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Part and Parcel

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy stands at the site of the former Chestnut Junior High School in Springfield’s North End. Below left: the school during demolition.

School demolition

Recent calamities in Springfield, including the tornado of 2011 and the natural-gas explosion of 2012, created hardship — but also intriguing development opportunities. The same can be said of the 2013 fire that leveled the historic Chestnut Street Junior High School. It eventually resulted in four shovel-ready acres in the heart of what has come to be called the Medical District.

Kevin Kennedy says that, before Chestnut Junior High School was essentially destroyed by fire in 2013, Springfield had what amounted to a development opportunity in the city’s North End.

It just wasn’t a very solid opportunity, Kennedy, the city’s chief development officer, went on, as evidenced by the fact that at least three requests for proposals (RFPs) involving that property over the past decade or so — he admits to actually losing count — failed to yield a workable project.

The reason was simple: the cost of repurposing the school or demolishing the structure, built in 1901 and vacant since 2004, and then remediating the four acres it sat on, made redeveloping the site financially prohibitive.

And there were other issues as well, said Kennedy, adding that the building was listed on the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places, thus limiting what could be done with the building and even making demolition a stern, time-consuming hurdle to overcome.

But the fire changed the dynamic in many ways by essentially removing all those obstacles.

Amid safety concerns, the city demolished the four-story structure, and, to apply a lesson it learned from what it did (or, more to the point, didn’t do) following a fire at the former Gemini manufacturing complex in the South End, it remediated the site, including removal of the foundations, said Kennedy.

“This site is now highly developable,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the price tag for razing and cleaning the site exceeded $1.5 million, the city may well come to consider that bill a sound investment rather than an aggravating expense.

Thus, like other recent calamities in Springfield — most notably the 2011 tornado and 2012 natural-gas blast — the suspicious fire at the Chestnut Street school has created an intriguing development opportunity.

But, as with those other opportunities spawned from disaster, this one comes wrapped in challenges, the biggest being the fact that those four acres lie in what is statistically one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Commonwealth, a possible stumbling block when it comes to some of the possible strategies for redevelopment, including retail.

But that area is rich in other ways, said Kennedy, adding that it lies in the heart of what city economic-development officials have come to call the Medical District.

Springfield’s Medical District

The former Chestnut Junior High School is at the center of this map showing Springfield’s Medical District.

Indeed, Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, and Shriners Hospital for Children are all within only a few hundred yards of the school site, he explained, adding that a number of other medical facilities, many under the Baystate umbrella, are now located just off Main Street in the so-called Wason section of the North End.

More than 10,000 people, many of them in well-paying positions, work at facilities considered part of the Medical District, said Kennedy, adding that the numbers add up to some compelling opportunities, ranging from the broad spectrum of retail to the creation of market-rate housing for some of those workers, including the hundreds of young doctors in residence at Baystate.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, Kennedy laid out some of the possibilities for this potential-laden blank canvas in the North End’s Memorial Square neighborhood.

Out of the Ashes

The deadline for responding to the RFP for the Chestnut Street site was Sept. 14, said Kennedy, adding that it will be extended to Oct. 5 (with questions due by Sept. 25) to give the development community more time to consider options.

“We’ve had a number of calls, and for that reason we think there’s a bit of interest,” he noted. “And that’s why we’re going to extend it and give people a few more weeks.”

At the very least, he is expecting a far more energetic response than when the 82,000-square-foot school was still standing, with its hundreds of windows boarded up, a state it had been in for several years.

“We had some proposals,” he said, referring to those RFPs issued while the imposing school was still standing. “But when the developer actually got down to brass tacks and put pencil to paper, it didn’t pencil, and all those RFPs went for naught.”

The shovel-ready nature of the property distinguishes it from most not only in Springfield, but also neighboring communities, he went on, as does its close proximity to so many prominent healthcare facilities.

The fire that engulfed the Chestnut Middle School

The fire that engulfed the Chestnut Middle School in 2013 has in many ways created a better development opportunity.

Indeed, the North End has been the site of a number of new developments in recent years, topped by Baystate’s massive $270 million expansion formerly known as the Hospital of the Future. But it has also been a source of speculation about what could — and should — happen next.

So much so that the city commissioned the UMass Amherst Center for Economic Development to undertake a study of the area. That document, “The Springfield Medical District: An Analysis of the Medical Industry and Its Workers,” was completed in 2012.

The report’s authors identified opportunities and challenges in equal abundance.

“The concentration of the medical industry in the district offers many opportunities for commercial and residential development,” they wrote. “However, the city must overcome considerable barriers if it wishes to realize this potential; there is a large potential market for additional shopping, eateries, and other services that cater to medical workers and clients — although few such opportunities currently exist.”

Expanding on those challenges, the report’s authors list everything from I-91, which slices through the North End and creates what they call a “spatial barrier to pedestrian circulation within the district,” to the low-income nature of the residential neighborhood, which is currently home to a very small percentage of the medical personnel working in the district.

The report implies that, if the city could create more attractive housing in the area and, overall, make it a more sought-after place to live, it could capture a large amount of purchasing power it is currently losing to surrounding communities.

“There is a fairly consistent trend — the more one earns, the further away they live from the district, with the highly paid physicians and administrators living the furthest away,” the authors note. “We estimate roughly $400 million in aggregate purchasing power of employees who live outside the city. This means that Springfield fails to capture the indirect economic benefits of its medical industry — the jobs and businesses that are supported by the spending of households.”


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The Chestnut School site won’t change this dynamic on its own, certainly, said Kennedy, noting quickly that market-rate housing on the site could keep some employees not only in Springfield, but in the North End.

“We’ve had conservations with both hospitals,” he said, referring to Baystate and Mercy. “And they both have a need for housing for both employees and trainees. Baystate, for example, is a teaching hospital, and you have residents who aren’t looking for permanent housing, but may need something.”

But there are several options for the property, which is currently zoned residential, he went on, adding that there are several potential opportunities within the broad realm of retail.

The Memorial Square area lacks a major supermarket and other types of shopping, he noted, adding that the parcel is large enough for a supermarket or a chain pharmacy such as CVS. Inquiries to date have reflected an interest in both commercial and residential developments, he went on, adding that the city doesn’t really have a preference.

“We don’t want to presuppose anything,” he told BusinessWest. “We want to see what we think the best deal is and talk with the residents of the neighborhood to see what they want, and then balance the economics with those preferences.”

Razing Expectations

Looking at the Chestnut Street opportunity and the circumstances that created it, Kennedy mixed optimism with some philosophy.

“Oftentimes, as we’ve seen several times in Springfield in recent history, when something bad happens, something good can come of it,” he said, adding that the tornado’s path of destruction certainly contributed to MGM’s choice of the South End for its $800 million casino project.

Whether a similar, smaller-scale success story can be written a few miles to the north in another challenged neighborhood remains to be seen.

But Kennedy believes that fateful fire may have set the stage for another landscape-altering development.


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

Commercial Real Estate Cover Story Sections

an architect’s rendering of the Mill District

Above, an architect’s rendering of the Mill District, the latest business venture for the Cowls/Jones family, which has operated everything from a farm to logging ventures, such as the one seen below, circa 1900.

Cowls Loggers 1900

Planting New Seeds at Cowls Mill District

It’s said to be a place “where history and opportunity meet.” That’s one of the marketing slogans being used for the Mill District in North Amherst. Over more than 250 years and nine generations of the Cowls/Jones family, the site has been home to everything from a trolley station to a cow barn; from one of the nation’s first electric saw mills to a massive building supply store. Now in its latest incarnation, it is being fashioned into a unique mixed-use facility, described, alternately, as a ‘destination’ and a ‘community.’

Cinda Jones says that each generation of her family, going back more than 250 years, has left its mark on the family business, which started as a dairy farm in what is now North Amherst — and also on the community.

Usually, several marks.

In 1741, for example, Jonathan Cowls, who would eventually serve the town as a selectman, acquired what was known as the Home Farm, which stretched across a long strip of land from what is now Route 63 west to the Hadley line. He would eventually expand the small farm into lumber manufacturing. And in 1768, Jonathan’s son, David Cowls, and Sarah (Eastman) Cowls built the farmhouse at 134 Montague Road. Nine generations of the same Cowls/Jones family have lived in that house, which has also served as the operations center for the family business.

Fast-forwarding more than 125 years, Walter Dickinson Cowls, or WD, as he was known, would expand that house. He would also help build the North Amherst Library and eventually give the family enterprise the name it still uses today — W.D. Cowls Inc. As a partner in Cowls & Childs, a contracting business, he built roads and undertook several large construction projects, such as the Amherst and Sunderland Street Railway System. He was also a selectman and later a state representative.

WD’s grandson, Walter Cowls Jones, meanwhile, would expand the business into real estate, and he’s credited with building one of the first, if not the first, electric saw mills in the country. He was Amherst’s water commissioner and chairman of the Planning Board. His son, Denison, founded DH Jones Real Estate in 1958 and built several apartment complexes. Denison’s brother, Paul, ran the family sawmill and timberland operations and built Cowls Building Supply on the Home Farm site in 1980.

“There’s a long legacy of business innovation and community involvement,” said Cinda Jones, Paul’s daughter and current president of W.D. Cowls Inc., and one that she and her bother, Evan, many cousins, and even a niece (the 10th generation involved with the family business) are continuing.

Cinda Jones, left, and Mollye Wolahan

Cinda Jones, left, and Mollye Wolahan stand in Sarah Cowls’ cow barn, currently being transformed into an Atkins Farms Country Market.

And while Jones and her bother have many accomplishments on their resumes — in 2011, for example, they orchestrated a deal that would preserve a 5.4-square-mile forest in Franklin County now named after their father — perhaps their most significant contribution to that family legacy is a development known as the Mill District.

An intriguing work in progress, it embodies the past, present, and future, and is an ambitious redevelopment effort that involves several of the buildings and business operations started or expanded by previous generations of the Cowls/Jones family.

For example, on the site of what used to be a trolley barn on the north side of Cowls Road sits a new development called, appropriately enough, the Trolley Barn. It now houses The Lift salon, the Bread & Butter restaurant, and several apartments on the upper floors. Across the street and a few hundred yards to the east, in what’s still known as Sarah Cowls Cow Barn (named after WD’s only child), an Atkins Farms Country Market is taking shape, with an August soft opening planned.

There are other buildings and sites still to be developed, including a 14,400-square-foot saw mill, a replacement for the one Walter Cowls Jones built and that burned to the ground in 2001; the so-called Onion Barn; several mill houses along Cowls Road, and former farmland stretching to Route 116 called Goat Meadow. Potential uses range from additional retail to facilities for the arts to senior housing.

But Jones told BusinessWest that this development is not simply about finding new uses for properties named by and for her ancestors. It’s also about creating what she described, alternately, as a community and a destination, something she believes is sorely needed in an area less than a mile north of the UMass Amherst campus and three miles from Amherst Center.

“The vision for the Mill District is for an eats, arts, and entertainment destination, built with respect for our industrial and agricultural past and reflecting that history,” she explained. “This is where history and opportunity meet; it would be a place where you would have unique experiences not found on the Internet, a destination for not just college students, but people of all ages.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Jones and Mollye Wolahan, vice president of Real Estate and Commercial Development for W.D. Cowls Inc. about the Mill District and how it has the potential to change the landscape in North Amherst in myriad ways.

Board Feat

As she talked with BusinessWest in that farmhouse on Montague Road built by David and Sarah Cowls, Cinda Jones was supremely confident that the new Atkins Farms market, and the Mill District as a whole, would thrive.

And when asked why, she quickly dove into a discourse on geography — and business — concerning that decidedly rural area north and west of Amherst, starting with the town of Gill, population 1,500, where she lives.

The new Atkins taking shape in the Mill District

The new Atkins taking shape in the Mill District, set for a soft opening next month, is expected to be an anchor for the North Amherst development.

“They call it a food desert around here, and with good reason,” she said, referring to the area that also includes Leverett, Shutesbury, Ashfield, Conway, Deerfield, and other communities from which people commute to Amherst and Northampton. “I live on Route 2, and there’s nothing between Amherst and Route 2 of any substance; there’s no grocery stores of any size.

“Most people who work at UMass, in Amherst, and in points beyond, commute from more-affordable towns,” she went on. “These commuters are demanding better shopping and stopping options on their way home.”

This food desert, coupled with the need to redevelop several of the family’s shuttered or underperforming facilities, such as the saw mill, eventually led to the years-long process of conceptualizing the Mill District and then making it reality.

“We always knew that we would have the chance to do what every generation before us did, which was to figure out what our generation needed and then build it on the Home Farm site,” Jones explained. “The saw mill was sucking wind — it was losing money on 20 acres of land a half-mile north of UMass Amherst, and we decided to build what we know this area needs.”

And also build what is permitted on the commercially zoned property, she added quickly, noting that attempts to amend the zoning to allow more residential density have thus far failed. If that situation should change, then the future course of the district may be reshaped. But for now, the company is dealing with the present reality — meaning both the zoning laws and needs within the community.

This goal for the property is captured in an architect’s rendering of the district that is used as a marketing piece. It shows a mixed-use facility teeming with activity of both sides of Cowls Road. The image represents that mix of commercial and residential development that is sought, as well as a sense of community that both Jones and Wolahan described.

“We want to create a sense of place here in North Amherst,” said Wolahan, who brings a diverse resume to her assignmemt, including work as community development director for the Town of Mountain Village, the resort town adjacent to Telluride in Colorado. “And we found with the opening of the Trolley Barn and also with people coming into our office to explore opportunities with us is that there is such a demand for services and activities in this area.

“There is a large community here that doesn’t have the same services available in downtown,” she went on, adding that there is considerable vehicular traffic in the area on Routes 116 and 63. “There are a lot of families and many students living here, and what we’re trying to do is build on what’s already here and create not just the bricks and mortar, but the sense of community as well.”

While talks with Atkins about creating a presence in North Amherst and, more specifically, on the Cowls/Jones property had been going on for years (more on them later) the first piece of the Mill District development was the Trolley Barn.

The Trolley Barn

The Trolley Barn, now home to The Loft salon, Bread & Butter restaurant, and several apartments, opened its doors last year.

The apartments on the second and third floors leased out quickly — no surprise in an area always starved for market-rate housing — but the businesses also got off to fast starts, said Wolahan.

“Bread & Butter was packed when it first opened,” she recalled. “And it has pretty much stayed that way ever since.”

What’s in Store

When asked how she eventually corralled Atkins as a tenant, Jones didn’t mince words, and only needed a few of them.

“We begged them, begged, them, begged them, and begged them some more,” she said, adding that to cinch a deal, the developers essentially took as much of the risk out of the equation as possible, building out the property to suit and pledging to expand it if (or, more likely, when, Jones predicted) need arises.

That property, a.k.a. the Cow Palace, was, as the name suggests, a functioning dairy barn until only a few decades ago and more recently served as a lumber-storage area. The property bears Sarah Cowls’ name, because it was her operation, said Jones, adding that she was a cattle farmer who also bred sheep, pigs, chickens, dogs, and peacocks, while also growing onions, corn, tobacco, and potatoes.

The barn was actually the third property on the site presented to Atkins as a potential new home, said Jones, adding that she first proposed the saw mill and later the Trolley Barn site, before the company became sold on the dairy barn.

As she offered BusinessWest a tour of the Atkins facility, Jones said the store represents mostly historic preservation, with most all of the old barn kept intact.

The new Atkins will not have a kitchen, so foods will not be prepared there, she said, adding quickly that prepared items will be transported to the new site from the South Amherst flagship facility several times a day. And overall, the new location will offer essentially everything the company sells — from apples and cider donuts to floral arrangements; from cheese to meats.

Atkins is expected to serve as the Mill District’s anchor, said Wolahan, adding that it will likely bring the volume of traffic that can attract other kinds of businesses and create the momentum needed to make that conceptual rendering of the area in question a reality.

Once Atkins is up and running and traffic within the facility increases, both Jones and Wolahan expect other pieces of the Mill District picture to fall into place.

Indeed, while walking past the old saw mill, closed in 2010, Jones said its future use is limited only by one’s imagination.

“We could tear that structure down and build a 3 ½-story building on top, and that would probably be the smartest thing to do,” Jones explained. “But with so many acres of open space, I’m hoping to lease that space.”

As an example of what might work there, she cited Kings Bowl, which has several locations in the Northeast and as far south as Orlando. Billing itself as “the classy bowling joint,” it features a host of games in addition to bowling — shuffleboard, skee ball, and air hockey, for example — as well as a restaurant and bar. Such a concept, said Jones, would certainly be appealing in the five-college area.

Meanwhile, another small barn on the property, known as the antique barn, is drawing some interest from a bank as the possible site of a branch and community center, said Jones, adding that those talks are preliminary in nature, as are discussions with UMass Amherst about utilizing one of the facilities as a possible home for startups.

saw mill on the family’s property

Cinda Jones says the saw mill on the family’s property, a replacement for the one Walter Cowls Jones built, presents a number of development opportunities.

As for Goat Meadow, the large open tract off Sunderland Road, Jones said there have been some discussions with the builders of senior-housing developments about that parcel. Amherst is rated as one of the most attractive communities nationwide for retirees, mostly because of the activities and life-long learning opportunities related to the five colleges, she went on, and there is a shortage of housing for such individuals.

Overall, discussions are being conducted with potential tenants in many categories, said Wolahan, adding that a number of multi-family housing developers have expressed interest because the zoning permits commercial businesses on the ground floors of properties and residential above, as seen in the Trolley Barn.

One of Wolahan’s current assignments is to finalize a master plan for the site, which will essentially act as a road map for developing the various properties and parcels.

Plane Speaking

As she talked about the need for a destination, one that would create experiences for people of all ages, Jones referenced her nieces and nephews, some of whom who are already working at W.D. Cowls, and thus represent the 10th generation of the family to do so.

“There’s no place for them to go around here, no place to go and have fun,” she noted, adding that creating such a place constitutes one of the many ways she intends for her generation to leave its mark on the Cowls business — and the community.

Indeed, the family that has been writing history for three centuries is poised to script some exciting new chapters.

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
MGM Springfield Set to Begin Changing the Landscape

Casino Rendering Main StMike Mathis wasn’t offering much by way of details.

MGM Springfield is slated to stage a groundbreaking on March 24 for its $800 million casino complex in Springfield’s South End, and there is naturally widespread speculation about what’s on tap for that event, given the nature of the company staging the ceremony and an intriguing, more flashy time for groundbreaking ceremonies in general.

Indeed, recent events in Boston, which is witnessing an explosion in new construction, have featured everything from mimes to confetti cannons to mayors operating backhoes. Meanwhile, the casino industry has long been noted for its imagination and extravagance with such events.

Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, hinted that there might be something dramatic unfolding that morning on the grounds of the former Zanetti School, the first of several buildings that will come down over the next few months. But for the most part, he was, as might be expected, keeping things pretty close to the vest.

“We’re still finalizing some of the details. We’ll have a show — that’s all I want to say for now,” said Mathis. “We’re known for throwing good parties — and for keeping the details of those parties under wraps. Suffice to say, we won’t disappoint.”

He was, however, much more forthcoming about what will transpire after the ceremonies.

Indeed, after years of planning, formalizing its unique inside-out concept, negotiating with Springfield and a host of neighboring communities, and eventually winning the contest for the coveted Western Mass. casino license, MGM is finally set to begin altering the landscape — and in a number of ways.

But especially with the look and feel of several blocks within Springfield’s South End.

Things will start with the demolition of nearly 20 properties, starting with the tornado-damaged school, but then moving on to a host of buildings on State, Main, Howard, Bliss, and Union streets. And as structures start coming down, MGM’s huge parking garage, able to accommodate more than 3,000 cars, will start to go up, probably by this summer, said Mathis, adding that it is due to be ready for occupancy by the end of 2016.

The next structures to take shape will comprise what’s known as the project’s “podium,” meaning the low-rise buildings on the property, said Mathis, evoking an industry term. The signature hotel tower — 25 stories tall, according to the latest plans, and easily the most visible component of this complex — will be the last component to take shape.

As for the overall look of the project. Mathis said the phrase “final design” is not one that he’s comfortable using, because, well, things are far from final, and that state will continue to be a moving target in many respects.

“The concept continues to evolve,” he told BusinessWest. “There are certain elements that are fairly permanent, and there are others that we’ll continue to tweak; 90% of the project will stay largely the same as what we’ve shown in the past.”

The former Zanetti School on Howard Street

The former Zanetti School on Howard Street will be the first of 19 buildings razed to make way for MGM Springfield.

By that, he meant the concept seen in the artist’s rendering on page 41, which shows the hotel tower, casino area, retail elements, and more. There is a tight timetable for getting it all done, and the clock essentially started ticking at midnight on Nov. 5.

“Technically, we could go into 2018 in terms of an outside date for getting this done,” he explained, “but we certainly want to get this project up and going as quickly as we can for the benefit of the city and the Commonwealth, as well as our company and our stockholders. We’re looking at a 33- to 34-month window that should put us into the fall of 2017.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Mathis about the next steps in this, the largest commercial project in the region’s history, and how and when the skyline will begin to change.

Razing Their Game

As he talked with BusinessWest from Las Vegas, where he still spends most of his time, Mathis joked that he hoped what the region has witnessed over the past 90 days or so constitutes what he called a “100-year winter,” and that it’s officially over by the time work commences March 24.

“I hope you’re getting it all out of the way before we really get going — and we don’t need another one like this,” he said with a laugh, noting that frequent snowstorms and bitter cold aren’t helpful when it comes to meeting a tight construction deadline.

But, then again, neither are the 120-degree days that frequent Las Vegas, he went on, adding that the company has worked through and around those while building the massive City Center project and other initiatives there.

“Las Vegas construction is as sophisticated as any in the country or the world,” he explained, while noting that the company is well-versed with large-scale projects and demanding timelines. “City Center was many times the size and cost of what we’re doing here. This [MGM Springfield] is well within our comfort zone in terms of scale.

“What makes it unique are the historical aspects and the New England environment,” he went on, adding that the company now has three projects underway simultaneously — MGM Springfield, the National Harbor project just outside Washington, D.C., and a large casino complex in Macau.

Overall, it’s been a busy four months of activity for MGM since the state’s voters turned aside a referendum question that would essentially have outlawed casinos in the Commonwealth.

As chronicled in the real-estate-transaction pages of this magazine, the company completed acquisition of the various properties it secured options on in 2013 and 2014, and then proceeded to issue notices to vacate to occupants of the buildings to be torn down or made part of the casino complex (see related story, page 44).

There have also been discussions and negotiations with the city’s Historical Commission regarding some of the properties in the footprint — including 73 Main St., the former Electric Light building, the Western Mass. Correctional Alcohol Center (formerly a YWCA) and its façade, and the State Armory on Howard Street — and some of those talks are ongoing.

“As always, this is about striking a balance,” Mathis explained, “and we’ve been recognized by the Gaming Commission for going above and beyond the work that many other developers would do in terms of incorporating historic buildings into the plan.”

As an example, he cited one recent tweak to the overall plan for MGM Springfield. Indeed, 95 State St., one of the properties vacated and scheduled to come down, will instead become part of the new casino complex, likely housing MGM administrative offices. Meanwhile, 101 State St., which was targeted for internal use, will instead be leased to outside tenants.

“The plan was to put our executive offices into 101 State, but that would not have left much capacity for other commercial tenants,” he explained. “Keeping 95 State is a significant step toward giving some capacity back to the downtown.”

As for the Correctional Alcohol Center, tests on that site have determined that the façade cannot be saved and the building will have to be razed, he noted, adding the MGM has proposed replicating some of its architectural elements elsewhere in the complex.

Demo Daze

MGM also named a general counsel — Seth Stratton, formerly with Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, and, earlier this month, it named Brian Packer vice president of Development and Construction. In that capacity, he will provide executive oversight for all aspects of construction and program-management activities at MGM Springfield.

The company has also hired a construction manager, Tishman Construction of Boston, in a departure from the general-contractor model, said Mathis, a move that brings numerous advantages for the developer.

This aerial architect’s rendering

This aerial architect’s rendering shows the various elements of MGM Springfield, including the 25-story hotel tower.


Elaborating, he noted that a CM, as one is called, is traditionally brought into a project at the very beginning as a partner of sorts, handling every phase of the construction program, fielding bids, managing the job, crunching numbers, and devising ways to add value. A general contractor, meanwhile, is brought in after a full set of finished architectural and engineering drawings have been created. The GC then bids out the various components of the job and presents the client with one final number.

In the CM model, MGM will have greater flexibility when it comes to parceling out in the work in various-sized packages, or “spreading the wealth,” as Mathis put it, especially among local firms.

“We don’t intend to give the entire project to one general contractor that would then typically bring in their own established teams of subcontractors — the traditional list of people they would go to,” he explained. “This [CM model]gives us the ability to break the project up into components and allow smaller packages for more local opportunities.”

As one example of this, he cited the demolition work soon to commence at the former Zanetti School and other buildings in the casino footprint. Rather than include the fencing that accompanies such work in the demolition package, that item has been kept separate, giving more companies, and especially those in the 413 area code, a slice of the pie.

“Not surprisingly, there’s a pent-up desire for a health capital project like this one,” he explained. “We’ve done general notices on certain construction packages for demolition, excavation, fencing, and other elements of this work because we want to make sure we reach as many different companies as we can about the various opportunities.

“We’re going to work hard to create smaller packages, which is somewhat unique,” he went on. “We’re customizing things to this market to provide as many opportunities to different contractors as we can. There will be smaller, less-lucrative single packages, but we’ll be able to touch more smaller businesses this way.”

Building Momentum

While the specifics of the March 24 groundbreaking remain a closely guarded secret, the company’s plans, as Mathis said, will not disappoint.

And it will certainly work to make sure the same can be said for each aspect of the project — from the design to the construction timeline, to the opportunities for local business to share in the wealth from the $800 million.

Whether all that goes as planned remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the landscape is going to start changing, and in some very big ways.


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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Shakeout from Casino Project Stabilizes Downtown Market

Attorney Gerald Berg

Attorney Gerald Berg in his new office at 130 Main St. in Springfield. In the background is 95 State St., his former business address.

Attorney Gerald Berg says the letter arrived in late January.

It was from MGM Springfield, and it essentially informed him that he had to vacate his offices at 95 State St. in Springfield, inside the footprint of the planned $800 million casino complex, within 30 days.

He was expecting such a missive — as well as that time frame — and basically knew he would have to find new quarters once the election returns started coming in last Nov. 4 and it became clear that voters would reject a referendum question that would have effectively ended the casino era before it really got started.

So Berg, who specializes in real-estate and domestic-relations law, started looking for a new mailing address within days of the election. He briefly considered leaving downtown Springfield after spending nearly four decades in a succession of offices at 95 and 101 State St., but eventually concluded that he still wanted to be within walking distance of the various courts and the Hampden County Registry of Deeds just down the street.

What’s more, he feared that casino construction and pending repair work on the I-91 viaduct would make parking in the vicinity of the court complex a nightmare, so he passed on the suburbs.

He looked at several locations in the central business district, experienced some mild (but, again, certainly expected) sticker shock as he looked at certain properties, especially the Class A buildings, and eventually settled on 990 square feet in 1350 Main St., a.k.a. One Financial Plaza.

“It’s a nice spot,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s good space, I’m on the 11th floor, we have a nice view, we face southeast, so we get the sun … things worked out well.”

With those comments, Berg is truly representative of what has transpired since the election and during the great commercial-real-estate shakeout prompted by MGM’s pending transformation of Springfield’s South End. The shuffle isn’t officially over yet, but most of the dust — at least the immediate fallout from MGM’s property acquistions —has settled.

And while this wasn’t exactly a seismic event, it has had a definite impact on the downtown market, in terms of filling some long-vacant space and bringing a dose of stability to rates when, by most all accounts, some was needed.

“There’s still a good amount of office space left in downtown Springfield,” said Doug Macmillan, president of Macmillan & Son Inc. “But this has done a lot to stabilize rents; it’s put something solid under lease rates that had been vacillating and floating up and down for years.”

Evan Plotkin, a principal with NAI Plotkin and co-owner of 1350 Main St., agreed, and said MGM’s movement into the South End and the forced relocation of several commercial tenants helped improve an occupancy rate that had been lagging for the better part of the past 15 years and certainly since the economic downturn.

“It’s great for the market when you can absorb office space when we’ve had chronically high vacancy rates in the Class A office market, as well as Class B and C,” he explained. “There’s long been a glut of office space downtown, and that’s why I’ve been against the development of new space.”

But while most everyone forced to relocate by the casino project has found a new home or is close to doing so, the overall impact from the MGM project downtown may be far from over.

Indeed, Kevin Jennings, owner of Jennings Real Estate, who has placed — or is placing, to be more precise — several of the impacted businesses, says he’s seeing heightened interest downtown from those not in the official casino footprint.

“I don’t think we can look at it purely in terms of those who needed to be relocated,” he said. “I think there’s activity in addition to those parties, a heightened interest in downtown overall.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest looks at what’s transpired in recent weeks — and might happen next — as the casino era enters a new and intriguing phase in Springfield.

New Lease on Life

Macmillan called it “an interesting footrace.”

That’s how he chose to describe the past four months or so, or since the fate of the referendum question became clear.

What that vote did was send dozens of commercial tenants — a slew of lawyers, a few nonprofit agencies, Springfield’s Office of Health & Human Services, and the Hampden County Alcohol Correctional facility, among others — looking for new quarters into a greatly accelerated process of acquiring space.

“It’s been interesting because many of them had a demanding timeline to meet,” he explained. “It was ‘here’s your notice; you have less than 90 days to get out.”

95 State St.

Tenants in 95 State St., most of them attorneys, were among those who had to relocate to make way for MGM Springfield.

The lawyers, spread out across 73, 83, 95, and 101 State St. — long-time homes to the legal community because of their proximity to the court complex and Registry of Deeds — all faced the same basic questions. These involved whether to stay downtown, and, if so, where.

Some did go to the suburbs — Macmillan said he placed a few in surrounding communities — but most chose to stay in the central business district (CBD), and for those reasons listed by Berg.

There were some incentives offered by MGM to do so — $3 per square foot to stay in what’s considered downtown and $4 to remain in the CBD (generally considered to be the stretch between the Arch and State Street) — but Travaun Bailey said that was not a real consideration in his decision to relocate his office at 83 State St. to 1350 Main.

He was swayed more by convenience and parking, and that’s what prompted him to grab nearly 3,000 square feet on the third floor, a large portion of which he’s subleasing out to several other lawyers.

“We had a conversation about moving out of downtown, but it wasn’t seriously considered, said Bailey, who specializes in criminal defense, personal injury, and family law. “We wanted to stay close to the courts.”

Overall, 10 lawyers landed in 1350 Main, the Class A building closest to the court complex, together occupying nearly 8,000 square feet on three different floors. Others touched down in 115 State St. (a.k.a. the Clocktower Building), the Colonial Block further south on Main Street and across from the casino site, as well as Monarch Place, Tower Square, the TD Bank Building, and the buildings between Harrison Avenue and Falcons Way.

“Almost every building downtown has benefited from these relocations, in addition to those coming in from outside the market,” said Jennings. “It’s just been a real healthy shot in the arm for downtown.”

Some of the displaced entities are still looking for homes, including a few law firms, HHS, and the correctional facility, but much of the shakeout is over.

However, the overall activity level remains high — or at least higher than it’s been for much of the past 10-15 years.

Jennings said he’s been talking with interested parties about space in Harrision Place, including the long-vacant and highly visible ground floor, and to others, including a restaurateur, about storefronts along Main Street.

Meanwhile, Plotkin said he’s showing space at 1350 Main to a number of prospective tenants, including an insurance company, an entity specializing in shared office concept, and others.

Both attribute at least some of this interest to the casino and, more specifically, the interest they believe it is generating in Springfield and its downtown.

“There’s a new optimism concerning Springfield,” Plotkin said, choosing that word carefully. “And much of it stems from the building of this resort. Forget for a minute that it’s a casino as well, which is a huge draw; this is a resort, a destination resort, and one that will bring 8 million visitors a year to Springfield. The spinoff and benefit from that tourism and that activity in the downtown is huge.

“There’s been a lot of interest in downtown office space from some of the large real-estate search firms, the site selectors that are looking at space for clients based outside of the area that are looking for locations in different markets,” he went on. “And Springfield is one of them.”

Jennings agreed.

“We’re showing space to a lot of interested parties, and it runs the gamut, from restaurants to professionals,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s an exciting time for Springfield.”


Building Momentum

Meanwhile, Plotkin believes the destination resort that will be MGM Springfield will have an impact throughout downtown, not only in the direct vicinity of the casino’s footprint, including Pynchon Park, Union Station, Stearns Square, and other landmarks.

“Now that there’s new optimism and a new direction for downtown — and more money available to do these kinds of things — I see lots of positive things happening,” he said.

In other words, the impact downtown will likely extend far beyond the recent game of musical chairs.


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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Former Auto Dealership Is Transformed into a Unique Retail Facility

architect’s rendering

This architect’s rendering shows current initiatives as well as future plans for the former Balise Ford dealership on Route 20 in Westfield.

The Balise Ford dealership on Route 20 in Westfield closed its doors in 2007, and as the years went by, it remained vacant, becoming somewhat of an eyesore in the city, visible to everyone traveling along that busy thoroughfare.

But while most saw a troubled property beset with challenges when it comes to reuse, Nabil Hannoush developed a far different view. The Westfield resident, vice president of the Hannoush Jewelers chain and serial entrepreneur, saw it as an ideal location for a retail plaza and home to many separate but nonetheless synergistic businesses that he and his wife, Julie, had created or were planning.

Today, thanks to that vision and a determination to make it reality, the 11-acre property is being transformed into a center that now houses several retail enterprises, many of them health-related, including a restaurant, a baseball-and-softball training center called Extra Innings, and fitness facilities. And there could be many more added in the years to come as the Hannoushes advance plans to expand the plaza through new construction.

“I drove by the property every day for years and always thought it was a great location,” said Nabil, adding that it is positioned at the gateway to the city near the border with West Springfield and is easily accessible.

Talk about the property turned to action last year when the Hannoushes closed on the former dealership. They soon relocated the Extra Innings franchise they had acquired in Agawam into the facility and commenced buildout for an eatery they would call ShortStop Bar & Grill, which opened late last fall. The couple is also renovating space in the building to house Expert Fitness Health Club, which they acquired three years ago and is currently located further west on Route 20, and has plans to move still another business they own, East Longmeadow-based All Team Apparel, onto the site.

The various enterprises will support one another, and in some cases they already are, said Nabil, noting that sports teams and family members coming to watch them train are supporting the restaurant, and those teams will likely patronize All Team Apparel. And this base of retail establishments should attract other businesses to that location for other phases of its development.

Overall, Hannoush envisions five phases, with two, Shortstop and Extra Innings, already completed. Phase 3 is the new Expert Fitness, while phase 4 will involve erecting a new, 6,000-square-foot retail center on the east side of the property, while phase 5 will see another 18,000-square-foot retail facility on the west side of the site, plans that have been approved by the city.

Hannoush hopes phases 4 and 5 will include health- and wellness-related businesses and possibly a bank branch.

For now, though, the Hannoushes are focused on driving business to the existing enterprises and continuing to find imaginative ways to repurpose the space that once housed a showroom, service bays, a parts department, and other features of an automobile dealership.

Indeed, the existing building held some unusual challenges, including a dozen oversized garage doors, built to allow vehicles to enter and exit the auto dealership and repair bays.

Hannoush’s original plans were to gut the interior, remove the doors, and fill in the space. “But one night, I thought, if kept them, we could have an indoor-outdoor facility that would allow people to walk through the building and enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “Teens and young people playing baseball or softball could enjoy the breeze when the doors were open or go outside and play catch or practice.”

Nabil Hannoush, seen here with his daughter, Monica

Nabil Hannoush, seen here with his daughter, Monica, the executive chef of ShortStop Bar & Grill, says the facility is not a typical sports bar.

So the garage doors remain, and last summer, parents were able to watch their children practice while they waited outside.

“My hope was to build something that Westfield and Western Mass. can be proud of,” said Hannoush. “But I had to keep thinking outside the box because I wanted to create something that is different.”

Driving Force

Barry Wadsworth, director of operations for the complex and general manager of ShortStop Bar and Grill on the property, said the project is an exciting venture that compelled him to get involved.

The founder of the Holyoke Blue Sox met Hannoush after selling 51% of the team, and was captivated by his plans.

“Nabil’s vision is very exciting because he wants to make this a place the entire community can enjoy,” Wadsworth said, adding that it was the ideal location for the Hannoush family to expand its health-related businesses.

“Expert Fitness has more than 2,500 members; they needed a bigger location, and this building is a perfect fit,” he explained. “It allowed them to consolidate the gym, batting cages, and sporting-goods store associated with Extra Innings into one location.”

The new, 10,000-square-foot Expert Fitness has been under construction for some time on the west side of the building and is expected to open March 1. However, the Cage, a facility housing programs that fall into the category of extreme fitness, is already operational in a different area of the building, and a protein-shake bar is being built outside the indoor entrance to the gym, a few steps away from the entrance to the restaurant.

“The Cage holds hardcore classes that include indoor and outdoor boot camps, spinning, and group fitness,” Hannoush said. “It is one of the first of its kind in the country, and from April to November, we have what we are calling ‘Muscle Beach Westfield,’ a weightlifting station outside.

“It’s something different,” he went on, as he alluded again to his efforts to “think outside the box.”

That phrase can certainly be used in conjunction with ShortStop, which opened Dec. 19. It is technically a sports bar, but one with a decidedly different look and feel.

A fireplace burns brightly as diners relax in a cheerful room with rich, mahogany furniture and three walls of enormous windows. And although 36 flatscreen TVs are placed strategically above the tables in the bar and dining area, Nabil said Julie designed it to be welcoming to women.

“Typical sports bars are not doing well throughout the country because they are not female-friendly; they are often too loud,” Nabil explained, adding that the décor was carefully chosen and the atmosphere is suitable for families. The menu, meanwhile, includes everything from filet mignon to burgers to a wide array of healthy choices, including different types of salads, along with gourmet desserts created by executive chef Monica Hannoush, the owners’ daughter.

The sound of bats striking baseballs and softballs can be heard within ShortStop, at least when the doors are open, because it is separated from Extra Innings by a 2,000-square-foot area known informally as Ball Park Seating.

It contains a 10-by-15-foot flatscreen TV with eight speakers, smaller flatscreens on another walls, and tables that overlook the batting-cage tunnels. Some families choose to eat there and watch their children practice, and it is the setting for live entertainment on Friday nights.

“The area was packed on Super Bowl Sunday,” said Wadsworth. “Groups of 10 and 12 came here to watch the game.”

Barry Wadsworth

Barry Wadsworth says Extra Innings offers a wide array of sporting goods for baseball and softball players.

ShortStop opened with little fanfare, and it has not done any advertising, but word has spread quickly, and business is brisk.

“Parents come here while their children are practicing and have lunch or order food to take home,” said Wadsworth, adding that Extra Innings provides a fairly steady stream of customers, and the new Expert Fitness is expected to do the same. “Many are here so frequently, we know their names.”

The sports bar features a bump-out with an 1,300 additional square feet that was added to the building to create the dining room. Garage doors that remain will open onto the patio, which is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.

A new, 1,800-square-foot banquet room is also under construction to accommodate requests from teams. One side features the oversized doors, which will allow the room to be opened to the outdoors in the summer.

“We plan to use every inch of the 38,000 square feet in the building and have added an additional 2,500 square feet in the restaurant and patio,” Wadsworth said.

All Team Apparel will soon move into the building, creating more synergy, he noted. “Teams who come here to practice will be able to get shirts and uniforms. This will become almost a one-stop shop for youth leagues due to the sporting-goods shop associated with Extra Innings.”

Gearing Up

One of the primary goals the Hannoushes have set is to have the property become a gathering place for the community, a setting for everything from more big games like the Super Bowl to fund-raising events; from youth birthday parties to summer concerts that can take place on a stage being built in the ShortStop’s patio area.

And Wadsworth believes it can and will become just that.

“I want the community to think of this place first when they are trying to raise money for a good cause; we want to use the facility to help people, and the sheer numbers that drive by on Route 20 are huge,” he said. “Everyone who comes here has a really good time. It’s a lot of fun, and people meet each other when they are using the batting cages or eating in the restaurant. It’s becoming a destination.”

Not many people could have imagined such a fate for the old Ford dealership, but the Hannoushes certainly did.

And their vision has become not only reality, but an inspiration.

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Renovation of Former Federal Building Creates Momentum Downtown

Jonathan Weaver, Zach Greene, and Richard Henderson

From left, Jonathan Weaver, Zach Greene, and Richard Henderson say the renovation of 1550 Main St. has spurred investment and economic development downtown.

In 2006, prospects for the federal building at 1550 Main St. in Springfield were grim.

A new federal courthouse was under construction on State Street, and many people were afraid that the prominent building in the central business district of the city would become a vacant eyesore after the court and other tenants vacated.

“The market for office space was very weak at the time, and it was feared that the building could become a blank in the downtown fabric,” said Richard Henderson, executive vice president of real estate for MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development authority, which eventually assumed ownership of the property. “No one in the private sector seemed to have any interest in it, and owners of other buildings thought it should be closed. It was never attractive to begin with and looked worse after jersey barriers were installed in front of the plaza after 9/11. Plus, it was in poor shape, and the bricks on the exterior were falling off.”

Zach Greene agreed, and told BusinessWest the jersey barriers had been painted an unsightly brick orange, and although flower boxes had been stationed on top of them, the effect was far from pleasing.

“The building was not only unattractive, it was uninviting. It had a flimsy canvas awning outside, and when people entered the doors, they were greeted by metal detectors,” said Greene, MassDevelopment’s senior vice president of asset management, adding that, to make matters worse, visitors who parked in the Columbus Center garage behind the building had to walk down Bridge Street in inclement weather to get to the entrance because the back doors were locked for security reasons.

However, at the behest of city leaders, the Urban Land Institute, a national organization that disseminates experts to study challenging real-estate and land issues, sent a panel to Springfield for five days to determine, among other things, the best use of the property.

“They did extensive interviews with city officials, business leaders, and people in the neighborhoods, and concluded the building was key to downtown revitalization and should be made a priority,” said Henderson, noting that it had been built in 1980 and was one of a handful of newer office buildings downtown.

In 2007, MassDevelopment partnered with city administrators and the Finance Control Board, which was running Springfield at the time, and began what would become an $11 million acquisition and renovation of the building’s public spaces, which would take four years to complete.

However, the agency’s first step was to determine how to use it. After homeless and veterans’ groups, who had the first option on the building, failed to express interest, other possibilities were explored.

“We considered moving the police headquarters into it as well as using it as a place for higher education, similar to the new UMass facility that recently opened in Tower Square,” Henderson said.

But after a few years, the city, the Commonwealth, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, and Baystate Medical Center put together a plan that included pre-leasing the building to private and public tenants. The Springfield School Department would occupy 56,989 square feet on the first and second floors, Baystate agreed to bring support staff into downtown for the first time and lease the entire fifth floor, and a number of federal agencies would remain in their space on the fourth floor.

“The School Department really needed to move; they didn’t have any air conditioning in their building and were way over capacity,” Henderson said, explaining that the move, which was strongly defended by Mayor Domenic Sarno, incited controversy in the City Council.

1550-main-before

1550 Main St

The property at 1550 Main St. before its makeover, left, and after it, right.

But in the end, the commitment by the School Department and Baystate made the project possible, and thanks to help from Neal and Kevin Kennedy, who was a member of his staff at that time, MassDevelopment purchased the building for $2.5 million in September 2009 from the GSA and renamed it “1550 Main.”

Its redevelopment has become a success story on many levels, and, according to some, an inspiration for more initiatives downtown, such as the UMass project.

“After we made our commitment, the Dennis Group purchased and renovated the Fuller Block across the street, and radio station WFCR has moved in,” Henderson said, as he listed a number of new downtown ventures.

“The Morgan Square Apartment block down the street has been acquired by a group from New York and is undergoing a major renovation and will become the Silver Brick Lofts,” he went on. “UMass has a new facility in Tower Square, and new investment is taking place in the surrounding area, with more to come. One thing builds on another, and what could have been a negative or a poorly redeveloped building has led to a lot of positive consequences.”

Complex Undertaking

Renovating 1550 Main was no simple feat, but the School Department did its own work and moved into the space in June 2010, which allowed MassDevelopment to focus on the plaza and exterior of the building.

“We wanted the tenants to be able to use the outside areas, but a large portion of the plaza was over an underground parking deck, which made removing and redoing it very tricky,” Henderson said.

The jersey barriers were removed in the fall of 2009, and high planter walls that blocked views from the street were taken down in the spring of 2010, making way for new landscaping.

Outdated glazed-brick flooring and planters in the atrium were also removed, along with an extra stairway inside the lobby that connected the first and second floors.

“Taking out the stairway allowed us to create a public walkway that people could use to get to CityStage and the parking garage,” Henderson said, noting that a $3 million Growth Districts Initiative Grant, secured with the help of the city, was used to make improvements to the public plaza, building entrance, and atrium.

All of the elevators were also replaced, and although there was not enough money to gut the bathrooms, the tiling was sanded, and new lighting and plumbing fixtures were installed. “We had to do the work in a way that didn’t disturb the tenants who had remained in the building. The Internal Revenue Service office was on the first floor, and we pulled up the entire floor of the lobby while they were working,” Henderson said.

Cosmetic improvements were also made on every floor, including new lighting and paint. “Many of the walls were painted an antiseptic green that had been offset by fluorescent pink lighting, so it really made a difference,” Greene said.

Since the federal offices were on the fourth floor, officials agreed that the metal detectors could be relocated there, which allowed MassDevelopment to install an attractive security desk in the entrance of the building.

“The back doors no longer had to be locked, so people who parked in the garage were able to come directly into the building without going outside,” Greene said. “We also installed a security system to make sure people who rented the space felt comfortable in the building.”

Baystate moved into the renovated space in May 2011, and since that time, the building’s 128,000 square feet of rentable space has been close to capacity, Henderson said. “Baystate has renewed its lease, and at present, the building is 98% occupied.”

Michael Moran, vice president of Clinical, Facility and Guest Services for Baystate Medical Center, said the healthcare provider has enjoyed being part of the redevelopment.

“Baystate Health is fully invested in carrying out its charitable mission of not only supporting the health and well-being of the community, but its economic viability as well,” he explained. “Our commitment to renting space for information-technology staff on the fifth floor of the former federal courthouse building back in 2009 was designed to help spur the city’s economy and brought a further presence for Baystate Health in downtown Springfield.”

Although some of the federal agencies have moved out since that time, new tenants were found to take their place, and the fourth floor is now home to offices for U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, as well as a law firm that occupies 4,100 square feet. In addition, private tenants have taken advantage of the first-floor space formerly used as military recruiting stations.

Since the time the building reopened, Greene said, it has been a source of pride. “Visitors have said they can’t believe the transformation, and the building has earned a number of awards,” including Outstanding Building of the Year in 2012 and 2013 by the Building Owners and Managers Assoc., and its Middle Atlantic Award Winner in 2013 in the Government Building category. In addition, in April 2013, the building earned the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Certification.

New Lease on Life

Today, 1550 Main St. hosts a series of lunchtime concerts held outside on the plaza in the spring and summer, and its lobby is used to showcase public and private art exhibits.

The new entrance has become an inviting gateway to the public atrium, which is open to the public and used for a variety of gatherings, including appreciation events held by Springfield School Department.

Overall, the property’s transformation has become one of many positive developments downtown and a gleaming example of a public-private partnership that has created momentum and additional success stories.

“My mother grew up in Springfield, and it’s been rewarding to help bring life back downtown and renew the vitality that existed there years ago,” said Greene. “We are happy to help it get back on track.”

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Eastworks Sets the Standard for Repositioning of Old Mill Properties

By KEVIN FLANDERS
EastworksDPartIt never takes guests very long after passing through Eastworks’s front doors to realize the building hosts an unusually eclectic lineup of tenants — even for a mixed-use facility.

Turn right at the first corridor and you’ll discover a Registry of Motor Vehicles branch. A climb up the stairs to the second floor will position you in the midst of a community of artists and photographers. One floor higher, an array of nonprofit organizations has formed a close-knit micro-community dedicated to improving and enriching lives. And spread out along the first floor are businesses ranging in specialty from fitness to hair care.

It wasn’t always this way.

Nestled on the banks of Lower Mill Pond, the 500,000-square-foot Eastworks building, a converted mill, was once known as West Boylston Textile Company and later served as the headquarters building for Stanhome. But times have changed and so, too, have buildings throughout New England that once brought thousands of jobs during the height of mill and factory operation. In a wave of repurposing projects that marked the early 2000s, many of these buildings have found new life as mixed-use facilities.

And in Western Mass., Eastworks has led the way.

Eastworks’ tenants — from residents of fifth floor loft apartments to artists and artisans creating their latest works — understand that the momentum of one individual is far inferior to the power of teamwork. By working together to organize events and promote each other’s businesses and organizations, the Eastworks community has taken the craft of collaboration to the next level.

Kim Carlino, Eastworks’ marketing and outreach coordinator, said solidarity within the building is one of the major reasons for the success of its tenants. Business owners are focused each day on their own ventures, she said, but also on helping those around them do well.

After all, a flourishing business next door often means more customers dropping in.

“We have a lot of active tenants who want to get involved in different events and support each other,” Carlino said. “Whenever we get those kinds of interactions and guests are coming into the building for events, the tenants feel good about what’s going on. It’s important that they all have a sense that they’re a part of something.”

Eastworks owner Will Bundy

Eastworks owner Will Bundy stands in one of the few undeveloped spaces within Eastworks.

When Eastworks owner Will Bundy bought the property in 1997, he envisioned a dynamic in which tenants, simply by coming to work every day, could benefit from the building’s evolving diversity. And this vision has become reality.

Indeed, the accessibility of shops, restaurants, offices, and open spaces has facilitated a symbiotic environment, with customers for one business or organization frequently shopping elsewhere in the building once their initial plans are complete.

Sometimes this is the result of word of mouth. On other occasions, it’s due to the many events held each week at the building and an increased emphasis Eastworks’ leaders have placed on marketing.

“We’ve been very successful here; the clientele is loyal, and the building has a lot of foot traffic that really helps,” said Erin Killian, a hair stylist at The Lift Salon, one of many first-floor businesses.

A primary reason for the successes at The Lift Salon and other businesses is the bond that has been strengthened between Eastworks and area communities. Carlino, following her hiring in 2014, made significant progress in improving Eastworks’s already solid relationship with Easthampton and surrounding towns. By organizing a unique mix of promotional events and inviting more people into the building, she has allowed tenants to maximize their exposure.

“One of the biggest things we have to offer here is space, and we try to use that space for as many community events as possible,” added Carlino, who also writes a newsletter that helps bring tenants’ accomplishments and services to the forefront. “It’s very powerful to be able to get people to see and feel everything that’s happening. We want to show them what’s going on, not tell them.”

Eastworks recently hosted a well-attended open studio event that featured the work of its artists, in addition to promoting nonprofit organizations and businesses in the building. The staff has also scheduled panel discussions, performances, and a variety of entertainment options that bring tenants and guests together. The weekly Seth Show, for example — featuring comedian Seth Lepore — has quickly escalated in popularity.

“We’ve had some really interesting events happening throughout the building,” said Bundy, who has been impressed by the quantity and quality of recent programs. “The community aspect has really taken off since Kim came on board. When you dedicate space to events, people want to get involved.”

Building Momentum

When a residential or commercial space becomes vacant in the Eastworks building, it doesn’t remain that way for very long.

With more than 100 business and nonprofit tenants currently calling the old mill home, spots in Eastworks’s lineup are in high demand. Even during the stagnating economy of the Great Recession, new tenants were still coming in between 2007-09.

Bundy said the building’s reputation for accommodating a vibrant, inclusive mixed-use community has served it well over the years, especially during economically challenging times. While many similar operations were losing tenants by late 2008, Eastworks operators saw their framework reaffirmed, a community-based model that has proven sustainable.

“During the recession, very few people were looking for spaces, but the people who came didn’t want to be anywhere but here,” Bundy recalled. “That was a huge indicator that we’d established a brand that is viable.”

Carlino added that the consistency of the Eastworks culture has helped attract many tenants, especially those looking to join the ranks of the arts and nonprofit communities. Unlike some mixed-use facilities, where tenants rarely interact and collaborate, Eastworks has become known for fostering a high level of engagement.

“We have a very established presence and reputation. When people come here, they know what to expect,” said Carlino, who likened every tenant to an individual piece of the building that, when put together as a whole system, makes Eastworks an exciting place to live and work.

So what’s it like to make a living at Eastworks? If you were to ask 20 tenants to name their favorite aspect of the experience, you probably wouldn’t get many repeat responses.

CrazyFronts

At top, major upgrades and renovations have taken place on every floor at Eastworks. Above, hairdressers are busy at the Lift Salon.

At top, major upgrades and renovations have taken place on every floor at Eastworks. Above, hairdressers are busy at the Lift Salon.

For Andre Boulay, who co-owns YoYo Expert with his wife Devon on the second floor, event space is one of the best benefits for his business, enabling him to put on several yo-yo contests and connect face-to-face with customers. As a retailer of high-end and professional yo-yos, it’s important for Boulay to have space for his business and also events that demonstrate the products.

Boulay has also taken advantage of opportunities to schedule events that overlap with those of Eastworks’ artists. On such days, the increased volume of guests positively impacts everyone involved.

“We’ve coordinated and run our contests in conjunction with those events a few times to help bring in some extra people,” said Boulay, whose business moved to Eastworks from its previous Amherst office in 2013. “There are lots of opportunities like that to work collectively, and that is definitely an appealing aspect to the Eastworks model.  Being in a building with so many creative professionals means constant inspiration around every corner.”

Meanwhile, thanks to Eastworks, Heather Beck doesn’t have to worry about a long commute to her second job. In fact, the only thing separating her two vocations is a staircase.

When Beck isn’t in the basement making custom jewelry for her clients of Heather Beck Designs, the business owner enjoys a nice change of pace by spending a few days each week bartending at the Hideaway Lounge upstairs.

“It’s a great community of people from all different backgrounds who seem to end up together in this one vast space,” Beck said of Eastworks. “There are many entrepreneurs who are inspiring to me who have space right down the hall from my studio.”

“From the Seth Show,” Beck added, “to dance competitions, yo-yo meet ups, Nerd Nite, local artists’ installations, and showcasing work in the Holiday Pop-up Shop, there’s no shortage of events to attend and feel like you belong.”

As an artist and an entrepreneur, Beck and others agree that Eastworks provides the best of both worlds. From offering feedback or simply friendship, tenants are always supporting each other and pushing their neighbors to keep chasing their dreams.

Many artists at Eastworks also have a passion for sharing and teaching their crafts. In addition to making jewelry, Beck also conducts workshops out of her studio, where she uses the space in a variety of creative ways.

“Having an artist space here is magical,” Beck said. “It has really propelled my business as a jeweler and teacher forward, and I’m always meeting new artists and like-minded people through the connections made here at Eastworks.”

Though Eastworks is known for its team-centered community of tenants and the events that interconnect them, its smaller perks are equally as meaningful for many individuals. Ted Barber, the co-founder of Prosperity Candle, enjoys the ability to bring his dog to work each day — something many members of the Eastworks family are known for, even Bundy, whose four-legged friend often accompanies him from floor to floor.

“I love being in this building,” Barber said. “It has the perfect balance of everything, from full loading dock services to a great restaurant and bar, plus community events every week. And we’re on the south side, so we get spectacular views all year long.”


What’s Next?

Change, it seems, is a relative constant at the former mill, just as the colors of its mountainous vista are always changing by the season. But this time Eastworks’ neighbors are getting in on the changes as well — a collection of buildings that, along with Eastworks, once comprised the thriving Easthampton mill network.

The owners of five surrounding mills recently joined Bundy in a comprehensive renovation project that will increase accessibility and parking for all guests. The back sides of the mills, Bundy said, are in the process of being revamped, in addition to the creation of new parking spaces and paths that will allow for easier travel between buildings.

The project is expected to be finished by the fall of 2016, and, once complete, guests will be able to park and navigate by foot with greater efficiency and safety. Additionally, the project will allow for the nearby bicycle path to be lighted from Ferry Street to Union Street.

“There will be better cohesiveness between all of the mills when this is finished,” explained Bundy, who described the project as helping to give the buildings an enhanced neighborhood feel. “They’ll be far more attractive and easier to access for guests.”

Bundy was impressed by the level of teamwork shown from the mill owners as they progressed through the project. From the selection and hiring of a civil engineer to the grant application process, owners have collaborated to ensure a safer and more convenient experience for their customers.

“We have had a great relationship throughout the project,” Bundy said. “A number of people came together to make this happen.”

The other mills involved in the project are The Paragon, Sulco, Three Kingdoms, Mill180, and The Brickyard.

At Eastworks, meanwhile, plans are also in place to continue improving the building’s interior. There is currently about 20,000 square feet of available space in the building, Bundy said, and the management team intends to use every last inch for a viable purpose. At least some of that space might eventually house future tenants, while the remaining space could be used for additional community events.

“The spaces are very affordable, and our building is run in a thoughtful manner. Management is always on site,” Bundy said.

Regardless of how the space is used, there is no doubt that, once developed, it won’t be vacant for long.

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Casino Vote Spurs Movement in Real-estate Market

Main Street between Harrison Avenue and Falcons Way

The buildings along Main Street between Harrison Avenue and Falcons Way are among those expected to draw interest from businesses to be displaced by the casino.

Kevin Jennings called it “an election-night hangover.”

That’s how he chose to describe the relative — and unexpected — quiet on the morning of Nov. 5, maybe a dozen or so hours after it became clear that ballot Question 3 was going to be defeated and that the casino era had officially begun in Springfield.

“But then on Thursday, the floodgates opened,” said Jennings, president of Springfield-based Jennings Real Estate, in reference to the volume of phone calls to his office, most of them from business owners who will be displaced by the $800 million gaming complex to be built by MGM Resorts International in the city’s South End.

And he expects the calls to keep coming in the weeks and months to come as the dust only begins to start settling from this momentous development, one that has the potential to lift the local real-estate market from the general doldrums that have characterized it for the more than a decade now.

“My expectation is that we will be busy, and the whole trickle-down from this will be fantastic,” he told BusinessWest. “It will involve not only the real-estate brokers, but the lawyers, the phone companies, the contractors, the rug companies, the movers, and many others.

“The trickle-down will be significant and exciting,” he went on. “For the first time in I don’t how long, the landlords in Springfield who have slugged it out for the past 15 years will finally see some rent appreciation.”

While he was somewhat more reserved in his tone, Doug Macmillan, president of Macmillan & Son Inc., said essentially the same thing as he speculated on what will certainly be an intriguing time for the downtown real-estate market.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this — it’s a dynamic change,” said Macmillan, who came into the business started by his father just as the real-estate bust of the late ’80s was gaining steam and has seen a number of economic cycles since. “This is certainly going to be interesting.”

73 State St

The stately building at 73 State St., part of which will be used for the casino’s hotel, is among those whose tenants must find new homes.

And the relocation of businesses to be displaced by the casino is only one of the reasons why.

Indeed, while many tenants in buildings along State, Main, and other streets in or near the South End will have to be moved to make way for the casino and MGM’s operations, there are others who will want to be near that $800 million complex — or away from it, as the case may be. Meanwhile, Macmillan has started getting calls from some parties concerned about the casino and I-91 reconstruction projects happening simultaneously, and the possible negative impact on their business.

“We’ve seen a fair amount of people who are actively contingency planning for how all this construction for the casino and the viaduct might impact their business downtown,” he said. “They’re wondering if customers are going to be able to get to them and if employees are going to be able to get to work. They’re thinking about whether they should set up a satellite office or do something different. It’s created a lot of … not pandemonium, but certainly uncertainty.”

MGM is offering incentives to businesses to be displaced by its complex — $3 per square foot for those who stay in Springfield and $4 per square foot for those who remain in the central business district.

And while the downtown market has tightened up somewhat in recent years, with new businesses and organizations ranging from MassLive to Bay Path University moving in, there is still plenty of space available in many different categories.

One full floor and many smaller spaces are available in 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza, said Bill Low, a broker with NAI Plotkin, which is leasing agent for the top 12 floors in that building. There is also some space in both Tower Square and Monarch Place, Macmillan noted. Meanwhile, considerable square footage is available in Harrison Place and other buildings along Main Street between Harrison Avenue and Falcons Way, noted Jennings, who is handling those properties for owner Glenn Edwards.

Jennings said he’s already had a few soon-to-be-displaced business owners sign on the dotted line, and he expects several more in the months to come as the project moves forward.

“Our goal is to be 100% occupied,” he said of the properties along Main Street. “That’s ambitious, but we’re optimistic.”

1350 Main St.

One Financial Plaza, a.k.a. 1350 Main St., is another property expected to draw interest from displaced businesses, including many law firms.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this exciting time for the local market and at how this unique opportunity might play itself out.

New Lease on Life

MacMillan told BusinessWest that he didn’t care to speculate on how many businesses will be displaced by the casino and MGM’s day-to-day operations and how much square footage is represented by those pending relocations. “I really have no idea, and if I guessed, I’m sure I’d be way off.”

Jennings said he’s heard some numbers, such as 250,000 square feet, in reference to the amount of real estate involved — meaning property to be demolished or made part of the casino complex.

Whatever the figure is, it adds up to an unprecedented opportunity for area landlords and brokers to fill space that in some cases has been vacant for more than a decade.

And, in many ways, movement to seize that opportunity began months ago.

Indeed, Edwards has invested a significant amount of money in capital improvements to the properties along Main Street in anticipation of the casino moving forward, said Jennings, adding that his firm has been proactive with regard to marketing the space, opting not to wait until after the vote on Question 3.

“We put together a strategic list of properties that we have both for sale and lease in Springfield,” he explained, “and knocked on doors.”

And there are many to knock on within the 14.5-acre area in which the casino will be built, he said, noting that there are many lawyers and other professionals in both 95 State St. and 73 Main St. — located just a block or two from the Hampden County Hall of Justice — which will both become part of the casino complex.

Meanwhile, there are several retail operations along Main Street and other service businesses within the casino site that will have to be relocated.

Some will move out of that area and perhaps out of the city, but Jennings and Macmillan believe many will opt to stay downtown.

And some of these business owners are being proactive themselves when it comes to finding a new address, opting not to wait until the votes were counted on Nov. 4 to consider some options.

“The day after the election, my phone did ring a little louder and a little longer than it normally does,” said Macmillan. “But a lot of these people have been forward-thinking enough to understand that they need to be proactive about this, because they’re only going to have X amount of time to find a new home.

“We’ve been working with some groups for more than a year now,” he continued, “because they’ve recognized this eventuality and wanted early on to identify where they thought they might like to be.”

However, some waited until after the vote, said Low, and now they’re making up for lost time.

“There were some people who didn’t bother calling — they just showed up at 1350 Main St. and asked to see space,” he told BusinessWest, adding that a few businesses have made verbal commitments to take space there. “You hardly ever see anything like that.”

He noted that the building is attractive to the law firms and solo practitioners that will be displaced by the casino because of its proximity to the courthouse and the flexible nature of the available space.

Jennings said he’s brokered some deals for smaller spaces, 2,000 square feet and under, and also a few in the 2,000-to-4,000-square-foot range. And since Question 3 was defeated, the volume of inquiries has increased exponentially.

They come during a time that Macmillan described as a “resurgence of interest in downtown,” a period during which UMass Amherst has opened a center in Tower Square; Bay Path, MassLive, and Thing5 have moved into 1350 Main St.; New England Public Radio has relocated into the Fuller Block; and Accountable Care Associates has taken a full floor in Monarch Place; just to name a few developments.

“There’s been a renewed interest in downtown that is unrelated to the casino,” he explained. “We’ve been extremely busy leasing an awful lot of downtown office space for the past two years. Some of them are new tenants, some of them expanding; there’s been a lot of activity, and we’ve done a number of deals.”

The “shuffling of the deck,” as he called it, that will result from the casino projectg — and is, in many respects, already underway, will further tighten and stabilize the market, and likely push lease rates higher.

“With all this interest we’ve seen in downtown before the casino, the downtown market has tightened up; there’s still a fair amount of space, but there’s not the same amount that there was two years ago,” Macmillan said, speculating that perhaps 80% of the Class A space and 70% of the Class B space downtown was occupied.

Jennings said the surge of interest is already impacting rates in some of the properties he’s representing. At Harrison Place, he noted, space that was quoted at $11 or $12 per square foot is now being quoted at $17, and there have been similar increases at other properties along Main Street.

Low said the asking prices at 1350 Main St. may soon be rising, adding that those who wait to begin the process of finding a new home will likely pay more for that square footage.

Building Momentum

As he talked about the recent history of the downtown commercial real-estate market, Macmillan said there have been a number of “fits and starts” over the past few decades, small gains that have been slowed or reversed by economic declines in the early ’90s, just after 9/11, and the Great Recession.

The dawn of the casino era presents the opportunity for something far more substantial and lasting, he said, although the overall impact of this massive development is still difficult to predict.

What is known is that this situation presents a rare opportunity, one that all those involved are committed to take full advantage of.

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
New Headquarters Facility Promotes Fun, Professionalism

Paragus Strategic IT founder Delcie Bean

Paragus Strategic IT founder Delcie Bean in ‘Beantown.’

Sherwin Williams calls it “outrageous green.”

That’s the exceedingly bright, neon-like shade that has come to define the company now known as Paragus Strategic IT since it changed its name from Valley ComputerWorks and embarked on an aggressive branding initiative several years ago.

And there’s a lot of it at this technology-solutions company’s new headquarters facility on Route 9 in Hadley, which was unveiled at an elaborate launch last week. There’s also a somewhat softer, muted version seen on some interior walls, carpeting, and other places, as well as a host of other exotic colors, including shades of orange, blue, and purple.

But the colors only begin to explain why this 8,200-square-foot facility is now among the most unique — and destined to be emulated — workspaces in the region.

There are also the small meeting rooms (there are no private offices at Paragus, so employees need spaces in which to gather and talk privately), including one with an image of founder Delcie Bean called Beantown, another called the Bat Cave (yes, there are images of bats on the wall), and still another called the Bullpen, with a Fenway Park backdrop.

Then there’s the game room, now outfitted with a ping-pong table, with a pinball machine on the way; a huge kitchen (called the Hatch) complete with a pub with several beers and wines on tap; an outdoor patio equipped with grills; a locker room complete with a shower for those who want to work out during the day; a large classroom for training dubbed Paragus University, and inspirational quotes from noted entrepreneurs and business consultants — such as Peter Drucker’s “the way to predict the future is to invent it” — hanging on the walls.

And don’t forget the weathervane on the roof. It’s a large representation of the company’s logo — an infant lifting a barbell, complete with a stainless-steel diaper — and it’s equipped with a large spotlight so it can be seen day or night.

Paragus University

Paragus University, like all areas in the new headquarters facility, reflects the company’s vibe — and prominently features the color green.

All these components and many more reflect what Bean, one of the region’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, called the “Paragus vibe,” which he described as a mix of fun and professionalism.

“That’s what our brand has become — these externally facing, very professional individuals who behind the scenes are a ton of fun and very relaxed,” he explained. “So we tried to create a space in a building that emulated that vibe.”

And he put very strong emphasis on that word ‘we.’ Indeed, this new workspace came about through a team effort, one involving a number of players, including employees at all levels.

Usually, things don’t go well when they are handled by committee, especially one with a number of subcommittees, but in this case, they did, said Bean, who told BusinessWest that several small groups of employees were given assignments ranging from the furniture to the pub to the décor in the conference room, or the war room, as it’s called. An interior designer was also hired, and there were many design contributions (including the weathervane) from the marketing firm Darby O’Brien Advertising, which orchestrated the Paragus branding efforts.

Roughly two years after they started, and with ideas inspired by companies ranging from Microsoft to the online shoe retailer Zappos, the new Paragus workspace is ready for prime time, and Bean believes it will succeed in its primary missions — to create a workplace that’s comfortable, inspires innovation, and helps the company with the critical assignment of attracting and retaining talent.

“Having a really cool space helps us recruit the really best employees, and that’s something that’s very important to us,” he said. “And it will help us retain them once we’ve got them.”

Gainer O’Brien, creative director at Darby O’Brien Advertising, also used that word ‘vibe,’ mixing it in with ‘culture,’ ‘brand,’ and ‘mentality’ to describe what the new facility was designed to capture — and amplify.

“We were trying to customize every inch of the place with the company culture and brand,” he said. “And we’ve done that, right down to the weathervane.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest toured the new Paragus space and talked with some of those who shaped it to gain some perspective on the many ways it reflects what this company has become — and where it might go.

Space Exploration

On a shelf in the front lobby of Paragus’s new facility sits the many plaques the company has earned by making Inc. magazine’s recent lists of the country’s fastest-growing companies.

They effectively, and succinctly explain why this expansion was necessary, but Bean offered some details. He told BusinessWest that the company, which he started as a one-person operation when he was 13, eventually settled in an old Colonial on Route 9 in Hadley. As it grew, it expanded into the Colonial next door, he explained, adding that his venture soon outgrew that combined space as well.

An employee hangs license plates

An employee hangs license plates identifying cubicle occupants by their first names — one of several design features borrowed from Zappos.

As the search for a site on which to create a larger facility commenced, the company moved into temporary quarters in Harrison Place in downtown Springfield, making the black-and-green-painted Paragus Mini Coopers common sites on the streets of the City of Homes.

Bean said the company considered a number of locations in and around Hadley for its new headquarters, and nearly closed on a site in Northampton before eventually opting for a site behind the county courthouse on Route 9. The existing structure there, which most recently had served as a school, was in poor condition and needed to be razed, he noted.

While that search was taking place, Bean and company employees began to visit other workplaces to gain perspective, insight, and ideas. Among the facilities toured were Microsoft’s NERD (New England Research and Development) Center in Cambridge; the Harvard Innovation Lab, or iLab, as it’s called; the Cambridge Innovation Center; and Zappos’ headquarters in what was once City Hall in Las Vegas.

From those visits, and especially the Zappos tour, participants absorbed ideas such as the inspirational quotes on the walls and the use of license plates to identify the occupants of cubicles (the registration sticker in the corner indicates what year he or she started with the company), said Bean.

But the broad goal was to create something unique, he added, something that “said Paragus” and reflected the company’s culture.

“We wanted something of our own that’s kind of a combination of what we saw at other companies,” he explained. “We definitely love our brand and our culture and the vibe that we’ve created, and we’ve never had a building that emulated that vibe because we’ve always been fitting into something that already existed. We had the opportunity to build it the way we wanted from scratch.”

From the beginning, there has been plenty of input from employees, because that is a big part of the company’s culture, said its founder.

“I’m a huge believer in getting staff buy-in at every level, so we formed what we called the New Building Committee and picked out the different assignments and created subcommitees,” he explained. “Every other week, we’d get together, and the subcommittees would report. It sounds very bureaucratic, but it was quite effective because the subcommittees were very focused on specific topics, and it was things that were going to affect them and things they were very interested in.”

Building Excitement

What all those subcommittees and others involved in this undertaking produced is space that, as Bean suggested, effectively mixes fun with professionalism, form with function.

Indeed, just around the corner from the game room is a wall that will soon host a huge screen that will enable the staff to monitor the servers at its dozens of clients and instantly spot trouble.

“If any glitch happens, immediately you’ll see the whole screen change and highlight what network is down,” he explained. “And we can drill down and see exactly what the problem is; we monitor about 126 clients and about 270 servers, and this will let us monitor them on one big screen.”

The weathervane

The weathervane with the company’s logo was perhaps the only opportunity for Paragus to fully express itself with the building’s exterior.

As for that game room/kitchen complex, O’Brien said it will soon be outfitted with a sign that reads, “once you enter this space, you can’t even think about work,” or words to that effect, a message that, like all other components in the facility, reflects the company’s culture, or the “Paragus mentality.”

Matt Dubard, art director for Darby O’Brien Advertising, agreed, and said the facility’s design captures and perpetuates a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“This company has a startup feel,” he said. “It’s not a startup — it’s been around in various forms since Delcie was 13, and a lot of the people have been working with each other for a long time. But it definitely feels like a startup; it has that excitement about it, and we wanted to capture all that in how it was designed.”

O’Brien used the word “youthful” to describe the company, its culture, and what needed to be conveyed in the various elements of the new facility.

“There’s a lot of youth, a lot of energy,” he explained. “And that energy definitely comes across in the design.”

As for the weathervane, well, it was perhaps the best, and only, chance for the company to express itself through the property’s exterior, said O’Brien, noting that it lies in an historic-overlay district that is heavily regulated when it comes to design. But there are no regulations that anyone knows about regarding weathervanes.

“There might be some soon after people see that one,” he said with a laugh. “I’d be curious to see what the town of Hadley feels about it. It’s not a weathervane; it’s a piece of art.”

The same might be said of the new facility as a whole, and Bean acknowledged that the company will likely be fielding some requests for visits to see the space. And while he expects to be leading some tours himself, he will let others at the company share that responsibility — and privilege.

“I’ll certainly do a fair share of them myself, but I believe there’s huge value in having the staff leading those tours,” he said. “This really is their building, built for them and, in many cases, by them.”

Workplace in Progress

One framed picture not up on the wall when BusinessWest visited Paragus (Bean’s not sure what he’ll do with it) depicts the downtown Springfield skyline maybe seven to 10 years from now, when the company is expected to have outgrown the new space on Route 9.

It shows a gleaming steel skyscraper, perhaps 40 stories high, with the Paragus name on the side — in huge ‘outrageous green’ lettering, of course.

This imagery was a gift from the O’Brien agency to indicate one possible future for Paragus and other small businesses that may be started by some of its employees in the years to come, said Bean, who’s not sure whether it represents anything approaching what might be reality.

What he does know is that the current home represents a big step forward for his venture — and a true reflection of its vibe.

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Eclectic Community of Businesses Populates Monkey Wrench Building

The Monkey Wrench Building

The Monkey Wrench Building was famously the longtime home of toolmaker Bemis & Call, then fine-funiture retailer Bottaro & Skolnick.

No one knows for sure how the monkey wrench got its name. Some say its original name was actually ‘Moncky wrench,’ after Charles Moncky, whom some believe invented the tool. Another legend says a worker was fooling around with a wrench when a supervisor told him to “stop monkeying with that wrench!”

What all accounts agree on, however, is where that wrench was invented — at what is now 143 Main St. in Springfield.

“I’m the proud second owner of this building,” said David Rothenberg, who bought the sprawling property — now called the Monkey Wrench Building — in the late 1990s. “It has an interesting history.”

That it does. In its early days, Rothenberg explained, a mile-long corridor along the Mill River was dotted with factories, including 143 Main, which were powered by water, which flowed beneath the building and activated a turbine. “You see that in Holyoke, but in Springfield, the Mill River was the source of the power. And this building was reportedly the first industrial site in Springfield.”

From the late 19th century, it was the home of Bemis & Call, a toolmaking plant that traced its origins to 1844. “It was one of Massachusetts’ 50 oldest companies until it went out of business in the ’90s. They owned this part of Main Street,” said Rothenberg, who discovered the building while working for his father-in-law, Si Skolnick, at Bottaro & Skolnick, a fine-furniture store.

“They were housed in this building for years and years. Eventually, Bemis & Call died out, and we took over the whole building,” said Rothenberg, who purchased the property from its original owner about 15 years ago.

But time was running out for Bottaro & Skolnick, as the public’s taste for $6,500 sofas dried up when cheaper, Chinese-made furniture started to dominate the market. So the business, which had been around since 1939, made it a few years past the turn of the 21st century before Si Skolnick called it a day.

“The market crashed, and the [pricing] disparity became too great,” Rothenberg said, adding that, decades ago, “your home reflected your grace and good taste. Nowadays, people say, ‘meet you at Applebee’s,’ or Chili’s or wherever. Back then, people visited each other’s houses.”

As a result, he said, “values have changed. You can say to young people, ‘see this piece of furniture? You can have it forever; your kids will have it forever.’ And it’s true; our furniture was heirloom quality. But people don’t want heirloom quality anymore; they want disposable furniture for their disposable lifestyle. We had to make a tough decision, and we killed Bottaro & Skolnick.”

The furniture store lives on, sort of, in an interior-design business that Rothenberg runs out of the first floor of the Monkey Wrench Building. But what to do with the rest of the architecturally striking, three-story edifice at the southern tip of Main Street?

“We decided to subdivide it,” Rothenberg said, adding that South Hadley-based marketing professional Darby O’Brien came up with the idea of naming the building after its signature invention. “I kind of kicked that around for three or four years. I wanted to develop the building, and I wanted it to be multi-tenant — but not just mixed-tenant; I wanted a clientele that reflects the urban setting. And some cool stuff has happened since then.”

Indeed, Rothenberg now manages an assortment of 37 tenants, and is busy fixing up and marketing the little space that remains vacant. He recently led BusinessWest on a tour of the building, which gives off the distinctly eclectic vibe of many disparate small-business owners coming together to form a sort of community.

“My goal was to fill the building, not with fancy-schmancy people, but the regular people of Springfield. It’s not a high-end clientele by any means; it’s an urban clientele,” he said. “But it’s been a frickin’ blast. I was in the furniture business all those years, but now I get to interact with all these different personalities. It’s so cool.”

More Than a Landlord

Those personalities run the gamut — artists, a music producer, a dance studio, training centers for boxing and wrestling, a screen-printing outfit, an upholstery company, a high-end antique store, a lawyer … the list goes on.

David Rothenberg’s display

David Rothenberg’s display of old wrenches tells part of the story of the 143 Main St. building.

“We’re just about full now. It’s a really eclectic mix of people, and they’re very nice,” he said, noting that he signed his first tenant only six years ago, making the Monkey Wrench Building a notable real-estate success story in Springfield. But he has also formed a personal bond with most of these businesses, many of them sole proprietors.

“I’m a mensch … a good guy. I don’t want to hurt anybody; I want to give people an opportunity for success,” he said. “A lot of these people don’t have any business experience. So I offer my services to them, mentor them. I’ve been a businessman my whole life, and I’ve seen it all.

“Incubator isn’t the right term for what we want to do,” Rothenberg added, while stressing that he truly wants his tenant businesses to grow, so if he can offer advice on, say, crafting a business plan, he will.

“I don’t just want their money; I want to see what they’re going to do,” he went on. “I hate the term ‘landlord’ — the status thing. I’m David, I happen to own this building, and I don’t have any other building; I’m not necessarily in it for the profit motive. If someone doesn’t have their rent, I’ll work with them. I’ve never evicted anybody. I want to see people succeed, and I want to facilitate that. I want to help.”

Fred Steinman, president of the Western Mass. franchise of Valpak Media Solutions — you might recognize the name from the blue envelope of coupons that regularly arrives in the mail — has found solid value from setting up shop at 143 Main about five years ago.

“We started out in the Scibelli Enterprise Center, in the incubator,” said Steinman, who had carved out a more than 30-year career in broadcasting, then radio sales and management, before buying one of 200 national Valpak franchises about eight years ago. But the Enterprise Center was never meant to be a permanent home. “It’s meant to help businesses start out, and then kind of grow out of it into the world, get a bigger place. That’s what we did.”

With a business that covers Hampden and Hampshire counties, Steinman said, the building’s location just off I-91 is convenient — a factor also cited by Lois Warren, who works for cheaptees.org, an Internet-based screen-printing company.

Steinman also takes pride in the fact that his office is reportedly the very room where the monkey wrench was invented. “Every time I bring somebody up here, they can’t get over the architecture and woodwork. We have mahogany wood, a fireplace in the office … it’s a very impressive building.

“Most people who come here are unfamiliar with the inside of the building, and they’re awed by it,” he went on. “When I was given a tour of the available space, this office was perfect — I loved it. And David has been very supportive — a great landlord. If there are any issues, he responds to them right away.”

Big Picture

Whether or not Springfield eventually gets a casino a half-mile from Rothenberg’s front door — an issue about which he has mixed feelings, because he’s not a casino fan, yet he thinks the development would generate some needed energy — he’s a firm believer in the city’s economic-development potential, and proud to play a small role.

“I was born here — 150 yards from here, in a four-story walk-up. I came back here as a kid to play,” he said, pointing out a window at the wooded rear of the building. “The city has been good to me, and I’m not going to abandon it.”

However, he added, “the perceptions of people can be horrible, and it can be self-perpetuating. Yes, of course the city has problems, but I’m happy to be here. I consider myself an anchor down here, and I want to keep the building beautiful.”

His son is a believer, too, investing in a storage facility across the street from the Monkey Wrench Building. He, too, has run into the same question his father has heard for many years — “why downtown Springfield?”

“Time will tell whether it comes back,” Rothenberg told BusinessWest. “But everything is a matter of perception. I perceived this building was an opportunity for me, and I stuck with it. I never thought I’d be a property guy — I was a furniture guy. But opportunities arose, and now I’m having a blast. I love the people. I even like dealing with their troubles. It’s all good.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Vodka Maker Has a New Home in an Old Hadley Church

Paul Kozub

Paul Kozub, the proud new owner of the former St. John’s Church in Hadley, wants to be in this location for the next 50 years.

Paul Kozub says he can draw a number of parallels between his experiences with creating his own brand of vodka and his recent work to pull up the tens of thousands of nails from the oak floor of the former St. John’s Church in Hadley, his new “world headquarters.”

“It’s a lot of hard work, and there are no shortcuts,” he said in reference to both vodka making and the small, stubborn nails, left behind when carpeting and laminate flooring were removed. “I asked a contractor whether there was some kind of machine or if you could sand over them, and he said, ‘Paul, you just have to put your head down and pull them out one nail at a time.’ And that’s how I’ve grown the brand — convincing one person at a time.”

He then proceeded to dive into a toolbox to the side of what used to be the altar, pull out a large pair of pliers — the only one of many tools he’s tried to handle for this project that has proven effective — and demonstrate.

As he did so, one could see that, as with his vodka label, V-One, rehabbing St. John’s into the new home for his venture is a labor of love — on many levels.

Indeed, for this devout Catholic, setting up shop in a former place of worship is something special, a privilege he explained using both humor and candor.

“My 39 years of going to church every Sunday finally paid off,” he said with a laugh, adding that he had to clear a number of hurdles for this dream to become reality and at times thought there might be too many to overcome. “I really feel blessed to be in here.

“As a practicing Catholic, I wanted to see this building in the hands of someone who would appreciate it,” he went on. “I’ve been here for a month and a half, and every time I come in, I remember that it was a holy place where there were Masses and baptisms and funerals.”

St. John’s, opened in 1902 and known to many in the community as the “Irish church,” was closed by the Diocese of Springfield more than 20 years ago after the town’s other Catholic Church (the “Polish church”) was closed, razed, and replaced with a larger structure, known as Most Holy Redeemer. It had served the diocese as what’s known as patronage space, said Kozub, and for years was crammed with statues, stained-glass windows, and other items from across the diocese that needed to be stored somewhere.

He said the church had been on his radar screen for years as a potential home for his business, now almost a decade old and expanding well beyond its Western Mass. roots, and that there were talks with the diocese off and on for most of this decade, after it became clear that a small office in his home was no longer suitable.

“I guess they got tired of me pestering them,” said Kozub, adding that he was finally able to negotiate a sale for $75,000. He then cleared some of those aforementioned hurdles, including everything from zoning (which needed to be changed) to parking, which was required for that zoning. (A survey revealed that there were seven spaces at the back of the property.)

Since moving into the church in August, Kozub has made steady progress with what he called phase one of his plans for the property. This includes a broad cleanup of the structure, fixing the front steps, painting several areas, repairing damage to the ceiling, and converting a small room off the altar, where the priest would prepare for Mass, into his office.

the church

Paul Kozub says the church, which has been closed since the early ’90s, has long been on his radar screen.

That space also had a hardwood floor, which has been restored to its former luster in a manner similar to that planned for the nave, or the central portion of the church, after all those nails are pulled out.

Phase two involves converting the 2,000-square-foot, 20-foot-high nave into a space for private meetings and seminars. Kozub said this facility would be ideal for meetings with area retailers who sell V-One and the bartenders who serve it, and also for introducing new products, such as his growing roster of flavored vodkas, the ongoing wave within the industry.

Over the past 18 months, Kozub has introduced vanilla-flavored vodka, then lime, and, just a few months ago, triple berry. And there are two more nearly ready for the marketplace, although those flavors remain top secret.

Meanwhile, the property, located on Route 9 in the center of Hadley, provides some great visibility for the company, he went on. “That was one of the biggest pluses for me,” he said. “Now I have exposure to about 45,000 cars a day that drive by here.”

Kozub said the church would inevitably be the site of Valley Vodka’s 10-year anniversary celebration coming up sometime in 2015. That milestone will provide an opportunity to assess where this company is and where it wants and needs to go, he noted, adding that he is mulling opportunities to take his vodka products, now sold only in Massachusetts and Connecticut, into other markets.

“Right now, we’re focused on growing the brand locally, and by the 10-year mark, I really want to start thinking about how we can duplicate the success we’ve had here in this area.”

Phase three of this project may eventually involve creating some type of vodka-making museum in the old church, said Kozub, adding quickly that such plans are in their infancy, and there will be many more hurdles to clear if they are to advance.

In the meantime, he’s focused on the next stage in the progression of his company and making the old church into a comfortable home — even though he’s already very comfortable there.

He plans to keep many of the features of the church, from the confessionals (although he has no idea what he’ll do with them) to the sink in his office used by the priest preparing for Mass, to the sign at the front entrance posting the times for the services.

They are part of the church’s glorious past, and Kozub wants to make sure they’re also part of its future — and his.

“I really would like to be here for 50 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s room for me to grow Valley Vodka, and this space will enable me to do that.”

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Art and Commerce Intersect at Thriving 1350 Main Street

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin says 1350 Main Street, with its robust leasing activity and artsy “vibe,” is a microcosm of what could happen across downtown Springfield.

There’s an art and science to marketing commercial real estate. In some cases, lots of art.

Take 1350 Main Street, or One Financial Plaza, in downtown Springfield, which was recently branded the MassLive Building after its newest tenant, which is leasing 11,000 square feet of space and paying for the right to emblazon the tower with its logo. MassLive is among several companies and colleges that have recently forged deals at 1350 Main, drawn by its location, its noteworthy art galleries (more on that later), and what Evan Plotkin describes as a palpable “vibe” at the site.

“One of the fascinating things about this building is that it represents, in my mind, a microcosm of an economic-development concept that is arts-driven,” said Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, which co-owns the property. “When we acquired this property in 2007, the storefronts [on the first floor] were empty. We made major improvements in the plaza, including bringing the fountain back, putting in benches, and creating an environment conducive to gathering.”

That’s quite a contrast to seven years ago. When NAI Plotkin invested in 1350 Main, occupancy was 34%, the café now in the lobby was just a dark space, and there wasn’t much reason anyone would want to be on the property if they didn’t work in the tower, he said. “Most companies we approached said there was not enough foot traffic, and they would not be willing to make an investment.”

1350MainDPartBut some of the more recent tenants — like the Baystate Innovation Center, which will move in around Nov. 1; Bay Path University, which leased space last year; 180 Fitness, which opened its doors on Jan. 1; and MassLive — say that’s changed dramatically.

“What I’m hearing over and over again is that what we’ve done here is build a community in this building,” Plotkin said. “That happens because we’re getting people out of their offices, and they’re able to interact with each other, and that’s how innovation happens. That’s why the Innovation Center, of all the places they could have gone, wanted to be here, because they felt it was right for innovators because of the vibe this place gives off.”

That vibe includes a unique collection of paintings, sculptures, and other works of art assembled by John Simpson, manager of the Hampden Gallery at UMass Amherst and an art professor in the Commonwealth Honors College at the university. He has been working with Plotkin over the past few years to bring art to 1350 Main, from the impressive ninth-floor art gallery to the myriad paintings decorating the lobby.

Plotkin has also revitalized the outdoor pavilion, not only with those aforementioned tables and fountain, but with regular music events. The Palazzo Café, opened in 2007, remains busy, and 180 Fitness has not only thrived in its new space, but is attracting people who have no other connection to the tower.

“We’re talking about marketing their membership to the new market-rate housing developments coming to downtown,” Plotkin said. “I’ve offered these types of opportunities so we can start connecting the dots downtown. We need to stop building silos and start looking beyond the walls where we live and work and realize we have this incredible, walkable city.”

And that, he told BusinessWest, is the real story of the newly christened MassLive Building — not the success of the tower itself, which has more than doubled occupancy in the past seven years, to 79%, but how it models the kind of vibrancy he envisions for the entire downtown area.

Framing the Issue

Plotkin placed 1350 Main in the context of a recently released report detailing a potential innovation district centered around Worthington Street and Stearns Square. “There are major improvements being proposed in that study that will ultimately attract restaurants and other retail to that dining district. That’s what we did here by improving the outdoor community space and creating vibrancy here.”

John Simpson

John Simpson, who curates the art at 1350 Main Street, has also painted a series of murals, like this one of B.B. King, on the walls of nearby 31 Elm St., bordering Court Square.

That included offering an extremely attractive rate to the Palazzo Café. “Someone had to prime the pump. We had to do something to increase the vibrancy in the area, knowing that a retailer was reluctant to take that kind of risk. A small business can’t afford to take the risk if there isn’t foot traffic. It’s incumbent upon private business and, I think, the public sector as well, to create an environment where people want to gather.”

It’s clearly working. “We’re getting companies — large, established companies — renewing their leases now, even when they have term left. They’re seeing the demand for the building and understanding that, as vacancy goes down and demand increases, rates usually go up.”

As for MassLive, “we’re happy to be identified with them. It’s a very positive organization, and it says a lot that the company wants to grow in Springfield. They can go anywhere they want, but their commitment to Springfield is important.”

Although it’s significant for the building’s branding, the MassLive lease is just one more in a string of deals, including Thing5’s occupancy of the entire sixth floor in 2012. “In the last three years, in a declining market, we’ve leased 90,000 square feet of space,” Plotkin said. “So I look at this as a microcosm of what is possible.”

He looks specifically to Stearns Square, a gathering place that the city is looking at as a linchpin of its innovation district. “The fountain hasn’t worked in 15 years, and the turf has been worn away by concerts, with no restoration to it. You have vacant properties all around.”

It will take investment — both from the city and private developers — to change the aesthetics and provide incentives to attract retailers and restaurants, and hopefully housing will follow, he explained. “There has to be that initial investment by the property owners and the city to make the infrastructure improvement.”

Elm Street and State Street

Simpson will continue his mural project and liven up this alleyway connecting Elm Street and State Street.

That will require the participation of organizations like the Springfield Business Improvement District, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the mayor’s office, and other stakeholders, working together to promote the cultural assets of the city and continue developing the market-rate housing necessary to drive more retail, dining, and other business. “That’s what’s going to make site selectors look at downtown as a cool, vibrant place,” Plotkin said.

“It helps to have the other dynamics going on,” he continued, “with Union Station up there, the possibility of MGM coming in, and the sale of Morgan Square to a company that’s investing in market-rate housing. We have UMass downtown, Bay Path College, Cambridge College, NPR — all these companies and schools down here. Now you need to create an urban theme park — an urban campus, in the colleges’ case — where students and faculty leave their buildings. That’s a huge customer base, and they feel trapped in their buildings. We need to get them out.”

In other words, create foot traffic.

“To create an urban theme park, where you can access your cultural assets, you have to deal with people’s fear,” he continued. “But the more you engage people in walking, the more foot traffic you have, the less people are concerned about crime. You have fear when you have no people around, when you have vacant storefronts. People don’t want to walk on a block where they don’t see anyone.”

Art of the Deal

Plotkin and Simpson believe that art installations can go a long way toward creating an atmosphere where people want to be outside.

“John and I have been collaborating on public art for almost as long as I’ve been here, and it’s been a wonderful thing,” Plotkin said. “Even people who are not art aficionados can’t help but be taken by the beauty of our lobby and the paintings there. Then, when we take them up to the ninth floor, the incredible gallery up there, and they see the different conference rooms and a fitness center on the other side of the hall, people talk about mind, body, and spirit all here on one floor.”

The floor has become a popular spot for business meetings and school tours, but in 2007, it was considered a liability.

“That was a dark floor with a former call center and a cafeteria,” Plotkin said. “I was told by the appraiser, when I bought the building, that they deducted value from the ninth floor because of the cafeteria; the way it was laid out, it would cost so much to restore it to office use.”

Instead, he continued, “we have turned that space in to this beautiful asset which, if nothing else, has brought people here who would otherwise never see the building. We’ve created this vibe and this word of mouth about the building being such a cool place. Nobody has anything like this downtown. But I remind people that we’re trying to do this all over the downtown.”

Take neighboring Court Square, for example. During the Jazz & Roots Festival held there last month — an event that drew several thousand music lovers — Simpson painted a series of murals of musical icons on the black panels covering the darkened storefronts of 31 Elm St., a project that’s far from complete.

“Not a day goes by that people don’t thank us for doing it,” Simpson said of the public art displays he’s helped bring to 1350 Main and downtown in general. “A woman just told me it makes her day.”

It’s just one way the downtown can distinguish itself as a place people want to live, work, and shop, Plotkin said, noting that Springfield’s location at the center of the Knowledge Corridor, at the crossroads of Interstates 90 and 91, already make it an intriguing location for site selectors.

“But if we don’t have a city that people want to work in, if they say, ‘look, I don’t want to move to Springfield because I’m afraid there’s nothing to do,’ or any number of other reasons, that needs to change.

“The walkability of the city is what we have going for us, but we have blockages,” he added. “I use the analogy of a heart that’s pumping; if you have blocked arteries, you have extremities that aren’t getting oxygen. I would say that’s an example of what’s happening in many pockets of the city. It takes four and a half minutes to walk from here to the riverfront, but nobody talks about that; no one thinks of going there. We need to bring back these linkages and create walkability. If you don’t have walkability, people feel isolated.”

On the Horizon

Plotkin continues to work to fill that remaining 21% of the MassLive Building. For instance, he’s been talking to a video-game company interested in space. “They’re impressed with 1350 Main Street and the murals and sculptures all over.”

And he’s confident that the city and its developers will continue to work together in a holistic way to create the environment — the vibe — needed to keep drawing businesses and jobs downtown.

As one example, he cited MassMutual’s recent $5 million investment in the Springfield Venture Fund — an attempt to cultivate high-potential startups in the City of Homes — as an example of a proactive effort to keep talent local and stimulate the economy. “But that alone won’t do the trick. We need to create an environment downtown where people want to go. I’m seeing a huge uptick in rents. It’s working at 1350 Main, and it will work in other places. It’s not that complex — in fact, it’s very simple.

“At the end of the day,” he added, “we’re trying to get students who are graduating from the colleges up and down the Knowledge Corridor to say, ‘why not Springfield?’ By attracting retail, restaurants, coffee shops, we will generate the foot traffic to support other businesses. And it just builds on itself.”

Plotkin said he’s consulted with other property owners on how to bring art into their buildings, yet some people have wondered why he’d help rival real-estate owners accomplish something that already distinguishes his own tower.

“But it’s not about having exclusivity in having good taste in art; it’s about putting a mirror up and saying, ‘look, you can do this too,’” he said. “I hope other businesses downtown do this; imitation is the best form of flattery. Let’s talk about it so we’re not just an island here all by ourselves. We’re connected.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Features Sections

Springfield Unveils Blueprint for Downtown Innovation District

From the wreckage of a natural-gas explosion in Springfield almost two years ago has emerged a revitalization plan — one that encompasses far more than the immediate blast zone.

The “Worthington Street District Plan,” as the plan’s creators title it, contains an overarching vision of transforming much of downtown Springfield into an ‘innovation district,’ characterized by entrepreneurial businesses, expanded market-rate housing, new dining and entertainment options, and a raft of infrastructure and traffic-flow improvements.

It is, in a word, ambitious, said Kevin Hively of Ninigret Partners of Rhode Island, which produced the study in conjunction with Utile Inc. of Boston. The firms were hired by DevelopSpringfield, using part of an $850,000 settlement between the city and Columbia Gas stemming from the natural-gas explosion that rocked the Worthington Street-Chestnut Street area the day after Thanksgiving in 2012.

Base-Model“We want to create an innovation district with a lot of energy and momentum taking place, but the fact of the matter is, innovation districts are driven by talent, and talent is driven by job opportunities and quality of life,” Hively told an assembly of municipal and economic-development officials and other neighborhood stakeholders.

“If you’re going to have an innovation district, you have to create a strong, robust, urban lifestyle environment,” he added. “The reality is, they are related.”

A key example is Kendall Square in Cambridge, which boasts, by far, the nation’s highest density of biotech and IT firms — 163 per square mile, to be precise. (Palo Alto, Calif. comes in a distant second, with 36.) Yet, Kendall Square developers have also been focused on quality of life, as evidenced by the emergence of outdoor cafés, charging stations for electronic devices, and lively kayak and canoe activity along the Charles River.

To develop such an environment in Springfield, the report notes, Worthington Street and its environs is the best place to start.

The key is the neighborhood’s pre-existing assets, including the architectural character of the building stock, public ownership of a number of parking lots and other empty parcels, existing housing stock that can be upgraded, proximity to Union Station, and pre-existing places — like Stearns Square, Apremont Triangle, and Matoon Street — that can serve as anchors for activity.

Once demand for an urban lifestyle — and development in response to that demand — lift the profile of this neighborhood, businesses will hopefully become interested in the neighborhoods northeast of Chestnut Street, producing a cascade effect of development, public improvement, and general buzz across the entire district.

Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that the plan isn’t unlike the city’s efforts over the past three years to bring large-scale improvements to Springfield in the wake of the June 2011 tornado. “From a potentially devastating tragedy, an opportunity has come forth,” he said. “As we did with the tornado, we have an opportunity to define this area as an innovation district.”

Jay Minkarah, president and CEO of DevelopSpringfield, said his organization commissioned the study to establish a vision for how the downtown area should be developed. “We have a tremendous opportunity to create a truly vibrant, urban district, one that is walkable, with an innovation-based economy and market-rate housing — those are exactly the things we’d like to do.”

After all, Sarno added, “if we want to move the city forward, we have to be bold and innovative.”

Food for Thought

As one example, Sarno emphasized repositioning the city’s entertainment district as a restaurant district, because a neighborhood known for catering solely to large clubs and their patrons detracts from its universal appeal.

The Utile/Ninigret report highlighted several ways this can be accomplished, including placing size limits on venues to discourage large clubs; requiring all venues to have full kitchens; and using façade-improvement program funds to improve the aesthetic appearance of the district.

Another key is drawing an eclectic mix of retail businesses to the district, a goal, Hively noted, that Springfield officials can’t just wish into reality.

“It’s very hard to create a successful retail business,” he noted. “It’s out of the hands of the city. It cannot create a successful retail business, but it can create an environment that allows people to come in; then it’s up to the retailers to get people to come in and convert those people from shoppers to buyers.”

But downtown revitalization is about more than making it a destination for diners and shoppers; attracting people to live there is equally important, which is why the city is also looking at ways to develop more market-rate housing downtown. Officials believe a growing network of young entrepreneurs and residents want to see downtown become more livable, and that future rail service to the area will bring new opportunities, both to attract residents and encourage further development around Union Station.

It may sound a dizzying exercise in chickens and eggs, but the report highlights several improvements Springfield can undertake to make the district more attractive for both walkers and motorists. These include upgrading Stearns Square; redesigning Apremont Triangle’s open space and streetscape; converting Dwight and Chestnut streets to two-way streets; restriping travel lanes on cross streets; retrofitting Worthington and Bridge streets; improving Lyman Street, especially at the entrance to Union Station; and incorporating public art and lighting into underpasses.

This stretch of Worthington Street, which includes the site of the natural-gas blast, is among the areas the city hopes to revitalize as part of a broad innovation district.

This stretch of Worthington Street, which includes the site of the natural-gas blast, is among the areas the city hopes to revitalize as part of a broad innovation district.

The good news, Hively noted, is that the innovation district has plenty going for it already, from the neighborhood’s pre-existing geographic assets to economic-development success stories such as the Baystate Innovation Center, a business accelerator that creates an anchor and partner for health technology startups; the entrepreneurial support system of entities like Valley Venture Mentors, Springfield Angels, and River Valley Investors; and Tech Foundry, which acts as a training ground for building career skills and filling job openings.

“Everyone in the world wants an innovation district, but not everyone can have one,” Hively said, adding that the key questions are, does it have to be created from scratch, and are there people willing to make it happen? Clearly, he added, the answers in Springfield are no and yes, respectively. “You don’t have to create this from whole cloth.”

Added Sarno, “we are thinking big, thinking bold, thinking innovative. But the bones are already here, where other cities are sinking millions of dollars into that.”

Still, while those foundational elements exist, the study notes, they are still nascent and the lack critical mass necessary to have a major impact — yet. Other efforts are necessary, among them the potential conversion of the Willys-Overland Building on Worthington Street, which was damaged in the explosion, into a catalytic project featuring a mix of business uses, small-scale manufacturing, and housing.

Sarno said he envisions a neighborhood of revitalized properties featuring retail, dining, and business on ground level, parking on the second floor, and market-rate housing on the third. “It is extremely important that we continue to make downtown Springfield vibrant.”

Safety First

Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer, said the study is valuable in the way it outlines development concepts and encourages residents and businesses to generate more. “For some ideas, the city would have to help with some infrastructure, and that’s what we would do.”

The city has also been focused on public safety and raising people’s confidence in walking downtown — efforts that include everything from a lighting-improvement project along some of the city’s main thoroughfares, including the downtown club district, to police strategies to more effectively patrol the area. Public perception of crime and safety, after all, are “the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” said the mayor.

However, Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, told Sarno and others gathered at the study presentation that the best way to make the innovation district safe is to make it vibrant. “Bringing foot traffic to these neighborhoods will do more to create a sense of safety than anything else you can do,” he said. “Having a police plan will augment that, but there’s nothing better for public safety than foot traffic.”

As for the Utile/Ninigret report, Plotkin said he hopes the city moves forward with some of the ambitious plans, and that the study doesn’t just sit on a shelf. “I think we can get it done.”

He’s not alone, judging by the sentiment of Herbie Flores, executive director of the New England Farmworkers’ Council and, like Plotkin, someone invested in the future of Springfield’s downtown.

“There are always going to be negative people in Springfield,” Flores told Sarno at the end of the presentation. “The hell with them. We’re behind you.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Cooper’s Commons Complex Is Shaping Itself into a Destination

Kate Gourde

Kate Gourde

Kate Gourde laughed as she talked about how she’s spent the past several weeks rolling up her sleeves and “diving back into things” at Cooper’s, the curtain and specialty gift shop she’s been managing for the past several years.

“I felt like I had been neglecting my own business and was anxious to really sink my teeth back into it,” she told BusinessWest, using some intriguing language to sum up what she and her husband, Robert, have been doing for the past three years.

This would be a comprehensive conversion of the former Country Squire Furniture Shop on Main Street in Agawam into a home for a host of small, and complementary, businesses — a project that is far from complete, but has advanced to the point where Gourde feels comfortable spending much more time at Cooper’s, which is located directly behind the landmark named after Ensign Thomas Cooper, the Civil War naval hero who once lived there.

Only a few small spaces in the 14,000-square-foot building on Main Street in Agawam are not occupied, and plans are emerging for those rooms as well. And as the business names on the large sign on the front lawn reveal, the repositioning of this property has gone pretty much according to the vision that Gourde related when BusinessWest first talked with her in February 2012.

Indeed, as she led a tour of the property back then, Gourde pointed to a large space at the front she thought would be ideal for a small restaurant. It is now home to the Squire’s Bistro, operated by Fred Withee, former owner of Storrowton Village. Likewise, she said another two-room space toward the front would be ideal for a hair salon — it is now occupied by Shear Techniques, which moved roughly a mile down Main Street — and that a large space toward the back of the property would be perfect for a dance studio; LHQ Danceforce & Wellness has set up shop there.

These ventures have been joined by a consulting business, a skin salon, a massage therapist, the Individual and Family Counseling Center, Dupre Hypnosis, and even state Rep. Nicholas Boldyga, who set up his regional office there last fall.

Not everything has gone according to the script, certainly, said Gourde, who noted that some early tenants had short stays, promoting more due diligence before leasing out space. Overall, she described the conversion as both a “journey” and a “learning experience on many levels,” as she and her husband have added ‘landlord’ to their professional résumés. But the blank canvas that existed in the winter of 2012 has been filled in pretty much as they envisioned it would be.

What remains is more hard work to make Cooper’s Commons the destination that the Gourdes intend it to be. This includes effective marketing of the complex, she said, adding there has been use of a website, social media, and some television spots to promote the location as a place to “spend an hour or spend a day.”

“We’ve done our best to continue to work on the branding of the location and the promotion of the location to help all of our tenants move forward,” she explained. “That’s all we want — to see everyone take care of their own business and do well.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked at length with Gourde and some of her tenants about how Cooper’s Commons has come together, and what the future holds for what all those involved hope will become a retail destination.

New Lease on Life

Dianne Palazzi had been doing business about a mile to the south on Main Street, in one of Agawam’s myriad strip malls, for more than a quarter-century, and had no real desire to leave that location.

But one day, while she was shopping at Cooper’s, Gourde asked her to take a look at a two-room space within the old Country Squire building.

It wasn’t love at first sight, but something approaching it, said Palazzi, who admitted that the ornate fireplace in one of the rooms helped stir the imagination and eventually prompt her to sign a lease.

Fred Withee

Fred Withee says the unique space in the old Country Squire furniture building was a perfect fit for his new venture.

I saw the fireplace, and that’s all it took,” said Palazzi, who became the first tenant in July 2012, with a laugh. “It took a while for people to find out we were here, but now things are picking up  — we’re getting more walk-ins. This is a great location for us.”

This same story, or something closely approximating it, played out several times over the next several months as the Gourdes worked to fill in that aforementioned blank canvas, with spaces tranging in size from 200 to 2,700 square feet.

Indeed, Withee said he was semi-retired after selling Storrowton, but was looking at a possible new venture, a coffee roaster, when he started talking to Gourde about the old furniture store he’d frequented years earlier.

Today, his establishment features some furniture he bought there, as well as a collection of antique tools amassed by Gourde’s father, Arthur Leary.

“I have a grandfather clock, a painting, and some lamps — I brought them back home,” he said. “I knew the building well, I was a good customer, and when I looked at this space I knew that this is where I wanted to be.”

He said business has been good, though challenging, as it has been for many in this sector. Overall, he sees a good deal of promise, not only for his eatery, but for the complex as a whole.

“As people find out we’re here and visit, the ambiance gets their attention,” he said. “We couple it with good food and a friendly atmosphere, and they come back, and the same is true for the whole complex.”

When she talked with BusinessWest in 2012, Gourde said the space wouldn’t exactly sell itself, but she believed that once people saw it, they would want to make it home.

And that’s what has happened.

Gourde said the property has been developed in two phases, with the ground floor coming first, with a focus on retail, and then the second floor, which has been shaped mostly into offices for professionals, ranging from Boldyga to a business consultant to a home-care business operator.

The first floor was filled by the end of 2012, said Gourde, adding that there was a short lull, followed by a somewhat frantic push last fall and early this year to fit out the second floor for interested parties.

The process of tenanting the structure — a home that was expanded several times after being converted into a furniture store — has gone very much according to the original vision, with the size, shape, and amenities in each space often dictating its new use.

“We let the building speak to us about where the spaces would fall,” said Gourde. “And it’s an interesting building, because there were so many additions over the years. We had to figure out how to connect that addition to this addition and connect the front to the back. And with everything having to be up to code, for fire and handicap accessibility, it had its challenges, but it all worked out fine.

“Each space is definitely unique,” she went on, “and it’s been fun to watch how each tenant’s personality has come out in their space. We kept the common areas kind of subdued and calm, with classic colors and such, but the tenants took the ball and ran with it when it came to their own space. Overall, it’s classic and charming, with a contemporary twist.”

She said converting the Country Squire has been both a “monumental undertaking” and a labor of love, one that has included taking on the often-challenging role of landlord.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons,” she said with a laugh, adding that the learning curve is ongoing. “It’s been an interesting project; about a year into it, my husband looked at me and said, ‘how do you like being a landlord now?’ I kept hoping it would get easier, but it hasn’t.”

Moving forward, while contemplating whether to convert the remaining second-floor space into apartments, as originally planned, and deciding when to start the elaborate (and expensive) process of repainting the complex, the Gourdes will focus much of their energy on marketing, making people aware of the of all that’s happening in the old furniture store, and helping their tenants succeed.

“It’s amazing how many people know the building because it’s a landmark,” said Gourde, “but because we didn’t change the front of the building drastically, many people are still unaware of all the changes that have happened within, so we’re trying to get the word out.”

The sign outside Cooper’s Commons

The sign outside Cooper’s Commons tells the story of how the complex has become populated with an eclectic mix of businesses.

To make them aware, the Cooper’s Commons website has been revamped, with links to the websites of the tenants. Meanwhile, there has been some marketing across several media, said Gourde, adding that the message is that the complex isn’t an office building — it’s a retail destination.

“I think that we can make this into more of a draw to bring people in,” she went on, “and let people know that there are so many things here to do and see. You can spend an hour or spend the day, depending on how much time you want to give it.”

Building Momentum

While Gourde is neglecting her own business far less than she was months ago, there is still much to do at the Commons, from finalizing plans for the remaining space to that aforementioned painting project, to marketing the complex.

This was all part of the vision Gourde laid out nearly three years ago.

As she said, it hasn’t all gone according to the plan. But for the most part, the complex has come together as the couple had hoped, and when people see the huge red building now, they don’t think of furniture — they think about an intriguing mix of small businesses.


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

Commercial Real Estate Sections

ENFIELD — MassMutual unveiled more than $38 million in renovations to its Bright Meadow campus, the primary location for the company’s retirement-services and workplace-insurance businesses, on June 17. The investment enhances the company’s overall infrastructure and positions MassMutual for future growth. It follows the company’s 2013 acquisition of the Hartford’s Retirement Plans division.

The renovations encompass approximately 15,000 square feet on the 66-acre, three-building site, and include infrastructure and technology improvements, a state-of-the-art data center, and enhancements to common areas. Several federal, state, and local officials and employees gathered to help MassMutual officially cut the ribbon on the revamped facility, as the 163-year-old company reasserted its commitment to driving economic growth in the state and the surrounding Enfield community.

“The significant improvements we have made to our Enfield campus reflect our efforts to position our integrated retirement business for continued success, as well as our broader commitment to invest in our facilities and our communities,” said Roger Crandall, chairman, president, and CEO of MassMutual. “We now have a world-class facility to accommodate the excellent growth potential of this business, and we look forward to delivering an outstanding service experience for our customers here for many years to come.”

The improvements in and around the building include:

• A state-of-the-art data center, the largest portion of the overall renovation project. The $23 million center will also deliver standby emergency power generation to most of the Enfield campus, thus enabling the facility to remain open in the event of a widespread power outage;

• The two-story lobby, which has been redesigned to prominently feature MassMutual branding, including the story of the company’s history and technology to create personalized greetings for special guests;

• A third-floor presentation room, created to welcome clients and visitors and demonstrate the company’s retirement-solution capabilities;

• A new innovative learning lab aimed at enhancing employee learning; and

• A redesigned visitors’ parking lot.

“Through the new construction and enhancements to our Enfield campus, we have created a dynamic and inviting work environment that fosters efficiency and productivity, and enables us to better provide our clients with the products and services they expect,” said Elaine Sarsynski, executive vice president of MassMutual’s Retirement Services division. “Our significant infrastructure investment also reaffirms MassMutual’s commitment to the state of Connecticut and to Enfield, a community we’ve been proud to be a part of for more than a decade.”

In addition to the new enhancements at its Enfield facility, MassMutual is also making infrastructure and workplace improvements to its Springfield campus. Between the two locations, the company is investing more than $85 million. MassMutual currently employs about 2,400 people in its Retirement Services division; more than 1,600 work at the Enfield campus. The company also currently has 200 employees with Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers LLC, a MassMutual subsidiary, in Hartford.

ENFIELD_exterior_JUNE2014
At left, MassMutual’s Bright Meadow facility, which recently underwent $38 million in renovations. Below, cutting the ceremonial ribbon are, from left, Enfield Mayor Scott Kaupin; Roger Crandall, chairman, president, and CEO of MassMutual; Elaine Sarsynski, executive vice president, MassMutual Retirement; Connecticut state Rep. Joe Courtney; and Connecticut state Sen. John Kissel. Below, left, Crandall addresses those gathered for the event. At bottom, the third-floor presentation room.

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Commercial Real Estate Sections
Technology Park Is Writing a New Chapter to Its Rich History

An architect’s rendering of the Phoenix Charter Academy

An architect’s rendering of the Phoenix Charter Academy that will take shape in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College.

When Beth Anderson conceived what became the Phoenix Charter Academy more than a decade ago, the goal was to create an environment where young students who had failed in the traditional high-school setting, often repeatedly, might overcome their challenges and move on to pursue a college education.

It was a laudable concept, but one she wasn’t at all sure would actually work.

And as she commenced a search for a place to fulfill this dream in the city of Chelsea, it became abundantly clear that few others were sure it would work either.

“I had to practically beg people to let us be in a building,” Anderson recalled. “We had no track record, no history, and a brand-new model no one had tried. And we were working with some really tough characters.”

Eventually, space was secured in the former Assumption School, and Phoenix opened its doors in the fall of 2006. Conditions were not ideal — in fact, they were far from it. But the school’s staff and those first 75 students persevered, and soon Phoenix began making real headway toward meeting its stated mission.

In the process, said Anderson, she and other administrators learned invaluable lessons about creating an environment where students could not only learn, but also aspire to excellence.

“We learned early on how important space is,” she explained. “You can’t just stick kids in a space that looks like you’re not going to hold them to a high standard, or one that says they don’t deserve a beautiful space in which to learn.”

Fast-forward to the fall of 2012, and Anderson and her staff had those lessons clearly in mind as they went about searching for space in which to expand the Phoenix network in Western Mass. The charter was extended to include Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, communities that have large numbers of at-risk students and struggling school systems, and school officials focused their search for space in the City of Homes.

A few months later, that search ended in what some might consider an unlikely location — the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, and, more specifically, long-vacant space once occupied by Springboard Technologies, or at least a big part of what will be left of that building after a large portion of it is razed.

Indeed, the Phoenix facility will become the cornerstone of an imaginative reuse plan for the 110,000-square-foot Springboard building — a.k.a. Building 104 in the former Springfield Armory complex that was also once home to Digital Equipment Corp. — which has been vacant since early 2009.

Plans call for razing roughly 70,000 square feet of the structure — the middle portion of the building — then creating a temporary home for Phoenix in 16,000 square feet of surviving space on the south end of the site (classes are expected to begin in mid-August), while also building out a permanent home for the school in 30,000 square feet of Building 104 left standing on the north end. The school’s temporary quarters will then be leased out to new tenants.

Bob Greeley, leasing agent for the Tech Park

Bob Greeley, leasing agent for the Tech Park, stands in front of the portion of Building 104 that will soon be coming down.

Meanwhile, that space in the middle will be converted into roughly 300 parking spaces, replacing roughly the number that will be lost to the college and the Tech Park when a parking lot that was leased by the school off Walnut Street is redeveloped into a grocery store for the Mason Square neighborhood.

Considering all that, Paul Stelzer, president of Holyoke-based Appleton Corp., which manages the tech park for its owner, the STCC Assistance Corp., called this series of developments a “win-win-win” scenario, with maybe a few more ‘wins’ as well. He counted Phoenix, the college, the Mason Square area, and the city as a whole among those that will benefit from these projects in one way or another, while the Tech Park itself will get a new look and new opportunities to expand its tenant base.

“We’re excited about this, because we have the ability to do something good for the community,” Stelzer said, referring to the charter school. “And we have more space to lease, which could lead to bringing more jobs to this region.”

Challenges remain for those operating the Tech Park — Western Mass. Electric Co., which moved in more than a decade ago, will soon be vacating more than 15,000 square feet of space serving as its headquarters — but the complex (not including Building 104) is more than 90% occupied, and the WMECO space and remaining portion of Building 104 create possibilities for bringing new companies, and jobs, to a region that needs them.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest looks at what is shaping up to be an intriguing next chapter for the Tech Park, and possible subsequent developments for the historic facility.

Building Blocks

Since Springboard closed its doors in 2009 after struggling and downsizing for several years, and even well before that as the demise of the company became increasingly apparent, Building 104 has been a persistent challenge for Tech Park managers trying to reposition that space and generate needed revenue.

The space became a source of controversy and even contentiousness as the assistance corporation offered it as an alternative location for the state-operated data center that was eventually built at the site of the former Technical High School. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal pushed hard for the Tech High site, and eventually prevailed in what became a bitter fight over where the center would be located.

In the years since, there has been little interest in cavernous Building 104, used for manufacturing by both Digital and the Armory, primarily because there is a glut of such space on the market — and has been since the start of the Great Recession — and the Tech Park space is generally not able to compete with such properties on price, said Bob Greeley, owner of R.J. Greeley Co., long-time leasing agent for the park.

However, a new vision for the property began to take shape starting in late 2012, as plans for the neighborhood grocery store — a project pushed by city officials and agencies such as DevelopSpringfield — started to come together and, later, when Anderson and her staff began a hard search for a location in which to create Phoenix’s Springfield facility.

The aerial photo at left shows the massive Building 104 at the top of the image. At right is a site map showing what the park will look like when a large section of the building is razed.

The aerial photo at left shows the massive Building 104 at the top of the image. At right is a site map showing what the park will look like when a large section of the building is razed.

1-Federal-Aerial“For eight or nine years, we’ve been trying to lease all or part of that former manufacturing building,” said Stelzer. “We were looking for a solution, and circumstances emerged that presented us with an opportunity to do something meaningful there.”

The assistance corporation applied for and received a $3.86 million infrastructure grant from the state to essentially move the parking facilities off Walnut Street into the Tech Park, said Stelzer, adding that the funding will cover the costs of demolition and creating a new parking lot.

When those funds were secured, work commenced with the National Park Service and state and local historical commissions on how the assistance corporation would adaptively reuse the park and how demolition would be accomplished and also remain sensitive to the historic nature of the site for the Armory days.

Meanwhile, park administrators started working on a viable plan for repositioning the portions of the building that would be left standing, said Stelzer, adding the charter school presented itself as an attractive option.

“The Tech Park board and the college had long had thoughts of having a charter school near the campus,” he explained. “And this [Phoenix] facility will give a real boost to the community because it serves a different population.”

That population consists of students who have struggled in a traditional high-school setting, said Anderson, noting that many have dropped out for various reasons, such as academic issues, teen pregnancy, and others.

The school presents an alternative for such individuals, she went on, adding that the model involves a blend of rigorous academics — a longer school day and year, advanced-placement classes, college-class dual-enrollment options, and a strict culture — with social and emotional supports for each student.

“We develop teachers and leaders who believe in the possibility of human change and growth,” she said, “and who fight tirelessly for better outcomes for kids.”

Sara Ofusu-Amah, chief operating officer for Phoenix, said the school is planning to open in its temporary quarters on August 15, with the goal of being in the permanent building in January. Already, 88 students have enrolled — a number that reinforces the perceived need for such a facility — and school officials believe they will easily reach their target of 125 for the fall semester.

The permanent facility will include several classrooms, she said, as well as an on-site day-care facility for the children of students, a small library, a student-support center, science labs, and multi-purpose space school officials call the ‘nest,’ which will serve as the gym, auditorium, and meeting space.

“We want a beautiful space that celebrates academics and scholarship,” she said. “But there’s not a lot of bells and whistles; this is a place focused on preparing students for college.”

The 16,000 square feet that will become the temporary home for the charter school has the potential to host businesses of varying sizes across a number of sectors, said Stelzer, who described it as “higher-end flex space.”

“It will have the ability to do office, light assembly, a clean-energy tenant, or a small call center,” he explained. “We can be flexible there.”

While work begins to demolish the middle 70,000 square feet of Building 104 and outfit the south portion of the property as the temporary home for Phoenix, Greeley is seeking new tenants for the space occupied by WMECO, which is slated to move out in June.

The space was formerly part of a large call center operated by RCN, and while it’s attractive and well-appointed, it brings some challenges as well, said Greeley.

There are a number of small offices and conference rooms, he noted, which would make it ideal for use as a corporate headquarters. However, many companies today favor more open floor plans to facilitate communication between employees and improve work flow.

The space may also prove difficult to subdivide because of the way it’s laid out, he went on, adding quickly that the space gives the park some valuable inventory at a time when the economy is showing signs of life and many businesses are possibly gaining the confidence to move forward with expansion plans and new initiatives.


Space Exploration

It’s unlikely that those who conceptualized the Tech Park and were there when the ribbon was cut in 1996 could have imagined the developments unfolding on the site today.

Then again, the park has always been a work in progress, a regional asset that has evolved as the region’s economy and business community have. It’s an evolutionary process that continues today.

In other words, a site already steeped in history is continuing to write more of it.

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
DevelopSpringfield Targets ‘Impactful’ Projects

Above, the Gunn Block on State Street; below, 83 Maple

Above, the Gunn Block on State Street; below, 83 Maple, also known as the Ansel Phelps House, after the city’s fourth mayor, who lived there.

Jay Minkarah says there’s a course of action, or series of steps, traditionally followed by developers as they are contemplating whether to acquire a piece of commercial real estate and ready it for tenants.

“Typically, you undertake your feasibility analysis and make sure the market’s there,” he said, adding that most developers will take a cautious, conservative approach to such work, especially in difficult financial times such as those experienced over the past several years. “Then, you go through your financial analysis, you line up your financing, get tenants or an end user in place, and then you start work.”

But when it comes to projects currently being undertaken by DevelopSpringfield — the private, nonprofit agency tasked with spurring development in the City of Homes, which Minkarah took over roughly 16 months ago — most, if not all, of those steps have been skipped.

This is especially true for initiatives involving two historic properties just outside the central business district — the Gunn Block on State Street, said to be one of the oldest commercial properties in the city, and a once-stately former residence known simply as 83 Maple — and there is a reason for this.

Actually, there are several.

For starters, these are properties deserving of the descriptive adjective ‘blighted.’ Both have been condemned, and, in the case of the Gunn Block, the large red ‘X’ above the door — placed there to warn firefighters that in the event of fire they are not to enter the building — is clearly visible. And bringing new life to blighted properties is one of the main tenets of DevelopSpringfield’s mission.

Jay Minkarah

Jay Minkarah says the current projects in the DevelopSpringfield portfolio don’t make sense financially, but they do from the standpoint of the agency’s mission.

What’s more, the properties are highly visible. The Gunn Block is located across State Street from the main entrance to Springfield Technical Community College, just a few hundred feet past Commerce High School, and around the corner from a planned Mason Square grocery store, another project with which DevelopSpringfield is involved. Meanwhile, 83 Maple is at the intersection of Maple and Union streets, meaning that thousands of people pass it every day and have watched it deteriorate.

These properties are, in many ways, symbolic, said Minkarah, adding that they have been vacant and underutilized for many years and thus have become signs of a city that is stagnant and in decline.

So, considering all of the above, Minkarah decided — and rather quickly after assuming directorship of the agency in December 2012 — to essentially bypass those due-diligence exercises listed above and acquire the properties. They are both undergoing extensive renovations with the goal of having them retenanted in the next few years.

“We skipped a few steps and went right to implementation,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s important for a variety of reasons. I think it’s important to demonstrate that progress is possible, that we really can make great things happen, that we can actually change things on the ground.

“The projects that we have chosen have been designed to have maximum impact,” he went on, adding that another initiative — acquisition of the former River Inn further east on State Street, subsequent demolition of that property, and preparation of the site for resale — also fits this description. “And we believe that successfully developing these will create some real momentum in the city.”

Minkarah used that word ‘we’ repeatedly as he talked about these projects, and he used it to reference not only his agency, but the many constituencies it works with, from Springfield city officials to other development-focused organizations.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked at length with Minkarah about the current roster of projects in the DevelopSpringfield portfolio, why they were chosen, and what they mean for the city moving forward.

A Developing Story

Minkarah told BusinessWest that he not only works downtown but lives there as well, and frequently walks the area.

He has a number of preferred routes, including a trek up State Street into Mason Square; another that covers a wide swath of Main Street, essentially from the South End past the Arch; a walk that covers the full length of Union Street; and still another that takes him along Maple Street and often to the Springfield Cemetery.

It was while taking some of these walks — and also many drives throughout the city —that Minkarah identified some potential priority initiatives for DevelopSpringfield, including those that are currently in progress.

“I made it a point to drive around the city and walk around the city and try to understand the dynamic of what was happening,” he explained. “I was looking at it strategically and saying, ‘if we were to intervene, where would it make the most sense to do so? Where could we, while staying within our means, have a maximum impact?’ And these buildings popped out right away.

“We have properties in this city that are very distressed,” he went on, “but because of their location, while they may have value to some people, an intervention on those buildings wouldn’t be strategic.”

He chose that word ‘intervene’ carefully, and summoned it to show how the agency has chosen to inject itself into situations where solutions are both necessary and elusive.

That was certainly the case at the River Inn, acquired at auction roughly a year ago, which had become not only an eyesore, but a frequent crime scene.

“This was a real source of problems for the city and the neighborhood,” said Minkarah, adding that the 1.5-acre property, enlarged through the acquisition of some adjacent parcels, is currently being readied for redevelopment and is officially on the market.

“We’ve had a few nibbles,” he went on, adding that retail is the likely eventual use, and if a deal comes together, it could help spur additional development in an area he believes should capture the attention of national chains, but historically hasn’t.

“State Street is a corridor with tremendous potential,” he said, “and part of what we’re trying to do is get that message out. A lot of things have happened that are really significant, but it can be a challenge to get national chains to recognize the value of that corridor and what a tremendous investment and development opportunity it is.”

“Part of the reason why we’re making these very strategic investments is to enhance the development potential of that corridor,” he went on. “Taking down a building like the River Inn, which was a blight in that area, is one step toward doing that.”

The River Inn site is just a few hundred yards east of the Gunn Block, another property that seemingly begged for intervention.

This landmark predates the Civil War, said Minkarah, adding that its historical significance — it’s on the National Register of Historic Places — coupled with its location and blighted condition made it a prime candidate for the agency’s attention.

“To me, having a condemned building of obvious historical significance, located on State Street at a major intersection, directly across from STCC and the Tech Park … that’s just not OK,” he said. “That’s a condition that has to change. Like the River Inn, the Gunn Block is a property that had deteriorated and was acting as a blight on the area, inhibiting future investment and development.”

Building Momentum

Acquired for $90,000, the property is part of a row of buildings between Commerce High School that are vacant or underutilized — the long-closed Cavanaugh Furniture building is part of the mix — and that Minkarah believes have great potential.

“When I look down that block, I realize that we have this whole row of historically significant buildings that, if they were revitalized, if they were rehabbed, could become a small but interesting and vibrant district that serves the college, serves the neighborhood, and serves the people who work in the area,” he told BusinessWest.

Many of the properties in that row present challenges, and the Gunn Block is clearly the most challenged, said Minkarah, adding that asbestos was found on the walls of the second and third floors, and the process of abating it is slowing the extensive process of stabilizing and then rehabbing the property.

The agency was able to secure a $200,000 brownfields grant from the Environmental Protection Agency through the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, he noted, adding that it will pursue historical tax credits and grants to help finance what will likely be a $1.5 million project to ready the property for tenants.

A restaurant/pub is the most likely next use for the first floor, while residential development is eyed for the upper floors, said Minkarah, adding that a re-use plan will be created for not only the rest of that aforementioned area, but also a planned grocery store across Walnut Street and the surrounding blocks.

Meanwhile, work continues at 83 Maple, which was built in 1841 by Solymon Merrick, inventor of the monkey wrench (one of Springfield’s many firsts) and later bought by Ansel Phelps Jr., Springfield’s fourth mayor.

It has been vacant for several years and was also condemned by the city, said Minkarah, adding that there were two previous, and unsuccessful, attempts to redevelop the 4,500-square-foot brick structure.

This poor track record, coupled with the building’s location and its deteriorated state, made it another target for intervention by DevelopSpringfield, he noted, adding that, while the development community has essentially given up on the property, he sees vast potential.

“The house has a lot of attributes that I really like — it has floor plans that lend it to office use, and, on the whole, it’s structurally sound,” adding quickly that water that poured through two skylights damaged by the 2011 tornado caused significant, but not irreparable, damage.

Crews are currently restoring the large porches on the property and repointing the brick, said Minkarah, adding that the exterior work should be completed this summer, and the focus will then shift to the interior and readying the property for professionals, such as lawyers or accountants.

The price tag will likely reach $750,000, he went on, adding that he’ll try to mitigate that cost with historic tax credits and grants.


Impact Statement

As he talked about his agency’s current projects, Minkarah made early and frequent use of the phrase ‘if all goes well.’

It was summoned to qualify everything from the timelines for rehabilitation of the properties to the ongoing search for funding, to the intended future uses of these landmarks.

There are question marks in each realm, and therefore some uncertainty about whether all will go well. But Minkarah is sure that nothing would ever happen at these properties were it up to the private development community, because the bottom line is that these projects don’t make financial sense.

But they do make sense when it comes to this agency’s mission and its desire to undertake initiatives that will be, in a word, impactful for the neighborhoods that surround them.

“If these were properties that were attractive to private developers, they would be developed. But they’re not, and those are the conditions we have to change,” he said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet, but with these projects, I believe there is a greater sense of hope, a greater sense of what the possibilities really are, a new appreciation of how far we can really take this community.”

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
The Experiments Continue in John Aubin’s Evolving Open Square

OpenSquareDPartAs John Aubin talked about Open Square, the massive former mill complex along the canals in downtown Holyoke that has been his passion for the past dozen years or more, he continually referred to it as an “urban laboratory” — for architecture, planning, sustainability, and economic development.

By that, he meant this was a place to experiment and drive innovation in response to an ongoing movement that has more people apparently willing and able to work, live, and locate businesses in urban settings, although many cities are struggling to take full advantage of that phenomenon.

To succeed in this environment and move the needle in Holyoke when it comes to attracting businesses there, Aubin said he doesn’t focus on filling square footage in an old mill. Rather, he’s committed to creating workspaces in which business owners can thrive.

“My business is really about creating an environment for people to live in, work in, socialize in, and play in,” he explained. “The real-estate development is almost secondary; as an architect, designer, and planner, that’s what I’m really doing — creating that environment.”

Aubin believes this philosophy is working and creating great progress in his laboratory. Over the past decade, he told BusinessWest, he’s been adding five new businesses a year, and all of these ventures are new to downtown Holyoke.

The tenant list now includes more than 50 companies employing more than 200 people in sectors ranging from healthcare to technology; from insurance to marketing; from finance to hospitality.

John Aubin, owner of Open Square

John Aubin, owner of Open Square

And the latest addition to that list could be one of the most significant.

VertitechIT, a networking and IT engineering company that provides a wide range of services to clients, many of the them in the healthcare sector, is planning to move into 3,500 square feet of custom-designed space on the mostly undeveloped third floor of what’s known as Mill 4. And it could expand into more than 9,000 square feet across the hall if the firm successfully consolidates currently outsourced services on that site, as planned, said the company’s president, Michael Feld.

“We’ll need that space for a 24/7/365 support center with probably 25 to 30 people in it,” Feld said, adding that, even if those plans do not come to fruition, the company will likely continue its pattern of doubling in size each year and will certainly need additional space.

VertitechIT’s new offices, which should be ready for occupancy next month, are an example of Aubin’s efforts to create an attractive, efficient, custom (that’s a word you’ll read again) work environment that makes Open Square — and Holyoke — an attractive destination for businesses across many sectors.

“We wanted a space that is quite presentable to clients, but the real value is to the engineers,” Feld explained. “For example, everybody loves whiteboards, so all the walls are curved, with large expanses of painted whiteboard so you can write on it. And our conference-room table is glass that you can write on as well.

“There are a lot of large screens in various places, and the desks are designed so that people can collaborate on projects,” he went on. “The whole site is a visual interpretation of the way we work.”

Looking forward, Aubin said he plans to continue his pattern of steady growth. What direction it will take is still to be determined as Holyoke continues its comeback from the extreme hard times of the ’70s and ’80s, fueled by the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs and demographic shifts that saw the nation’s first planned industrial city become one of the poorer communities in the Commonwealth.

Recent developments such as the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, the emergence of a creative economy, and a more positive outlook about the community could attract many different kinds of businesses to the city — and Open Square, said Aubin. Meanwhile, plans to bring rail service to Holyoke could open other kinds of doors, he said, adding that there is preliminary talk about the prospects for developing a hotel at one of the mills on the Open Square complex (more on that later).

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest toured Open Square, gaining a perspective on both the many new developments there in recent years and possible future development on this historic site.

History Lessons

As he elaborated on that notion of Open Square as a laboratory, Aubin referenced that trend toward urban living and working. He said Holyoke is squarely in the middle of this phenomenon, and perhaps better positioned than others to take full advantage of it.

“We all know that, over the past 10 years, the world has become more urban. Demand is growing for urban space,” he explained. “Holyoke, and many small cities in this country, have enormous potential — they represent a tremendous, untapped market. And what I do is take a design-based approach to taking advantage of that, to leveraging what is really a very strong market.

“There are a number of cities that are well-poised to take advantage of this market,” he went on, “but no one seems to be able to figure out how to do that — we’re seeing cities struggle with it. I actually consider Open Square to be a prime example of how to leverage that market.”

Setting the tone in this new and emerging urban landscape has been Aubin’s unofficial job description since he started filling in the canvas that is the historic mill complex his father purchased in the mid-’60s but then struggled to fill as Holyoke went into its long and pronounced tailspin.

The Great Recession that officially began in late 2007 and continued into late 2009 slowed his progress somewhat, but Aubin has been able to successfully fill nearly 100,000 square feet of space with everything from a successful events facility called Mill 1 (that’s where it’s located) to arts groups such as the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet, to energy and environmental companies such as Sovereign Consulting.

As he’s filled in floors on Mill 1 and Mill 4, he’s done so with the approach that, while he’s willing to experiment in his laboratory, there are limits on what he’ll try.

“As a private business, I don’t have the luxury of experimenting on things that are not going to work or where the costs are too high — I’ve been to able to identify markets and capture them, and ideas that don’t work were discarded quickly,” he said, adding that this reasoning explains why there is only one residential unit in the complex — one that Aubin lived in himself for a time and then Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse called home for a while before buying a house in the city — and also why there is a comparatively small number of artisans, specifically those who do what they do for a living, not a hobby.

“Housing is a good idea, a core idea, but you can’t do it in a vacuum,” he said, adding that conditions are not right for market-rate housing in Holyoke at the moment, primarily because two low-income projects in progress or on the drawing board — Lyman Terrace and the former Holyoke Catholic High School — will weaken demand for a higher-end product. “Market-rate housing is a long-term investment, and we hope to revisit it soon, but for now, it’s been tabled.”

So Aubin continues to focus his experiments on what he believes — or knows — will work, and this brings him back to that notion of creating attractive but also affordable environments in which to do business, but also in which to stage weddings and other types of events. And Open Square, with its great critical mass, provides seemingly endless opportunities for doing so.

“Because we have this great foundation, this wonderful building to work with, we’re able to do beautiful, custom-designed space at a very affordable rate that’s difficult to match,” he said while making a clear distinction between affordable and ‘cheap,’ something Open Square is not.

These ingredients allowed Aubin to successfully fill Mill 4’s second floor with what he called “studio space,” generally one large, open room with build-out costs much lower than what was created two floors up.

There, Aubin has created larger, custom spaces, up to 3,000 square feet, for an eclectic mix of clients, ranging from Common Capital to Cover Technologies, an environmental company, to Emergent Billing, which focuses on the healthcare industry.

Plans to create still-larger custom spaces on the third floor, which started with buildout for Sovereign Consulting, were sidetracked by the recession, said Aubin, but with the economy improving, those plans are now moving forward, starting with VertitechIT.

VertitechIT

This artist’s rendering shows the unique features in the space created for VertitechIT, including curved walls and a centrally located conference room.

Technically Speaking

In many ways, that company’s arrival provides an effective example of how Open Square is deepening its tenant list by creating custom work spaces that put Holyoke — and the mill complex — on radar screens they would not have been on years ago.

Launched in 2001, the company was located in Northampton for many years, where the fit wasn’t perfect, for several reasons, said Feld.

“It’s hard for companies like us to exist there — they want retail, and we’re not that type of organization; we don’t match what the town is looking for and is prepared to work with,” he said, adding that this mismatch was compounded by the fact that the company quickly outgrew its quarters.

“We were just hanging on by packing people into every corner. We loved Northampton, but we simply ran out of space and couldn’t put it off any longer,” he said, adding quickly that Holyoke wasn’t on his short, or even long, list of possibilities for relocation.

“My understanding of Holyoke was limited and quite negative,” he told BusinessWest. “But our operations person really runs our show, and she lives in Holyoke, and she was really pressuring me to come down here. When I finally met John [Aubin] and looked at the space, I was very surprised and very much interested.”

Then came meetings with the mayor, school department leaders, and business executives, and Feld came away with the opinion that Holyoke should be his new business address.

As he talked about the space he will occupy, Feld made early and frequent use of the word ‘custom,’ and even put the adjective ‘quite’ before it. The space will include:

• Three private offices for secure communications within the main work area;

• Flowing, open areas featuring three main work ‘pods,’ or islands creatively configured to enhance collaboration;

• Uniquely curved inner walls, a signature of Aubin’s accessible modern design, that are mounted with whiteboards, providing ample work surfaces within the pods; and

• A curved conference room whose central position emphasizes VertitechIT’s collective brainpower and focus on creating solutions for clients.

“We gave John our ideas, not expecting to see much in return,” said Feld. “But he understood exactly what we were trying to do and, more importantly, understood the reasons for it. It wasn’t just like he could simply translate his customers’ desires into designs — he actually understood the reasons for it and agrees with it, and it follows the way he thinks in general. It’s a match made in heaven.”

Looking forward, Aubin said the obvious goal is to create more of these matches as controlled experimentation continues in his urban laboratory. What shape it will take remains to be seen, he noted, adding that, in many ways, Open Square will evolve as Holyoke does.

Elaborating, he said the planned return of rail service could drive economic development in many ways, because it will make the city more accessible — to workers, business owners, and even tourists.

“We’re looking at what the future is for this region, how soon it will get here, and how quickly we can move on it,” he explained. “The train will certainly open up opportunities — it will make commuting easier and open up markets as far south as New York City.

“We’re already looking to market our events space further south because of the train,” he went on, “and we’re looking at the possibility of a hotel. Like with the event space, there are other options within this market, but I think we can create a unique option for a hotel. It’s something we’re going to take a close look at.”

Finish Work

Aubin’s business card reads ‘Architect/Principal.’

The juxtaposition of those words speaks volumes about how he views his broad-ranging responsibilities with the company. In short, he’s an architect first, and he believes his focus on design and creating attractive, efficient working environments is helping Holyoke and Open Square reach that vast potential he mentioned, taking full advantage of the shift to urban living and working.

At the moment, he has designs on continued growth and leveraging the tremendous asset his family has owned for close to a half-century now.

And he’s confident that the pieces are in place for that to happen.

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections
Chinese Rail Manufacturer Eyes Former Westinghouse Site in Springfield

Changchun Railway Vehicles Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of rail cars, is strongly considering establishing its first North American operation in Springfield, on the 40-acre former Westinghouse site on Page Boulevard.

The Chinese company has been talking to city officials about building a 125,000-square-foot rail-car assembly plant and 33,750-square-foot office building at the site. Ameristar most recently purchased the property for $16 million in 2012, one of three casino companies that initially proposed gaming developments in the City of Homes, but later pulled out of the competition.

“We are very excited to be in discussion with the city of Springfield as we identify and address the necessary steps to advance our goal of building a rail-car manufacturing facility in Springfield,” Changchun President Lu Xiwei said in a prepared statement. “The interest and support displayed by Springfield officials at this early stage encourages our partnership and demonstrates a mutual interest in this effort.”

Changchun executives met Tuesday with Mayor Domenic Sarno and with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, among other officials.

Interest in the site was spurred by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s $1.3 billion program, announced last year, to replace and increase the capacity of its Red Line and Orange Line trains. According to the authority, the project will bring reliable, long-term relief to commuters who travel the Massachusetts Turnpike and rely on the Red and Orange lines to get to work and school.

Last October, the MBTA issued a request for proposals for the procurement to replace the 44-year old Red Line cars and 32-year old Orange Line cars. The project will deliver at least 226 vehicles — 152 Orange Line cars, replacing the entire fleet of 120, and 74 Red Line cars, with an option to increase the fleet to 132.

According to the MBTA, the new cars will provide improved reliability, accessibility, and energy efficiency. New features will include increased capacity and additional seating, wider electrically operated doors, four accessible areas per car, LED lighting, modern HVAC systems, and advanced passenger information and announcement systems.

The MBTA expects to award a contract for the cars by next winter, with the condition that the final assembly of the cars will take place in Massachusetts. Following extensive (and required) pilot train testing, Orange Line car delivery is scheduled to begin by winter 2018-19, and Red Line car delivery by the fall of 2019.

“Prompted by their participation in the request for proposals for the Orange/Red Line car procurement, [Changchun] representatives announced initial proceedings, including their selection of Springfield for its rich manufacturing heritage,” Changchun said in a press release, citing “ongoing conversations of support with state, city, local, and community officials.”

If the company, one of as many as nine vying for the work, gets the MBTA contract, it could employ 150 to 300 workers for at least 10 years. Using Springfield as a base, Changchun could conceivably expand further into the North American market.

The 60-year-old manufacturer has built more than 30,000 railway vehicles, exporting them to countries including North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

In recent years, it has moved into higher-profile markets such as Hong Kong, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. Since 1995, Changchun has obtained more than $3 billion in export orders.

— Joseph Bednar

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