by this,” said Plotkin. “In the case of office, we were seeing some pretty good momentum right before COVID-19 — Springfield usually lags behind, but nationally, the office segment was doing very well. That has come to a complete standstill.

“And the fear amongst my colleagues is that people are starting to realize that this home-work model works for them, and will this replace the need for office space?” he went on. “It remains to be seen how this is going to play out, but that’s a real fear out there; as leases renew, those tenants might be evaluating whether they need the amount of space they occupied. They may do a home/office model that would reduce the amount of space they need.”

Those we spoke with are certainly hoping that, while businesses get this ‘test run,’ as Plotkin described it, they decide there are advantages to having co-workers in one place.

“That collaborative model is important for innovation,” said Plotkin. “Having people together in close proximity offers the sharing of ideas and collaboration in ways you can’t get with a Zoom meeting.”

Dill agreed. He said companies, and his is one of them, are experimenting with having workers dispersed and working from home, and some of the results are trickling in.

“It’s working pretty well,” he said. “But it’s not the same as having your people together, where they can meet casually, sit down in the same room, and solve a problem.”

Time and Place

Just what will come of the ongoing ‘test run’ of remote working remains to be seen.

What’s clear now, though, is that this pandemic is having a significant impact on the commercial real-estate market locally, and across the country.

The ‘trickle-up’ effect, as well as the trickle-down effect, are real, and as the crisis continues, the toll it is taking on this important sector continues to mount.

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

Commercial Real Estate

Developing Story

Jeff Daley, CEO at Westmass Area Development Corp

Jeff Daley, CEO at Westmass Area Development Corp

Jeff Daley boasted a long career in development, with experience on the municipal, state, and private realms, when an intriguing opportunity came about last year: the role of CEO at Westmass Area Development Corp., which oversees a number of newsworthy projects in the region, most notably Ludlow Mills. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to connect municipalities and developers on a larger scale — and help generate the sort of economic activity and job creation that makes communities strong.

Jeff Daley was working for the state in 2005 when it created a district improvement financing (DIF) program, essentially a tool that enables towns to capture incremental tax revenues from new private investment to pay for public improvement projects.

A decade later, while leading his own development firm, CJC Development Advisors, he put that knowledge to good use on the Longmeadow/East Longmeadow line. It’s the sort of experience — working with muncipalities and developers — that he brings to his latest role as CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp., which he took on last summer.

The project he referenced was a campus of sorts being developed by two entities — Baystate Health, which was building a multi-practice healthcare center on the Longmeadow side, and Berkshire Healthcare, which was building East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center on that town’s side of the line.

“I looked at this as a challenge. Westmass has been around for 60 years, and certainly there’s still a lot of good left that needs to be done — there are a lot of good projects out there.”

“They needed about $3 million in public infrastructure to make those projects work,” Daley recalled, referring to the extensive road, water, and sewer work undertaken a few years ago along the Dwight Street corridor. So CJC put together a DIF by which new tax dollars from the two developers’ private investment paid for the debt service for the $3 million worth of public infrastructure.

“It was the first municipal DIF in the state,” he recalled. “And it’s a huge success. Those projects would not have come to fruition, either the larger Berkshire Health building out back or the Baystate Health facility up front. They just couldn’t make it work if they had to put $3 million into public infrastructure.”

Daley wants to bring that problem-solving spirit into his current role leading Westmass, where his responsibilities include negotiating corporate acquisitions, land sales and leases, and incentive proposals; applying for grants; and marketing resources and development services to organizations and businesses considering investment in the region, as well as evaluating opportunities for new industrial-park development and coordinating federal, state, and local economic-development grants and resources.

“If there are projects that need to be done, communities may not have the staff on hand to manage projects, and we can provide services for the development of projects,” he told BusinessWest. “And, in concert with that, we’re working with developers. They may not know all the programs that are out there, and those are the kinds of programs I want to instill at Westmass. When communities and/or developers have questions about development and how to go about programs, I want them to think of Westmass first. And if we can’t do it, we’ll tell you we can’t and set you up with who can.”

After all, development is good for communities, in many ways. But his passion is more organic than that, because when Daley sees development, he sees jobs.

“I believe the creation of good, stable jobs is really most impact you can have on communities. If people are working, they have money to spend, which is good for the economy. But it’s also providing a stable environment for kids to grow up in, when mom and dad are working and able to pay the rent. I look it as more granular economic development, as opposed to just building buildings and putting people to work. It affects everybody down to young kids in our communities, and that’s important to me when we’re doing developments.”

Park Life

The former executive director of the Westfield Redevelopment Authority, Daley worked on several projects in the downtown area, which certainly needed more energy and vibrancy. He left that job in 2014 to work for a couple of construction companies before launching his own company in 2016.

“At CJC, I worked with a lot of clients, including municipalities and private developers, working on putting financial plans together for public infrastructure, commercial-development projects, and such,” he explained. “We did construction management for private developers, did a couple of urban-renewal plans, and strategic planning for those projects.”

When the opportunity arose to head up Westmass following the untimely death of its former CEO, Eric Nelson, the job seemed to mesh well with Daley’s experience and passions.

“My business was going very, very well, I had very good clients, and it was a hard decision to make,” he recalled. “But I looked at this as a challenge. Westmass has been around for 60 years, and certainly there’s still a lot of good left that needs to be done — there are a lot of good projects out there.”

Like Ludlow Mills, one of the agency’s signature projects. Last summer, Westmass announced state and federal funding to construct Riverside Drive at the rear of the complex, making the development accessible to substantially more development. The site already includes 75 Winn Development apartments in Mill 10 for those over age 55 and is host to Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts.

Creating a city street behind the property creates frontage for several properties and makes it more palatable for companies to access water and sewer, which makes the sites more attractive to lease, he explained. That project is scheduled to wrap up later this year.

In all, about 35% of the 7 million square feet at Ludlow Mills is rehabbed and active. “There’s a lot of activity,” Daley said, noting that Westmass moved its main leasing office to the site in December. “Additionally, we have about 80 acres off the east side of the back road, Riverside Drive, that is high, dry, and flat. There are some wetlands, but about 50 or 60 acres that are developable out there, and by doing this new road, it’s going to get them frontage in order for us to go out and market it to companies. So that’s really exciting.”

Meanwhile, Ludlow Mills is waiting for historical tax credits on the clock-tower portion of the development, a $20 to $30 million investment that will be what Daley called “the showpiece of our investment.”

“We’re really excited about that,” he added, noting that Ludlow is building a new senior center at the site. “That’s going to be a beautiful building to showcase the property from the eastern side. So there’s a lot of momentum, a lot of people are interested, and it’s not just storage facilities; there’s a lot of jobs in there. These people are coming in and creating jobs in machine shops and other facilities that really attract businesses. This is one of our marquee projects we’re looking to grow for a long time.”

A few miles away, the Chicopee River Business Park, which Westmass has owned for 25 years, tells a different story. Harvey Industries purchased a parcel a number of years ago, but Westmass is still looking to market the mostly vacant, 170-acre complex.

“We really want to look out for the long-term benefit of the park. We are selling it as a bulk sale for 170 acres, but we’ll work with people to do what’s best for them,” he explained, noting that the location is attractive for industry, with its proximity to I-291 and the ability to get trucks in and out without disturbing residential neighborhoods.

On the other hand, Westmass’ other industrial parks — in Hadley, East Longmeadow, and Westfield — are full, Daley noted. “We continue to build parks and take on projects that benefit Western Mass., both with jobs and creating quality of life for people. That’s the endgame of Westmass; we work to get parcels ready for sale and make sure the right businesses go into them.”

Step by Step

Westmass made a real-estate deal of a different kind in December, moving its corporate offices to Monarch Place in downtown Springfield, which Daley sees as an opportunity to raise the organization’s brand and presence, while continuing its work connecting developers, municipalities, and other entities.

“We can work with towns and cities and private developers as well, and act as their economic-development arm, whether it’s putting together public infrastructure financing, putting together urban-renewal plans, putting together plans for strategic development in communities — all that is needed out there,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s the exciting part. A lot of cities and towns don’t have the ability to do that because they don’t have the staff or the means to take on those sorts of projects. We can, here at Westmass.”

He harkens back to his time in Westfield, when the city tapped into numerous funding sources to develop urban-renewal projects downtown and elsewhere.

“We just dug deep and figured out what we could do. There are more programs out there than people realize. They go about their daily business and it’s not their job to know about the programs, but Westmass can help them see what’s available for public infrastructure programs, for land deals — we can put together the infrastructure to get their project done.”

Which is good — not just for communities, but the individual families living in them.

“I believe everything good starts with people working, and the things we do to help projects get to the finish line and get developed really impact thousands of people around Western Mass. every day,” Daley said. “That’s what I’m passionate about. If people are going out to work and working hard every day, it’s a different life at home. Every little bit helps.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at businesswest.com

Commercial Real Estate

Sign of the Times

Republican Publisher George Arwady says the newspaper’s staff can fit into perhaps one-third of the space in the building on Main Street, prompting an effort to sell or lease that real estate.

The sign just went up on the top of the structure a few months back. But the Republican building on Main Street in Springfield has been for sale or lease, on one level or another, for the better part of a more than a decade now.

Thus, it has become part of a regional and national story involving newspapers and commercial real estate. Technology has changed, papers have consolidated operations, and staffs have become smaller — those last two trends accelerated by a sharp decline in the fortunes of most all newspapers as interest in print advertising has waned. Thus, those papers’ real-estate needs have changed accordingly. And sometimes dramatically.

So it is in Springfield and at the Republican, part of Advance Publications, where publisher George Arwady estimates that the business — meaning the non-commercial-printing side of the venture (he stressed that repeatedly) — now requires not even half, and perhaps not even a third, of the roughly 64,000 square feet in the office building opened more than a half-century ago.

“We had maybe 500 people working in this building in the heyday — that’s when we were producing three newspapers, the Daily News, Union, and Republican, that were all competing against each other. There were competing newsrooms, competing circulation departments … they threw things over the fence at one another,” said Arwady, who came aboard as publisher nine years ago but certainly knows the history. “We might have 100 non-production people here now; we certainly don’t need all this space.”

Which brings us back to that sign. It announces loudly what has been widely known for years now — that there are large quantities of what Jack Dill, a principal with Colebrook Reality Services, which is now marketing the property, described as flexible, conveniently located space available for lease or sale as business condominiums.

And if someone wanted the whole building (again, not the huge commercial-printing operation), they can have that, too, if the price is right, said Arwady.

Indeed, he said the staff at the paper could easily be relocated into 20,000 square feet of space, and perhaps even less, in any of a number of downtown office buildings.

The fact that there are a number of properties that could accommodate them, including all the major office towers and several other buildings, including Union Station, helps explain why there has been little movement on the Republican space over the years, and why the sign has gone up on the property.

“It’s a buyer’s market, and certainly not a seller’s market,” said Arwady, noting, as area commercial real-estate brokers and managers have for some time now, that there is what amounts to a relative glut of office space in downtown Springfield, at least when compared with much hotter markets such as Boston, Cambridge, and even Cleveland.

In that last city, another Advance newspaper, the Plain Dealer, has relocated to smaller quarters, and its now-former headquarters has been sold and redeveloped. Something similar has happened at a number of other Advance publications, said Arwady, including the one in Grand Rapids, Mich. (the Press), and the Gazette in nearby Kalamazoo, where he once worked, where the newspaper property was acquired by a hospital group.

“They kept a portion of the old building, designed by a famous architect, and they built a large addition with offices,” he explained. “And the paper moved into nice space three blocks away in downtown Kalamazoo.”

And in Grand Rapids, he went on, the Press building was sold and redeveloped; it is now part of what’s known as the Medical Mile, a renowned healthcare destination.

“We’ve done this stuff all over the country, so we’re experts,” Arwady said of the Advance group, noting that the story has been replicated, to one degree or another, with newspapers — and communities — of all sizes.

The pattern has continued regionally as well, with a number of newspaper properties, perhaps most prominently the Boston Globe’s former headquarters building on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester being sold and redeveloped.

The Globe left its 700,000-square-foot complex in 2018 after nearly 60 years at that location, and took up residence on Washington Street — not far from where it had operated starting in 1870. It sold the Dorchester property to developer Nordblom, which is reshaping it into something called BEAT (Boston Exchange for Accelerated Technology). Plans call for 360,000 square feet of office and 300,000 square feet of flex, light industrial, and lab space that will likely include a craft brewery.

“It’s a massive project; the site is being totally redeveloped,” said Dill, who attended Boston College High School across the street. “That’s an example of what’s happening in cities across the country.”

And the Republican almost had a success story to top all these others. That’s almost.

“The solution for each market has been different. And at the end of the day, all real estate is local, as Tip O’Neill said about politics, and you have to find solutions that are available and practical and economical in the place that you happen to be located.”

Flash back to 2013 when there were briefly three Springfield casino proposals vying for the coveted Western Mass. license. In addition to the South End blocks now occupied by MGM Springfield and a short-lived proposal to build where CRRC is now assembling subway cars, Penn National, which now operates the slots casino in Plainville, wanted to build a casino on a large parcel that included both the Peter Pan bus terminal (now home to the Way Finders headquarters under construction) and the entire Republican parcel, including the massive printing operation.

“Somewhere, I have an option to buy that’s this thick from Penn National,” said Arwady, placing his thumb and index finger roughly two inches apart. “They were going to take the whole shooting match and build me a new production facility — the city was trying to get me to go into the industrial park; we were going to move all the office people downtown. And they were going to pay for the whole thing.”

Since the MGM plan got the nod in Springfield and then with the Gaming Commission, Arwady has essentially been trying to forge a successful plan B, and he acknowledged that doing so will be somewhat challenging because the market remains soft in Springfield. But he nonetheless remains optimistic that the property can regain the vibrancy it had 30 and even 20 years ago.

This optimism is based on a number of factors, starting with that prime ingredient in commercial real estate — location. Indeed, the property is visible from — and lies almost underneath — I-91, and also just off 291. Meanwhile, the bus and train stations are right across the street.

Beyond location, the building, described by Arwady as a “concrete fortress,” has abundant free parking (a rarity in the downtown area) and flexibility in that he believes it can accommodate everything from retail to professional offices to a variety of different cannabis-related businesses.

“We even have a large vault,” said Arwady. “And a vault is the most attractive thing you can have, from a commercial real-estate perspective, for a cannabis company, because it’s still an all-cash business and they can’t use the banks.”

Dill told BusinessWest that he can envision a number of different potential redevelopment opportunities at the site, including office space, education-related uses, and perhaps co-working space. And flexibility — meaning the ability to respond to a market’s needs — is an important quality when redeveloping such structures, because each real-estate market is unique.

“The solution for each market has been different,” he explained. “And at the end of the day, all real estate is local, as Tip O’Neill said about politics, and you have to find solutions that are available and practical and economical in the place that you happen to be located.”

Over the past several years, a number of entities, from law firms to education-related facilities, have toured the property, said Arwardy, adding that he believes this interest will eventually translate into a transformation of the property into other uses — perhaps several of them.

This has been the trend — or the story — when it comes to newspapers and commercial real estate, and the story is ongoing. u

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

Commercial Real Estate

Changing the Landscape

An aerial drone shot of the Northampton/I-91 Professional Center on Atwood Drive.

Ken Vincunas says he started getting into drone photography years ago — well before most practitioners.

There was a lengthy learning curve, and in some ways it’s still ongoing, he acknowledged, but overall it’s been a fun, intriguing experience as the technology has improved and its capabilities have grown. Meanwhile, it’s become a very practical — and much-needed — work tool for Vincunas, president of Development Associates, the Agawam-based commercial real-estate management firm and developer.

Indeed, he uses drone shots to help market the myriad properties in the company’s portfolio from Greenfield to East Granby, Conn.; shots from above often provide a unique perspective.

Shots like the one on this page, which Vincunas took last fall — probably in the early morning, by the looks of the parking lot and the lack of traffic on nearby I-91. Perhaps better than any thousand words could — even these — the picture tells how the development on Atwood Drive in Northampton, known officially as the Northampton/I-91 Professional Center, has changed the landscape in that area, once home to the Clarion Inn and Conference Center (Vincunas told BusinessWest he has some powerful drone shots capturing the demolition of that facility).

Today, the site has become home to a wide range of businesses and institutions, including the Massachusetts Trial Court, now a major tenant in the third building to be developed on the property, known as 15 Atwood, the large one in the center of the picture.

But Cooley Dickinson Hospital (CDH) is the dominant tenant on the property, with facilities in all three buildings and a presence summed up with the collective ‘Atwood Health Center.’

The hospital, a Massachusetts General Hospital affiliate, has its name on 22 Atwood (Cooley Dickinson Health Care), which houses a number of facilities, from Atwood Internal Medicine to Hampshire Cardiovascular Associates; from integrated behavioral-health services to women’s health. Meanwhile, at 8 Atwood, the first building developed, CDH has located its occupational-therapy, physical-therapy, and speech-language facilities, and in 15 Atwood, opened last spring, CDH has placed general surgical care and infectious-diseases facilities and Oxbow Primary Care.

Thus, the facility has become a true healthcare destination, similar to the Brightwood section of Springfield’s North End, although, as Vincunas noted, it is home to a wide variety of tenants, including an engineering firm and an accounting firm slated to move into 15 Atwood later this year (buildout on the latter is much further along than the former).

Which means the parking lot generally doesn’t look anything like it does here. And it’s likely to become even more full in the coming months as Vincunas looks to fill the remaining spaces in 15 Atwood, roughly 8,000 square feet in total.

“We’re seeing a good amount of interest in this space,” he said while sitting at a table in one section if it. “We had one caller interested in the whole thing and several others interested in pieces of it.”

But he’s already looking beyond those spaces — both literally and figuratively — to the undeveloped property at the back of this parcel, adjacent to the highway. There is room for additional development there, he said, and already a search is underway for the anchor tenant or tenants needed to greenlight new construction.

“We have site-plan approval for another building, which is a significant milestone,” he said, adding that the permit will allow something between 40,000 and 50,000 square feet, somewhat smaller than the 66,000-square-foot 15 Atwood. “We’ll need someone there to be the anchor, as it was with these other buildings.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Atwood Drive complex and how it remains an important work in progress.

A Vision Comes into Focus

Despite how it might look to some, Vincunas stressed repeatedly that this venture was certainly not an overnight success.

Indeed, it’s been more than a decade in the making, he said, and the story really begins when the Clarion property, located on the north side of Atwood Drive, was acquired at auction by the O’Leary and Shumway families in the early ’90s. Other sites on both sides of the street were acquired over the ensuing years, and eventually a vision developed for a professional office complex, said Vincunas, one that would be built in stages as need — and anchor tenants — emerged.

“We’re seeing a good amount of interest in this space. We had one caller interested in the whole thing and several others interested in pieces of it.”

Redevelopment of the south side of the property, undertaken by a partnership of the O’Leary and Shumway families, with Development Associates as leasing agent and construction property manager, began with 8 Atwood, with construction commencing in 2011. It is now home to Clinical & Support Options, several CDH facilities, as noted, and New England Dermatology. The building known as 22 Atwood was built in 2012. It is now home to 17 different CDH services, including the diabetes center, fertility services, geriatrics, podiatry, radiology and imaging, rheumatology, and spine medicine.

Construction on 15 Atwood — led by the O’Leary family as managing partner, again in partnership with Development Associates — began in 2017, with the trial court as the anchor tenant; the facility had been located in cramped quarters in downtown Northampton and needed an upgrade.

Ken Vincunas stands in the space being built out for the construction firm BluRoc in 15 Atwood, the latest addition to the complex just off I-91 in Northampton.

The court, now occupying roughly 22,000 square feet, moved in last February, and since then, a number of additional tenants have signed on, including Cooley Dickinson, which moved in last fall; the state Department of Developmental Services; Assurance Behavioral Health; Staffier Associates, a mental-health clinic; OnaWay, LLC, an accounting firm relocating from Holyoke; and BluRoc, a construction firm now located in Hadley.

This diverse mix of tenants was drawn to the Atwood Drive complex by a number of factors, but especially accessibility (the site is just off exit 19 of the highway), parking, the large footprints available, and the ability to shape these spaces to fit specific needs.

“One of the big draws is the parking — it’s very hard to find a very large space with this kind of parking in Northampton,” Vincunas explained. “And it’s very accessible, which makes it attractive to a wide range of businesses and facilities like the courthouse.”

And also BluRoc, which will soon be occupying more than 6,000 square feet of space on the third floor of 15 Atwood.

“They have three offices in three different buildings in one little area, and they needed a consolidated office; they’re going to have 30 people here,” he said, adding that buildout of the space should be completed by late spring.

With the third and first floors fully leased, there are now just those two spaces remaining on the second floor, he said, adding, again, that there has been a good amount of interest expressed in those footprints.

Looking ahead to the last remaining parcel and development of that space, Vincunas said there is no definitive timeline on construction, but he believes there is solid demand.

Shutter to Think

The accounting firm OnaWay has its own aerial shot of 15 Atwood on its website, accompanied by the words “our new home in 2020 is underway, and we’re stoked to live and work where we call home.”

There’s a growing list of companies saying similar things about this location, which has been completely transformed over the past decade — from unused property and a tired hotel and conference center into a state-of-the-art professional complex and healthcare destination.

As Vincinas said, it wasn’t an overnight success, certainly, but it has developed — yes, that’s a photography term — into one of the better development stories in the region.

As that drone shot clearly demonstrates.

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

Commercial Real Estate

A Tale of Two Cities

Evan Plotkin says congestion and sky-high rents in Boston demand creative solutions. One of them could be incentivizing companies to move west, into Springfield’s downtown.

Evan Plotkin was talking about how “something has to give.”

With that one phrase, he was talking about the commercial real-estate markets in the central business districts of Boston and Springfield.

In the Hub, said Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, rents are sky-high and continue to climb — to more than $100 per square foot in some locations and to roughly $63 per square foot on average, with more space being built to accommodate soaring demand. Meanwhile, traffic, congestion, and problems with mass transit are strangling businesses, he said, to the point where meetings can’t start until 10 a.m. and overall productivity is impacted.

Meanwhile, in Springfield, rents are low — less than one-third the average in Boston — and they are flat, as in consistently flat. “They really haven’t gone up at all in maybe 25 years,” said Plotkin, who noted that there are several reasons for this, but especially the fact that there is, by his estimate, roughly 600,000 square feet of vacant class A space in Springfield’s downtown.

Exacerbating this relative stagnancy in the City of Homes has been new and seemingly unneeded inventory coming on the market — especially the 60,000 square feet at Union Station and the redeveloped property known as 1550 Main — and movement among a growing number of businesses to reduce their physical footprint by enabling (or in some cases requiring) employees to work from home.

This is where the ‘something has to give’ part comes in, said Plotkin, in a very candid interview with BusinessWest, noting that things need to change in both cities. And both would seemingly benefit if just some of the state offices now based in the Hub, as well as many different types of private businesses, would change their mailing address from Boston to Springfield when their leases expire.

“There’s 70% rent inflation in Boston, so when these businesses’ leases expire, they’re looking at incredibly high turnover rent,” said Plotkin, who co-owns a portion of the office tower known as 1350 Main St. He noted that class A rents in Boston have climbed $12 to $15 per square foot over the past few years. Meanwhile, in Springfield, property owners are charging $15 to $20 per square foot of class A space.

“It’s outrageous what’s going on in Boston — and everyone can do the math,” he said. “If state agencies don’t have to be in Boston, they can be decentralized and relocated to office space in Springfield or perhaps Worcester. They’re looking for creative solutions for Boston, and this could be one of them.”

Besides these opinions, all Plotkin really has at this point are those numbers he mentioned earlier (as well as some other statistics) and what appears to be that sound theory — that businesses and state agencies that don’t really need to be in Boston could and should be incentivized to seek other locations, including the 413 and especially downtown Springfield.

He has meetings planned with other downtown property owners as well as Rick Sullivan, present of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to discuss what can and perhaps should be done to at least raise awareness of what Springfield has to offer and perhaps create some migration west.

Plotkin said he understands there are reasons why state agencies and businesses want to be in Boston — especially because they know there’s a skilled workforce there — and he understands that moving about 90 miles west on the Turnpike is expensive and presents some risks, especially when it comes to workforce issues.

But he says the numbers speak for themselves, and if those paying sky-high rents in Boston could come to understand the numbers in this market, they could become inspired to relocate.

And if high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield becomes a reality, then people could, in theory, live in the Boston area and work in businesses and agencies relocated to the 413 — a decidedly differently spin on how that service might change the business landscape in the Bay State.

That’s a very large number of ‘ifs,’ and Plotkin acknowledges this as well. But as he said at the top, and repeatedly, something has to give in both cities.

Space Exploration

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin continually leafed through the pages on a white legal pad he brought with him.

They contain various notes he’s collected over the past weeks and months on the Boston real-estate market and the overall business climate in New England’s largest city.

There are some statistics he’s collected — such as those regarding average rents in the Hub, the amount of new space under construction (2.5 million square feet was the number he had), and the current vacancy rate in the city — an historically low 6%, according to the New York-based real-estate giant Cushman & Wakefield.

But there were also some general thoughts, observations, and notations from various publications and other sources.

Among them was a quote from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council citing a survey which revealed that 60% of the life-science employees working in Boston would “change their job tomorrow” if they could get a better commute. There was also something he read in another publication (he couldn’t remember which one), noting that many Boston-area residents had simply given up on mass transit because it was so unreliable and were instead driving to work and getting there mid-morning.

“In one report I read, business owners in Boston said they had to add staff to make up for transit delays,” he said, putting a verbal exclamation point behind that comment. “Think about how disruptive that is to your business. We don’t understand that here — there’s no such thing as traffic in Springfield.”

Summing up all he’s read and heard about Boston and possible solutions to its congestion problems — everything from incentivizing employers to let workers telecommute to taxing motorists for using certain roads at certain hours — he said the situation is fast becoming untenable for many living and trying to do business there.

“You have inefficiency, spiraling upward costs, shortages of affordable housing, transportation problems, congestion, and sky-high cost of living there,” he said. “Businesses locate in Boston because they can attract that workforce, which makes sense, but if that workforce can’t afford to live there and can’t deal with the congestion, then what’s the point of being in Boston?”

Which brings him back to Springfield and its downtown. And for this subject, Plotkin didn’t need a legal pad.

He’s been working in, and selling and leasing commercial real estate in, downtown Springfield for more than 40 years. He knows what’s changed and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t, especially when it comes to demand for space in the central business district, and what would be called net gains.

Indeed, Plotkin said that what the region has mostly experienced — there have been some notable exceptions, to be sure — is companies moving from one downtown office building to another.

In this zero-sum real-estate game, one building owner loses a tenant, and another gains one — but the city and its downtown don’t gain much at all, he said.

“There’s been negative absorption in the downtown for many years now, and I don’t see anything really changing,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m seeing people moving from one block to another, one office building to another, but not many new businesses moving in. Meanwhile, everyone’s vying for the same tenants, which drives the rental rates down even lower than they have been historically; it’s a tenant’s market here.”

It’s anything but that in Boston, which has seen a surge of new businesses moving in — everything from tech startups to giant corporations, like GE. The real-estate market is exploding, and traffic woes and mass-transit headaches have been consistent front-page news. All this calls for creative thinking — as in very creative — and perhaps looking west, said Plotkin, who did some simple math to get his point across.

“Using the example of a 20,000-square-foot tenant paying $63 per square foot in Boston … if the same tenant came to Springfield and paid $18 per square foot, we’re talking about millions of dollars,” he explained, adding that these numbers should strike a chord, especially when it comes to businesses and agencies that don’t have to be in Boston.

Many of those who think they do need to be in Boston are focused on workforce issues, he went on, adding that he believes the Greater Springfield area can, in fact, meet the workforce requirements of many companies.

And over the past several years, the city has become more vibrant with the addition of MGM Springfield, said Plotkin, adding that there are certainly other selling points, like a high quality of life and a cost of living that those residing in and around Boston might find difficult to comprehend.

Bottom Line

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin all but acknowledged that getting businesses and agencies to trade Boston for Springfield will be difficult, for all the reasons stated above.

But the situation in the Hub could be reaching a tipping point when it comes to affordability, traffic, congestion, and quality of life.

And these converging factors might, that’s might, finally convince some decision makers to seek a very creative alternative.

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

Commercial Real Estate

A New Anchor

Drew DiGiorgio discusses Wellfleet’s move

Drew DiGiorgio discusses Wellfleet’s move, backed by, from left, Demetrios Panteleakis, Dinesh Patel, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, Vid Mitta, and state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez.

Tower Square has seen its ups and downs over the years, but its new owners have been aggressive about selling potential clients on the renovated space, convenient parking, downtown amenities, and simply being part of an economic renaissance in Springfield. Wellfleet took that pitch to heart, which is why it agreed to become the tower’s anchor tenant.

Vid Mitta, managing partner of Tower Square, called Wellfleet’s relocation to the downtown Springfield office tower “a big thing.”

It’s even bigger when one considers how far the company has come, said Drew DiGiorgio, Wellfleet’s president and CEO.

“When we started, it was five employees,” DiGiorgio said. “My office was not an office — it was a desk and a chair located at the bottom of the stairs at a barbershop in Wilbraham. We would open up envelopes, and I would lick them because didn’t even have the little spongy thing. We answered the phones when they rang; we did everything. To go from that to this is pretty humbling, and I appreciate everyone’s support to get us here.”

“If this was five years ago, the issue might have been safety in the downtown. But the dynamic has changed. The downtown is attractive, there are all kinds of venues and attractions nearby, and security doesn’t appear to be an issue any longer.”

Wellfleet, a Berkshire Hathaway company providing accident and health-insurance products, recently staged a press conference to announce the relocation of its national corporate headquarters — and 150 of its employees — to the 10th, 11th, and 12th floors of Tower Square in August.

Wellfleet — which has built a national niche insuring college students, handling more than 100,000 students at more than 200 colleges and universities — has outgrown its current office space on Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield. The new offices at Tower Square will give employees up to 80,000 square feet of class-A office space and provide ample room for Wellfleet’s new and growing Workplace Benefits division.

“To me, Wellfleet is a home-grown, small, Springfield-based company which has grown to this size today, and we should applaud their success,” said Mitta, who announced that Wellfleet’s name will be placed on the tower as its anchor tenant.

Rethinking the City

Demetrios Panteleakis, principal of Macmillan Group, the real-estate firm that represents Tower Square, said his team was in discussions with Wellfleet for about a year as Wellfleet searched the suburban market for a home.

“We were the alternative. They were kind of weighing it against what the suburbs had to offer,” he said, adding that he was able to pitch a downtown headquarters as much more than a fallback. In fact, the more Wellfleet’s leaders considered Tower Square, the more it made sense.

“If this was five years ago, the issue might have been safety in the downtown,” Panteleakis told BusinessWest. “But the dynamic has changed. The downtown is attractive, there are all kinds of venues and attractions nearby, and security doesn’t appear to be an issue any longer.”

In short, a thriving urban center is simply more attractive than the suburbs to many companies. But that shift in perception didn’t happen overnight.

“I think it’s a culmination of everything the folks at City Hall, the Business Improvement District, and all the economic-development folks have been working on, rowing in the same direction, for the last four or five years,” he said. “The result is not only attracting new tenants, but bringing tenants from Westfield, West Springfield, Northampton, Agawam … these are folks saying, ‘Springfield is the heart of the economic engine in Western Mass., and that’s where we need to be; that’s where our employees need to be.’”

DiGiorgio said Wellfleet employees, when asked what’s appealing about Tower Square, cited the modern, renovated space itself, with its natural light, city views, and covered parking, as well as the food options downtown and the fact that the district has been emerging economically in recent years.

“In New England, it’s not a lot of fun when the snow and rain come, so having a secure garage, and having the ease of a building that kind of provides you everything you need over the course of the day, that’s highly attractive,” Panteleakis added.

Drew DiGiorgio called Wellfleet’s new home in Tower Square “inspirational” space.

Drew DiGiorgio called Wellfleet’s new home in Tower Square “inspirational” space.

Formerly known as Consolidated Health Plans, Wellfleet branded under its current name in January, uniting its insurance carriers and claims-administration organizations under one marketing name. It boasts approximately 175 employees, 150 of whom work in Springfield; others work remotely or from satellite offices in Florence, S.C. and San Rafael, Calif.

“We believe being part of Springfield is important,” DiGiorgio said, noting that the company has long been involved in efforts like the Memorial Spring Cleanup, Link to Libraries, Friends of the Homeless, Rays of Hope, and Open Pantry. “We are active in the community. Our name is not well-known, but we think that will change in the future.”

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that Tower Square’s owners have been aggressive and creative in bringing an eclectic mix of businesses to the facility, from Wellfleet to the YMCA of Greater Springfield to White Lion Brewing Co.

“A lot of people, years ago, said, ‘what can you expect? It’s Springfield.’ More and more people are saying now, ‘why not Springfield?’” the mayor said. “I won’t say the downtown is re-emerging as much as it is reinventing itself. Springfield is getting on the map. And my administration continues to be business-friendly because it brings jobs.”

Towering Presence

At the end of the day, Panteleakis said, Tower Square is becoming an easier sell.

“When you walk people through the space and they consider the economics of it — for a few dollars more, they can have parking at their leisure, then the level of security and the amenities a class-A building has to offer — it sells itself.”

That’s why he enjoys those tours of the building with prospective tenants, and hopes more companies and organizations request them.

“What they need to understand is what Wellfleet understands — the level of the buildouts of the existing spaces in Tower Square rival anything you’d see in Boston or New York City,” he told BusinessWest. “These are class-A, high-tech buildouts, and there’s a difference between being in a class-B or suburban market and being in a state-of-the-art, class-A office space with spectacular views of the Pioneer Valley.”

At the press conference, Panteleakis said welcoming Wellfleet was “a special day” for the city and the office tower.

“It’s quite remarkable to have another insurance company that’s growing at the rate this company is growing, and it’s only fitting it makes its home in the marquee building in the center of the city, bringing its people, its energy, and its vitality to the downtown,” he noted. “It’s just a great day to see it happen to our city. I think it’s going to be one of many great announcements Tower Square has for you over the coming months.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Painting the Town

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Britt Ruhe is a huge fan of public art, specifically mural art.

After attending what have come to be called ‘mural festivals’ in cities such as Worcester and Salem and seeing the many benefits they bring to those communities, she lobbied hard to bring a concept known as Fresh Paint to the City of Homes.

Wanting to find a way to give back to the community, Ruhe, a financial strategist for startups and small businesses by trade, began meeting with festival organizers in other parts of the state to gather input and essentially learn how it’s done.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this,’” said Ruhe, adding that, when she approached Springfield’s business, civic, and community leaders about staging a festival here, she encountered overwhelming support.

Indeed, not only did Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, agree to the festival concept, he pushed Ruhe to set the bar higher than her original proposal of five murals in order to achieve a greater impact.

Over six days earlier this month, 35 artists, with considerable help from the public during several ‘paint parties,’ transformed 10 walls throughout the city during Springfield’s first mural festival.

“It’s been a great success; when you do something in a city the size of Springfield, it has to have the correct impact,” said Kennedy. “I thought five was a little too small to be impactful. This was the first time we were going into multiple murals, and I thought 10 was more impactful than five.”

He said encouraging the arts and culture sector, currently a $50 million business in Springfield, is important for the continued revitalization of the city, especially in the realms of housing and entertainment.

The 28 total works of public art add up to 20,000 square feet of murals, and the larger works were approved by building owners who had no idea what the finished product would look like.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this.’”

“The building owners have the biggest lift; they donate their wall,” said Ruhe. “As part of a festival, the building owner doesn’t have to pay, but they don’t get to choose what goes on their wall, which is a big ask, especially this first year around.”

Overall, the festival was a community effort, with $150,000 raised for the event from donors and several sponsors, including MassMutual, MassDevelopment, Tower Square Hotel, and many others.

Dozens of volunteers took part, and 1,500 cans of spray paint and 500 gallons of liquid paint were used to change the face of many formerly drab buildings and pieces of infrastructure.

But the benefits far outweigh the costs, Ruhe told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot of data out there that shows that murals increase property value, foot traffic, and they’re good for residential and commercial businesses,” she explained, adding that, although the economic benefits are difficult to quantify, a study is being undertaken to examine the direct effects such a festival has on a city.

While little of the funds raised go to the artists themselves, Kim Carlino, artist of the mural at 8-12 Stearns Square, said there are many other types of rewards, especially the pursuit of such a daunting challenge.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

“I like the experience of having something that’s bigger than you and can really engulf you,” she said, while transforming that massive, highly visible wall in the heart of the entertainment district. “Everyone coming by is just so thankful; it’s the same experience I have every time I make a mural — everybody wants more color in their life, and we need more of that in our day-to-day.”

Springfield, as noted, is only the latest in a number of cities — in Massachusetts and across the country — to embrace murals and the concept of a mural festival.

Wane One, a muralist for 38 years, has taken part in many of these events. He said the only American art form started by young children has turned into a worldwide artistic movement.

“This artform has gone global,” he said after creating the mural on the East Columbus parking garage. “It doesn’t matter what part of the world you go to right now, it has pretty much taken over.”

In the city of Worcester, the arts and culture sector is a $127.5 million industry, filling 4,062 full-time jobs. And murals have become a distinctive part of the landscape there.

Che Anderson, project manager in the Worcester city manager’s office, said that community’s mural festival — called “Pow! Wow!” — has brought more people out and into the local community, providing a boost to small businesses.

“Overall, ‘Pow! Wow!’ has provided an international platform to know about Worcester and the things that are already existing,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the festival has improved the city’s walkability. “The festival also provided an outlet for many creatives in the city.”

As for Springfield, similar effects are already in evidence.

“It’s been a great success,” said Kennedy. “It has delivered everything I think the mayor and I hoped for on the cultural side, the economic side, and the reputational side.”

Ruhe said the local business community’s support has been extremely helpful through the course of the festival, and she sees her hopes for the event’s future materializing.

“It’s really bringing the community together. People from all walks of life are coming out for the events or standing on the sidewalks looking at the art, talking with each other, painting together,” she said. “What makes mural art so powerful is that is brings art out into the street and into people’s everyday lives.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

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