Home Sections Features Archive by category Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Molly Keegan

Molly Keegan says the Route 9 project is just one of many ongoing issues in Hadley.

 

There is no official countdown clock on the massive project to widen and reconstruct roughly 2.5 miles of Route 9 in Hadley.

But there might as well be.

Indeed, many business owners and residents alike are counting down the months, weeks, and days until this important undertaking, launched in 2021, is in the books; April 2026 is the projected date. Everyone agrees that, when finished, the project will be well worth the trouble and inconvenience it is creating. But getting there … well, that is an ongoing challenge and topic of frustration for many.

“Yes, it’s a disruption, especially for some of the businesses along Route 9 that have had more disruption to date than others,” said Molly Keegan, a principal with Curran & Keegan Financial, a Select Board member in town and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Hadley Business Council. “But, ultimately, I think it’s really going to serve the business community well once it’s completed.”

The Route 9 project is one of many ongoing issues in this community of just over 5,000 people, said Keegan and Town Administrator Carolyn Brennan. Others include a growing need for a full-time planner, the advancement of plans for a new Department of Public Works facility, and ongoing work to maintain the town’s dikes, a costly but necessary initiative.

But it’s a housing problem — which mirrors what’s happening in many other communities but is perhaps more acute because of the surging cost of real estate in Hadley — that has perhaps taken center stage, Brennan said.

“Ultimately, I think it’s really going to serve the business community well once it’s completed.”

As in many other communities, she noted, a shortage of affordable housing is certainly impacting seniors and young families. The former want to stay in town but don’t have any place to go except the large homes they no longer want or need, and the latter are finding it increasingly difficult to come to Hadley because there is very little that they can afford.

“If you do any search on housing in Hadley, at any given time, there’s maybe five or six houses, and they’re extremely expensive,” Brennan said. “There are a lot of parents who have raised their kids here — and those kids can’t afford to raise their own children here.”

Keegan agreed. “It’s very difficult for people on either end of the spectrum to buy in,” she said. “If you look right now and see what’s for sale in Hadley, you’ll find houses for $900,000 to $1 million. Young people looking to start a family are not going to be able to afford that.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hadley, a community known for its asparagus, but also a lively, diverse business community that continues to take advantage of the town’s unique spot on the map.

 

Location, Location, Location

As she relayed the story of how Curran & Keegan relocated from Northampton to Middle Street in Hadley, in the center of town, in 2021, Keegan explained, rather succinctly and effectively, why this community has become such a popular mailing address for businesses of all kinds.

In short, it’s that oldest and most absolute of commercial real-estate values: location, location, location, in this case between two college towns and two of the most popular destinations in the region — Amherst and Northampton — a spot that has made Hadley a destination itself.

Carolyn Brennan

“If you do any search on housing in Hadley, at any given time, there’s maybe five or six houses, and they’re extremely expensive. There are a lot of parents who have raised their kids here — and those kids can’t afford to raise their own children here.”

“We had been renting and were looking for a property to purchase,” she explained. “This particular property we’re in had been a residential property, but given its proximity to Route 9, it happened to be zoned commercial. We fell in love with it; it’s a wonderful location for our clients on both sides of the river, and also those coming down from Franklin County. We’re in the perfect spot at the crossroads of Route 47 and Route 9.”

Business owners in virtually every sector can say essentially the same thing, which is why Hadley, and especially that Route 9 corridor, is home to everything from hotels and restaurants to big-box retail stores; from car dealerships to cannabis dispensaries; from tech companies to the world headquarters for V-One Vodka.

All or most of them are taking full advantage of the 100,000 or so cars that pass along Route 9 every day, although there are certainly fewer these days as the construction project continues and many bypass the thoroughfare — if they can. And those that are on it are moving more slowly because of that work.

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,325
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $11.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.39
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

But, by and large, businesses along the road are getting by, said Keegan, adding that project was one of the motivations for creation of the Hadley Business Council, and it has certainly become a priority for the agency, which meets on the last Friday of each month.

The council has helped generate ongoing communication among the business community, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and Baltazar Contractors, the general contractor handling the Route 9 project, which has in some ways eased the disruption.

“They recognize the negative impact on businesses, and they’ve been doing everything they can to make sure that there’s signage to indicate that businesses are still open and that they’re not blocking people from entering those businesses,” Keegan said. “So we’ve established a good working relationship.

“That said, there has been an impact on certain businesses,” she said, listing ventures ranging from Hillside Pizza to Wanczyk Nurseries to Exotic Auto, which had to be relocated to another spot on Route 9 because of the project.

As noted, the road work is one of the main focal points at present for the business council, which was formed, she explained, to improve communication between the town and its business community — “in both directions.”

One of the council’s priorities is educational opportunities, she said, adding that the town’s building inspector has appeared before the group to talk about the permitting process. Meanwhile, the council serves as a voice for the business community if it wants to bring something to the attention of town leaders, such as the need for specific bylaws and zoning on food trucks.

“I think we’ve done remarkably well for a long time, but there is so much out there in terms of grant opportunities, especially around housing — the state is really promoting housing construction — and it’s difficult to take advantage of those opportunities when you don’t have someone focused on it on a full-time basis.”

One of the issues moving forward is a heavy reliance on volunteer board members, said Keegan, adding that, for some time, the town has looked at hiring a full-time planner but hasn’t been able to fit such a position into the budget. Money remains tight, but the need for a planner continues to grow, she told BusinessWest.

“I think we’ve done remarkably well for a long time, but there is so much out there in terms of grant opportunities, especially around housing — the state is really promoting housing construction — and it’s difficult to take advantage of those opportunities when you don’t have someone focused on it on a full-time basis,” she explained. “So that’s something we will continue to take a look at; ultimately, a position that like that will pay for itself over time.”

 

Housing, Housing, Housing

As she talked about Hadley’s housing challenges, Brennan referenced a recent project undertaken by students in the architecture and landscape architecture programs at UMass Amherst.

As part of a studio course, the students were asked to develop potential plans for re-envisioning the Hampshire Mall, a 33-acre property on Route 9 that, like many malls, has suffered from the growing popularity of online shopping and other sea changes in retail and has lost of many businesses.

The course, “Reimagining the Hampshire Mall: Exploring Opportunities for Intergenerational Housing and Community Development,” yielded a proposal to convert the space into 40 rowhouses and 150 apartments with recreational areas.

“It was really fascinating; we sat and listened to the students, who showed us the design and engineering of what the mall could look like by bringing housing and commercial together, and that was very interesting,” said Brennan, noting that the audience included many from the business community and Hadley’s Economic Development Committee, as well as representatives of the mall. “There is definitely some potential for something like this in Hadley.”

While she acknowledged that this was a course project and such an initiative is a long way from reality, Brennan said it will require some real imagination and, most likely, creative reuse of properties like the mall to ease the town’s housing shortage.

“It was a good visual for people on those committees to see what the opportunities are in Hadley,” she said, adding that, like other cities and towns in the region, Hadley is finding it challenging to interest the development community in affordable-housing initiatives, which is the type of project most needed at the moment.

Indeed, Keegan noted that the town’s senior population continues to grow each year, and there is a huge shortage of housing for that constituency.

She offered hope that town officials might be able to take advantage of state Chapter 40R, which encourages the creation of dense residential or mixed-use smart-growth zoning districts, including a high percentage of affordable-housing units, to ease the crunch.

“40R could go a long way toward helping us increase the housing stock,” she said. “But like anything, whatever changes are made are done thoughtfully and over some period of time.”

Housing is one option being considered for the iconic, 129-year-old Russell School, said Brennan, noting that the landmark has been vacant since 2015. A reuse study has identified several alternatives, including keeping the property as a municipal building and renovating it and creating a public-private partnership, she noted.

“The study is going to determine what the market might be for various uses and what it would cost to renovate the Russell School,” she said, adding that housing is certainly a consideration. “We’re hoping that we’re going to get some options to put in front of the voters to see how they would like to proceed with the school.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jacob Robinson

Jacob Robinson took the helm at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce earlier this month.

After relocating to Belchertown a few years ago, Jacob Robinson found himself a frequent visitor to nearby Amherst and admits to falling in love with its downtown — as many do.

He confided to BusinessWest that, on more than one occasion, while walking along South Pleasant Street and passing the building that houses the town’s chamber of commerce, business improvement district, and visitors’ center, he thought to himself, “how cool would it be to work in a place like that?”

And now … he gets to answer that question.

Indeed, late last month, Robinson was named executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and he took the helm on April 1.

“No joke,” he said in reference to his start date, adding that what he likes about the job, and what prompted him to seek it, besides its mailing address, is that it involves high levels of collaboration and the fostering of partnerships, which he believes are personal and professional strengths gained from more than 15 years of work with various nonprofits, most recently the West Roxbury Main Streets program, which he served as director.

“There’s a special energy to this town,” he said when asked what attracted him to the position. “And I wanted to be part of it.”

Robinson’s arrival is one of the many converging storylines in this community, known for its liberal leanings; college-town character; rich mix of museums, restaurants, and other tourism and hospitality businesses; its reputation as a great community to retire to; and a bustling, ever-changing downtown.

“There’s a special energy to this town.”

Others include a nearly $50 million expansion and renovation of the Jones Library; a $2 million renovation of the North Common adjacent to Town Hall; new businesses, such as the Aster & Pine Market, a specialty store, which cut the ceremonial ribbon on April 20; and a number of ongoing residential and mixed-use projects that will address a perpetual need for more housing while also, in many cases, bringing more vibrancy to the downtown.

These include several being developed by the Roberts Group, including a much-anticipated re-imagining of the property (just a few doors down from the chamber) known as the Hastings Building, because it was home to the legandary office-supply store for more than a century, and new construction on adjacent property.

Hastings Building

An architect’s rendering of the planned mixed-use development at the Hastings Building and adjoining property on South Pleasant Street.

Barry Roberts, president of the Roberts Group, said plans call for six units of market-rate housing on the upper floors of the Hastings Building and the Amherst College bookstore on the ground floor, with work on the latter already underway, with the goal of that facility being open for commencement. The adjacent 55 South Pleasant St. will be torn down, as well as property that served as cold storage for Hastings, with a five-story property to be built on that site that will feature 16 units of market-rate housing.

Meanwhile, another, much larger project is being planned for the former Rafters sports bar property at the corner of University Drive and Amity Street, most recently home to Pleasantrees, a cannabis dispensary that closed after operating for only a year. The site will be transformed into 85 units of housing in two five-story buildings, as well as retail and office space (more on this later).

There are also some ongoing stories, such as the Drake, the live-event space that brings hundreds of people to the downtown for shows each week; White Lion Brewing Co., located in the same building as the Drake, which is still acclimating to doing business in Amherst six months after opening (more on that later as well); and the largest of these ongoing stories — continued recovery from the pandemic, which devasted a business community that is largely dependent on the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents from the surrounding colleges.

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Amherst, a community that is in a seemingly constant state of motion — and change.

 

What’s on Tap?

Ray Berry has been in business with White Lion, launched in Springfield, for several years now, but he told BusinessWest that his location in Amherst amounts to a learning experience on several levels, with new lessons every day.

Indeed, he said the intriguing nature of this community — it’s not just a college town, but a three-college town with two more just a few miles away — presents challenges and opportunities that are unique and require some … well, getting used to.

“As a business, we continue to learn from the ebb and flow of the Greater Amherst community; every day is a learning process.”

“As a business, we continue to learn from the ebb and flow of the Greater Amherst community; every day is a learning process,” he said. “Whether it’s the population coming and going or special events in the town, we continue to learn and appreciate; it’s all new to us.

“In Springfield, we have pretty much 24/7, 365-days-a-year activity — there’s plenty of activity, and we don’t have to incorporate the university population that’s close by,” he went on. “But in Amherst, we have to be very mindful of how the university and private-college student activity, and faculty activity, impact the day-to-day business community.”

Elaborating, he said White Lion, now proudly serving Marcus Camby New England IPA, which is especially popular in Amherst, has operated through winter break, spring break, St. Patrick’s Day, March Madness, and other annual happenings, but the learning process will continue when the colleges shut down, or mostly shut down, for the summer and then reopen in September.

Learning these ebbs and flows is part and parcel to doing business in Amherst, noted Robinson, who is on a learning curve himself. Indeed, while already quite familiar with the town, he will now take his knowledge to a much deeper dive, while also getting further acquainted with the other six towns represented by this chamber, all with their own distinct personalities: Belchertown, Hadley, Leverett, Pelham, Shutesbury, and Sunderland.

Since arriving, Robinson has been busy with everything from staging one of the chamber’s signature networking and fundraising events, Margarita Madness, to planning the next events, including After-5s, workshops, and a new-member reception coming up in May, as well as early-stage work to hire a new marketing and events coordinator for the chamber.

“I’ve had to hit the ground running,” he said, adding that the chamber position presented a unique opportunity for him to continue what he calls “community work,” as both a volunteer and a nonprofit leader, most recently with Main Streets program in West Roxbury.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,263
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.51
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.51
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Select Board, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

He was commuting to that job from Belchertown — though also working remotely, to a large degree — when his brother-in-law brought the posting for the executive-director position at the Amherst Area Chamber to his attention. He applied with the intention of enthusiastically taking part in building on what he saw, heard, and experienced during all those visits to downtown Amherst — its restaurants, coffee shops, and theater.

“There is so much charm here; there’s the connection to the universities, the energy that comes from all those students, and the vibrancy of a town that’s connected to the college communities,” he said. “There’s a healthy mix of businesses and services, and that’s very telling of a dynamic and strong community here in downtown Amherst.”

 

Building Momentum

Long-term, the obvious goals are to continue building partnerships and creating collaborative efforts to promote the community, attract new businesses, and continue the ongoing recovery from the pandemic, which, as noted, hit this community perhaps harder than any other in the region because it shut down the Five Colleges and removed from the business equation tens of thousands of people and countless gatherings, from sporting events to commencements.

“It was very tough on everyone — it was shocking. Who would ever have imagined that the universities and the colleges would be closed for that length of time?” recalled Lisa Johnson, president of Encharter Insurance, the latest name on an Amherst institution that has been around since the late 1800s. “It was shocking to be on the streets and have them be so quiet.

“But the bounceback has been strong even though it took a while before people started coming out again, even the students,” she went on, adding that, perhaps because of the hard lessons learned during the pandemic and its aftermath, she believes the town and its business community are devoting more time and energy to attracting visitors while being slighly less dependent on the colleges.

Which is why she is encouraged by projects like the ones planned for Amity Street and the Hastings Building, initiatives that will bring more residents, but also opportunities for new businesses to settle in the community.

Roberts agreed, telling BusinessWest that, by and large, his ongoing projects are simply taking the names of their street addresses. Like ‘422 Amity.’

This is the the mixed-used project at the old Rafters property, and one that has the potential to change the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

The 85 units of housing will help meet an enormous need in that realm, he said, adding that the complex will bring new retail and new office tenants — and, therefore, more vibrancy — to that area just a few hundred yards from the UMass campus and a few blocks from downtown.

“It will even provide the town with the opportunity to apply for a Community Development Block Grant to put a roundabout at that crazy intersection there,” said Roberts, whose company has been, in a word, busy over the past few years.

Indeed, it has been involved in a number of initiatives, from the Drake project to bringing new tenants to several properties downtown, to another ambitious housing project, this one called 180 Fearing St., or simply One Eighty, which is in its final stages of construction and is fully rented through 2026.

The complex of duplexes features 22 versatile units ranging from studios to four bedrooms, said Roberts, adding that it has succeeded in attracting a wide range of tenants, from students and young families to professionals to retirees, which was the goal when it was put on the drawing board several years ago.

“This is an exciting project, and it has attracted an intriguing mix of tenants that really reflects the Amherst community — students, professionals, and retirees alike,” he said, adding that the same is expected from the project on the Hastings site, as well as another initiative in its early stages: the razing of a building across South Pleasant Street from the Drake — home to the former McMurphy’s bar and the Knights of Columbus — and construction of high-end condos (with accompanying parking) and commercial businesses on the street level.

“We’re still working on getting the permitting,” said Roberts, adding that this hurdle should soon be cleared, and another endeavor to bring more people, and vibrancy, to the downtown will be underway.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

planned redevelopment of the former Wilson’s department store

An architect’s rendering of the planned redevelopment of the former Wilson’s department store into a mix of retail and housing.

Virginia “Ginny” Desorgher is a retired emergency-room nurse, mother of three, and grandmother of nine.

She had no real desire to add ‘mayor of Greenfield’ to that personal profile, but Desorgher, a transplant from the eastern part of the state and, by this time last year, a veteran city councilor and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, decided that change was needed in this city of almost 18,000.

So she ran for mayor. And she won — handily. And now that she’s been in the job for three months, she can see many similarities between being an ER nurse and being the CEO of a city.

In both settings, there is a need for triage, she explained, noting that, in the ER and with this city, there is a steady stream of cases, or issues, to be dealt with, and they must be prioritized.

“You just have to take care of the thing that’s the most important at the time and try to keep everyone happy,” she said while trying to sum up both jobs.

There is also a need for communication.

Indeed, in the ER, Desorgher said she made a habit of visiting the waiting room and talking with the patients here, explaining why their wait was so long and asking them if they needed something to eat or drink or maybe some ice for their broken ankle. As mayor, she sees a similar need to communicate, whether it’s with other city officials, residents, neighbors of the Franklin County Fairgrounds, or business owners — a constituency she heard from at a recent gathering she described as a “listening session,” during which she received input on many subjects, but especially parking.

“You just have to take care of the thing that’s the most important at the time and try to keep everyone happy.”

“I thought I kind of knew how much people cared about parking,” she said. “Now I really know that parking is quite an issue.”

But while that subject remains mostly a sore spot for this community, there is momentum on many different fronts, and what Desorgher and others described as ‘game changers’ — or potential game changers — in various stages of development.

That list includes the much-anticipated adaptive reuse of the former Wilson’s department store into a mix of retail (in the form of an expanded Green Fields Market) and housing, both of which are expected to breathe new life into the downtown.

“The initial impact on foot traffic downtown from 61 new units will be extraordinary,” said Amy Cahillane, the city’s Community and Economic Development director, adding that the project is being designed to bring these new residents into the downtown area.

It also includes the prospects for the city becoming a stop on what’s being called the ‘northern tier’ of proposed east-west rail service — one that will in many ways mirror Route 2 — as well as the pending arrival of both a Starbucks and an Aldi’s grocery story near the rotary off I-91 exit 43 and a massive redesign of Main Street, now likely to start in 2027.

Together, these game changers — coupled with some new businesses downtown; efforts to inspire and support entrepreneurship, including a new pitch contest called Take the Floor; collective efforts to bring more visitors to Greenfield and the surrounding area, especially at its oldest continuously operating fairgrounds in the country; and a greater sense of collaboration among business and economic-development agencies — have created an upbeat tone in this community, with great enthusiasm for what comes next.

Ginny Desorgher

Ginny Desorgher says she wasn’t keen on adding ‘mayor’ to her personal profile, but became convinced it was time for a change in Greenfield.

“What I’m most excited about is that we now have all these people who are thinking collectively about how we can make the most of this momentum,” said Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council.

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the many developing stories in Greenfield.

 

Tale of the Tape

And we start with a somewhat unusual gathering downtown on the Saturday before Easter.

Indeed, Desorgher, Cahillane, Deane, and others spent several hours in the central business district cleaning the bases of streetlights, an undertaking organized by the Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA).

All three had somewhat different takes on what they were expecting from this exercise, but the consensus is that it was more difficult, and time-consuming, to remove the remnants from countless posters for events — and the tape used to affix them to the structures — than they thought.

But while the work was a grind, they all said it was important, worthwhile, and much more than symbolism. And it even inspired a thought to create one or more community bulletin boards so individuals and groups would have a place to promote their events other than light poles.

Deane said the cleanup was an example of a greater sense of collaboration within the community and its many civic and business organizations, from officials in City Hall to the chamber; from the GBA to the Franklin County Community Development Corp. (FCCDC).

“What I’m most excited about is that we now have all these people who are thinking collectively about how we can make the most of this momentum.”

“There’s new energy taking place on a partnership level, and it was nice to see Greenfield leaders like the mayor come down and take action,” said Deane, adding that the cleanup was just one example of this energy. Another was the aforementioned listening session, which she said was likely the first of its kind.

“The business owners and community leaders really appreciated having the opportunity to have that kind of forum with the mayor — an open forum where they could say, ‘here’s what’s going really well, here’s what we think needs work, and how are we all going to work together to bring Greenfield forward?’ That was great.”

The streetlight cleanup project and listening session represent just two of many forms of progress, with some steps larger and more significant than others, said those we spoke with, but all critical to that sense of momentum and building toward something better.

And there are many reasons for optimism, especially what most refer to simply as the ‘Wilson’s project.’

For decades, the store represented something unique — an old-fashioned department store in an age of malls and online shopping. When it closed just prior to the pandemic, it left a huge hole in the downtown — not just real estate to be filled, but the loss of an institution.

There’s no bringing back Wilson’s, but the current plan, a proposal put forward by the Community Builders and Green Fields Market, a popular co-op currently located farther down Main Street, will bring retail and housing, specifically roughly 60 mixed-income units, to Main Street.

The housing units, as noted earlier, are expected to bring foot traffic and more vibrancy to the downtown, said Cahillane, noting that this will be foot traffic that doesn’t leave at 5 o’clock and should comprise a good mix of age groups, thus providing a boost for the growing number of restaurants and venues like the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

“The Community Builders is being thoughtful in the way they’re designing this space to encourage folks not to just exit out a rear door, get in their cars, and leave,” she explained. “Instead, they’re going to make it so it’s very easy to get from the apartments onto Main Street; this encourages them to come out into the community.”

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $20.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.39
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, several other properties downtown are in various stages of bringing upper floors online for housing, Cahillane explained, adding that this movement will help ease a housing crunch — which she considers the most pressing issue in the community — and generate still more foot traffic, which should help bring more businesses to the downtown.

There are already some recent additions in that area, including a computer-repair store on Federal Street, and, on Main Street, Sweet Phoenix, an antiques and crafts store, and Posada’s, a family-owned Mexican restaurant that the mayor said is “always packed.”

Meanwhile, the plans for Aldi’s and Starbucks, both in the early stages, are generating some excitement, the mayor added, noting that the latter, especially, will provide motorists on I-91 with yet another reason to get off in Greenfield and perhaps stay a while.

 

Getting Down to Business

These additions bolster an already large and diverse mix of businesses in the city, which still boasts some manufacturing — though certainly not as much as was present decades ago — as well as a healthy mix of tourism and hospitality-related ventures, service businesses, nonprofits (Greenfield serves as the hub for the larger Franklin County area), and several startups and next-stage businesses in various sectors, from IT to food production.

One of those long-standing businesses is Adams Donuts on Federal Street, now owned by Sabra Billings and her twin sister, Sidra Baranoski.

Originally opened in the ’50s, Adams Donuts is an institution, well-known — and in many cases revered — by several generations of area families. There have been several owners not named Adams, Billings said, adding that the one before her closed the establishment during COVID with the intention of reopening, but never did.

The two sisters stepped forward to keep a tradition alive — and work for themselves instead of someone else.

“It was kind of crazy; we’d never owned a business before, but here we were buying a shuttered business in the middle of a pandemic,” Billings said. “But it’s been really special to be part of the community, and what we call the ‘Adams community’; there are generations from the same families that are customers.”

Thus, they’re part of what could be called a groundswell of entrepreneurship in Greenfield and across Franklin County, one that John Waite, executive director of the FCCDC, has witnessed firsthand over the past 24 years he’s spent in that role.

He said there is a large, and growing, amount of entrepreneurial energy in Greenfield and across the county, largely out of necessity.

Indeed, since the larger businesses, most of them manufacturers, closed or left, the region and its largest city are more dependent on smaller businesses and the people who have the imagination, determination, and ideas with which to start them.

And the FCCDC is supporting these business owners in many different ways. The agency has several divisions, if you will, including direct business assistance — everything from technical assistance to grant funds to support ventures of various sizes — to a venture center that now boasts six tenants, to the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, which boasts 66 active clients processing, canning, and jarring everything from salsa to applesauce to fudge sauce.

Overall, the FCCDC served more than 350 clients in FY 2023, loaned out nearly $3 million to 31 businesses, and carried out work that resulted in the creation of 70 jobs and the preservation of 114 jobs, said Waite, adding that one of its more impactful initiatives is its loan program.

The loans vary in size from a few thousand dollars to $300,000, and the agency can work with area banks if a venture needs more. They are offered to businesses across a wide spectrum, including hospitality, a sector where there is often need, Waite noted, citing the example of 10 Forward, a unique performing-arts venue and cocktail bar on Fiske Avenue in the downtown.

“A lot of musicians need a place to play, and they’ll sign them up, and they’ll do comedy once in a while,” he explained, adding that the venue is part of an evolving downtown, one that now has more things happening at night and more events and programs to attract the young people who provide needed energy.

Meanwhile, Take the Floor, a CDC initiative that involves the entire county, is another avenue of support. The Shark Tank-like pitch contest has attracted dreamers across the broad spectrum of business, and the top three performers at three different contests — the latest was in Orange — will compete for $10,000 in prizes in the finale at Hawks & Reed.

“Developing our entrepreneurial infrastructure is very important to this region,” Waite said. “We want to make sure people know where they can go for resources to help them succeed.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Rachel Rosenbloom and her husband, Michael Bedrosian

Rachel Rosenbloom and her husband, Michael Bedrosian, named their brewery Seven Railroads in a nod to Palmer’s rich rail history.

 

Palmer is known to many as the Town of Seven Railroads, a nod to a very rich history as a transit center.

Indeed, several passenger and freight rail lines ran though the community at one time, most notably the Boston & Albany, which ran east-west between the two cities, and the Central Vermont, which ran north-south from the Canadian border to New London, Conn., with those two railroads sharing Union Station, an elegant structure designed by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

Today, rail is still part of the town’s character, with five rail lines still running through the community, a renovated Union Station now serving as home to the popular Steaming Tender restaurant, and a new brewery — called, appropriately enough, Seven Railroads Brewing — opening its doors on Route 20 just a few weeks ago.

Passenger rail service in Palmer ceased back in the 1970s, when Amtrak closed Palmer’s station, leaving few who can recall first-hand that important aspect of the town’s history — and psyche.

But all that could be changing in the not-too-distant future.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has recommended Palmer as a stop on the proposed east-west passenger rail service, and is now in the process of studying and eventually selecting a site for a new rail station.

There is no timetable for when that service will start, but the DOT’s backing of Palmer as a stop is generating high levels of excitement and anticipation in the community, said Town Planner Heidi Mannarino, noting that she is already seeing more interest in the town and some of its available real estate from the development community. Overall, she and others are enthusiastic about what a rail stop will mean for the existing business community and ongoing efforts to grow it.

“I’ve already seen more people purchase land and start to eyeball Palmer,” she said, “because once you hear that news … it’s just so valuable to have that kind of public transportation available.

“Rail will be a great boost for economic development in downtown Palmer,” she went on. “It’s going to bring a lot of business in, and I think it’s going to bridge some econimic gaps between Springfield and Boston.”

Indeed, passenger rail service is expected to change the overall profile of this community, situated roughly halfway between Springfield and Worcester off exit 63 (formerly exit 8) of the Mass Pike. Palmer’s location has always been considered close to the state’s second- and third-largest cities, but, in the eyes of some economic-development leaders, not close enough.

Rail will bring the community closer to both — and also closer to Boston and all of Eastern Mass., said John Latour, Palmer’s director of Community Development, noting that the proposed service will enable people to live in Palmer and work in Boston and surrounding communities, adding that remote work has already brought some to the town as they seek to escape the sky-high prices for real estate, childcare, and everything else in Greater Boston. And rail service should bring more.

“Whether they’re working fully remote or going to the office a few days a week, it still makes sense for people to live in a community like Palmer and commute,” he said, adding that, while some already commute from Palmer to Greater Boston, rail service will be a better, safer alternative that will enable people to work while they commute.

East-west rail is easily the biggest developing story in Palmer, but there are others, said Mannarino, listing early-stage construction of a new strip mall near the Big Y off the turnpike exit, one that is expected to bring a Starbucks, Jersey Mike’s, and other major brands to the community; the new brewery (much more on that in a bit); and ongoing efforts to repurpose two closed schools, Thorndike School and Converse School, for housing — a need in this community as in most all cities and towns in the 413 and other parts of the state.

“There’s a deficiency of affordable housing in most communiies, and Palmer is no exception,” she said, adding that the need for senior housing is most acute, and one that could be eased by converting the two schools for that use.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Palmer and how several initiatives, and especially east-west rail, are seemingly on track.

 

Coming to a Head

They call it ‘Old Exit 8.’

That’s the name that Rachel Rosenbloom and her husband, Michael Bedrosian, owners of Seven Railroads Brewery, gave to a New England IPA that has become one of their most popular offerings.

It comes complete with a tagline — “We don’t know what exit nunber we are anymore, and we don’t care to find out” — and Rosenbloom said the brew, and its tagline, speak to how this brewery operation, unlike most of the others in this region, is mostly about a town and its people. And they are among them, living just a few minutes from their taproom.

“It was designed to be a place where people, and especially those from Palmer, can come and hang out,” she said, adding that, in the few weeks it has been open, it has become just that.

For Rosenbloom, who by day is head brewer at Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton (although not for much longer as she works toward making her venture a full-time endeavor), and Bedrosian, Seven Railroads is a dream now close to three years in the making.

It took that long to find a location (a building on Route 20 that was once home to a trucking operation and other businesses and actually has rail tracks running behind it), secure the necessary permits and licenses, build out the space, and open the doors.

“It was a long journey, but it was well worth it,” she said, not once but several times, noting that the brewery is off to a solid start, drawing a mix of locals, students from the nearby Five Colleges, and a number of other brewers who have come in to welcome the latest addition to the region’s growing portfolio of craft breweries.

In most respects, Roenbloom said, all that competition is good — for the region, for beer lovers, and even the various breweries, because it creates a critical mass that makes the region a craft-beer destination.

Meanwhile, Seven Railroads is on an island of sorts, she went on, adding that it is the only brewery in Palmer — in fact, the only one within 25 minutes of the center of the community — giving it some breathing room.

Thus far, things are going pretty much according to the business plan, said Rosenbloom, noting that Seven Railroads has become part of a growing restaurant and hospitality scene in Palmer, with many patrons stopping in before or after visiting one of several restaurants in town, including the Steaming Tender, Figlio’s, Tables, Day and Night Diner, and others. And she expects that rail service might bring more additions to that list and, overall, more people to Palmer.

 

Next Stop: Palmer

Indeed, while the rail stop is expected to encourage people to live in Palmer and perhaps work in Boston, it could also bring more people from Boston and other parts of the state to this community and those around it, said Lavoie, adding that, while the turnpike already brings visitors to exit 63, rail service will bring even more convenience.

Elaborating, he noted that students at UMass Amherst and the other Five Colleges could take the east-west rail service to Palmer and then take a bus or an Uber to those institutions.

“There will be more connectivity,” he said, adding that this quality will bring many benefits, especially a greater ability to commute from Palmer and surrounding towns to other parts of the state.

“You can take the Mass Pike, but it will be more conducive for more people to take the rail and not risk delays or inclement weather; it’s a safer mode of travel,” Lavoie told BusinessWest, adding that professionals can commute and work at the same time.

Meawhile, at a time when fewer young people are married to the notion of owning and maintaining a car, a community with a rail stop, and especially one with home prices several notches (at least for now) below those in Eastern Mass., moves toward the top of their places to live, work, or both.

“In essence, you’re pushing the bedroom community of the business hub of Massachusetts [Boston] further west, and anything that’s occuring in the Springfield area, you’re pushing that bedroom community further east,” he explained, adding that rail can only help amplify this trend.

Mannarino agreed, noting that one of the next steps in the process of making rail a reality in Palmer is finding a site for a new station. A committee of town officials and residents is being assembled to work with Andy Koziol, the recently named director of East-West Rail, and MassDOT on that assignment.

Several sites have been proposed, Mannarino said, listing the land near the Steaming Tender and DPW property off Water Street among the contenders. “The goal is to choose the one that’s most feasible and makes the most sense. Each of the sites has caveats.”

There is no timetable yet for east-west rail or Palmer’s stop on this highly anticipated transit initiative, and residents and town officials understand that it will likely be several years before the first trains stop in town. But the general consensus is that, after years of lobbying and pushing for this facility, it is now becoming real, and the question, increasingly, isn’t if, but when.

That means this town with a deep rail past is set to write an exciting new chapter in that history.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Chris Dunne

Chris Dunne says one of the town’s priorities is to create more housing.

 

‘Diverse.’

That’s the one word Jessye Deane kept coming back to as she talked about Deerfield and its business community.

And with good reason.

Indeed, while this community of just over 5,000 is home to Yankee Candle Village, Historic Deerfield, the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory, and other tourist attractions, its economy is quite broad, covering sectors ranging from agriculture to craft brewing (which doubles as a tourist attraction, as we’ll see); manufacturing to retail; restaurants to the arts.

They all come together in a picturesque community that is a true destination, said Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, which also calls Deerfield home. And this diversity is certainly an asset, she added, especially as manufacturing declines in many other communities.

“This diversity is the real strength of the economy of Deerfield,” she told BusinessWest, noting that, while large employers like Yankee Candle are always important, the backbone of the community’s economy is small businesses.

And, as noted, they cover all sectors, from restaurants like Leo’s Table in the community’s small but vibrant downtown to Ames Electrical Consulting, a growing business, soon to move to Greenfield, that specializes in helping manufacturers and even municipalities with efforts to automate facilities and processes.

That list also includes manufacturers like Worthington Assembly, which has become noteworthy not only for the circuit boards it produces for a wide range of clients but for a decidedly different culture, one it describes as ‘humanizing manufacturing’.

The obvious goal moving forward is to continue adding more pieces to this diverse business puzzle, said Chris Dunne, Deerfield’s Planning & Economic Development coordinator, while also making the town even more livable and, well, simply providing more places to live.

Indeed, like most other communities in this region — although not all those in Franklin County, where population loss is a pressing issue  — Deerfield needs more housing, said Dunne, adding that creating more is part of a larger effort to repurpose land and property in what he called the town campus.

“Approximately 45% of Deerfield residents are over age 55, so there is a definite need for senior housing.”

This is a collection of buildings, many of them currently or soon to be town-owned, including the current Town Hall, two churches, and a former elementary school, some of which could likely be converted to senior housing, said Denise Mason, chair of the town’s Planning Board, adding that there is real need in this category, and if it is met, other homes could become available to younger families.

“Approximately 45% of Deerfield residents are over age 55, so there is a definite need for senior housing,” Mason said. “And there is a housing issue across our region, and especially in Deerfield. We’re hoping that by building senior housing — and we’re looking to add approximately 32 units — that would free up some of the other homes, because we do have some older seniors who would like to downsize, but they have no place to move to.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns the lens on Deerfield, where an increasingly vibrant community and ever-changing destination comes into focus.

 

Developing Stories

They are referred to as the ‘1821 Building’ and the ‘1888 Building,’ respectively, because that’s when they opened their doors.

The former is a long-closed church, and the latter is the aforementioned former elementary school that, with the help of a $4 million federal earmark, is being eyed as a replacement for the current town offices, built in the ’50s and now outdated and energy-inefficient.

Wade Bassett

Wade Bassett says Yankee Candle is one of many intriguing draws that have helped transform Deerfield into a true destination.

Transformation of those two historic properties tops the list of municipal initiatives in Deerfield, Dunne and Mason said.

And if town offices can be moved to the renovated school, new uses, perhaps senior housing, could be found for the current Town Hall, which, as noted, is an aging, inefficient structure.

These properties and others sit on what is called the campus, a slice of land, most of it town-owned, between North Main Street and Conway Street that includes several structures, including Town Hall, the 1821 and 1888 buildings, the town’s senior center, a ballfield, and a second church, St. James Roman Catholic Church, and its rectory, which the town may acquire with an eye toward preservation and reuse, perhaps for more senior housing, said Mason, adding that a request for proposals will soon be issued for that property.

As noted, there is real need for this type of housing, said Mason, noting that, if it is created, homes will come on the market, opening the door for more families to move to the community.

Meanwhile, new senior housing on the campus and more young families would provide a boost for the nearby downtown, said Dunne, adding that, while that area is vibrant, there are some ‘infill projects,’ as he called them, to contend with, including a long-vacant Cumberland Farms (a new, much larger one was opened on Route 5).

Other initiatives include ongoing development of a municipal parking lot with EV chargers, one complete with a large amount of green space to counter all the paved surfaces downtown — and a Complete Streets project that include improvements to sidewalks and adding a tree belt to downtown streets.

While there’s a concerted effort to create more housing inventory for those who want to live in Deerfield, there’s already a deep portfolio of attractions for those who want to visit.

“Tree House is driving a lot of traffic to this area, with their beer and with their concerts.”

Yankee Candle has long been the mainstay, and it continues to evolve in this anchor role, said Wade Bassett, director of Sales and Operations at Yankee Candle Village.

But the tourist sector, like the overall economy, is diverse, boasting everything from butterflies to history lessons at Historic Deerfield to the latest draw — craft beer and accompanying events, especially at Tree House Brewery, now occupying the large campus that was once home to publisher Channing Bete.

That campus incudes a concert venue that brings thousands of people to Deerfield for shows, said Dunne, adding that the brewery is working with town officials to increase the limit for attendance so it can bring larger acts to that campus and thus increase the ripple effect.

19th-century building

This 19th-century building is among the properties in the town ‘campus’ being eyed for renovation.

And that effect is already considerable, said Jen Howard, owner of Leo’s Table, a breakfast and lunch restaurant on North Main Street, named after her grandfather, who owned and operated a similar establishment in Fitchburg after returning from military service.

Howard said she explains the name on a regular basis, adding that many guests will ask her male kitchen employee if he is Leo.

Those guests run the gamut, she said, noting that there is a solid core of locals, many of them senior citizens, but many diners are coming on their way to attractions like Yankee Candle, the butterfly conservatory, and, increasingly, Tree House.

“We even see some from the parking lot — people charging their vehicles will come in,” she told BusinessWest, adding that a much larger boost comes from the tourist attractions, which fuel many other hospitality-related businesses.

 

Staying Power

At Yankee Candle, they call it the “golden key.”

That’s the name of a long-standing program, a tradition, really, at the company, whereby one family, or an individual guest, is chosen to receive an actual, and quite large, golden key, which they are required to wear, and which entitles them to enjoy all the many experiences at the Village for free.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $13.85
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.85
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

“They can enjoy Wax Works, they can fill a candy jar, they can get some ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s — it gives a next-level experience to the guest,” said Bassett, adding quickly that the program was designed to engage not only guests, but employees at the Village as well. Indeed, each day a different team member is assigned the task of deciding who, if anyone, is worthy of the golden key, which is awarded for many good reasons, from a 100th birthday to a wedding anniversary to marking one’s final round of chemotherapy.

“Recently, we had two people get engaged in our Black Forest, and one of our employees came back and said, ‘we just had an engagement in our store — why don’t we give them the golden key?” Bassett went on, adding that the program is just one way the Village strives to heighten what is still in most respects a retail experience and take it to the next level.

That level has been raised continuously over the more than 30 years that the Village has been operating, he said, adding that the facility, which is in seemingly constant motion and changing with the holidays and seasons — Easter and April school vacation are next on the schedule, and programs are already being developed — is now part of a broad effort to make Deerfield and all of Franklin County a true destination.

Indeed, like others we spoke with, Bassett said Deerfield has become a regional tourism hub, with a variety of attractions that can broaden a visit from a few hours to an entire day — or even longer.

Tree House has been an important addition to the mix, he told BusinessWest, adding that it is part of a craft-beer trail, if you will, along with Berkshire Brewing nearby in the center of Deerfield. But Tree House has become a much bigger draw with its concerts and other types of events.

“Tree House is driving a lot of traffic to this area, with their beer and with their concerts,” Bassett said, adding that this traffic is finding its way to different stops in the area, including Yankee Candle.

Deane agreed, and said that the goal in Deerfield, and across Franklin County, is to simply “extend the stay.” Elaborating, she said the community has Yankee Candle to bring visitors in, but it also has Tree House, Berkshire Brewing, Historic Deerfield, and other attractions to keep them there for an extended stay — and bring them back again.

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Mayor Joshua Garcia, left, and Aaron Vega

Mayor Joshua Garcia, left, and Aaron Vega can list intriguing signs of progress on many fronts in Holyoke, especially in efforts to attract ‘clean tech’ ventures.

 

As he talked about Holyoke and its many marketable assets, Mayor Joshua Garcia listed everything from its location — on I-91 and right off a turnpike exit — to its still-large inventory of old mill space and a few available building lots, to its “green, clean, and comparatively cheap” hydroelectric energy.

And all of these assets, and especially that clean, cheap energy, came into play as the city courted and successfully landed Sublime Systems, a startup currently based in Somerville that has developed a fossil-fuel-free, low-carbon cement, and will produce it at a long-dormant parcel off Water Street, perhaps by the end of 2026, employing more than 70 people.

Sublime is exemplary not only of how to maximize the city’s assets, but also of the type of business the city is trying to attract — those in ‘clean’ or ‘green’ technology and manufacturing.

“Sublime is an example of where we want to go,” said Aaron Vega, director of the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development. “We want to stress our roots in manufacturing and innovation, and now that encompasses clean energy and green tech.”

The pending arrival of Sublime Systems is just one of the many intriguing story lines involving Holyoke. Others include the announcement last month that the city, working with local entrepreneur Cesar Ruiz, is trying to advance plans for an Olympic-style sports complex (one with a projected $40 million to $60 million price tag); new housing proposals in various stages of development; a steady stream of new entrepreneurial ventures fueled by EforAll/EparaTodos; ongoing efforts to revitalize the historic Victory Theatre; and many converging stories involving the city’s cannabis cluster.

One of them concerns contraction of that sector, planned businesses simply not getting off the ground, and the resulting impact on commercial real estate in the city and especially a number of those aforementioned former mill buildings.

“Housing is a focus for us, and it’s tied to economic development. We can bring a fair amount of support to developers who want to do housing projects in the city, but it is a long game, and it’s expensive.”

As many as a dozen of them were acquired with the intention of housing a dispensary or growing facility, but the slowing of the initial ‘green wave’ has left these new owners — all of whom bought high, when the market was red hot, and some of whom have already invested in their structures — looking for buyers and other uses.

And, in many cases, they’re dialing Vega’s number and looking for help, or at least some guidance.

“A lot of people think my office is like a broker … but we’re not moving private property in that way,” he said with a laugh, adding his team will certainly help make connections that might lead to a deal. “We’ll refer people and say, ‘this property is empty, but you have to deal with the owner.’

“They overpaid for these buildings, so it will be interesting to see how they’re going to unload them,” he went on. “Will they put them on the market at a reduced rate, or will they try to earn their money back with a profit?”

Housing is certainly an option, but an expensive and often-difficult one, he continued, adding that, while there is certainly a need for more housing in Holyoke, as there is in most communities in the 413 and across the state, conversion of old mills for that purpose requires capital, patience, and some luck, all in large quantities.

Joshua Garcia

Joshua Garcia

“We’ve been pulling back that curtain to the point where the buzz now is that there’s a lot going on in Holyoke; the reality is, there’s always been a lot going on in Holyoke.”

“Housing is a focus for us, and it’s tied to economic development,” Vega said. “We can bring a fair amount of support to developers who want to do housing projects in the city, but it is a long game, and it’s expensive.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at these various storylines and, overall, a city making great strides on several fronts.

 

Curtain Calls

Garcia calls it “pulling back the curtain.”

That’s how he described his office’s ongoing efforts to tell Holyoke’s story and let people know about the many positive developments happening there.

“We’ve been pulling back that curtain to the point where the buzz now is that there’s a lot going on in Holyoke; the reality is, there’s always been a lot going on in Holyoke. It’s just that people have been in their own bubble, believing whatever perception they want to believe about the city,” he said, adding that he’s trying to enlighten people through various vehicles, including a newsletter of sorts that he writes himself and emails to more than 150 people.

It’s called “From the Mayor’s Desk,” and the latest installment includes updates on a wide range of topics, from the proposed sports complex to planned informational meetings to be staged by MassDOT, in collaboration with city officials, on proposed corridor improvements on High and Maple streets; from the scheduling of shuttle service from MGM Springfield to Holyoke City Hall for the upcoming St. Patrick’s Parade and Road Race to some recent news items, including Garcia’s strong comments following state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley’s refusal to end the receivership of Holyoke’s public school system.

“The decision should have been a resounding ‘yes,’ with a commitment to confer in a reasonable timeframe to transition,” the mayor wrote in a response to the commissioner’s announcement early last month. “Instead, a different message was sent with no plan, no benchmarks, no firm commitment, but just, ‘we are not saying no, but let’s talk more.’”

The lack of progress on the receivership issue aside, the newsletter is generally replete with large doses of positive news, said Garcia, adding quickly that he is aggressively pushing for more in the months and years to come.

Jordan Hart

Jordan Hart

“Our future is tourism, and we need to create opportunities for that to take place.”

Indeed, Garcia, a lifelong resident, was frank when he said he’s tired of hearing about Holyoke’s potential, adding that this word is generally saved for young people, rebuilding sports teams, and startup companies. Holyoke recently celebrated its 150th birthday, and is “way beyond potential,” said the mayor, adding that the city’s “commercial renaissance,” as he called it, is in full swing.

As examples, he cited both Clean Crop Technologies and Sublime Systems, the latter of which was mentioned by Gov. Maura Healey at her State of the State address as an example of how the Commonwealth is building what she calls a “climate corridor.”

Holyoke would certainly like to play a large role in the growth and development of that corridor, said Vega and Garcia, adding that the city plans to take full advantage of those assets listed earlier and attract more companies that fit that profile and join what is the start of what could be called a cluster, with examples like Clean Crop, which uses electricity to revolutionize food production and safety, and also Revo Zero, a Virginia-based hydrogen-energy supplier, which has chosen Holyoke as the site of its Northeast hub. The company works with airports, municipalities, college campuses, and other entities to convert their fleets to hydrogen-powered vehicles.

 

Momentum Swings

John Dowd, president of Holyoke-based Dowd Insurance, which recently celebrated its 125th anniversary, said the emergence of these companies is part of the sweeping, ongoing change that has defined the city since he grew up there.

He remembers shopping for back-to-school clothes with his parents in the many department stores that dotted High Street back in the ’70s. They are now gone, and for several reasons, including the building of the Holyoke Mall, as are most of the paper and textile manufacturers that gave the city its identity.

The work to create a new identity has been ongoing for roughly a half-century, he told BusinessWest, and will continue for the foreseable future.

“Slowly but surely, positive things have been developing downtown,” he said, adding that Holyoke is a city where the past and present come together nicely. “And when you catch those canals on a beautiful, crisp winter morning with the steam rising off them, it’s a beautiful picture, and you can almost see what Holyoke was like in the very beginning, when my relatives arrived.”

Change has been a constant for that half-century or more, Dowd and others said, adding that more change is imminent — and necessary.

Indeed, with the cannabis industry stuck in neutral, if not moving backward, there are now several old mill buildings that could become home to such ventures, said Vega and Garcia, noting that the fate of properties purchased for cannabis-related uses is an intriguing, somewhat unique challenging now facing the community.

Vega estimates there are six to 12 properties in this category, including the former Hampden Papers building on Water Street, purchased by GTI but never outfitted by cannabis use, as well as other properties on Appleton Street, Canal Street, Commercial Street, and others. And that list will soon include the massive, block-long mill on Canal Street currently occupied by Trulieve, which is pulling out of Massachusetts.

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, said the cannabis industry has obviously provided a boost for the city and its commercial real-estate sector, but it has certainly plateaued, leaving opportinties for businesses in other sectors, including clean tech, to create further momentum.

Like the mayor, Ruiz, and others, Hart sees the proposed sports complex as another potential economic engine for the city, bringing people, and dollars, from outside the region and, in the process, perhaps fueling the start, or continued growth, of other businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector.

“The broad goal is to get more people to come and support Holyoke businesses, and I think the sports complex will definitely do that,” she said. “People staying for a weekend are going to need things to do, so this is really big time for Holyoke to realize that this is our future. Our future is tourism, and we need to create opportunities for that to take place.”

 

Developing Stories

While the sports complex, attracting businesses to be part of the climate corridor, and coping with the dramatic changes coming to the cannabis industry are the lead stories in Holyoke today, there are certainly others, including the ongoing issue of housing and creating more inventory, which is more of a regional story than a Holyoke story.

There are some new units coming online, said Garcia, noting that Winn Development began construction of 88 units in a former alpaca wool mill on Appleton Street. Meanwhile, the new owners of the massive Open Square complex have initiated discussions on creating 80 units of new, market-rate housing in one of the mills in that complex.

The Winn Development project is an example of progress on this front, but also of the many challenges facing those who want to convert properties in the city for that use, Vega said.

“Winn Development is a company that’s obviously well-versed in how to manage these projects,” he said. “They had 11 different pots of money, including historic tax credits, put together in an 88-unit development, and it took almost 10 years.”

While such projects are difficult and certainly don’t happen overnight, the city will need more housing if it is to attract more companies like Clean Crop and Sublime Systems, said the mayor, noting that these and other businesses have expressed concern that, without more inventory, it might become difficult to attract young professionals to the city.

“When we first met with Clean Crop, their first question was, ‘what is your housing plan?’” Vega said. “It wasn’t about business incentives, it was ‘what’s your housing plan, because we’re bringing in people that want to live in this area.’”

Garcia concurred, noting that, like other communities in the region, Holyoke needs a mix of market-rate and affordable housing to meet both its current and future needs. And, overall, the city has the space and the motivation for more housing; what it needs are developers with the patience and skill sets needed to make such projects happen.

Hart agreed, noting that new housing is not only crucial to attracting and retaining businesses, it is a core element in the revitalization of any city, and especially its downtown area.

“We have an overabundance of downtown storefronts that have vacant residential units above them,” she said. “There’s no reason why we can’t be creating downtown living to support the new downtown economic development that’s happening. And that housing will create a safer downtown because you’re going to need more light, and you’re going to need more amenities to help accommodate the people moving into downtown.”

Another ongoing story in Holyoke is entrepreneurship and a steady stream of new businesses getting their start in the city or one of the surrounding communities, said Tessa Murphy Romboletti, executive director of EforAll/EparaTodos in the city. She said the agency is currently working with its 21st and 22nd cohorts of aspiring entrepreneurs, with graduation coming this spring.

The previous cohorts have graduated more than 200 businesses across many different sectors, from restaurants to retail, she said, noting that several of them have become part of the fabric of the city’s business community. She listed Paper City Fabrics, now located in a storefront on High Street, and Raw Beauty Brand as a couple of the many examples of how the agency has helped individuals move from concept to business reality.

There are now several dozen such businesses, she said, adding that EforAll provides many services and support, but mostly helps businesses make the many connections they need to get off the ground or to that proverbial next level.

Holyoke at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1786
Population: 38,328
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.95
Commercial Tax Rate: $40.26
Median Household Income: $37,954
Median Family Income: $46,940
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Community College, ISO New England Inc., PeoplesBank, Universal Plastics, Marox Corp.
* Latest information available

“We do our part to help them figure out how to navigate the issues they face and know who to connect with in each municipality, whether it’s Holyoke, Chicopee, or wherever, and enable them to make those relationships,” she told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, another growth area is tourism and hospitality, said Garcia, noting that the planned sports complex, announced at a well-attended press conference at the Volleyball Hall of Fame, is part of that mix.

Another part is the growing list of festivals and other annual events, including Fiestas Patronales de Holyoke, which, in its second year, drew thousands of visitors to the city and established itself as an emerging tradition.

Already well-established are the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade, which last year celebrated its 70th anniversary, and accompanying road race, both of which are family events and economic engines for the Holyoke economy.

Hayley Dunn, president of this year’s parade and road race, noted that this year’s parade is actually on March 17, which adds another element of intrigue and also means that it comes earlier than most years, which raises more concern about the weather, which is often a big part of the story.

The bigger parts are the ways families and communities come together to mark the occasions — the road race has its own huge following — and how they provide a huge boost for area businesses. Indeed, a Donahue Institute study conducted several years ago found that parade weekend injects $20 million into the local economy. And there are dozens of events across several communities in the weeks leading up to the parade that also fuel the hospitality sector.

“The parade may go down the streets of Holyoke, but it’s truly a regional event,” Dunn said. “Other cities that are part of our parade — Springfield, Chicopee, Westfield, and others — have their own events as well. Meanwhile, the road race is a huge block party. Both events really support our local businesses.”

 

Bottom Line

Getting back to his newsletter, “From the Mayor’s Desk,” Garcia said it’s just one of the many ways in which he’s trying to inform people about all the good things happening in his city.

Others include extensive use of social media, as in extensive. And, from all accounts, effective.

“Someone approached me one time and said, ‘whoever is handling your public relations and communications is doing a great job.’ I said, ‘you’re looking at him.’”

Beyond his work on Facebook and Instagram, Garcia, working with other city officials, is doing what he can to generate more of these positive developments — on fronts ranging from clean tech to tourism to housing.

And while it’s still early in the new year, it appears he’ll have quite a bit more to write about in 2024.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Vince Jackson

Vince Jackson says Northampton retailers have mixed reports on the state of business these days, but are mostly optimistic.

As executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, Vince Jackson spends a lot of time talking to business owners, and what he hears is generally optimistic — to a point.

“Businesses are careful about using the term ‘fully recovered.’ For some retailers, their situation is better than it was in 2019,” he said, referring to the last pre-pandemic year. “Others say, ‘I’m open only three days a week versus seven, but I’m making more money now.’ Then, for others, things are still tough because we don’t have as much daytime foot traffic with a lot of people working from home. So it’s a mix of anecdotes around town, but the overall sentiment is that things are good.”

At the chamber, one way to gauge activity downtown is through Northampton’s gift-card program, which supports local businesses and, for the third straight year, got significant financial support from Keiter. Over this past holiday season, gift-card sales were up 9% from the previous year, and spending by people redeeming those cards has been up 12%.

“People are spending, and that translates into how retailers are doing,” Jackson went on. “I will say, however, that some retailers say things are not as strong as last year, when people were anxious to get back out and do more traditional shopping.

“So you’re going to get varied comments, but the overall sentiment is that business is good. Businesses are still dealing with supply-chain issues and inflationary issues, driving up costs of goods, but overall, people appreciate having made it through the pandemic and are ready to move on with a whole new start.”

Dee Dice, owner of Constant Growth, a marketing and consulting firm that works with many small businesses in the city and region, said there are supports in place in Northampton to help companies succeed, and new ones developing all the time, like the Sphere, a project of the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) that supports women entrepreneurs.

“Business owners and entrepreneurs are scrappy and resilient; they adapt well, and I think we’re moving into an era where we’re collaborating and coming together in different ways, figuring out how to share resources and how to come together as a community to set the next trend.”

“I feel like the city has much to offer, and it’s a really good place to start a business, for sure,” added Dice, who has become involved with the Sphere. “Is it ever the perfect time to start a business? That’s debatable, but Northampton is a good place to do it.

“I think Northampton values small businesses in the way they value artists and musicians,” she added. “They value that kind of rebel spirit, people who look to be different and take a risk. In that way, Northampton is great.”

The DNA recently launched a new series of downtown business owner meetings “to create an environment for businesses to come together and talk about what they face on the ground — what’s working and not working, and how DNA can help,” Executive Director Jillian Duclos said.

“I think there’s a lot of hope and a lot of enthusiasm for the future. I think the pandemic was really hard because it was isolating in a lot of ways, but things are shifting and changing on a daily basis,” she added.

“Business owners and entrepreneurs are scrappy and resilient; they adapt well, and I think we’re moving into an era where we’re collaborating and coming together in different ways, figuring out how to share resources and how to come together as a community to set the next trend. We’ve always been trendsetters here; a lot of communities follow in our footsteps, and now we’re resetting again.”

 

On the Road Again

And they’re doing so as a major Main Street road redesign looms ever closer, one that many business owners feel is necessary even as they fear the disruption it might cause once the actual construction work begins in 2025.

“Northampton is a city known for its resilience and community spirit. As we embark on the next phase of the Picture Main Street project, our top priority is to ensure that our local businesses not only endure but thrive,” Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said in a recent statement. “Together, we will ensure that downtown remains a bustling hub of activity, culture, and business throughout the construction period.”

Northampton Main Street

Both the Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Northampton Assoc. are committed to communicating between their members and the city as the Main Street redesign project unfolds.

To that end, city leaders have joined with the chamber and DNA in a campaign around the road project with three goals: continuous communication channels between businesses, residents, and project teams; marketing, arts and entertainment programming, and educational initiatives to draw visitors and locals to Main Street; and innovative strategies to manage access and minimize disruption.

“A lot of business owners on the ground are actually very excited. Thinking ahead to when it’s complete, there’s not a lot of opposition,” Duclos said. “A lot of the comments have really been about the process of getting there. Because not much has happened, it leaves a lot of room to make up what might happen.

“But City Hall is working really hard,” she added, calling the campaign involving the chamber and DNA a “mitigation committee” that will keep its finger on the pulse of what’s happening and how it will affect businesses downtown.

“We’re going to make sure businesses have a voice at the table and they’re letting us know what they need. And businesses say they need to know the schedule of construction so they can work around that schedule,” she explained, noting that some businesses may not schedule certain events, appointments, or classes when loud construction is happening outside their window — but they’d like to know the schedule well in advance.

“We’ll work hard to create these communication channels to so they can operate their businesses in ways that make sense,” Duclos said. “This is not COVID. We’re not closing. We’ll be moving and shaking during construction, and we’ll be doing a lot of unique events.”

Jackson noted that the project’s goals match the acronym SAVE: safety, accessibility, vitality, and environmental sustainability.

“There is a need. There is a propensity for accidents, which have involved a death or two. And the state has said there’s an issue with two lanes on each side of Main Street that are not really marked for two lanes, and wide crosswalks and a number of other issues. And with accessibility, that means for everyone — bikers, people who have disabilities, people with mobility issues.”

In terms of vitality, Jackson is excited about how the redesign can build on some of the energy already being created not just in downtown businesses, but outside them.

“We’ve seen what outdoor dining can do for a community like this and how that has evolved. Even though we’re out of the pandemic, outdoor dining spots in Northampton are still very popular. That’s one of the silver linings to come out of the pandemic — we continue to capitalize on the beauty of the outdoors. That gives vibrancy to the city and gives people a reason to come downtown and shop, eat, and explore.”

Finally, environmental sustainability means not disrupting the environment too much, replacing and planting new trees so Main Street isn’t all about concrete and asphalt.

“You can come any night of the week into Northampton or Florence and get live music or some kind of performance. That’s encouraging, and of course it means not only the music scene will thrive, but people will eat out at more, hang out at bars and restaurants, and go shopping.”

Despite these positive goals, “business owners are nervous, rightfully so, about the disruption,” Jackson said. “What we’ve been told is that construction is expected to begin sometime in the fall of 2025, and the project is expected to take 18 to 24 months. So businesses are concerned.”

That said, the expectation is that the actual construction — both on the surface and with the underground infrastructure — will be tackled in phases, a stretch of road at a time, with the exact schedule communicated in advance. “It won’t be Main Street disrupted for a full mile; it will be broken up.”

Jackson pointed to previous road projects on Pleasant Street, where the chamber is located, and on King Street, that were successful, with plenty of commerce and activity along those well-traveled thoroughfares today.

“So I think, at the end of the day, people are optimistic about the future and realize this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think holistically about all the things this project represents.”

 

Continued Momentum

Jackson reiterated that the city, chamber, and DNA are committed to unifying the community and thinking of creative ways to plan events, activities, programs, and general excitement about downtown momentum, giving people reasons to visit even after the road project commences.

“So there’s new opportunity and new performance venues,” he added, citing the return of the Iron Horse Music Hall this May. “You can come any night of the week into Northampton or Florence and get live music or some kind of performance. That’s encouraging, and of course it means not only the music scene will thrive, but people will eat out at more, hang out at bars and restaurants, and go shopping. It’s the kind of city that invites strolling.”

Duclos agreed. “A lot of businesses support artists and have artists up in their shops and doing events. We want to work more closely with everyone on the ground to connect them and use our resources to support what’s already happening.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Facemate property

An architect’s rendering of the mixed-use facility planned for the last remaining parcel on the Facemate property, one that will bring more than 100 units of affordable housing to the city.

Like most other cities and towns, Lee Pouliot says, Chicopee has a housing shortage.

It’s evidenced by everything from lengthy waiting lists at apartment complexes and skyrocketing rents to rising prices for single-family homes, said Pouliot, the city’s planner, adding that there are several projects in various stages of development that may bring some relief.

One is long-anticipated new construction at the last remaining parcel from the former Facemate complex, a project that will add an anticipated 106 units of affordable (workforce) housing to the city’s inventory.

“Housing is a huge issue here and around the Commonwealth, so to get construction of 106 new units is very significant for us,” he said, referring specifically to the Facemate project. “And this is new construction from the ground up, so it will be a fairly significant change to that area; we’re pretty excited.”

There’s also progress on the remaining buildings at the former Uniroyal complex, which has been closed and mostly vacant for more than 40 years. Pouliot said the city is close to naming a preferred developer for a project that will make housing the focal point of redevelopment of the former manufacturing buildings.

“Chicopee is really the crossroads of the region. It’s easy to get here from anywhere, which attracts many different kinds of businesses.”

Then there’s the massive — as in nearly 1 million square feet — Cabotville complex in the center of the city. Now vacant for more than four years, the property will likely be going to auction again shortly, said Pouliot, adding that the city is hoping that a buyer experienced with mill conversions will obtain the property and make housing its primary new use.

But momentum on the housing front is just one of the developing stories in this city of more than 55,000 people, the second-largest city in the region.

Indeed, Melissa Breor, director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, cited everything from some new businesses, all minority-owned, in the city’s center — including Island Spice restaurant, specializing in Sri Lankan cuisine, and a new location for Hot Oven Cookies — to renovation of the former city library into space for community events, to progress with her own chamber, which, like most all others in the region, has had to downsize and battle back from the difficult COVID years.

“There’s many exciting things happening here,” said Breor, who grew up in the city, left, and returned to get more involved in the community. Overall, she noted, Chicopee continues to take full advantage of its many assets, and especially its location and accessibility; there’s not one, but two Mass Pike exits funneling traffic into the city, which also has I-91 and Routes 291, 391, and 33 running through it.

“Chicopee is really the crossroads of the region,” she said. “It’s easy to get here from anywhere, which attracts many different kinds of businesses.”

Other assets include Westover Metropolitan Airport and several industrial parks created on surplus land at the massive Air Reserve base, both now overseen by Andy Widor, president and CEO of Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. (WMDC), which operates the airport.

Melissa Breor

Melissa Breor says Chicopee has many tangible assets, especially its location along several major highways.

He said the airport is somewhat of a hidden gem, and one of its priorities is to make it less hidden. The facility is home to maybe 20 aircraft of various sizes. Meanwhile, many chartered flights, such as those for area sporting events, and private jet flights, including many for the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies each fall, will use Westover as an entryway to the region. It also hosts public charters to Atlantic City operated through Sun Country Airlines, service that started last August.

“We like to say that the airport connects Chicopee to the world,” said Widor, adding that a recent study undertaken by the UMass Donohue Institute shows that the airport and airparks operated by the WMDC are an “economic-development engine for the region,” contributing more than $2.2 billion in economic output and roughly 8,500 jobs around Massachusetts annually.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Chicopee and the many forms of momentum in evidence there.

 

Progress Report

Pouliot told BusinessWest that redevelopment of the Uniroyal complex, once one of the city’s largest employers, has been a story with many twists and turns, with its first chapters written when Ronald Reagan was patrolling the White House.

The latest chapter holds enormous promise for helping alleviate Chicopee’s housing crisis while bringing new vibrancy to the Chicopee Falls section of the city, he said, adding that the city issued a request for proposals for the four remaining buildings on the site last year, received proposals from two different groups, and has seen one of them recommended by an evaluation team.

Negotiations continue with that group on a land-disposition agreement, he went on, noting that, by spring, the city should be in a position to announce both a plan for the property and the group that will carry it out.

“The city’s hope is that a developer gets control of this property that has experience with mill conversion from the ground up. These are challenging projects, and experience is critical in navigating everything from building codes to financing strategies.”

“We’re anticipating mixed use, with a significant housing component,” he said, adding that negotiations continue on the number of units that will be created in what will be a massive undertaking that will likely take several years to complete.

The timeline is much shorter for redevelopment of what’s known as the Baskin parcel at the Facemate complex, a project being undertaken by Brooklyn-based Brisa Development.

Plans call for a mixed-use development which, in addition to the 102 units of workforce housing, will also include a restaurant and a sports complex that will include indoor and outdoor athletic fields, batting cages, elevated running tracks, climbing walls, and outdoor spaces “encouraging community engagement,” according to the Brisa website.

The residential portion of the project, new construction, will commence first, said Pouliot, adding that ground will likely be broken this spring or summer.

As for Cabotville, the property that casts a huge shadow over the city’s center, literally and figuratively, Pouliot said the property has had several owners over the past few decades, with none of them able to advance projects to create housing or other uses. The property is vacant — the last remaining commercial tenants were evicted as the building was closed due to code violations in 2022 — and secure, but the clock is certainly ticking.

“From an engineering perspective, it’s structurally sound, but the longer a building sits vacant, the greater the risk of its condition deteriorating,” he said, adding that, while there has been discussion of the city potentially acquiring the property, as it did with the Uniroyal complex in 2009, officials are leery about taking on another huge development project until the Uniroyal project advances.

Andy Widor

Andy Widor is working to build out all aspects of Westover Airport.

“The city’s hope is that a developer gets control of this property that has experience with mill conversion from the ground up,” Pouliot told BusinessWest. “These are challenging projects, and experience is critical in navigating everything from building codes to financing strategies.”

While those initiatives unfold, some municipal projects are moving forward as well, he said, referencing long-awaited work to renovate the former library, closed since 2004.

Bids have been received for the project, estimated at $18 million, with the goal of transforming it into programming space to host everything from Chamber of Commerce business training events to programs staged by nearby Elms College. It will also be the permanent home of the Center Fresh Market, a farmer’s market that traditionally sets up in the plaza outside the building.

The city is also close to bidding the next phrase of City Hall renovations, he said, adding that this phase involves renovation and modernization of office suites.

 

Changing Landscape

As she talked with BusinessWest in the chamber’s tiny office on Center Street, just a few hundred yards from City Hall, the library, and Cabotville, Breor said Chicopee is a community seemingly in a constant state of change.

Whether it’s new businesses, many of them national chains, on Memorial Drive, the city’s main commercial throughfare, or new or growing local entrepreneurial ventures, such as the new tenants just a block away on Center Street in property redeveloped by the Valley Opportunity Council — Hot Oven Cookies and Island Spice — the business landscape is always changing, she said.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,560
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $14.76
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.78
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek
* Latest information available

Breor came to the chamber in the summer of 2022 after working at UMass and, before that, with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce as Hampshire County tourism coordinator. Desiring to return home — she grew up in Chicopee Falls — she originally applied for an open position at the chamber handling marketing. But while interviewing for that job, the director’s position became open, and she adjusted her sights.

She now presides over a chamber, that, like most all others in the region, has become smaller in just about every way, from the size of its office to the number of members (currently about 250) to the size of its staff — at present, it’s just Breor and a one-day-a-week staffer focused on marketing and social media.

But the chamber remains a powerful force for a business community that is diverse in every sense, she said, whether it’s providing technical assistance, staging networking events, or collaborating with other area chambers on larger projects.

One such event, slated for March, will benefit the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts (recently named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2023). The rice-and-beans drive and fundraiser will also involve the Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, ERC5, and West of the River chambers, said Breor, adding that there are other collaborative efforts on the calendar or in the planning stages, including legislative events and a softball tournament to be undertaken with the Holyoke chamber to be called the Battle of the Bridge.

At Westover Airport, meanwhile, Widor is working to build out all aspects of that operation, from planes based there to flights in and out, and he believes there is great potential to do so.

Renovation of several hangars on the property, an ongoing initiative, presents the opportunity to house more planes of all sizes, including the largest private jets, at the airport, he noted.

Meanwhile, the airport’s location — close to Springfield and Hartford as well as the many colleges in the region — is an asset, as is the relatively new pilot-controlled lighting at the facility, which enables it to remain open for landings 24 hours a day.

Widor said the airport, which shares runways with the Air Reserve base, serves a number of businesses and institutions — bringing guests for Hall of Fame induction week and headliners for performances at MGM Springfield facilities to the region, for example, as well as organs for transplant at Baystate Medical Center — and there is considerable room for growth.

Chicopee’s leaders believe the same is true for the city — and its diverse business community — as a whole.

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Kathy DeVarennes

Kathy DeVarennes says there is a downside to Lee’s white-hot housing market: a shortage of affordable homes for working-class families.

 

Chris Brittain says the report wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was still quite eye-opening.

Indeed, by the time the Boston Business Journal listed Lee as one of the three hottest housing markets in the Bay State last August — along with Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard and the gateway city of Lowell — most in this community didn’t need to be told just how hot things were in town.

They already had plenty of direct or anecdotal evidence to that effect.

“People have been buying homes for well above the asking price,” said Brittain, Lee’s town administrator, noting that the median home value in Lee was $256,000 five years ago, $370,000 a little more than a year ago, and nearly $400,000 last June, one of the largest upward swings in the state over that time.

He said the surging prices are in part a reflection of the run-up in value of vacation and second homes, but also the product of supply and demand; there is limited supply, and demand has been soaring, in Lee and most other Berkshires communities, in the wake of COVID and the growing popularity of remote work. He speculates that Lee appears at the very top of the list because home values are generally lower — although the gap is certainly closing — than in neighboring communities such as Lenox and Stockbridge, which are also hot markets.

Surging home prices are not the only intriguing development in Lee, said Brittain, noting some real headway in the long-anticipated, scaled-down project known as Eagle Mill, which involves new construction and conversion of some of the town’s many former paper mills into a mixed-use development featuring housing, retail, and a restaurant.

There’s also movement with plans to create a new public-safety facility downtown, on the site formerly occupied by the Department of Public Works, which is moving to a commercial property on Route 202 that the town has acquired. The price tag for the various phases of the initiative is roughly $37 million, he said, adding that the DPW will likely be moved in the spring, with demolition of those properties to follow, and construction of the new public-safety facility to likely commence in the spring of 2025.

“We started to see people wanting to move to move rural areas. During COVID and right after it, I knew of people who would put their house up for sale, and by the end of the day, they had five offers over what they were asking, and people hadn’t even come to look at the house; they just wanted to get out of the city.”

Meanwhile, there was more talk about how to celebrate the town’s 250th birthday, coming up in 2027.

And there is continued bounceback from the difficult COVID years, with travel to Lee and other Berkshires communities returning, and many different types of hospitality-related businesses doing as well as, if not even better than, they were before the pandemic, said Kathy DeVarennes, director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce, which recently celebrated its own milestone — 100 years in operation.

She said the business community in Lee is large, diverse, and resilient, with ventures ranging from Prime Outlets Lee, just off the Mass Pike exit into town, to High Lawn Farm, a third-generation dairy farm and creamery approaching its own centennial that has become a real destination for visitors, to an eclectic mix of businesses along Main Street that give it a unique flavor.

Businesses like the Starving Artist Café & Creperie, which offers organic, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free menu options for breakfast and lunch.

Owner Emmy Davis, who opened the café in 2012, said one of its traditions, and main attractions, is a Sunday brunch served all day. During this time of year, there are some travelers coming to brunch, as well as some with second homes in town coming in for the weekend, but it’s mostly locals.

“During the summer, though, it’s crazy; on Sundays in the summer, there’s often a line out the door,” she said, adding that visitors will stop in on their way to one of the many attractions only a few miles away, from Jacob’s Pillow in Becket to Tanglewood in Lenox. “There’s a lot going on constantly, so there’s a lot more people.”

Lee’s iconic downtown

Lee’s iconic downtown, which boasts an eclectic mix of stores and restaurants, continues its comeback from COVID.

And brunch at the Starving Artist provides an effective snapshot of what businesses generally see and when they see it, she said, adding that travelers pass through or stay at some of the many inns and hotels in the community all year round, but summer and fall are obviously the busiest times.

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how all of these factors are coming together to create even greater vibrancy in the community known as the Gateway to the Berkshires.

 

Staying Power

When Bob Healey and his wife, Olia, started talking about buying the historic bed and breakfast on Main Street in Lee, the one created from a schoolhouse built in 1885, some thought they were … well, “crazy,” Bob said.

After all, they were both just 23 years old. Meanwhile, the year was 2009, and the region was still trying to dig out from what became known as the Great Recession.

“It certainly wasn’t the best time to be thinking about doing something like this,” he said, adding quickly that he and Olia believed in the property — and they believed in themselves. And they found a lending institution, Lee Bank, to believe in them as well.

As a result, they’ve been able to write more history for a property that was barely saved from the wrecking ball and then successfully moved one block — a feat many didn’t believe was possible — and is now an important part of Lee’s iconic downtown.

They call it the Chambery Inn, named after the town in France from which five nuns were sent to staff the school, and it has become a fixture, with 10 rooms, many featuring original blackboards from its days as a school.

“We have these city people coming in and paying cash for homes that used to be the homes of working-class families that sent children to our schools. Prices have skyrocketed, and that makes it more difficult for young families to find affordable housing to purchase.”

Healey, like Davis, said downtown is thriving at present, making an almost full recovery from the traumatic COVID years.

“We have an absolutely amazing Main Street,” he said. “It’s a town of 6,000 people, and we have more than 60 eateries. As the Gateway to the Berkshires, the location is really key, and it’s kind of an iconic American Main Street.

The comeback, and continued evolution, of Main Street is one of the major developing stories in Lee, with the other being the housing market, which might have cooled off a little, but still remains quite hot.

“COVID had a lot to do with it,” said Brittain, who had served the town in several different capacities over the years, including stints as moderator and town clerk, before becoming interim town administrator in 2021 and then losing the interim tag. “That’s when we started to see people wanting to move to move rural areas. During COVID and right after it, I knew of people who would put their house up for sale, and by the end of the day, they had five offers over what they were asking, and people hadn’t even come to look at the house; they just wanted to get out of the city.”

The surge, which is still ongoing, has been good for sellers, but there is certainly a downside to Lee’s housing boom, said both Brittain and DeVarennes, noting that it’s now much harder to find something that would be considered affordable in town.

A recently retired school teacher, DeVarennes said the lack of affordable housing can be seen in decreasing enrollment in the community’s schools.

“We have these city people coming in and paying cash for homes that used to be the homes of working-class families that sent children to our schools,” she said. “Prices have skyrocketed, and that makes it more difficult for young families to find affordable housing to purchase.”

The Eagle Mill project will create 128 units of market-rate housing, but there is a definite need for more housing, especially in the affordable category.

Lee at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1777
Population: 5,788
Area: 27 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $11.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.83
Median Household Income: $41,566
Median Family Income: $49,630
Type of Government: Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Lee Premium Outlets; Onyx Specialty Papers; the Landing at Laurel Lake; Oak n’ Spruce Resort in the Berkshires; Big Y
* Latest information available

“It’s a subject that comes up a lot in town,” said Brittain, noting that many of the younger professionals and blue-collar workers in Lee are increasingly finding themselves priced out and with limited options if they desire to stay in this community.

 

Getting Down to Business

But while it’s becoming more difficult to live in Lee, the growing number and variety of businesses — and that includes a new Starbucks in the site of a former Friendly’s near the turnpike exit — make it an ever-more inviting place to visit, said those we spoke with.

Foot traffic may not have fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, said DeVarennes, but the community, with its location just off exit 10, certainly lives up to the Gateway nickname. Indeed, people pass through on their way to better-known destinations like Stockbridge and Lenox, but they also often stop and stay — for a few hours or a few days.

And there is plenty to see and do, such as High Lawn Farm, where families can see a dairy farm in operation and also get ice cream and buy butter, cheeses, and other products.

“If you go on a weekend during the summer, it’s packed,” DeVarennes said. “It’s a wonderful place and a real destination.”

Meanwhile, the town’s iconic downtown continues to thrive, she added, noting that it has a deep mix of stores and is easily walkable.

“There are quite a few good restaurants and businesses,” she said, adding that there is great stability — many businesses have been there for decades — but also a fairly steady stream of new and intriguing businesses.

That includes a new yoga studio that will soon open its doors and a comic-book store recently opened by Davis’s husband, Ryan.

“Since we’ve opened, a lot of people have been psyched because there’s nothing in the Berkshires like it — you have to go to Northampton to find something like this,” she said, adding that the store, like many of the businesses on Main Street, appeals to local residents, but becomes part of the draw for visitors.

Healey agreed.

“It’s a very nice Main Street to walk, but it’s also a Main Street where you won’t find a lot of franchises and such,” he said. “It’s really mom-and-pops with a lot of character.”

Added Davis, “we have a great little community of downtown businesses — everyone supports one another. And the more the merrier in downtown; more businesses bring more people to the area to hang out.”

Over the years, Lee has seen a steady source of reasons to come and hang out. And live, year-round or during the summer and on weekends. And tackle remote work. And start a business.

All of that makes it a draw — and, now, one of the hottest real-estate markets in the state.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson will be returning to the mayor’s office in January 24 years after serving as the city’s first mayor.

Chris Johnson was elected Agawam’s first mayor back in November 1989.

He then served five two-year terms before returning to his real-estate law practice in 2000. In the years that followed, he stayed active and involved in the community where he was born and raised, serving several terms on the City Council, where he likely would have stayed had Mayor William Sapelli, former superintendent of schools in this city that calls itself a town, declined the opportunity to seek another term.

With that decision, and with several key issues facing this community — especially movement toward renovating or, preferably (in the view of most involved) replacing its high school — Johnson sought a return to the corner office. And last month, voters gave him a hard-earned victory over his challenger, fellow City Councilor Cecelia Calabrese.

“They say that once it’s in your blood, it’s hard to get it out,” Johnson said. “I care deeply about the community I grew up in and raised my family in, and we have a few significant issues that we’re facing over the next year or two. And I wanted to make sure they got a fair shake.”

Indeed, Johnson told BusinessWest that, as he returns to City Hall, there are several matters that will have his full attention — everything from a pressing need to create more housing in several categories to bringing roughly 25 years of work to create recreational facilities at the former Tuckahoe Turf Farm in Feeding Hills to a sucessful conclusion, to efforts to redevelop the former Games and Lanes property on Walnut Street Extension.

“I work closely with the mayors, as well as the state senators and representatives, to be sure that we’re providing a platform for the small businesses in Agawam, and be that middle person to ensure that the businesses are able to have their voices heard.”

But it is the high school that will be priority one, he said, adding that, after a few failed attempts to gain traction from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), the community is moving closer to getting into the pipeline for state funding for a new school, and city residents will likely have the opportunity to vote on the matter as early as next spring.

In his view, building a new high school, even one with a projected $230 million price tag, will be more practical and cost-effective than trying to again renovate and add onto the current structure, built in the mid-’50s.

Meanwhile, a new high school will certainly help the community effectively compete with neighboring cities and towns for young professionals and businesses alike.

“It’s been 50 years since we’ve built a school,” he said, referencing the middle school, built in 1973. “We’ve gone a long time without making a major investment. I’ve been in the real-estate world since I left the mayor’s office 24 years ago; I’m a real-estate attorney, and I have lots of friends who are Realtors and brokers, and they all say that, when it comes to new families moving into the area, one of the first things they want to know is what the school system is like.”

Robin Wozniak

Robin Wozniak stands in front of the new Starbucks set to open in Agawam.

Robin Wozniak, president of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce, who serves on the committee studying options for the high school, agreed. “It’s imperative that we keep up with technology and provide facilities that are state-of-the-art,” she said. “We have to remain competitive with our neighbors.”

Beyond the high-school project are other pressing issues in town, as well as signs of progress, she said, noting, among them, the highly anticipated opening of a Starbucks in a lot at the corner of Main and Suffield streets, being developed by the Colvest Group. The store is in the final stages of construction, she said, and it will be an important addition to that section of town just over the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge from West Springfield.

With the acquistion by Colvest of a small parcel on the edge of the neighboring Town Hall parking lot, there is room for additional development on the site, Wozniak said, noting that an urgent-care clinic and a fast-food restaurant have been among the rumored possibilities.

Meanwhile, she’s looking forward to working with Johnson to bolster the chamber’s role as a liaison between City Hall and the business community, making sure the wants and needs of the former are understood by the latter.

“We’re trying to identify some parcels for some creative housing concepts to try to see if we can get some more affordable-housing opportunities, if not subsidized affordable-housing opportunities.”

“I work closely with the mayors, as well as the state senators and representatives, to be sure that we’re providing a platform for the small businesses in Agawam, and be that middle person to ensure that the businesses are able to have their voices heard,” she said.

For this installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns the lens on Agawam, a community looking to transfer some unresolved issues to the proverbial done pile in the months and years to come.

Room for Improvement

As he talked about the current high school, a facility he attended in the ’70s and knows from many different vantage points, Johnson compared it to a “beautiful ’55 Chevy that we kept in really good condition.”

In other words, it still purrs, and it’s still somewhat easy on the eyes. But it is simply not suited for these times.

“It’s going to need significant work over the next five to 15 years, and no matter how much work you do to it, it’s not cost-effective to turn it into a new, modern vehicle,” he said, adding that the relatively good condition of the current high school actually hurt the town to some extent because the MSBA put other communities with more pressing needs ahead of Agawam in the competition for school-building funds.

But even the state has come around to the notion that the building needs to be replaced, said Johnson, adding that the MSBA board of directors recently voted to move the project to what’s known as schematic design.

The state would likely pick up $100 million of the total price tag, leaving the community to come up with the rest, he said, noting that a debt-exclusion override — something the town has never before sought from the voters — would likely be needed. And Johnson, like other elected officials, is leaning strongly toward putting the matter on the ballot.

But while the high school is the predominent issue facing the community, there are others, he noted, citing the ongoing work to convert the former HUB Insurance building on Suffield Street into a new police station, as well as continued progress on work to convert the former Tuckahoe Turf Farm, nearly 300 acres the town has owned for more than 20 years, into passive recreation.

“The other need is at the other end of the spectrum, the young people who have grown up in Agawam; they’re young adults out in the work world trying to find housing opportunities so they can stay in Agawam.”

This includes hiking paths, picnic areas, and other facilities, he said, noting that, roughly a year ago, town leaders approved the borrowing of nearly $4 million to build a road, repair the dam and culverts on the property, and create a parking lot.

That work continues, said Johnson, adding that funding has also been received from the state, as well as from Tennessee Gas, which directed funds it has earmarked for conversation projects to work on the dam and pond on the property.

What the initiative needs is a name, he noted, as it has always been referred to simply as the ‘former Tuckahoe site,’ and the town reconizes the need for something new and fresh. “We’re working on it,” he added.

Likewise, this community, like most in the region, is working to address an ongoing housing shortage.

“We’re trying to identify some parcels for some creative housing concepts to try to see if we can get some more affordable-housing opportunities, if not subsidized affordable-housing opportunities,” he explained.

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1855
Population: 28,692
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $14.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $27.54
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England
* Latest information available

“We have two glaring needs, and they’re not easy to address, unfortunately. One is seniors who have raised families in Agawam; they’re living in single-family houses, and they want that downsizing opportunity,” he went on, noting that there is one over-55 condomimum project wrapping up, but the units come with price tags above what many can afford. “The other need is at the other end of the spectrum, the young people who have grown up in Agawam; they’re young adults out in the work world trying to find housing opportunities so they can stay in Agawam.”

As for the former Games and Lanes property, long an eyesore and an environmental nightmare, and then a vacant lot used only for parking at Big E time, Johnson said at least one developer has expressed interest.

The broader Walnut Street Extension corridor was rezoned to allow mixed use, he noted, adding that the preferred reuse of the Games and Lanes property would be development that entailed retail and office space on the ground floor and residential units on the floors above.

 

Bottom Line

Much has happened in this town since Johnson last occupied the corner office at the start of this century.

But some issues, including the high school, housing, and the Tuckahoe Turf Farm, were talked about the first time he patrolled Town Hall.

He ran again to bring resolution to those issues and “give them a fair shake,” as he put it, and as he prepares to return to office, there is an expectation of real progress on these and many other fronts.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Kristine Koistinen

Kristine Koistinen says Enfield’s long-awaited rail stop is creating a great deal of anticipation in the community, as well as growing interest from developers.

 

For decades now, a rail stop in Enfield, Conn. on the line from Springfield to Hartford, New Haven, and points south has been a dream.

Finally, the dream is becoming reality.

Indeed, the Connecticut Department of Transportation made it real several weeks ago when it attached hard dates to the $45 million project to build a train station in the section of Enfield called Thompsonville, in the shadow of apartment buildings created at the sprawling former Bigelow Carpet complex.

Those dates include the summer of 2024 for the final design to be completed, the winter of 2025 for the construction bid to be awarded, the spring of 2027 for accompanying rail and bridge work to be completed, and the fall of 2027 for completion of the station and platform.

While a formal ribbon cutting is almost four years away, there is already a great deal of anticipation and excitement in this community of just over 42,000 — as well as interest from the development community, said Town Manager Chris Bromson, adding that the train stop will be, in a word, “transformational.”

“When you look at any of the other transit-oriented districts in Connecticut, it’s been just a boon to economic development and housing,” he told BusinessWest. “If you look at Meriden and other cities in Connecticut that have gotten a train stop, you’ve seen dramatic growth, so we’re very excited, to say the least.”

Elaborating, he said momentum toward a rail station has prompted developers to take options on several properties near the riverfront in the area near the planned station, including an old Eversource power plant, and he expects such interest to only escalate in the months and years to come.

“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “And two years is going to go by in a heartbeat, and developers … they don’t want to miss the train. They want to get in on the ground floor now because those properties are going to be hot.”

Meanwhile, the rail station is just one of many intriguing developments in this community, said Kristine Koistinen, Community Development specialist and also acting Economic Development director. Others include likely redevelopment of the dying mall known as Enfield Square; redevelopment of the former Strand Theater into housing; revitalization of the historic Hazardville Institute into a mixed-use facility that will become, among other things, home to the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce; the recent conversion of the former United Presbyterian Church into the new home for the Opera House Players; and the expected arrival next year of L.L.Bean in the Brookside Plaza.

“It’s back to the future. Today, young people … they really aren’t interested in cars the same way that previous generations were; they want to jump on the train. They want to live in places like Thompsonville and jump on the train and go to New York for the weekend or go to Boston.”

“It’s a very exciting time in Enfield; there’s a lot going on and a lot to get excited about,” she said, adding that there are new developments in many different parts of the community, including Thompsonville, Hazardville, the retail district, and others.

Those sentiments apply to one of the community’s largest institutions as well.

Indeed, Asnuntuck Community College, which marked its 50th anniversary this year, is now known as CT State Community College Asnuntuck. It is one of 12 community colleges, some with satellites, that came together in a merger (creating CT State Community College) that has been years in the making, with the goal of bringing a number of advantages and new opportunities to the colleges, but especially students, said Michelle Coach, Asnuntuck CEO.

“What’s amazing for the students is that they apply once, and they can register on any campus anywhere in the state,” she explained. “In the past, we used to share less than 1% of our students among the 12; we now share about 28% of our students.”

But while the merger is generating new opportunities, Asnuntuck and all the other CT State schools are coping with budget cuts, and more dramatic cuts to come in the future unless the governor and Legislature reverse course and increase their overall commitment to public higher education (more on that later).

As for Enfield Square, it has been in a state of deterioration for several years, with the loss of anchors such as Macy’s, JCPenney, and Sears. It was acquired by New York-based Namdar Realty Group in 2019 amid hopes that there would be investment in the facility and the securing of new tenants. However, it has continued to decline, and there is growing speculation that it may be sold to a developer who will raze all or most of what exists and create a mixed-use facility that may include everything from retail to housing.

planned new housing

An architect’s rendering of the planned new housing to take shape at the site of the former Strand Theater.

A few developers have expressed interest, said Bromson, who declined to name them, adding that Enfield Square may follow the same path as Springfield’s Eastfield Mall, which is currently being demolished in favor of new development following the relocation of several dozen mostly smaller tenants. In fact, Koistinen has talked with officials in Springfield about the Eastfield Mall project and the relocation of tenants there.

For the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest focuses on Enfield, the arrival of rail service, and the many other forms of progress in this community.

 

Train of Thought

Bromson is on his second stint as town manager in Enfield — he held that post from 2019 to 2021, when he resigned, only to return just last month. Overall, he’s spent more than 33 years working for the town in various capacities, including town attorney, Public Safety director, and acting town manager.

For all that time and more, securing a rail stop in town has been a dream and a true priority for the community, for reasons made obvious by looking at similar communities that have a stop. In those cities and towns, development has followed, Bromson noted, adding that there has been significant reversal of the development strategies of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that focused on the automobile and creating infrastructure to support its use.

“It’s back to the future,” he went on. “Today, young people … they really aren’t interested in cars the same way that previous generations were; they want to jump on the train. They want to live in places like Thompsonville and jump on the train and go to New York for the weekend or go to Boston.”

Elaborating, he said Enfield’s station will be more than a metro stop, bringing people to Hartford to work; it will also be a larger hub for Amtrak for more distant destinations. Coupled with the planned spur off the Windsor Locks stop that will bring people to Bradley International Airport, it’s easy to see why a rail station is generating such enthusiasm.

“You can come down to the Enfield station, park — there will be ample parking here — get on the train, take the spur to Bradley, and get on a plane, and never have to deal with the parking or the congestion there,” Bromson said.

the historic Hazardville Institute

Renovation of the historic Hazardville Institute is one of many developing stories in Enfield.

While the rail plans are generating excitement among residents and officials, they are also gaining the attention of the development community, with more interest certainly to come, said those we spoke with.

Bromson said the rail service will likely generate interest in development of more housing, such as the hugely successful Bigelow Commons, now home to more than 2,000 people.

And if more housing becomes reality — and renovation of the former Strand Theater is already set to move off the drawing board — there will be a need for more retail and service businesses, said Koistinen, adding that such need will likely help fill some of the many vacant storefronts and other properties in Thompsonville, but also other parts of the city.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 42,141
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $30.56
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.56
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Empower Retirement LLC, Town of Enfield, LEGO, Advance Auto Parts Distribution Center, Eppendorf Manufacturing
* Latest information available

“For decades, people have been talking about how we revitalize Thompsonville,” she said. “Having the train come is the first step in all of this; here are several vacant properties there, and having the train station so close — that walkability to the downtown — will provide a real boost.”

Overall, there is a sizable trickle-down effect from the rail service, said Bromson, adding that it will likely extend to places like Enfield Square. Indeed, the station will be an intermodal transit center that will send buses and shuttles to locations such as the shopping areas off I-91.

This includes Enfield Square, he noted, adding that the community is talking to developers about the future of the site, while also working with existing tenants to help promote them and prepare them for eventual transition. “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to have a good result there in the near future.”

 

Course of Action

There have been several good results from the merger of the state’s community colleges, a process that has been in motion for more than seven years now, Coach noted.

The new infrastructure brings benefits for the schools, including additional buying power and greater ability to collaborate and share ideas, concepts, and, yes, students.

Indeed, she said there are students who now attend classes at as many as five different schools, taking advantage of each school’s specialty, such as Asnuntuck’s manufacturing program.

Indeed, Asnuntuck now boasts 1,329 students who call the campus home, and another 886 who call another school home but attend at least one class in Enfield, boosting enrollment and bringing more energy and vitality to the campus.

“If the governor doesn’t give us more money, that’s going to hurt our students — that’s what we’re worried about right now.”

Overall, said the merger has brought about a harmonized processing system across the 12 campuses, while allowing each school to maintain its own identity and culture.

“I’ve always said to the employees, our culture is our people, and we have our people,” Coach said. “We can give our students what they need, and I don’t think we’ve changed. But at the same time, they can now register anywhere, we have some amazing processes, and we just hired a behavioral-health counselor for the first time. We’ve always wanted an in-house counselor, and we haven’t been able to do so. By becoming CT State, every campus is getting at least one counselor.”

The merged system is still only a few months old, she said, adding that it will continue to evolve, hone processes, and bring new opportunities and greater collaboration — something that was missing historically — between the individual campuses and their students.

And greater collaboration will be needed because there are many current budget challenges, and deeper cuts likely to come in the year ahead.

“We are underfunded right now,” she said, noting that the system recently cut $33.6 million for this fiscal year, with Asnuntuck slicing roughly $500,000, in large part because elected leaders would not raise the spending limit for the state.

Asnuntuck was able to avoid personnel cuts this fiscal year, but it may not be so fortunate in FY 2025, when an additional $41.3 million will have to be cut, unless already-intense lobbying efforts succeed in garnering more support from the state.

“If the governor doesn’t give us more money, that’s going to hurt our students — that’s what we’re worried about right now,” she told BusinessWest. “And, of course, these are the students that need the help.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

An architect’s rendering of the planned Towne Shoppes of Longmeadow.

An architect’s rendering of the planned Towne Shoppes of Longmeadow.

There were more than 800 people at Longmeadow’s recent special town meeting in the high-school gym.

They were there to consider 30 warrant items, most of them of the smaller, housecleaning variety, but most residents were focused on one matter — a proposed zone change (from residence A-1 to business) for the former First Church of Christ, Scientist on Williams Street, just east of the Longmeadow Shops.

The church property, which has been unused for several years now, was acquired by the Springfield-based Colvest Group, a developer of a number of retail facilities across the 413, and its future use has been the subject of considerable speculation and anticipation in this town of roughly 10,000.

And also one failed vote to change the zoning, said Town Manager Lyn Simmons.

This time, the request passed, easily garnering the needed two-thirds majority, she noted, adding that the vote, and the number of residents who took part in it, spoke volumes about the importance of the project to this mostly residential community.

“This vote tells me that residents want to see something happen there,” she said, adding that the church has been closed for more than a decade, and the parcel it sits on comprises more than two acres in what is considered by many to be not just a retail strip, but the town’s center.

While there is speculation about the site, to be named Towne Shoppes of Longmeadow — it is expected to become home to a mix of high-end shops and restaurants, similar to what exists in the Longmeadow Shops, which will only enhance that area’s prowess as a destination — no firm plans have been put in place and no specific tenants announced, said Simmons, adding that plans should be announced in the coming months.

“This vote tells me that residents want to see something happen there.”

But the church-property project is not the only subject of conjecture in this community. There is also the long-awaited start of work to rebuild the Maple Shopping Center on Shaker Road, known colloquially as the Armata’s plaza (because the market was the lead tenant), which was destroyed by fire almost exactly two years ago.

Armata’s will not be part of the new plaza — owner Alexis Vallides cited high rebuilding costs and a lengthy timeline when she made that announcement in late August — but several new stores are expected at the well-traveled intersection, said Corrin Meise-Munns, Longmeadow’s assistant town manager and director of Planning & Community Development.

Lyn Simmons says there are many questions to be answered in Longmeadow

Lyn Simmons says there are many questions to be answered in Longmeadow in the months to come regarding everything from its middle schools to the reuse of Town Hall and the Community Center.

Meanwhile, there is more speculation about the fate of the town’s two middle schools — combining the two nearly 60-year-old facilities is one of many options on the table — and also the Community Center and Town Hall properties, with the offices in those buildings slated to be consolidated into the town’s former senior center.

In short, there are many questions to be answered in the months to come, said Simmons, who noted that this is an intriguing — and, in many ways, exciting — time for the community.

 

Getting Down to Business

While there is anticipation about what will come next at several addresses across town, there have already been some significant additions to the business landscape over the past years, and even the past few months, Meise-Munns said.

She cited the arrival of the town’s first brewery, One Way Brewing on Maple Road; a new pizza restaurant, Frankie’s, in that same area; another new barbecue restaurant, Fletcher’s BBQ Shop & Steakhouse on Longmeadow Street; a bakery, the Latest Kraze, also on Longmeadow Street in a different shopping plaza; a new taco restaurant under construction in the Longmeadow Shops; a planned Indian restaurant in the former AT&T storefront in the Shops; and a Jersey Mike’s (the chain’s first Western Mass. location), set to take a spot vacated by Subway in the Williams Place Mall, across the street from the Shops.

“There have been many new businesses opening, with more coming in the next several months,” Simmons said. “It’s been an exciting time.”

“There have been many new businesses opening, with more coming in the next several months. It’s been an exciting time.”

What will come next — at the Towne Shoppes of Longmeadow and the rebuilt Maple Center shopping plaza — should be known in the coming months, said Meise-Munns, noting that the high degrees of speculation and anticipation concerning these projects are reflective of how rare such large-scale developments are in this community.

“There are not a lot of opportunities for properties in Longmeadow to change zoning like that,” she said of the church project specifically, but also in general. “The town is mostly residential, and the number of undeveloped parcels is very low, and the number of parcels that are available for redevelopment at any given time is probably lower; this doesn’t happen very often.”

Corrin Meise-Munns says a number of new businesses have opened in Longmeadow

Corrin Meise-Munns says a number of new businesses have opened in Longmeadow over the past year, and there are more in the pipeline.

In a press release issued after the town-meeting vote, Colvest founder and CEO Colaccino noted that “development of the Towne Shoppes of Longmeadow will essentially be an expansion of the adjacent Longmeadow Shops, consistent with the design and character of the property. We are committed to attracting high-quality, specialty retail shops, all of which would complement the stores at the Longmeadow Shops.”

As for the Maple Shopping Center, site plans for reconstruction have been submitted to the Planning Board, said Meise-Munns, adding that, while the exterior will look very much the same as what existed before the fire (although it will be modernized), the interior space for a supermarket has been enlarged, although no anchor tenant — or any other tenant — has been announced publicly.

There were several stores in the former plaza, including a restaurant, a liquor store, a nail salon, and others, said Meise-Munns, adding that the recent additions to the area — the brewery and new pizza restaurant among them — have brought more traffic to that section and should help make the new plaza an attractive landing spot.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.92
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.92
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, on the municipal side of the ledger, there are several ongoing initiatives, including a long-range strategic plan for the community. Work on the plan is now in its second year, said Meise-Munns, adding that, in a town with little, if any, land to still be built upon, the plan is focused less on development and more on such matters as climate action and social equity.

“Much of it focuses on municipal services, transportation, infrastructure, zoning, housing, educational opportunities, parks, and open space,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this “blueprint for the future,” as she called it, should be finalized next spring.

There are also continuing discussions regarding the town’s two middle schools, Williams and Glenbrook, both now approaching 60 years of age. Simmons said there are several options on the table regarding replacement or renovation of one or both, with consolidation of the two schools a possible course.

The next step in the process is a feasibility study that will identify options, she said, adding that there will be several informational sessions to garner input from the public as part of the process.

Plans are also being discussed to consolidate the offices in Town Hall and the adjacent Community House in space at the Greenwood Center, formerly home to the town’s senior center before a new facility was built.

“Such a consolidation provides a lot of benefits for us — better parking, one floor, better ADA access, more meeting-room space, even more bathrooms,” said Simmons, adding that the project, as proposed, could lead to imaginative reuse of the two current town-office structures.

“We would pursue that once we knew if we were moving and what the timeline on the move would be,” she went on, adding that the structures are in a historic district but not historic themselves. “There would need to be a public discussion about what happens to Community House and Town Hall.”

 

Bottom Line

That would be the current Town Hall. What’s known as ‘old town hall’ on Longmeadow Street has long been vacant and unused, and its future is another of the questions to be answered by town leaders and residents, Simmon noted.

There are many such questions at a very intriguing time for this bedroom community with a rich history.

The answers will go a long way toward deciding what the next chapters in that history will look like.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Craig and Pat Sweitzer

Craig and Pat Sweitzer at the recently unveiled mural in the center of Monson.
Staff Photo

“Sophisticated rural.”

That’s how Craig Sweitzer, who has lived and worked in Monson for more than 40 years now — and served on the town’s Planning Board for most of that stretch — chose to describe this community of almost 9,000 people on the eastern edge of Hampden County.

By that, he meant that this town is certainly small and rural, but, as he put it, “you don’t have to leave town to eat.”

Indeed, the community’s downtown boasts several restaurants and, at last count, three coffee shops, said Sweitzer, who, with his wife, Pat, owns and operates Sweitzer Construction, a design-build firm that specializes in medical facilities (especially dental offices) and, more recently, cannabis operations of all kinds.

Indeed, the arrival of the cannabis industry has brought work across all aspects of that sector, Sweitzer said, from dispensaries to production facilities; from testing labs to an armored-car operation in Belchertown created to handle the large amounts of cash generated by these businesses.

“After you get your feet wet in something, you master it, and it leads to more work in that area,” he said, adding that the same is true of dental offices (his firm has now built more than 200 of them), and it is now true with cannabis facilities. “And when you do design/build, you offer the whole package — the architecture, the financing, the site selection … and we’ve done the same thing with cannabis.”

The Sweitzers made Monson their home and the base for their business back in the ’80s, and they’ve watched it grow and evolve. A little.

“Monson still has its rural quality — we still don’t have a traffic light,” Craig said, adding that the town has not changed much over the past four decades, and for those who live there, this is mostly a good thing; sophisticated rural is an attractive quality, one that many are seeking, especially post-pandemic.

Indeed, the town has seen a slight rise in population in the wake of COVID and the manner in which it prompted some living in large population centers to seek more rural areas in which to both live and work.

“Post-COVID, flexible work and hybrid models became very attractive, and so did communities like Monson, because obviously it costs much less to buy a house out here then it does in the Boston area,” said Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, who grew up in town and thus admitted to some bias, adding that, if the proposed east-west rail project becomes reality, Mosnon and communities like it will become even more attractive to those looking to work in Boston but not necessarily live there.

“There’s still that sense of small-town feel and community here in Monson, and that’s very attractive to many people,” he went on. “It’s a nice place to live, and I get the best of both worlds because I work there as well.”

He said Monson is close enough from Springfield and Worcester to be an attractive landing spot for those working in those metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, it has its own economy in a way, with those aforementioned restaurants and coffee shops, a supermarket, several service businesses, and some ventures that accentuate its rural personality while also making it a destination.

That list includes Silver Bell Farms, a multifaceted enterprise that features everything from Christmas-tree sales (although not this year as the farm builds up inventory for the future) to many different kinds of events, to a new lighting display called Silver Bell Nights.

“There’s still that sense of small-town feel and community here in Monson, and that’s very attractive to many people.”

Michael Moore, who runs the operation with his wife, Laura, said Silver Bell Nights is an intriguing addition to a portfolio of events and attractions that brings more than 50,000 people to the farm each year, with activities running year-round and especially in the fall and then around the holidays.

“This is something we’re really excited about — it’s a dazzling outdoor lighting display,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the lights were turned on amid considerable fanfare on Nov. 18, and the show will go on until the new year. “We’re looking forward to many new visitors discovering the farm and all that we have here.”

For this the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest visited Monson to get a feel for what sophisticated rural is all about.

 

The Nature of Things

Craig Sweitzer said that, during his long period of service on the Planning Board, the largest housing project to come before that body has been a subdivision of no more than 12 homes.

“Monson is quite hilly, and we have a lot of land that’s tricky to build on,” he said, adding that this topography helps explain why, unlike some of its neighbors, and especially Belchertown, it has not seen large-scale residential development.

What it has seen is slow but continuous growth, one or two homes at a time, on existing roads.

Michael Moore says Silver Bell Nights is an exciting new addition

Michael Moore says Silver Bell Nights is an exciting new addition to what has become a year-round destination.
Staff Photo

“Although there are no massive subdivisions, there’s always a steady flow of new lots being created from existing road frontage,” Sweitzer explained, adding that any growth has been incremental and not (like Belchertown) explosive.

What the new residents encounter, and what those already living there thoroughly enjoy, is a town that’s both isolated and accessible at the same time, one with a small yet thriving downtown, a lively arts community, some intriguing new businesses, and nature.

“There’s a lot here … it’s a quiet, vibrant town with its own personality,” said Pat Sweitzer as she walked with BusinessWest on Main Street. “There’s a lot to like here.”

All of this is captured in, and manifested in, a mural adorning the wall of Adams Hometown Market on Main Street. The byproduct of a project led by local artists Melissa Stratton-Pandina and Shara Osgood and unveiled in September, the mural is titled “Past, Present and Future.” It depicts town landmarks; some of its history, including its granite quarries and involvement in the Civil War; and rural nature — there’s an image of a mountain lion that has become part of town lore, said the Sweitzers, who believe they’ve seen the cat.

The mural, created with large amounts of feedback from the community, effectively tells the story of a town that celebrates its past — including the recent past and a still-ongoing recovery from the June 2011 tornado that roared through Main Street — as well as its present.

And there is much to celebrate, including a high quality of life; a stable, still-evolving downtown; a vibrant arts community thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Monson Arts Council; annual gatherings such as Summerfest and a popular food-truck festival; and what both Moriarty and the Sweitzers called an entrepreneurial spirit that has yielded a number of intriguing new business ventures in recent years.

Dan Moriarty says the broad goal in Monson is to attract new business

Dan Moriarty says the broad goal in Monson is to attract new business while maintaining the community’s rural look, feel, and personality.
Staff Photo

Overall, the business community is quite diverse, said Moriarty, and includes many ventures in the broad realm of tourism and hospitality. These include the restaurants and coffee shops downtown; small bakeries and specialty food producers, such as Cookies by Ray and Happy Hen Farmstand, which sells everything from eggs (hence the name) to a variety of baked goods; and agriculture-related businesses such as Echo Hill Orchards and Winery, Bryson’s Maple Syrup, and Silver Bell Farms, a relatively recent addition that continues to evolve.

Indeed, what started as a Christmas-tree farm roughly a decade ago has become a site for events and activities year-round, said Moore, listing everything from private events such as birthday parties to an Easter egg hunt, Christmas in July, a fall corn maze, barrel-train rides, tractor-pulled wagon rides, and even interactive theater productions.

There are plenty of holiday-season happenings and programs as well, including Santa story time, wreath decorating, and a farm store that sells everything from Christmas ornaments to cider donuts.

The big addition this year is Silver Bell Nights, the holiday light experience that features a number of different displays throughout the property.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,865
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $15.86
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.86
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Moore said the initiative represents a sizable investment, but one that will make Silver Bell more of a holiday destination — and tradition — for area residents, and a vehicle for continued growth at the farm.

Moriarity said Monson’s challenge moving forward — and it’s the same challenge facing many smaller towns — is to promote growth of the business community while maintaining the rural quality that makes it so attractive.

“Like most small towns, we try to be open-minded,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m very passionate and hopeful for continual pro-business decisions in town, where we can bring in some small-business opportunities for people, because I think that, for the town to be viable, we must be open to new business opportunities, while at the same protecting the open space and beautiful landscape the town has.”

 

Getting a Feel for It

Getting back to that mural, it tells a story — and it is quite a story.

A story of a community that is continually looking for ways to build on an already-attractive landscape and create more reasons for people to want to live and work there.

That’s the big picture in Monson — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Let It Shine! Public Art Partnership

The Let It Shine! Public Art Partnership, a collaborative effort involving several partners, has helped bring new murals, color, and more vibrancy to downtown Pittsfield.

Rebecca Brien grew up in Berkshire County and has lived in Pittsfield for more than 30 years now. She’s old enough to remember what it was like downtown on Thursday nights after employees at the sprawling General Electric transformer-manufacturing complex picked up their paychecks.

“All of the shops would stay open late,” she recalled. “And all of the employees would get their paychecks and come down to the banks directly to cash them and have dinner and do some shopping. It was definitely a bustling town.”

Brien, who now serves as managing director of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., or DPI — a membership organization consisting of property owners, businesses, residents, and nonprofit agencies — understands that it probably won’t ever be that like again on North Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, and adjacent streets.

But there is a renewed sense of vibrancy — coupled with some stern challenges — in the central business district, she said, noting there are several new and thriving businesses, many of them in the broad realms of arts, tourism, and hospitality, and new initiatives to improve the area and specific storefronts and encourage people of all ages to visit the district and stay for a while.

These include the Let it Shine! Public Art Partnership, a group of Pittsfield-based community members who have come together to organize public art and revitalization on North Street, including several new murals that have brought color to the area and changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, and the Pittsfield Glow Up! Business-improvement grant program, made possible by ARPA funding. The initiative provides grants of up to $10,000 to eligible businesses impacted by COVID to be used for physical improvements that will enhance foot traffic and create visual vibrancy in the district (more on both programs later).

“There’s definitely a concern when it comes to foot traffic, so DPI has been working very hard to make sure that there are activities going on.”

“I do see that our downtown is poised to reach a new potential,” Brien said. “We’re working with MassDevelopment and its Transformative Development Initiative, a program to accelerate economic growth in focused areas, which means we have access to funding and programs that are really making a difference in our downtown.”

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of the Pittsfield-based economic-development agency 1Berkshire, agreed.

He said Pittsfield and especially its downtown, which has been reshaping and reimagining itself since GE departed nearly 40 years ago, remains a work in progress.

Today, its economy is far more diverse than it was decades ago, when manufacturing was the anchor, he said, adding quickly that manufacturing remains a force, with General Dynamics employing nearly 2,000 people in facilities that were once part of the GE complex.

But the creative economy has also become a huge force in the community, with attractions and institutions such as Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage Company, and the Colonial Theatre, and this diversity stretches to technology, healthcare, service businesses, and other types of entrepreneurial ventures.

Al Enchill, seen here with his son, Auric

Al Enchill, seen here with his son, Auric, says he’s seen a considerable amount of change and progress in downtown Pittsfield since he first opened his busness.

That list includes Elegant Stitches, an embroidery and screen-printing shop run by Al Enchill and his son, Auric. It specializes in branded custom apparel — from T-shirts to tote bags to umbrellas — and counts a number of area banks and other businesses, colleges, government agencies (including the FBI), and even the U.S. Army in its client portfolio.

Al Enchill first opened his business on First Street in 1997, and has seen a good deal of change and progress downtown since then.

“Pittsfield is changing for the better, and it’s attracting more people,” he said. “I think this will help the businesses here.”

But as much as Pittsfield and its downtown are experiencing growth and progress, there are still considerable challenges, some of them COVID-related.

Indeed, the shift to remote work and hybrid arrangements has left fewer people working downtown, said Butler and Brien, noting that this has certainly impacted many of the hospitality-related businesses in that area. Meanwhile, that same trend has also impacted commercial real estate downtown, Butler added, noting that some businesses are now leasing less space, and others will certainly be tempted to do so.

At the same time, there is a housing crisis — the same one impacting communities across Western Mass., Butler noted, adding that there is potential to convert some of the vacant or underutilized space in the downtown area to housing, something that would address two problems at once and bring people, and vibrancy, to the city center.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Pittsfield and its downtown, and efforts not to recreate the past, but to create a vibrant, sustainable future.

 

Progress Report

Brien said DPI, established in 1983, acts much like a chamber of commerce would. The agency serves as a connector and liaison for businesses and property owners, residents, and city officials.

It is currently working on a number of initiatives to bring new businesses and vibrancy to the downtown area, she said. These include a collaborative effort between DPI and the Berkshire Black Economic Council on a VIBE grant that will provide funding for four new businesses to launch in the downtown, a program designed to help fill some of the empty storefronts in the district.

Meanwhile, DPI continues its work with the city and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corp. to administer the Glow Up! grants. A first round of grants totaling $100,000 and involving 12 businesses was awarded in the spring, and applications for a second round of $100,000 opened earlier this month.

“Pittsfield is a commercial center, lots of people physically work in Pittsfield; they all left downtown Pittsfield during the pandemic to work at home, and now, three years later, some of them have returned, but many haven’t. So, like many other downtowns, there’s a large gap in commercial real-estate space, a lot of unfilled space.”

“The money can go toward anything from painting to new windows to new signage and additional lighting,” Brien said, adding that the program’s name explains what business owners are trying to do — glow up their operations.

Overall, there is progress downtown, but several challenges as well, especially when it comes to foot traffic — a concern for most all cities in the post-COVID area. Thus, DPI has intensified its efforts to create programming and undertake initiatives to not only bring people to the area, but extend their stay.

“There definitely have been more challenges, especially for our lunch business in the downtown, especially with the banks, insurance agencies, and organizations like that still working hybrid models,” Brien said. “There’s definitely a concern when it comes to foot traffic, so DPI has been working very hard to make sure that there are activities going on.”

These include an Artswalk on the first Friday of each month between May and December to bring visitors downtown, she noted, adding that the program has been expanded recently to include placing works by local artists in shops and restaurants, as well as music, dance, a marketplace, and activities for children in an effort to extend visitors’ stay in the central business district to include dinner and perhaps a show at one of the venues.

Along these same lines, the Let it Shine! community art project was launched. It includes eight new murals in the downtown and West Side districts.

“These are world-renowned artists — individuals from across the U.S., and local artists as well, who have installed pieces,” Brien said, adding that a digital tour guides individuals to these works and other murals installed in recent years.

“Any night of the week in our downtown, you can find activities, you can find music, shows at the local theaters — we have a great movie theater in our downtown, we have a new brewery that has programming every night of the week,” she went on. “We have great restaurants … there’s a lot to do, and we’re doing what we can to bring people out and take it all in.”

Enchill has witnessed all this out the front window of his business, and he is encouraged by what he now sees. He said that, while COVID took its toll, there are many people on the streets, some of whom will stop into his store to buy a sweatshirt because it’s colder outside than they thought it might be.

“Things are changing here — things are happening,” he said. “Downtown is making its way back.”

 

‘Fighting Its Way Back’

Butler concurred, and noted that there is a sense of momentum in Pittsfield, visible on many fronts.

These include population growth, something all Berkshires communities have been seeking, especially in the form of professionals fleeing larger municipal centers in the wake of COVID for more rural zip codes that offer quality of life and opportunities to work remotely.

Pittsfield fits that description, Butler said, adding quickly, though, that whatever surge there may have been has crested. Meanwhile, he wondered out loud how many of these new arrivals were simply living in the Berkshires and not working there — and, thus, not providing any relief for a workforce crunch that is still impacting businesses across most all sectors, but especially the tourism and hospitality industry.

“It’s absolutely a tough time workforce-wise; I don’t know if we’re off trend with the rest of Massachusetts or New England, but we’ve definitely felt pressure in the hiring market going all the way back to 2017 and 2018, pre-pandemic, and then it accelerated with the pandemic, and we’re still feeling that,” he said, using ‘we’ to mean the Berkshires in general but especially the region’s largest community, where roughly 40% of those employed in the county work.

“And it’s really every sector, from hospitality to healthcare, manufacturing, and tech; we just have a variety of sectors where they’re hiring everywhere, and it doesn’t appear that the workforce needed for our current employers is seeking employment at the volume needed in the Berkshires.”

The problem is especially acute in the tourism and hospitality sector, Butler said, where some businesses, including hotels and restaurants, have been forced to alter operations, and often hours or days of operation, because of an inability to find enough help.

As for the downtown, he said it is “fighting its way back,” a phrase he used not necessarily in reference to the loss of GE, although that’s part of it, but rather to COVID and its after-effects, with regard to both visitation and a changing workplace that has left at least Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays quieter than they were before the pandemic.

“Downtown Pittsfield was probably the heaviest pressure point in terms of pandemic-induced economic impact, and that was probably the case with most gateway cities and larger cities,” he said. “And in the case of downtown Pittsfield, I think it was a combination of things — Pittsfield is a commercial center, lots of people physically work in Pittsfield; they all left downtown Pittsfield during the pandemic to work at home, and now, three years later, some of them have returned, but many haven’t. So, like many other downtowns, there’s a large gap in commercial real-estate space, a lot of unfilled space.”

Elaborating, he said some businesses are carrying on in the same space as before the pandemic, but others have changed their footprint to accommodate a smaller on-site workforce, leaving space to be leased.

Space that might be used to help combat the ongoing housing crisis, he said.

“There’s an opportunity to convert a lot of this underutilized space that we found post-pandemic into housing,” Butler explained, adding there are a probably a dozen buildings in and around downtown Pittsfield that could be retrofitted for such use, and a $4.8 billion housing bond bill proposed late last month might help fund such transformations.

 

Seeing the Light

Brien has obviously seen a great deal of change in downtown Pittsfield from those days when GE dominated the economy and even the culture of the community.

And the pace of change continues, most recently in a positive way, with new businesses and new initiatives that make the city and its downtown a destination.

“I really feel that there’s a glimmer,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but every day, we do a little bit more to bring Pittsfield and our downtown back to life.”

A life that respects the past, but is more a reflection of the future.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Robin Grimm says Sturbridge appealed to her for many reasons

Robin Grimm says Sturbridge appealed to her for many reasons, from its beauty to its sense of history to its enthusiastic celebration of that history.

Officials in many different communities like to say they’re ‘at the crossroads’ — of their region or even New England.

In Sturbridge … they mean it.

Indeed, this community of just under 10,000 people sits at the intersection of the Mass. Pike and I-84, which begins in the town and winds its way southwest through Hartford and into New York and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Route 20, a state highway, and the main east-west corridor before the Pike was built, runs through the town and forms its main commercial artery.

Most area cities and towns also like to say that they have ‘something for everyone.’

In Sturbridge … they mean it.

There are hotels, restaurants, and taverns, as well as campgrounds, hiking trails, and kayaking on the Quaboag River. There’s shopping and antiques (Brimfield is right next door, and there are many shops in Sturbridge itself). There are a few brewpubs, a distillery, and even axe throwing. There’s foliage (many tours of New England’s fall colors end here) and the famous shrine at St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish.

“If you were the Mass. association of anything, Sturbridge is ideal, because we’re dead center — it’s equidistant from the Berkshires to Hyannis. And it’s less expensive than Marlboro or going even closer to Boston.”

Between the accessibility and the all the things to do — and the two qualities are obviously very much related — there are always considerably more than 10,000 people in Sturbridge at any given time.

Some visitors get off those aforementioned roads on their way to somewhere else and often shop, eat, or both. But, more importantly for the town, the region, and the businesses within, many stay for a night or two … or three.

They come for business meetings and conventions; to look at foliage; to camp or park RVs at the two RV parks; to take in the three Brimfield Flea Markets in May, June, and September; for the annual Harvest Festival, staged earlier this month; and to converge for the Pan-Mass Challenge, the bike ride to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which features a route that starts in Sturbridge and winds 109 miles southeast to Bourne.

Terry Masterson says Sturbridge’s trails, campgrounds

Terry Masterson says Sturbridge’s trails, campgrounds, and RV parks are an often-overlooked but important element in the town’s status as a true destination.

And they come for weddings.

Neither Town Administrator Robin Grimm nor Terry Masterson, the town’s Economic Development and Tourism coordinator, know exactly how many, but they know it’s a big number.

“Weddings are a cottage industry here,” said Grimm, noting that a combination of venues (such as the Publick House Historic Inn and Country Lodge and the Sturbridge Host Hotel & Conference Center), beauty, and position in the middle of the state (and the middle of New England, for that matter) make Sturbridge a popular wedding location.

Alexandra McNitt, director of the Chamber of Central Mass South for the past 17 years, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the community’s location, in the very middle of the state and on major highways, makes it a logical choice for meetings and conventions involving state associations, business groups, and families planning reunions and other types of get-togethers.

“If you were the Mass. association of anything, Sturbridge is ideal, because we’re dead center — it’s equidistant from the Berkshires to Hyannis,” she said. “And it’s less expensive than Marlboro or going even closer to Boston.

“And with families and friends getting together … I can’t tell you how many times we get people who call us and say, ‘I live in Maine, I have some friends coming up from New York or Pennsylvania, and they’re coming to Sturbridge because it’s halfway for both of them,’” she went on. “It happens all the time. So we benefit from this location on the personal level, with small-meeting groups and any kind of state clubs or associations.”

Overall, between the hotels, RV parks, Old Sturbridge Village, the Brimfield antique shows, and the weddings, events, and meetings, Sturbridge draws more than a half-million visitors a year.

And those who find the town will now be able to more easily find out about all there is to do there, and in the surrounding region, with the opening of a new home for the chamber, one that includes a visitors center on River Road, just off exit 5 of I-84 (more on that later).

Meanwhile, there is another potential new draw for this already-popular destination with the planned opening of a combination truck stop and what’s being called an ‘electric-vehicle discovery center,’ said Masterson, where motorists can learn about EV ownership and potentially test-drive vehicles from various manufacturers.

For this installment of its ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Sturbridge and how it takes full advantage of its accessibility, beauty, and increasingly diverse business community.

 

Staying Power

Grimm, formerly a town administrator in Stoughton, just south of Boston, and administrator or assistant administrator in several communities in Rhode Island, where she grew up, told BusinessWest that she wasn’t exactly looking for a job when Sturbridge posted for a town administrator early in 2022. But there were many things about the position that appealed to her, from its beauty to its sense of history to its enthusiastic celebration of that history.

“Sturbridge has always been a favorite community for me — there isn’t a kid in Rhode Island who doesn’t take a visit to Old Sturbridge Village,” she said. “I love rural communities, and when an opportunity to work in this part of Massachusetts came up, my ears perked up.

“Sturbridge is particularly unique,” she went on, “because it’s an unusual combination of the beautiful, rural, foothill feel that you get as you start moving west in Massachusetts, and what happens when you have the reality of the intersection of two major highways.”

Masterson, who came to Sturbridge in 2020, has a somewhat similar story. Formerly an Economic Development administrator in Northampton, he said he came to Sturbridge and a similar post there because of that same blend of history and business development. “I enjoy history, so the job posting piqued my interest, and I came and interviewed.”

Masterson said the importance of tourism, hospitality, meetings, and conventions to Sturbridge, and the manner in which all this dominates the local economy, becomes clear as he breaks down the tourism business base, which includes nearly 100 businesses of all sizes.

Visitors to Sturbridge

Visitors to Sturbridge will find information on the community’s many attractions and tourism-related businesses at the new visitors center.

Indeed, there are 11 hotels located in the community, which together boast roughly 1,000 rooms, he said. There are 24 ‘eating establishments,’ three coffee and tea houses, six dessert or ice-cream shops, six brew pubs, five wineries, three orchards, three wedding venues, 17 specialty shops, four RV parks and campsites, five nature trails covering 35 miles, and two golf courses.

All this explains why Sturbridge, which boasts a rich history — Grimm says the Revolutionary War is still a big part of the town’s “culture” — has become such a destination.

Masterson noted that its popularity as a stop, for a few hours or a few days, is made clear in statistics regarding spending on meals; the town has been averaging $63 million annually since 2017, with a high of $72 million in 2022. By comparison, Northampton, a community well known for its stable of fine restaurants, averages $93 million annually.

The hotels have high occupancy rates in spring, summer, and fall, said McNitt, adding that they, and the restaurants, get a huge boost from the Brimfield antiques shows, the first of which, in May, is the unofficial start to the busy season. “That first May show is a huge shot in the arm for the hotels and restaurants; that kicks off the season, and then we’ll be flying until Thanksgiving.”

These numbers, and those regarding overall visitorship, obviously make Sturbridge a popular landing spot for tourism- and hospitality-related businesses, said Masterson, adding that there has been a steady stream of new arrivals in recent years, including several this year.

“Sturbridge is particularly unique, because it’s an unusual combination of the beautiful, rural, foothill feel that you get as you start moving west in Massachusetts, and what happens when you have the reality of the intersection of two major highways.”

They include everything from Wicked Licks, an ice-cream shop that opened on Route 20 near the entrance to Old Sturbridge Village; Tutt Quanti, an Italian restaurant; Heal and Local Roots, two cannabis dispensaries along Route 20; D’Errico’s, an upper-end meat purveyor taking space in the Local Roots facility; and Teddy G’s Pub & Grille, which is occupying the former Friendly’s location on Route 20.

 

Meeting Expectations

In addition to its meeting, convention, and wedding business, Sturbridge and the surrounding area boasts a number of historical and cultural attractions, parks, orchards, trails, golf courses, and other forms of recreation.

Topping that impressive list, of course, is Old Sturbridge Village, one of the nation’s oldest and largest living-history museums, with 40 restored antique buildings, a working farm, two covered bridges, and much more. OSV draws 250,000 visitors a year and hosts hundreds of school field trips, as it has for decades.

There’s also Sturbridge Common, the picturesque town founded in the 1730s, which was, during the Revolutionary War, the site of militia drills and the collection of military supplies, as well as St. Anne Shrine, which has been welcoming pilgrims praying for physical and spiritual healing since 1888.

Sturbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1738
Population: 9,867
Area: 39.0 square miles
County: Worcester
Residential Tax Rate: $18.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.07
Median Household Income: $56,519
Family Household Income: $64,455
Type of government: Town Administrator, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: OFS Optics, Old Sturbridge Village, Arland Tool & Manufacturing Inc., Sturbridge Host Hotel & Conference Center
* Latest information available

Perhaps less well-known, but increasingly popular — and important to the business community — are the trails, campgrounds, RV parks, and open spaces in Sturbridge.

“We have more than 450 RV pads, which I conservatively estimate will draw more than 100,000 people a year between April and October,” said Masterson, adding that the RV parks, as well as the trails and campgrounds, enabled Sturbridge to continue to draw large numbers of visitors during COVID.

The new chamber office and visitors’ center will help provide more information to those who come to Sturbridge for all those reasons listed above, said McNitt, adding that the town had such a facility years ago, saw it close, but recognized the need to resurrect it.

And many of the businesses and venues that it spotlights helped make this move possible, including the donation of a building for the facility.

“The community has really come together to support this initiative,” McNitt noted, adding that a painting-business owner has volunteered time and talent to paint the facility, while the Publick House donated landscaping, and other businesses have chipped in as well. “It’s definitely been a community effort; they wanted this to come back.”

As for the planned service center and EV discovery center now nearing the finish line, it is one of several such facilities being developed by partners Michael Frisbie and Abdul Tammo, co-owners of Hartford-based Noble Gas Inc. The two partners are building what they tout as a new generation of larger service centers, complete with high-speed electric-vehicle charging stations and a host of other amenities, including an ice-cream shop and outdoor picnic areas.

“If you have an electric vehicle, it’s not like filling your gas tank,” said McNitt, explaining the concept as she understands it. “It doesn’t happen in three minutes; even with a high-speed charger, it takes 20 to 30 minutes, so they’re trying to create an environment that’s friendly toward that.”

It’s just one more way Sturbridge is creating an environment friendly to all kinds of recreation seekers who arrive here at the crossroads.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

MCLA President James Birge

MCLA President James Birge cuts the ribbon at the official launch of the school’s new nursing program.

 

Jennifer Macksey grew up North Adams, and she’s seen some profound changes in her 50 years — and from many perspectives.

As a young girl, she remembers Thursday nights downtown, which would be bustling as the thousands of employees at nearby Sprague Electric would be out spending their paychecks in the stores, like the one owned by her parents, and restaurants along Main Street and connecting corridors. She also remembers how the landscape changed dramatically, and the vibrancy downtown all but disappeared overnight, after Sprague closed its doors in 1985.

Later, while serving in several positions in City Hall, including chief financial officer and treasurer and collector, and also at the nearby Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) and Southern Vermont College, and then as assistant superintendent of the Northern Berkshire Regional School District, she saw the city’s economy struggle as it also evolved, from one dominated by manufacturing to one centered on tourism and the arts, a shift exemplified, in dramatic fashion, by the transformation of the former Sprague Electric complex into MASS MoCA, the nation’s largest museum of contemporary art, which opened its doors in 1999.

Today, Macksey is mayor of the city, a post she has long coveted (more on that later), and is thus in a position to not only observe, but also shape the ongoing evolution of this city of nearly 13,000.

She reports progress on several fronts, from new stores downtown to signs of development at the long-vacant former TD Bank building on Main Street; from a cannabis-cultivation facility in the Hardman Industrial Park to a small but quite significant rise in population — part of a countywide phenomenon involving residents of large metro centers leaving for the Berkshires, where many of them are working remotely.

Jennifer Macksey

Jennifer Macksey

“We’ve brought a lot of new people into the community, but we’re also focused on getting businesses in here.”

“I’m amazed at the people who are buying property here in North Adams,” Macksey said. “We’re seeing a lot of people who are leaving larger cities and coming here to work remotely, and we’re seeing out-of-town investors buying up property, whether it be for long-term or short-term rental. So our population is starting to go up a bit.”

James Birge, long-time president of MCLA and another native of Berkshire County (he grew up in Lee), has also seen a number of signs of progress, both across the county and in North Adams. In addition to meeting its mission of providing a quality liberal-arts education and enabling students from low-income families to live “an elevated life,” as he calls it, MCLA is helping to fuel a changing Berkshires economy by providing qualified workers and also adding new programs to meet recognized need, such as its new nursing-degree program.

“While 40% of our students come from Berkshire County, 50% of our students who graduate stay in Berkshire County,” he said. “So we’re contributing to the brain gain of Berkshire County.”

The nursing program, initiated this fall, was launched in response to a request from Berkshire Health Systems to help meet an urgent need to put more nurses into the pipeline.

“We thought, ‘here is an opportunity where we can develop an academic program that would be in demand and be responsive to the needs of our community,” Birge said, adding that the program started with 20 students this fall and is expected to ultimately grow to 110-120 students. “This is the fundamental, historic purpose of public higher education — to respond to the needs of the community.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at North Adams and the many developing stories there.

 

 

Taking the Lead

While growing up in North Adams, Macksey said, her parents always stressed the importance of both giving back and getting involved, qualities she has embraced her whole life.

This passion, coupled with a desire to lead change in a community she said was still struggling in many ways, prompted her to run for mayor in 2021 — and to seek re-election this fall.

“I always wanted to be mayor,” she told BusinessWest. “When I left City Hall, I knew that I would come back someday, but I always said I would come back to the corner office, and that’s what I did. I’m very interested in keeping North Adams moving forward.”

Her focus is broad and covers many issues, from education to public safety, but especially economic development, she said, adding that, like all communities in the Berkshires and beyond, the most pressing need is jobs.

“We’ve brought a lot of new people into the community, but we’re also focused on getting businesses in here, and that is really the charge of my next two years in office, to build out some economic-development plans and to sell North Adams more than it has been.

“North Adams is sold on its beauty and its natural resources, but there are a lot of other things to offer,” she went on. “I’m very focused on the buildings that we do have that are empty and our industrial park and exploring opportunities to bring in some light industry.”

The Hardman Industrial Park recently became home to the Temescal Wellness cannabis growing facility, in a facility that formerly housed Crane Stationery. The facility employs between 75 to 100 people and is thus an important source of new jobs and one of many investments that have taken place in North Adams.

Others include ongoing investment in the Porches Inn at MASS MoCA on River Street and also in the Hotel Downstreet on Main Street — facilities that are catering to the steady volumes of visitors to North Adams, which has increasingly become a destination in recent years — as well as redevelopment of the former Johnson School into much-needed housing.

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 12,961
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.67
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.60
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

In the downtown, most of the storefronts are now occupied, Macksey said, and the former TD Bank facility has been acquired, and redevelopment plans are being blueprinted.

“Our downtown is pretty much full,” she noted. “There were many years when it was empty, and I really applaud the owners of those buildings for hanging in there.”

But there is considerable work to be done, she added. “We’ve got a lot of things going on, but we really need to provide more jobs for our workforce here. And we hope to develop some economic-development plans that will bring some people into the city.”

Creating jobs is a process, she noted, one that involves collaboration and partnerships with business, the education sector, and workforce-development agencies, as well as that notion of more aggressively selling the city and its many types of assets and generating new investments in the community.

“We need to create some jobs that provide some on-the-job training,” she said, citing Temescal Wellness as one example of such an employer. “We also need to be collaborating with places like MassHire and other groups to create opportunities where people can learn a trade as they work.

“And we also need to be aggressive in cultivating a community, even in our high school, of students who want to work here in North Adams, be it in a trade or in an administrative position,” Macksey went on. “But most importantly, we’re looking to work with businesses that are sensitive to hiring people here in North Adams.”

 

Class Act

Birge told BusinessWest that he thought MCLA might fall a little in the annual U.S. News & World Report ranking on the nation’s public liberal-arts colleges, a category that includes the service academies. But it didn’t.

Instead, it held its place at number 7 — this was the third year in a row it finished in that spot and the ninth year in a row it has cracked the top 10, out of roughly 500 institutions — a measure, he said, of not only the school’s commitment to excellence, but its ability to consistently deliver on its commitment to providing a quality liberal-arts education.

As proud as Birge might be of this ranking — and he is quite proud — he is even more satisfied with the school’s rankings on U.S. News & World Report’s listing of top performers when it comes to social mobility, a category the publication initiated in 2019. This is a measure of how well institutions graduate students who receive federal Pell grants, typically awarded to students whose families earn less than $50,000, though most Pell Grant money goes to families with income below $20,000.

In this category, MCLA ranked first in the state and second in the country.

“I like this ranking a little bit more, because we’re meeting our mission — we have a mission of access,” he explained. “We want students who may not be able to afford to go to other institutions to come here and get an outstanding education and then go off and have a life that they wouldn’t have if they didn’t come to us.

“I think that’s a more important measure; we’re the highest-ranked public institution in Massachusetts and the second-highest in the nation, and we’re really proud of that,” he went on, adding that one-third of the school’s students come from families earning less than $30,000 per year, and roughly 40% of them are first-generation college students.

“The average starting salary for an MCLA alum is $46,000,” he went on. “Hundreds of students are graduating and making an average salary of $46,000, and they’re coming from families that made less than $30,000. We’re breaking the cycle of poverty for hundreds of kids in four years — we think that’s a pretty noble mission for a public higher-education institution.”

Overall, MCLA is seeing a surge in enrollment due to a roughly 15% increase among first-year students (total enrollment is largely flat), and Birge attributes this to the value the school presents at a time when value has become an ever-more-important factor among students and their parents. Indeed, one can graduate from MCLA with a fraction of the debt they may assume if they were to attend a private liberal-arts college, he said.

While on the subject of value, Birge said a liberal-arts education still holds plenty of value in this job market and in general, despite growing rhetoric questioning the relative worth of a liberal-arts degree, and some colleges and universities — Simmons and Lasell are among the latest to do so — cutting liberal-arts majors, including history, modern languages, philosophy, and literature because of low enrollment.

“I think those institutions that are cutting liberal-arts programs are not being very visionary, and I think they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face,” he added “In our world today, even more than ever, we need people educated in the liberal-arts tradition. We need people who can understand different perspectives and look at things through different lenses.”

Especially in a changing Berkshire County, he noted.

“The economy has changed; it used to be an industrial economy, and now it’s more of a creative economy, across the county,” Birge said. “And I think that has breathed life back into a lot of our communities, including North Adams. It’s a vibrant moment in the history of Berkshire County, and we try to be as participatory in that as we can.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

renovated chapel

An architect’s rendering of the renovated chapel at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, what students are calling the ‘Harry Potter dining hall.’

The students have started calling it the “Harry Potter dining hall,” and with good reason.

That’s the look that will be created by an ambitious initiative to transform the ornate but very much underused chapel at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) into a next-generation dining commons.

The undertaking, the second phase of a much larger strategic initiative that comes with an $18 million price tag, will enable the school to make far better use of not only the chapel, but the current dining hall, which will be converted into an auditorium and event space.

“This is going to be stunning,” Head of School Brian Easler said. “Because the music department is under the current dining hall, it will be a much more efficient use of space. Right now, we use the chapel once a week for 20 minutes for school meeting; other than that, it stays vacant, which is a shame because it’s the most beautiful building on the campus. So we’ll use the most beautiful building as the heart of the school.”

Perhaps the best part about all this, Easler said, is that the idea for converting the chapel into a dining hall came from a student, who was looking at a 3D scale model of the campus created by the architectural firm handing the project and put forth a powerful ‘what if?’ (more on that later).

Transformation of the chapel, the timing of which is dependent on fundraising — which is off to a solid start, according to Easler — is not the only landscape-altering development taking shape on or just off Main Street in Wilbraham.

Indeed, there’s also new construction just down the road from WMA, where, on the site of three demolished buildings, a mixed-use facility is taking shape, one that will house a brewery, an Italian restaurant, additional commercial businesses, and seven apartments.

This development, called the Center Village project — on top of other emerging and established success stories across town — is expected to spur new development in what is considered the town, or village, center, although it still doesn’t look much like a center, said Mike Mazzuca, chair of Wilbraham’s resurrected Economic Development Committee.

“We want to look at how we can create a true downtown for Wilbraham,” he said, noting that there is real potential for business to thrive beyond the Boston Road corridor.

Jeff Smith, another member of the committee and co-owner, with his wife, Amy, of one of those Wilbraham-based businesses, New England Promotional Marketing (NEPM), agreed.

“Back in the ’80s, there was a lot more going on in the town center, and it was used more,” he explained, noting, for example, that the post office was there before it was relocated to Boston Road. “Things changed, a couple of the buildings became vacant, and there was less and less activity there. Now that there will be more activity, we believe that will spur more development.”

Mazzuca added that, while one of the committee’s primary goals is to bring new commerce, vibrancy, businesses, and especially people to the town center, its larger mission is to send a message, loud and clear, that Wilbraham is ‘open for business.’

It always has been, he said, but it has also always been a mostly residential community and among the region’s unofficial ‘best places to live.’ It can still be that, he went on, while also building on a somewhat impressive portfolio of businesses — most of them small, most of them retail or service in nature, and most of them on Boston Road.

As it goes about its work, the Economic Development Committee will promote all that Wilbraham has to offer, said both Mazzuca and Smith, adding that there are many amenities on that list, starting with a single tax rate and continuing with available tax-increment financing; a vibrant business corridor (Boston Road) that boasts traffic counts of 12,000 cars a day; proximity to Springfield, Ludlow, Hampden, Palmer, and Monson; a diverse existing business base; high-speed internet; and more.

“We want to help out and be a liaison between the municipality, the permitting authorities, and the actual businesses, with the ultimate goal of getting that message across that we are open for business.”

Smith said the committee is working to parlay these assets and the current momentum in the town on Main Street, Boston Road, and beyond into new business opportunities.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Wilbraham and all that goes into that phrase ‘open for business.’

 

Food for Thought

As he recounted that now-famous session where students and the architects were discussing what should come next — and where — on WMA’s campus, Easler could hardly contain his sense of pride in the fact that one of his students had masterminded what will be the signature component of the largest building initiative at this private school in anyone’s memory.

“The architect was leading them through a brainstorming exercise, focusing on three primary questions: what do we need? Where should it go? And what should happen first?” he recalled. “We were at that part where he was asking them where things should go, and the specific question was ‘is the dining hall in the right place?’

“The kids were chatting and moving blocks around, when one of the boys said, ‘what if we made the chapel into a dining hall?’” Easler continued. “There was a nervous chuckle around the table for about five seconds, and then there was a 10-second pause where you could see the wheels turning in everyone’s head. And then there was just this ‘a-ha’ moment where everyone went, ‘that is an awesome idea.’”

And an idea that will become reality … soon, when enough money is raised to commence construction, said Easler, noting that fundraising, which involves almost exclusively alumni of the school, is progressing well, but there is a good amount still to be raised.

mixed-use facility taking shape on Main Street in Wilbraham

The mixed-use facility taking shape on Main Street in Wilbraham is expected to spur new development in the town center.

As noted earlier, renovation of the chapel is just part of a much larger undertaking designed to enable WMA to make better, more effective use of existing facilities, said Easler, noting that the chapel itself has served the school as a meeting place, and there simply haven’t been many meetings there.

The project also calls for the existing dining commons, on the other side of Main Street from the chapel and most classroom facilities, to be converted into an auditorium with stadium seating, with the existing kitchen to be used for back-of-house functions for that facility.

“This will have a really remarkable impact on the campus, and the town, actually — it will reduce pedestrian traffic on Main Street by about 70%,” Easler told BusinessWest, noting that dining facilities will now be on the same side of the street as classes, dramatically reducing the number of times students will have to cross the street each day.

Beyond that, it will give the arts program a functioning theater (the current dining hall), a dramatic improvement over existing ‘black box’ facilities, and the students will have the ‘Harry Potter dining hall.’

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,613
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.70
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

And the school, which is currently at full enrollment, will be in an even better position to recruit young people to the campus, he said.

“Boarding school, and private school in general, is about the experience,” Easler said. “We have top-notch education, rigorous and supportive programs, lots of things people can do outside of academics … but a big reason people choose to invest in us is because it’s an experience they can’t get in a public school or a day school. And a big part of experience is having facilities like these to support it — like that dining room.”

 

Progress Report

There has been considerable momentum at WMA generated by several projects in recent years, including the building of a new athenaeum and conversion of the basement of the science building into a 5,000-square-foot innovation lab, and these advances constitute just some of the positive developments on Main Street and beyond in this community of around 14,600.

Michelle Buck, Wilbraham’s Planning and Community Development director, cited several signs of growth and progress across town.

That list includes several new developments on Boston Road, including a new Starbucks now under construction in front of Home Depot, once the site of a bank branch that was demolished; parking-lot expansion of the Lia Toyota dealership; a new Golden Nozzle car wash; a new fitness center called Cycle & Praise; and an outdoor dining facility for Route 20 Bar & Grille, as well as a large solar farm soon to be under construction on Three Rivers Road.

But the most visible — and most impactful — development, she said, is the emerging home for Scantic River Brewery, the ‘new’ Parfumi’s Pizza (the current version is right next door), seven apartments, and, hopefully, other small businesses. Center Village is an important development for the community, said all those we spoke with, not only because of what is planned for the site, but because of how it might make the town’s center more of a destination and spur additional development.

“It’s an exciting project that could bring more people to Main Street,” Buck said, adding that, while town leaders want to cluster most commercial activity on Boston Road, there is certainly opportunity for development in other areas of town.

Mazzuca agreed, and said bringing new businesses to Wilbraham is overarching mission of what would be called the ‘new’ Economic Development Committee, which has been working on a number of fronts simultaneously.

One has been bringing some of the businesses displaced by the closing and demolition of the nearby Eastfield Mall to the town. The committee helped secure Boston Road addresses for two of them — Mall Barbers and School of Fish — through the use of ARPA funds to help with relocation expenses.

The other major front has been ongoing work to bring more businesses and vibrancy to the downtown area, which, as Smith noted, was more of a destination 30 or 40 years ago, and can be again through developments like the Center Village project and others that might come to the drawing board because of it.

The broad goal, he said, is to create a walkable downtown and an attractive mix of businesses that will effectively serve those living in Wilbraham and surrounding communities.

“Looking north and south on Main Street, we have a farmers’ market now at the church once a week, and some activity at WMA,” he said. “So we want to look at the whole picture of the way vehicles and pedestrians interface, and revamp that. The first concern would be safety, and the second would be convenience — and it’s convenience that attracts people. There’s a snowball effect.”
He said similar efforts to revitalize town centers and downtowns are taking place in communities across the country, and those on the committee are looking at what communities of similar size and demographics are undertaking to do some benchmarking and adopt best practices.

“The ultimate goal of the Economic Development Committee is to be a liaison for businesses locating in Wilbraham,” Smith explained. “We want to help out and be a liaison between the municipality, the permitting authorities, and the actual businesses, with the ultimate goal of getting that message across that we are open for business.”

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A.J. Crane

A.J. Crane acquired the ‘carpentry’ building at Ludlow Mills with the goal of having it redeveloped, with a restaurant being the preferred use.
Staff Photo

 

 

As he led BusinessWest on a tour of what’s known as the ‘carpentry building’ at the Ludlow Mills complex, A.J. Crane walked up a deteriorated but still solid set of stairs to the second floor, and then to the row of new windows looking out on the Chicopee River, maybe 150 feet away, the riverwalk in front of it, and a stretch of land before the walk on which a patio could be built.

“Imagine the possibilities,” he said, adding that he certainly has, and that’s why he acquired the property from Westmass Area Development Corp., which purchased the mill in 2011, with the intention of renovating it and then leasing it out, perhaps to a restaurateur — the master plan for the mill complex calls for one at this location — although he doesn’t really know what the market will bear at this point.

What Crane, president of Chicopee-based A. Crane Construction Co. (and a Westmass board member) does know is that nothing can be built that close to the river today. Well, almost nothing; this property is grandfathered, so it can be developed. And that’s a big reason why he took on this risk — the property has been vacant for decades and needs a considerable amount of work for any reuse — and has invested heavily in its renovation.

But there’s another reason as well.

“I just wanted to be a part of this,” he said, waving his hand in a sweeping motion to encompass the sprawling mill in front of him.

‘This’ is the transformation of the mill complex, once home to a jute-manufacturing facility that employed thousands and played a huge role in the town’s development, into, well, a community within a community, one that is already home to residents and businesses of various kinds, and, perhaps someday, in the former carpentry shop, a restaurant.

This transformation is an ongoing process, one that was projected to take 20 years when Westmass acquired the property 12 years ago, and may take another 20 still, said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass, noting, as Crane did, that the pieces to the puzzle are coming together.

And as Daley and Jeff LeSiege, vice president of Facilities and Construction at Westmass, conducted a walking tour, they pointed to several of these pieces — from the ongoing renovation of the landmark ‘clocktower building’ (Building 8) into 95 apartments to the construction of two new parking lots; from extensive water, sewer, and electrical work to new businesses such as Movement Terrain, which boasts an obstacle course and an Astroturf arena (more on all this later).

Jeff LeSiege, left, and Jeff Daley

Jeff LeSiege, left, and Jeff Daley stop by one of two large parking lots being created at Ludlow Mills.

Then there’s the clocktower itself, which is slated for renovation, said Daley, adding that he’s not sure when the last time the clock — which is on the town seal and the masthead of the local newspaper — worked, but “it’s been a very long time.”

Transformation of the mill, which has been well-chronicled by BusinessWest over the past dozen years, is the story in Ludlow. But not the only story.

Another is a possible charter change making the community a city and changing its form of government from the present Board of Selectmen to one of several options, including a town manager/Town Council format, a mayor/City Council alignment, or perhaps a mayor/manager/council arrangement.

“I do know there is a great shortage of available land and available buildings at this time, and I think we’re going to have some good interest in the property.”

The town has hired the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management to guide it through this process, said Town Administrator Marc Strange, adding that a charter-review committee will gather in the coming weeks and meet consistently for roughly a year, with a charter to be presented to town-meeting voters in October 2024, with a new form of government possible by the middle of 2025.

Meanwhile, there are some infrastructure projects moving forward, especially an ambitious streetscape-improvement plan for the East Street corridor, which leads into Ludlow Mills.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Ludlow and its many developing stories.

 

No Run-of-the-mill Project

Hanging on a wall on the ground floor of Ludlow’s Town Hall is a large aerial photograph of the section of town beside the Chicopee River, circa the 1920s.

Glancing at the image, the enormity of the mill complex — then even larger than it is today — comes clearly into focus, literally and figuratively.

The mills were, the many respects, the heartbeat of the community and an economic force, a supplier of jobs and vibrancy. And over the past several years, they have become that again, with new developments seemingly every year.

The latest, and most visible, of the latest developments is the ongoing renovation of the L-shaped clocktower building, including replacement of the hundreds of large windows that provided needed light for the mill workers.

Town Administrator Marc Strange

Town Administrator Marc Strange says a change of government is needed in Ludlow.

The upper floors will be converted into nearly 100 apartments on the upper floors, with 48,000 square feet of space on the ground floor set aside for commercial development, Daley said, noting that this commercial space, to be built out to suit the needs of tenants, would be appropriate for a number of uses, including as home to support businesses for the growing number of people living in the mill as well as the surrounding area.

The apartments will be available for lease next July, he added, noting that there should be considerable demand for the units given both a regionwide housing crunch and a six-year waiting list for units in nearby Building 10, the first of the mill buildings to be redeveloped into housing.

Other developments at the mills include $2.1 million to replace water and sewer piping to connect to the two dozen old stockhouses on the property, all of which are sporting new roofs, he said, as well as construction of two new, and sorely needed, parking lots.

One of these lots, with 150 spaces, is nearing completion, with landscaping and other finishing touches to be completed, while the other, located across Riverside Drive from the carpentry building and expected to feature another 75 spaces, is in the early stages of construction.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,002
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.51
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.51
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of Government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County Jail and House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

“These parking facilities are for tenants and visitors alike,” Daley said, adding that parking is a critical need as more of the spaces within the complex are developed.

Meanwhile, work continues on the carpentry building, a 13,200-square-foot brick structure between Riverside Drive and the Chicopee River. Crane told BusinessWest it had probably been on the market for 20 years, and really came onto his radar screen four years ago.

He described it as a solid investment opportunity — albeit one requiring a large investment on his part — but also a chance, as he said, to be part of the larger story of the mill’s transformation into a community, and a destination.

“I couldn’t afford any of the larger buildings, so I bought a smaller building that I thought could be an important part of what we’re doing here,” he said. “It’s exciting to be part of this.”

Every day, he said, dozens of walkers, joggers, and runners on the riverwalk will stop and ask him about the building’s next life. He tells them he’s not sure, but he’s anxious to find out.

Crane said he has replaced the roof and is currently putting new windows in. When that work is completed, he will begin entertaining options to lease the property, with a restaurant certainly among those options.

“I’m open to … whatever,” he told BusinessWest. “I bought the building knowing you could never build that building again so close to the water.”

There are many spaces still to be developed, Daley said, including the massive (500,000 square feet) Mill 11, the largest building on the property, as well as the greenspace at the eastern end of the property given the informal name ‘the back 40’ (acres) and the formal name Millside Commercial Park. A MassWorks grant has been received to build a road and cul-de-sac through that property, and the project recently went to bid.

“That will open that back acreage for development, and we’re excited that this is moving forward as well,” he said, adding that he expects the road to be ready by June of next year.

Officially, there will be roughly 38 acres of land available to sell or lease, he went on, adding that there should be considerable demand.

“I think that, once it gets out on the street to bid, we’re going to get a lot of inquiries,” he said, noting that there will six different lots of varying sizes, including one large lot that can accommodate a 250,000-square-foot building. “I do know there is a great shortage of available land and available buildings at this time, and I think we’re going to have some good interest in the property.”

As for the preferred uses, Daley said manufacturing is at the top of that list due to the job-creation potential, but the market will ultimately determine what happens with that acreage.

“We’re focused on maximizing our downtown area, through development, through infrastructure improvements, through aesthetic improvements — however we can do it.”

“We’re certainly going to work to make sure it’s a good fit, not only to the mills, but to Ludlow,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re not just going to take anyone willing to buy it; it’s got to be a business development that fits the makeup of what we’re trying to accomplish at the mills.”

 

Progress Report

Strange came to Ludlow as town administrator in the spring of 2022, marking a course change for the former director of Planning and Development for Agawam and selectman in Longmeadow.

He told BusinessWest that he saw the position in Ludlow as an opportunity to take a leadership position in a community and use his various skill sets to effect change in this community of roughly 21,000 people.

“I love municipal government,” he said. “I know it sounds cliché, but it gives you a chance to impact people’s lives every day in a way that you can’t at the state level or the federal level. I just fell in love with that.

“I started thinking about opportunities to become a town manager or town administrator,” he went on, adding that he was a finalist for the same position in East Longmeadow when he was chosen as a finalist in Ludlow, and ultimately chose the latter.

“Ludow is a great fit for my personality and a great opportunity for growth, both for me and the town,” he went on, acknowledging that these are certainly intriguing times for the community, especially when it comes to a potential, and likely, change in the charter, something he believes is necessary, as well as the Ludlow Mills project and the many developments there.

“A change in government is much needed,” he said. “We’re no longer a town; we’re a 21,000-person city.”

And a growing one, he noted, adding that the mill project will continue to bring more new businesses and residents to the city, and vibrancy to that section in particular.

With that in mind, the town is blueprinting extensive infrastructure improvements to the East Street corridor, from the mills to Ludlow Country Club, Strange noted, and expanding its District Improvement Financing area, which is currently just the footprint of the mills, to East Street.

Conceptual plans are being prepared for the East Street area, he said, noting that one calls for a “modern, loud-colored concept,” one has a “more urban feel,” while another has more green infrastructure, with planters and a “more earthy feel.”

The various options will be presented to the Board of Selectmen, who will make the final decision, he said.

Overall, Ludlow is largely built out, with the notable exception of the mill complex, Strange said, adding that, moving forward, considerable energy is focused on improving what would be considered the downtown area — that section just over the Route 21 bridge connecting Ludlow with Indian Orchard — so it may better serve the growing number of residents in that area, and also perhaps serve as a destination.

“We’re focused on maximizing our downtown area, through development, through infrastructure improvements, through aesthetic improvements — however we can do it,” he said. “We do have a budding, or increasing, population of residents down at the mills; they have their condos and the riverwalk, but what kind of other amenities can we provide for them? That’s our focus and our goal right now.”

 

Bottom Line

As Daley noted, the clock in the famed tower hasn’t worked in a very long time.

Getting those hands to move again is one of many intriguing developments in this community, one, in many respects, whose time has come.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

 

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says planning is underway for West Springfield’s 250th birthday, with anniversary-themed events slated for each month of the year.

Once the 17 days of the Big E Fair begin, Gene Cassidy settles into a routine he’s followed for years now.

His day starts early, with a few minutes in his office in the Brooks Building, before he gets into a golf cart and proceeds to his ‘other office’ in the Hampden County building. Along the way, he stops in with employees in the parking area, the ticket booths, and other areas to get a sense of how things went the day before and what would be expected in the hours to come. And to stress, again, the importance of these 17 days to the overall health and vitality of this West Side institution.

“I remind people that they can make the difference between someone who’s a patron having a good day or a bad day,” he said. “Or I’ll thank them if the day before was pouring rain … I’m very conscientious about making sure that people understand that we make 87% of our revenue in 17 days. The people who work here, they have to know how important their role is to delivering to the fairgoing public an experience that’s at the highest level it can possibly be.”

Before any of that, though, Cassidy checks the attendance numbers for the corresponding day of the fair the year before. That number becomes a target and a tone setter, he explained, adding that, if that day from the year before was a washout due to rain, there probably won’t be any trouble matching or exceeding results and moving toward the ultimate goal of improvement over last year. If it was a really good day the year prior, it’s the opposite.

Which means that, this Big E season, there will be some big nuts to crack.

“I remind people that they can make the difference between someone who’s a patron having a good day or a bad day.”

Indeed, the fair set five single-day attendance records in 2022, starting on opening day, and continuing to the second Friday, the second Saturday (when the single-day record was broken and more than 177,789 came through the gates), the second Monday, and the final day. Overall, the 2022 fair came in just shy of the 17-day record of 1,543,470 set in 2018.

“People really responded to the fair last year, and, overall, the weather was pretty good,” Cassidy said, touching on a subject we’ll get back to in some depth later. “People really came out.”

Those new standards set last year, and maybe some others as well, might fall this year, based on what Cassidy has seen in Wisconsin, which just wrapped up its annual fair, as well as Indiana and elsewhere.

Indeed, while inflation remains high, and Americans have plowed through most of the money they saved during the pandemic and are now taking on more debt, attendance at fairs like the Big E is up, said Cassidy, who believes such institutions provide what people are looking for these days.

“We represent the very best of the American way of life,” he said. “The fair is a place for family and friends and camaraderie. The Wisconsin fair recently ended, and they had amazing attendance, and Indiana is going on now, and they had a few record-setting days. People gravitate toward that which satisfies the need for human interaction. Even in years when we have high inflation, people may sacrifice a trip to Disney or a trip to Boston for a Red Sox game to get together with family at the fair.”

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,835
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $15.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.58
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

The ramp-up to the Big E is always big news in West Springfield, and this year is no exception. But there are other developing stories, as they say, starting with the community’s 250th birthday in 2024; a major, as in major, upgrade of Memorial Avenue, the mailing address for the Big E and many other businesses; and the opening of the town’s first cannabis enterprises.

Mayor Will Reichelt said planning for the 250th is well underway, with a full slate of events set, starting early in 2024 and continuing throughout the year.

That slate includes a 250th Leap Year celebration on Feb. 29, with specifics to be determined; a 250th Ball, slated for May 18; a parade and block party in June; a golf tournament and 5K in July; a parade in August … you get the idea.

As for the massive, $26 million upgrade to Memorial Avenue, work is already underway, said Reichelt, noting tree-removal work and other initiatives, and it will ramp up considerably over the next few years, bringing improvement to a major thoroughfare, but undoubtedly some headaches as well.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at West Springfield and the many things happening in this community, starting with the annual fair.

 

On a Good Run

Reichelt was among the competitors at the recent Ironman competition that wove its way through several area communities, including West Springfield — and a stretch of the Connecticut River for the swimming part of the competition.

He finished in just under seven and half hours — the top finishers came in at just over four hours — a time that he will look to improve upon next year (yes, he’s already committing to doing it again).

“Even in years when we have high inflation, people may sacrifice a trip to Disney or a trip to Boston for a Red Sox game to get together with family at the fair.”

“I bought an Ironman training guide and wrote my time for this year and my projected time for next year,” he said, adding that the target for the 2024 event is to get under six hours. “If I start training now, I think I can get there.”

The Ironman is one of many events already on the 2024 calendar — or soon to announce official dates — that will take on the flavor of the 250th anniversary, everything from St. Patrick’s Day activities to the block party, which will embody elements of a Taste of West Springfield event that was a staple in the community for many years.

Overall, planning for the 250th is ongoing and will ramp up over the coming months, said Reichelt, noting that, while the actual 250th birthday is Feb. 25, this will be a year-long celebration.

Gene Cassidy

Gene Cassidy says the Big E came close to setting a new 17-day attendance record in 2022, and if the weather cooperates, it might accomplish that feat this year.

By the time it’s over, some major thoroughfares will look considerably different, he said, starting with Memorial Avenue. By this time next year, a project that has been nearly a decade in the making will be well underway, he noted, adding that highlights of the ambitious undertaking, designed to improve traffic flow, will include a reduction of lanes from four to three along a stretch by the Big E, with reconstruction of traffic islands to allow for better turning in and out of businesses along the street. The stretch from Union Street to the Memorial Bridge will also feature a bike lane.

In addition, water and sewer mains are being replaced, and drainage systems will be improved, he said, adding that the project will take several years to complete.

Meanwhile, the city will soon commence work on another major infrastructure project in its downtown area.

It includes construction of a roundabout at the intersection of Westfield and Elm Streets, an area that has seen renewed vibrancy with the opening in recent years of new restaurants and the redevelopment of the former United Bank building into a mixed-use facility called Town Commons. Also planned are improvements to the town common, with new sidewalks, tree plantings, and more.

Beyond infrastructure, there are some new developments within the business community as well, said the mayor, noting that the town’s first cannabis dispensaries — the community was a late entry in this sweepstakes — will be opening in the coming weeks, with one on Memorial Avenue near the bridge, and the other on Riverdale Street.

Meanwhile, the town continues to work with Amherst Brewing on redevelopment of the former Hofbrahaus restaurant just off Memorial Avenue — a project that has been paused with hopes that it can be restarted — and plans are being forwarded, by the same group that redeveloped the former United Bank building, to redevelop a long-closed nursing home off Westfield Street, with housing being the preferred option.

 

Fair Game

As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming Big E, the weather, and the overall goal of matching or exceeding last year’s numbers, Cassidy got up from his desk and retrieved his notes from previous fairs.

In deep detail, he has recorded not just the attendance for a given day, but the weather and other factors that might provide deeper insight into those numbers.

Especially the weather.

Indeed, Cassidy goes much deeper than ‘rain,’ ‘sun,’ or even ‘partly cloudy’ to describe a day. Much, much deeper.

“We missed the 17-day record last year by just a little bit, and the reason we missed it is because we had five days of rain,” he explained. “I often laugh, because people will say ‘oh, the weather was great year.’ Well, it was great on the day they came.”

Running back over his notes, Cassidy revealed the level of detail given to cataloguing, if that’s the right term, each day of the fair, so that the numbers can be fully understood and put in their proper context.

“That first Sunday was a threatening mix all day; Monday and Tuesday were heavy rain; Monday, there was sun at 5 p.m.; Tuesday, there was sun at 2 p.m., and it was very hot,” he said, reading from his notes. “The first Thursday, there was heavy rain with lightning all day. And the second Monday was pleasant, but there was serious rain at 5:30, and the people ran out — although we had a very big day that day. We had a big day on the final Sunday, but it was cold and overcast.”

All this serves to show the importance of weather to the success of the fair, Cassidy said, adding that this isn’t lost on anyone at the fair, with everyone involved hoping that the seemingly constant rains that have swollen area rivers and damaged crops of all kinds will take a break in mid- to late September.

Beyond weather, Cassidy also likes to talk about what’s new at the fair, starting with entertainment, but also food.

Regarding the former, the 2023 fair will feature an eclectic mix of musical acts, including John Fogerty, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Parker McCollum, Jimmy Eat World, Quinn XCII, Chris Young, and many more. As for the food, Cassidy teased that there is an intriguing new addition for the 2023 fair, but he couldn’t announce what it was at the moment.

What he did say is that food has come a long way — a long, long way — over the past few decades, with offerings that go well beyond traditional fair food and also beyond the ‘everything that can possibly be fried’ category as well.

“The food is so different today than it was 20 years ago, when it was more fair food,” he told BusinessWest. “There is a lot of high-quality food here, and it has nothing to do with being fried. The food today is so much more creatively put together. You can get steak tips with real mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables; no one thought you could buy that on a fairgrounds 20 years ago.

“When I first started in the fair industry, there were hamburgers and hot dogs and cotton candy and candied apples; there was a guy who made sausages,” he went on. “Today, the quality of food, the abundance of it, and the diversity of it are significantly different.”

Some of these eclectic offerings are available at a new area that made its debut in 2022 and will return this year. It’s called the Front Porch, and it promotes small businesses, many of them taking their first opportunity to showcase their brand, Cassidy said.

Last year, there were nine or 10 businesses participating, and this year, there will be seven or eight, to provide the ventures with more room to operate, he said, adding that some will be back from last year, while others will not, primarily because they’ve moved on to brick-and-mortar operations.

“It’s a fun way for people to get their feet on the ground,” he said, adding that the Front Porch has become an intriguing and popular addition to the landscape at the Big E — and one more reason for folks to show up in West Springfield … and maybe break a few more records.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Natasha Dymnicki, assistant manager of Big Y’s Tower Square location, shows off the new facility, which is off to a solid start, according to company officials.

As he reflected on 16 years in office and his intention to serve another four, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said that, while much has been accomplished during his tenure in the corner office — the longest in the city’s history — “there is still considerable work to be done.”

And that assessment covers many different fronts — from public safety to revitalization of the city’s downtown; from working with the state to design and build a replacement for the troubled Roderick Ireland Courthouse to continuing efforts to improve neighborhoods; from schools to hospitality and tourism.

But it’s especially true when it comes to the broad issue of housing, which has been identified as a both a pressing need and a key ingredient in a formula to revitalize neighborhoods, including the downtown, and spur economic development.

Indeed, housing is at the heart of a number of projects at various stages of development in the city, from the long-awaited restoration of the former Court Square Hotel to the reimagining of the former Knox manufacturing building in the Mason Square neighborhood to the redevelopment of the former Gemini site in the South End.

“It will probably take a full year to really get settled in and fully understand all the nuances of this. It’s a different model, and we’ve been working through a lot of things like staffing and logistics.”

And housing will be at least part of the equation with several other initiatives, from the redevelopment of the Eastfield Mall on Wilbraham Road, which closed its doors last month, 55 years after it opened, to Sarno’s preferred resolution of the question of how best to replace the courthouse (more on that later).

“When you listen to Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll, every other word out of their mouth is housing,” the mayor said. “So, a lot of projects we’re pitching, including Eastfield Mall, have a housing component.”

Beyond housing, though, there are a number of intriguing and mostly positive developments in the city, said Sarno and Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, offering a list that includes:

• New restaurants in the Worthington Street/Bridge Street corridor;

• The new Big Y market in Tower Square, a unique addition to the landscape made possible by ARPA money;

• New additions to the outdoor marketing menu, also made possible by ARPA money;

• Some real momentum at MGM Springfield almost five years to the day since it opened; the past three quarters have been the best recorded by the facility when it comes to gross gaming revenue;

• An ambitious infrastructure project involving the ‘X’ in the Forest Park neighborhood, one that is designed to improve traffic flow in that area but also spur business development;

• A project to replace the Civic Center parking garage, a state-funded project that will not only provide needed parking, but also activate neighboring space and create an area outside the MassMutual Center similar to Lansdowne Street outside Fenway Park;

• Considerable response from the development community to a request for proposals to redevelop the vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield; and

• Vibrancy downtown, highlighted by a weekend in June when the IRONMAN competition coupled with performances by Bruno Mars and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler brought 50,000 people to MGM Springfield facilities.

“Downtown was alive, it was electric … you had to wait to get a seat at restaurants; this is the kind of vibrancy we want downtown,” Sarno said, adding that there have been many weekends like this over the past several years, and more to come.

The former Knox automobile manufacturing plant in Mason Square

The former Knox automobile manufacturing plant in Mason Square is one of many properties in the city being converted to housing, or to feature a housing component.

As for MGM, the mayor said the casino, the city’s largest taxpayer, has become a partner on many levels — with the city and state on projects like Court Square, and with area nonprofits on several different initiatives — and a key contributor to the vibrancy downtown. “They’ve been critically important to the nightlife of the city, and they’ve been a good corporate citizen.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the latest developments in the City of Homes, which is focused on many initiatives, but especially creating … well, more homes.

 

What’s in Store?

Reflecting on the few first months the Big Y Market has been open in Tower Square, Clair D’Amour-Daley, the company’s vice president of Corporate Affairs, said it’s going to take more than a few months for this picture to come fully into focus and this unique model to fully develop.

By that, she meant this concept is something totally new, not just for Big Y, but in the broad grocery-store realm itself — at least as far as she and others at the company can determine.

“We have nothing like it, and I’m not sure we’ve been able to model anything quite like it,” she said, adding that this is, in many respects, a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket, maybe one-fifth the size of a traditional store, offering many but certainly not all of the items available in one of the larger markets. It was conceptualized to address the food desert that exists downtown, and also meet the identified needs of downtown office workers, as well as people coming into the city for various events and gatherings.

“There are three basic constituents for customers,” she said. “There’s the downtown workers, and there is obviously some ebb and flow there, but we’re coming to understand that market. The second part is the tourism piece, and it has its own cadence. And then, we’re still really learning to tap into the residential community downtown, and that’s significant; we have a lot of customers tell us that they no longer have to walk or otherwise get to our store on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield.

“We want to continue to create market-rate housing, but we’ve also been successful in doing workforce-development housing.”

“We’re learning all those things and learning what types of products to put in, although we’re trying not to make radical changes just yet,” D’Amour-Daley went on. “It will probably take a full year to really get settled in and fully understand all the nuances of this. It’s a different model, and we’ve been working through a lot of things like staffing and logistics.”

Thus far, the store is off to a solid start, she said, adding quickly that, because the model is so different, Big Y is still trying to figure out how to accurately gauge results.

“There are so many variables, and we didn’t want to jump to conclusions right away,” she said. “But it’s been steady; we’re happy with where we are, and we’re just in a wait-and-see mode, waiting for things to settle.”

The Big Y project is one of many ARPA-funded initiatives aimed at helping businesses and, in this case, spurring economic development and improvements within specific neighborhoods, Sarno said, adding that, while most cities have dedicated the bulk of their ARPA funds to infrastructure work (and Springfield has done some of that), certainly, most of the more than $123 million has gone to help small businesses and individuals.

“More than 80% of the ARPA funds we’ve put out have gone to minority- and women-owned businesses,” he said. “We moved very quickly to help prime the pump and help businesses that wanted to stay open at the start of the pandemic and, in many cases, reinvent themselves.”

 

At Home with the Idea

As noted earlier, perhaps the biggest priority for the city moving forward, from the standpoint of both neighborhood improvements and economic development, is housing, the mayor said.

Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, agreed, noting that housing is either being planned for, or at least contemplated, at a wide range of sites. That list includes the former School Department building on State Street as well as another project at 310 State St.; the Mardi Gras property on Worthington Street, recently sold by its owner, James Santaniello, for $2.3 million, and other properties on Worthington; the Eastfield Mall site; the properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield, including the Clocktower Building and the Fuller Block; the former Gemini Corp. factory site on Central Street in the South End; a former warehouse building on Lyman Street; and others.

This is in addition to the 90 units being built at the former Knox Automobile factory at 53 Wilbraham Road, a project being undertaken by First Resource Development Corp., which has developed a number of properties in the city, including the former Indian Motocycle manufacturing facility across Wilbraham Road from the Knox property, as well as the Court Square development (75 units), a project at 169 Maple St., and the completed redevelopment of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street as the Overland Lofts.

This housing comes in many different forms, from ownership housing at the Eastfield Mall site to various types of apartments, including affordable units and another category that is called “workforce-development housing,” Sarno explained.

“We want to continue to create market-rate housing, but we’ve also been successful in doing workforce-development housing,” he noted, referencing housing that, in the case of the Court Square project, is limited to tenants making 80% of the region’s median income. “That’s an important component of what we’re doing, and we need to do this because there’s a housing crisis in the Commonwealth and across the country.”

The mayor went on to say that these housing projects and other types of developments, including new restaurants in the downtown area, convey confidence in the city, its leadership, and its future.

“When I first came into office, people weren’t interested in Springfield — we were second, maybe third on their list,” he recalled. “People would say, ‘what can you expect from Springfield?’ Now, people say, ‘why not Springfield?’”

Sheehan concurred, noting that housing is the preferred reuse for those vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the casino.

The city recently issued a request for proposals for redevelopment of those properties and received what he categorized as a very solid response from the development community.

“There were five companies responding — two locals and three nationals,” he said, adding that the city expects to name a preferred developer by the end of this month.

The even better news, he said, is that the nationals were “looking for more” — as in more properties around that area to develop. And there are plenty of them.

“There is a significant amount of underutilization of property in that area,” Sheehan told BusinessWest. “There are portfolios of properties that haven’t been fully utilized for quite some time. The owners have put out pieces of their portfolios to their market, but there is much more to be developed.”

 

A Developing Story

Beyond housing, one of the more pressing issues confronting the city is the fate of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse, the 47-year-old structure that has taken on the name the ‘sick courthouse,’ by employees and others, because of intense breakouts of mold and other issues.

The state has vowed to address these issues, and in June, Gov. Maura Healey announced that the state will commit an initial $106 million toward replacement of the courthouse, a project that will carry a price tag of $400 million to $500 million and could take several years to resolve.

At present, there is no clear path forward, Sheehan said, noting that, also in June, the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Management issued a report identifying 13 properties (11 of them in Springfield and most of them in the downtown area) as potential sites where a new courthouse may land.

The sites were ranked according to factors like proximity to downtown Springfield, access to public transportation, and the physical capacity to accommodate the operations of several courts, and the address topping the list is 50 State St., where the courthouse currently stands. That ranking would appear to favor a plan to move the court to a temporary facility, spend whatever is necessary to renovate the existing structure (or, more likely, build a new one its place), and then move the court back to that address.

Sarno told BusinessWest that considerable time, expense, and aggravation could be saved if the state would embrace a site owned by developer — and Peter Pan Bus Chairman — Peter Picknelly, who has forwarded a proposal for a multi-use development along the riverfront that would include the courthouse, office space, housing, and a marina. The site, which combines property on East Columbus and West Columbus avenues and Clinton and Avocado streets, is on the state’s list of ranked properties, but quite far down: ninth, in fact.

“That’s a game changer,” Sarno said of the Picknelly proposal, which he believes will not only simplify the process of creating a new courthouse, but also spur new development in the city’s North Blocks area. “When I talk to the people at the court, they want to move once, not two or three times. We think we have a very viable proposal in the Picknelly site, and we’re going to continue to pursue it.”

Sheehan said the Picknelly site — or any other site other 50 State St. — would afford the city the opportunity to also redevelop the current courthouse property, which sits across State Street from MGM Springfield and is just a few hundred feet from I-91.

“You would want to have development on that site that is directly related to the anchors around it,” Sheehan said, referring to not only MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center, but also the housing being built at Court Square and other locations, as well as the Old First Church at 50 Elm St. Built in 1810, the historic structure was sold to the city in 2008 and is currently rented out for weddings and other events.

As Springfield waits for the state to make up its mind on the courthouse, other intriguing projects are moving forward, including the redevelopment of the Eastfield Mall.

The last tenants in the facility moved out in early July, and demolition of the complex is set to begin as early as later this month, Sheehan said, adding that a mix of retail, housing, and support businesses are planned for the site.

 

X Marks the Spot

Meanwhile, in Forest Park, plans have emerged for major infrastructure work at the ‘X,’ the intersection of Belmont Avenue, Sumner Avenue, and Dickinson Street. This is another historic area, and a dangerous intersection, said Sheehan, noting that it has been the site of numerous accidents over the years.

The planned improvements will include modification of traffic patterns, updates to signal equipment, updates to signal coordination, the addition of five-foot bicycle lanes, reconstruction and reconfiguration of sidewalks and pedestrian facilities, accessibility upgrades, the conversion of the Belmont Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue intersection into a roundabout, and more.

“Ultimately, we’re creating a better pedestrian environment, while also looking at how those infrastructure improvements can spur more commercial activity in the area,” Sheehan said, adding that, while there are already a significant number of retail, service, and hospitality-related businesses in that area, there are obvious opportunities for more in each category.

As there are throughout the City of Homes, which stands at its own crossroads of challenge and promise.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Moe Belliveau

Moe Belliveau says the WorkHub initiative is an example of how the Easthampton Chamber is evolving into more economic development.

It’s called WorkHub on Union.

This is an ambitious project to create co-working space at the Easthampton Chamber of Commerce facility on Union Street.

WorkHub will create space for solopreneurs and emerging business ventures, and also provide access to mentorship programs, networking events, educational programming, and other support services designed to accelerate the growth of startups and small businesses.

In addition to all that, Moe Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, categorizes the project as a not-so-subtle shift in the direction and overall mission at the chamber — one that moves the agency away from the traditional networking events that have defined such agencies, and more into the realm of true economic development.

“This is part of the evolution of this chamber,” she explained, adding that other examples (as we’ll see later) include more emphasis on professional development and educational programs on topical issues such as artificial intelligence.

WorkHub, for which Belliveau is actively trying to raise $500,000 to make it reality, is one of several positive economic developments in a community that has been making headlines mostly for the wrong reasons in 2023.

“Housing, housing, housing … that’s our biggest need right now.”

Indeed, a school-superintendent search that has gone terribly awry — the leading candidate had his job offer rescinded, in part, over his use of the term ‘ladies’ in an email to the School Committee chair — has brought national and even international attention, and not the kind this community would want, as well as resignations among school-board members and even a bid within the community to recall Mayor Nicole LaChappelle.

An interim school superintendent has been hired, and a search for a permanent successor will resume later this year, said a defiant LaChappelle, who responded to the recall effort in June by saying, “I will continue to do what I have been doing for five and a half years — working to give all of Easthampton the best quality of life possible.”

As noted, aside from the controversy surrounding the superintendent search, there have been generally positive developments in this community. It continues to build on the considerable progress made over the past few decades in transforming itself from a mill town to a destination, one with a strong arts community, a growing number of restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, such as Tandem Bagel, an emerging cannabis sector, and scores of old mills that have found new uses as everything from artists’ studios to event spaces; cannabis dispensaries to condos and apartments.

Specific initiatives range from CitySpace, the nonprofit group tasked with creating a flexible arts and community space in Old Town Hall (Burns Maxey, CitySpace’s board president, was honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2023), to the ongoing and very ambitious One Ferry Project to renovate several mills on Ferry Street; from the chamber’s WorkHub on Union project to expansion of the renamed public library into the former Bank of America building on Park Street.

Moving forward, LaChappelle said that perhaps the city’s greatest need is for more housing because the community is in vogue, and in addition to being a great place to work or start a business, it is increasingly viewed as a desirable place to live.

One Ferry Project

The One Ferry Project remains a work in progress, with several renovated mills and some still waiting to be reimagined.

There are several housing projects in various stages of development, including redevelopment of three former city school buildings, she said, but the need for more is constant.

“Housing, housing, housing … that’s our biggest need right now,” she said, adding that, while it’s a good problem to have in some respects, it’s a stern challenge for which her administration continues to seek solutions.

 

Work in Progress

As she talked with BusinessWest about plans for WorkHub on Union, Belliveau said the initiative was conceptualized to address that growing part of the community’s business community that visitors and residents can’t see — and they can see plenty.

These are ventures that people are operating in their basements, home offices, and dining-room tables, she said, adding that such businesses existed before the pandemic, but mushroomed during that time.

“This year’s topic focus is going to be resilience and collaboration, but collaboration with technology, and specifically around AI. We want to help people move from fear and panic to ‘how is this tool going to benefit my business?’ There will be some hands-on experimenting and learning with AI.”

“These are businesses, but they’re informal as opposed to formal,” she explained, adding that her goal is to take these ventures out of the basements and onto Main Street — or Union Street, as the case may be.

“We want to help these businesses become more sustainable and more resilient,” she explained, adding that there are probably hundreds of these ventures in and around Easthampton.

Recognizing the existence of, and the need to support, these businesses and those behind them, the chamber applied for and received a seed grant from MassDevelopment to conduct a feasibility study for the WorkHub facility. The results of that study verified the need and essentially confirmed that this was the project for the chamber at this time in its history and the city’s history, said Belliveau, adding that the chamber’s board voted to raise funds for the initiative and get the ball rolling.

The total price tag is roughly $500,000, which includes construction, a website, branding, and marketing, she noted, and to date, the chamber has raised $180,000 for the venture, with a $50,000 contribution from Sourcepass, an Easthampton-based IT-solutions company being the latest gift. There has also been a $100,000 ARPA earmark, as well as a $25,000 donation from Easthampton Savings Bank and $5,000 from Greenfield Savings Bank.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,211
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.65
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Belliveau said WorkHub will provide more than physical space for as many as 18 small businesses following a complete renovation of the chamber’s space. Indeed, she said the goal is to position it as an educational hub as well to help entrepreneurs succeed, thus creating a “vibrant, lively, healthy local economy and regional ecosystem.”

She said the facility would be ideal for artists, freelance writers, consultants, and ‘digital nomads’ — those who travel from job to job but still might need a home base of sorts. It will include workstations, a conference room, private spaces (she called them ‘phone booths’) for phone calls and teleconferencing, and light administrative support. There is really nothing like it in Easthampton, she emphasized, and it should receive a strong response.

As noted earlier, the hub represents the latest and most visible evidence of ongoing evolution at the chamber, Belliveau said, noting that it is moving more toward economic development and professional development than the pure networking that has characterized this and other chambers in the past.

Other examples include the women’s professional-development conference called sheLEADS, the latest installment of which was staged in June, and Ignite, a two-day professional-development conference scheduled this year for Nov. 15-16 at Abandoned Building Brewery. The working title for the event is “Humanification in the Age of AI.”

“This year’s topic focus is going to be resilience and collaboration, but collaboration with technology, and specifically around AI,” Belliveau explained, adding that she hopes to have 50 to 75 people in attendance. “We want to help people move from fear and panic to ‘how is this tool going to benefit my business?’ There will be some hands-on experimenting and learning with AI.”

 

Getting Down to Business

The chamber’s WorkHub project is one of many initiatives designed to help spur new business development and create more vibrancy and jobs, said LaChappelle, adding that, in the post-COVID area, businesses still need support, but often different kinds of support than they did at the height of that crisis.

“During COVID, I thought our city’s response when it came to economic development and what I call Main Street jobs and concerns … I was proud of the job we did; we all pulled together,” she explained. “Now, our task is … ‘we’ve made it through; how do we keep the new things going, and how do we help the people who were always there?’

“We’re not back to the walking traffic on Union Street and Cottage Street that we had pre-COVID,” she went on. “What are we going to do to support those businesses? You rise to the challenge in a crisis, but resiliency is the long game.”

Elaborating, she noted that, to create this resiliency, the chamber and city need to work together to build into the ecosystem long-term educational and capital support. Such work is ongoing, the mayor said, adding that WorkHub is just one example of providing needed support to businesses and entrepreneurs to not only help them maintain what they’ve built, but get to the proverbial next level.

Such initiatives to build resiliency are needed, she said, because over the past few decades, Easthampton has succeeded in inspiring and nurturing entrepreneurship and growing and diversifying its economy.

That includes a cannabis cluster, if you will, that is adjusting to a new reality in the form of more competition — in this state and from other states — as well as falling profits and even tighter margins, creating a survival-of-the-fittest environment.

“The ones who got in early, and the ones who had the strongest business plans, are fine,” she explained, putting INSA, the Verb is Herb, and others in that category. “And the ones who came in because they had the biggest dispensary somewhere else and thought they’d put a branch here … they’ve closed or have chosen not to expand.”

Beyond cannabis, the cultural economy continues to thrive in Easthampton, LaChappelle said, noting that many of its old mills have become home to artists and art-related ventures, and to residents as well. Meanwhile, the city has been working with property owners on initiatives to improve the mill district.

“We’ve been successful in getting grant money to re-envision and design that mill district and make it friendlier to the immediate neighborhood and see what we can do for walking traffic and safety,” she explained.

“All of the mill owners have been great partners,” she went on, citing the Ferry Street project, which has seen several of the long-abandoned Hampden Mill buildings re-envisioned and repurposed, as the latest example of the old mills that gave the city its character finding new life.

Easthampton was able to channel $3.9 million in MassWorks public-infrastructure grants for improvements at Ferry, Pleasant, and Loveland streets to support the One Ferry mixed-use development initiative, she said, citing this as one example of the city, state, and mill owners working collaboratively to achieve positive change in the mill district.

Today, the city is working with developer Mike Michon, who also developed Mill 180, and One Industrial Lofts LLC to determine the best course for what’s known as Mill 7, the largest of the eight mills still standing on the property (many have been razed) moving forward.

“It was to be a mixture of apartments and some affordable housing, and other uses, but the affordable-housing process is now years behind,” LaChappelle said. “So he’s looking at some other solutions and mixed use, and we’re helping him do that.”

Housing, as she noted earlier, is the most pressing need within the community. And while there are several projects planned or already underway — from a new apartment complex on Cottage Street to the 180 units planned for a mixed-used development at the former Tasty Top site on Route 10 (a project called Sierra Vista Commons), to redevelopment of three city school buildings into roughly 70 apartments — there is certainly a need for more, she said.

But clearly, despite its challenges, Easthampton has become a hub of positive activity and progress, in every sense of those words.

Banking and Financial Services Community Spotlight Special Coverage

An Uphill Climb

Dan Moriarty was among the participants in the recent IRONMAN competition that wound its way through many Western Mass. communities.

The president and CEO of Monson Savings bank, Moriarty is also an avid biker, and decided to take things up a notch — or two, or three — with the IRONMAN, which featured a mile swim, downstream, in the Connecticut River; a 56-mile bike trek; and a half-marathon (13 miles and change).

Moriarty said his time — and he doesn’t like to talk about time — was roughly seven hours, and joked that that he believes he met what was his primary goal: “I wanted to come in first among all the local bank presidents.”

As things are turning out, the IRONMAN isn’t the only test of endurance he will face this year and next (yes, he’s already scheduled to take part again in 2024). He and all other banking leaders are facing another stern challenge, and where they finish on this one … well, there are several factors that will ultimately determine that, as we’ll see.

Indeed, the past year or so has been a long, mostly uphill, upstream stretch for banks, which are being severely tested by unprecedented interest rates hikes implemented by the Fed, which have a domino effect on banks — and their customers. For banks, these moves are squeezing margins that were already tight, with some margins off 50 basis points or more from last year. And for public banks, their stocks have, for the most part, been hammered.

This domino effect involves everything from the huge increase in interest paid to customers on their deposits to the manner in which those interest-rate hikes have brought the home-mortgage business to a virtual standstill.

To quantify that increase in interest paid to consumers, Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank, recalled a quote he read from the president of a large national bank that put things in their proper perspective.

“I won’t even call this a short-term problem anymore when it comes to profitability. It’s a medium-term problem that we’re all having to adjust to.”

“He said, ‘my raw-material costs have increased 600%,’” Senecal noted. “His raw materials are the funding for deposits for his wholesale assets, which have literally gone up 600%. If you look at any business and their profit margins — our raw materials have gone up 600%, so that squeezes our margins.”

Meanwhile, with interest rates more than double what they were a year or so ago, the refi market has obviously disappeared, said Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president of Westfield Bank, adding that, with home sales, those who might be thinking about trading up wouldn’t want to trade a 2% or 3% mortgage for one closer to 7% mortgage, so they’re taking what could be called a pause.

As is the Fed, which is taking a close look at the impact of its interest-rate hikes before deciding what to do next, although most experts expect at least one more rate hike this year.

And that will keep banks on this current treadmill, said Jeff Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank, adding that, while there has been talk that rates might start coming down this year, that likely won’t happen until at least early next year.

By then, the country may well be in recession, adding new levels of intrigue, said Moriarty, noting that the yield curve is currently inverted, a historically accurate predictor of recession.

“We’re going to eventually get into a recession in the third or fourth quarter of this year,” he said. “We were anticipating it might happen a little earlier with hopes that the Fed would have cut rates before of 2023, but now, we’re guessing that interest rates are going to be elevated another year out until they start cutting.”

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal says unprecedented interest-rate hikes have put a great deal of pressure on banks large and small.

Overall, banks’ fortunes are tied, ironically enough, to how well the economy is doing, and they are in the unusual position of hoping that things cool off a little, said O’Connor, adding that, like the Fed itself, banks don’t want to see efforts to curb inflation throw the economy into reverse.

The biggest question, among many others, concerns when the pendulum might start swinging in the other direction and things will improve for banks. There is no consensus there — not with the economy still doing well, a presidential election looming in 2024, and other factors.

But the general feeling is that the uphill portion of this trek won’t be over soon.

“I won’t even call this a short-term problem anymore when it comes to profitability,” Sullivan said. “It’s a medium-term problem that we’re all having to adjust to.”

Moriarty agreed, noting that, while the first two quarters of 2023 has been a difficult year for most banks, the rest of this year and 2024 might be an even more of an uphill climb.

 

Points of Interest

Senecal told BusinessWest that, as he was heading home for the first weekend in March, he planned to take a break from his phone and spend a few days unplugged.

And he did … until news broke that Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in California had failed after a bank run on its deposits.

So he started looking at his phone again. And he kept looking at it.

“The weekend that SVB failed, the four largest banks in the country took in roughly $140 billion in new deposits, and community banks, in general, lost $130 million in deposits. There was a huge move to larger institutions out of fear.”

Indeed, there were many discussions with other leaders of the bank about how to communicate with customers and convince them that their deposits were safe.

“That whole weekend, myself and our commercial team and our retail people were on the phone explaining what was going on, answering their questions, and putting their minds at ease,” he recalled. “And I talked to a number of my competitors, and they were doing the same thing.”

Such discussions were necessary, he said, because even though those deposits were becoming far more burdensome, cost-wise, as he noted earlier, all banks need them to have the money to grow their loans, and consumers were getting skittish.

Jeff Sullivan

Despite the interest-rate hikes, the economy is still humming in many respects, Jeff Sullivan says, meaning the Fed may still have some work to do to slow it down.

“The weekend that SVB failed, the four largest banks in the country took in roughly $140 billion in new deposits, and community banks, in general, lost $130 million in deposits,” he said, citing a combination of concern fueled by social media and the ease with which consumers can now move money electronically as the dominant causes. “There was a huge move to larger institutions out of fear.”

Overall, there was less fallout in this region, said O’Connor, another of those banking leaders who was the phone to customers assuring them that their assets were safe, adding that the failure of SVB and a few other banks this spring, and the resulting fallout from depositors, were just one of the many speedbumps encountered by banks in 2023.

Indeed, this was a year the industry knew would be challenging — or more challenging — going in, especially with regard to rising interest rates. Just not this challenging.

“Just a year ago, rates were quite low, and everyone thought rates were going up a point and a half, maybe 2%, something in that ballpark — that was the consensus prior to August of last year, when Chairman [Jerome] Powell said, ‘no, we’re really going to stomp on the brakes,’” Sullivan said. “Up to that point, we thought that rates would go up slightly, and we were modeling our projections on that; I don’t think there’s anyone who projected that rates would go up 5% in seven months — that’s unprecedented territory, and that’s what is causing the squeeze.”

O’Connor agreed. A year or so, banks were paying maybe a half-percent interest on deposits, he recalled, adding that most new CD products being advertised are featuring rates in the 4.5% to 4.9% range on the higher end, while rates on money-market accounts are coming up as well, numbers that reflect both the need to garner new deposits and growing competion for those assets.

“You have competition from other banks, internet-only banks, the security brokers — everyone is clamoring for those deposits,” O’Connor said. “And that certainly puts pressure on all banks, including community banks.”

Institutions are adjusting to this landscape, said those we spoke with, but it’s going to take some time to fully adjust because the rate hikes came so quickly and profoundly.

And such adjustments take several forms, they said, including efforts to trade fixed-rate assets for variable-rate assets, initiatives that take time and come with their own set of risks — indeed, rates could, that’s could, go down quickly.

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty says many ominous signs point toward a recession, which could bring more challenges for banks and their customers.

On the mortgage side of the equation, there aren’t many options. Senecal said PeoplesBank has been working to acquire mortgages written in areas that are still relatively hot, such as Cape Cod. Meanwhile, O’Connor said Westfield Bank and institutions like it are pushing home-equity loans, and there is a good market for them as homeowners look to take that equity and put it back into their homes or make other large purchases.

“It certainly doesn’t make up for what we’re losing in mortgages and refis, but it does help,” O’Connor said. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in home-equity loans.”

 

No Margin for Error

While banks cope with the present, there is just as much discussion, if not more, concerning what will happen next and when conditions will improve for this sector.

And most of that discussion obviously involves the Fed and what will happen with interest rates, because it’s these rates that determine what happens with all those dominoes.

There is some general uncertainty about what the Fed will do, said those we spoke with, because the jury is still out, in some respects and at least in some quarters, on whether it has accomplished its mission when it comes to slowing down the economy and curbing inflation. This uncertainty led to intense discussion at the most recent Fed board meeting, Senecal said.

“There are two schools of thought on this. One is, ‘let’s wait and see what our rate increases are doing to the economy, because it’s like steering a battleship — it doesn’t happen right away,’” he told BusinessWest. “So the Fed took this pause trying to gauge what happened, and what happened? Inflation came down little bit; it was up to 6 or 7%, and now it’s 3.5% or 4%. But their goal is to get it to 2%. So do they continue to raise rates and wait to pause, or do they raise and do a long pause to see if inflation comes down to their target level of 2%?”

“I don’t think there’s anyone who projected that rates would go up 5% in seven months — that’s unprecedented territory, and that’s what is causing the squeeze.”

While inflation slowed in June — the consumer price index rose 0.2% last month and was up 3% from a year ago, the lowest level since March 2021 — core inflation is still running well above the Fed’s 2% target. And Moriarty is among those saying there is ample evidence that the Fed still has work to do to slow the economy and further decrease inflation.

“Employment numbers are surging, and that’s an indication the economy is still moving fast and hot,” he said. “My uneducated crystal ball is telling me we might see a few more interest-rate moves, which means it’s going to be more difficult for the economy to continue on this path.”

Many are saying that the probable course will be another rate increase and then that pause, he went on, adding that there is more conjecture about what will then happen. Will rates stay where they are, or will they start to come down and perhaps reverse the trends seen over the past year or so?

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor says rising interest rates have slowed the mortgage business — and destroyed the refi business.

“The consensus is that the economy is starting to slow down — not quickly, but it’s starting to slow down — and that rate cuts will probably start to happen in 2024 because inflation and economic growth both show signs of slowing down,” Sullivan said. “When that happens, we can start to price the deposit costs down.

“We’re probably not going back to where we were before,” he went on, meaning rates near zero. “We’re going back to normal, or what could be a new normal — deposit rates in the 3% range. They’re not going to be zero, and they’re not going to be 5%; they’re probably going to be somewhere in the middle once all this settles out.”

When things will settle down is another question that is difficult to answer because the economy is still chugging along, and, with the notable exception of the mortgage market, consumers are still borrowing money.

“Borrowers have gotten used to paying loan rates in the 6s and 7s — they’re not happy about it, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone’s appetite for acquiring assets and borrowing money,” Sullivan said. “There’s still plenty of business out there, and that would support what Powell has been saying — that they haven’t really slowed the economy yet; in fact, it’s pretty darned good. We’re taking applications every day, and we’re writing loans every day; we’re running our business as usual.”

 

Taking Account

Well … not quite usual at most institutions, especially with regard to mortgages and refis, a huge part of the success formula for the region’s community banks and credit unions.

In this environment, O’Connor said, Westfield Bank and institutions like it are putting even more emphasis on customer service, attracting new customers and retaining existing customers.

“We have to make sure that we’re the bank of choice and remain that,” he said. “We work hard at the commercial relationships, the consumer relationships … our branch teams, our cash-management teams, our lenders, everyone is out there being very available to our customers and working hard to attract new customers from other banks.”

Banks are always working hard on attracting and retaining customers, he said in conclusion, but this year, and in this climate, there is even more emphasis on such initiatives.

It’s all part of a broad response to something that is a little more than your typical economic cycle. It’s somewhat unprecedented, in fact … and certainly a long, uphill climb for most banks.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets based at Barnes Westfield Regional Airport, one of the many assets contributing to economic-development efforts in the city.

The F-35 stealth fighter is nicknamed ‘Lightning,’ and it is certainly expected to provide a powerful surge in Westfield.

The Pentagon announced in April that 18 F-35A fighters will be based at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport with the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, replacing the F-15s that have been flying over the city — and on missions around the world — since 2007.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council — but also a former mayor of this city for a dozen years and currently a city councilor — said the F-35s will become an obvious point of pride for the community and the region, but there is an economic-development component to this decision as well.

Indeed, the move will stabilize and secure the long-term future of the 104th, which brings more than 1,000 jobs and millions of dollars in direct support to the local economy each year.

“The F-35s are obviously hugely important, not only to the operation of Westfield Barnes Regional Airport, but to the 104th, which is a significant employer in the region, and a significant business,” Sullivan explained. “Aside from being an absolute point of pride for the city and the region, it’s an important economic development as well.”

Chris Willenborg, manager of the airport, agreed.

“The F-35s mean a lot to the future of the 104th’s presence at the airport,” he told BusinessWest. “This decision really solidifies the 104th Fighter Wing having a mission at Barnes Regional Airport for the next 50 or 60 years; having a new fighter based here will be a significant asset for the airport moving forward.”

Meanwhile, the F-35s provide a powerful, up-close representation of an important part of the city’s economy: its precision-manufacturing shops, large and small, many of which provide parts to the defense and aerospace industries and planes like the F-35A.

Indeed, Sullivan, in talking about the presence of the precision-manufacturing sector and its importance to the region, has often noted that, when military or commercial planes fly over the region, residents can point to them and note that components of those aircraft are made in the 413.

And especially in Westfield, which boasts companies such as Advance Manufacturing, Boulevard Machine and Gear, and Peerless Precision, all of which have a number of customers in the aviation, defense, and aerospace sectors.

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty says Whip City Fiber has become a $30-million-a-year business.

Kristin Carlson, president of Peerless, told BusinessWest that, after a lull toward the middle of the pandemic, business is picking up for Peerless and other precision manufacturers, who say their biggest challenge remains finding enough talented workers, especially as members of the Baby Boom generation retire in ever-larger numbers and the numbers of young people looking to get into this field remains … well, underwhelming.

“It’s still very much an employees’ market,” she said, adding that firms in this city and neighboring communities are competing tooth and nail for a very limited supply of qualified help, which is driving wages and benefits skyward and making it harder for smaller shops to compete against the larger national and international players.

While precision manufacturing remains a large and stable employer, the city’s economy is strong and diverse, said Mayor Michael McCabe, the former police captain who sought and won the corner office in 2021 and will seek a second two-year term this fall.

He noted the strong presence of manufacturing and distribution facilities, many of them located at or near the airport, as a well as strong retail (Walmart, Home Depot, and many others have locations in the city) and hospitality sectors, and major employers including Baystate Noble Hospital and Westfield State University.

It could also become home to a sprawling, $2.7 billion hyperscale data center complex planned for the city’s north side. That project and an accompanying tax-incentive financing plan have been approved by city officials, and the developers are awaiting word from the state on economic incentives it will provide to support the massive undertaking.

McCabe also cited a changing, rebounding downtown, one that will never again be the retail hub that is was decades ago, but is evolving into a collection of diverse shops and intriguing new developments, such as the housing complex taking shape in the former Lambson’s furniture store building on Elm Street.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on Westfield, where things are looking up — and so are people, especially when the F-35s are flying overhead, as they did at the recent airshow at Barnes and will do for perhaps the next 30 or 40 years.

 

Ready for Takeoff

McCabe said Westfield is a city that has long boasted a number of enviable assets when it comes to business and economic development. And it has taken full advantage of those assets.

That impressive list includes developable land, a commodity lacking in many area communities, especially in its North Side, which, as noted, has become home to a number of manufacturing and distribution facilities, the latter drawn by not only land but a turnpike exit, easy access to other highways, and rail service.

The list of assets also includes the university, the airport, and a municipal utility, Westfield Gas & Electric, which, through its comparatively low electric rates and expanding fiber-optic network, has become a key contributor to economic development in the city (more on that later).

As for the airport, it has long been a somewhat hidden gem, but it continues to emerge as a force in the local economy as home to not only the 104th, but also companies like Gulfstream Aerospace, where private jets are serviced, and also as a home base for a handful of jets and dozens of other planes.

“Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community.”

This will go down as a big year for the airport, which has thrust itself into the limelight in a number of ways.

For starters, it is celebrating its 100th birthday, Willenborg said, adding that this comes on top of the announcement of the F-35s, which brought press coverage locally, regionally, and nationally. There was also the recent Westfield International Air Show, which featured a wide range of aircraft, including the F-35A, and brought more than 100,000 people to Barnes. And just a few weeks ago, the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit group based in Texas, brought several vintage World War II aircraft — and thousands of spectators — to the airport.

On top of all that, Barnes is enjoying what could be called a building boom, he said, noting that there are four new hangars in various stages of construction, investments totaling between $8 million and $10 million, as well as two taxiway projects on the docket, one to start this month and the other set for next year.

Overall, the airport, which sees 50,000 takeoffs and landings each year, contributes roughly $1.2 million of direct revenue to the city, and its overall economic impact, according to a 2019 statewide study, is roughly 2,100 direct and indirect jobs and economic output of $236 million, numbers that take into account the 104th.

“The airport is definitely a major economic engine and employer here in Western Massachusetts,” Willenborg said, adding that the arrival of the F-35s is only expected to increase that impact.

 

The Jet Set

Also making a considerable impact is the city’s utility. General Manager Tom Flaherty said Westfield G&E’s rates are considerably lower than investor-owned utilities such as Eversource and National Grid, a competitive advantage that, when coupled with those assets listed above, gives the city a leg up when it comes to landing large manufacturing and distribution facilities, as well as the planned data-center campus.

One of the latest examples of the saleability of this package of assets is the arrival of James Hardie Building Products, which plans to open a construction siding factory in the former Old Colony Envelope plant in the city’s north side.

When it opens, the James Hardie plant will become the G&E’s largest natural-gas customer and one of its 10 largest electric customers, said Flaherty, adding that utility rates certainly played a role in the company’s decision to come to Westfield.

“It was a solid a mix of things — Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community,” he explained. “And when it narrows down to utility cost, and people are looking at cost and system reliability and the capability to meet that gas demand, Westfield has all that.”

Elaborating, he said Westfield has its own natural-gas spur that comes off the Tennessee Gas pipeline, which the G&E wholly owns, giving it — and the city — a huge advantage over communities such as Holyoke and utilities currently enforcing moratoriums on additional natural-gas service.

Another advantage — again, for both the city and its utility — is the G&E’s expanding fiber-optic business, Whip City Fiber. Launched in 2013 to provide fiber-optic service to residents and businesses in Westfield, the endeavor has become a $30 million-a-year business whereby the G&E has built out and now manages fiber-optic networks in 20 area communities — from Blandford to Goshen to Colrain — with more in the pipeline.

These include West Springfield and Southwick, said Flaherty, adding that more cities and towns in this region and beyond will be joining that list in the years to come.

“In the beginning, the broad goal was to bring an additional service to the residents and business of Westfield and, hopefully, break even,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, today, through its continued expansion in the city and to other communities, Whip City Fiber generates roughly $3.5 million in net income for the utility, money that is currently poured into expansion of the fiber-optic network to different parts of the Westfield.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 40.834
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.52
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

When the entirety of Westfield is covered by the service, that revenue can be put toward other initiatives, such as the utility board’s recent vote to make additional payments in lieu of taxes to the city with the intention that they be used to upgrade athletic fields in the city.

“We’re looking to partner with the city to turf up to six fields and pay the bond for that, up to $1 million a year,” he said, adding that many of the city’s athletic fields are in need of upgrading or expansion. “That’s a project where we can give back to the community as we continue to bring in revenue from communities outside of Westfield.”

 

Soar Subject

While the F-35s are expected to provide a boost in civic pride and some stability for the 104th and the local economy, the precision manufacturers in the area are hoping they do something else — generate some interest in the field.

Such forms of inspiration are still very much needed, said Carlson, adding that, despite attractive pay rates, good benefits, and even growing flexibility in the workplace, it remains a struggle to find and retain talent, a challenge that is testing many of the shops in the city, including hers.

Hiring was an issue before COVID, noted Carlson, who was honored by BusinessWest with its Difference Makers award in 2021, primarily for her tireless work to educate young people about this sector and hopefully draw more of them into it, adding that the pandemic and its many side effects, including generous unemployment benefits, only exacerbated the problem.

“Whoever thought it could get harder for manufacturers to find good people?” she asked with a laugh. “It’s always been a struggle for our industry, and post-pandemic, it’s been even worse; somehow, I was able to fill open positions inside of a month this year, and I’m not really sure how that happened.

“There are a lot of us in Westfield who constantly have job openings, and we’re trying to fill them, as is the case with every manufacturer in the state and the country, for that matter,” she went on. “The problem is the same that it’s always been — we have a limited skilled labor force that we can pull from, and we’re all competing for the same ones.”

Elaborating, she said Westfield Technical Academy graduates 16 to 18 students a year from its manufacturing department, and there are roughly 30 shops in Westfield alone competing for those students, many of whom are brought into shops as part of a co-op program while they’re seniors, with the goal of seeing them stay with the firm in question.

Meanwhile, the pandemic had the additional effect of pushing many Baby Boomers over the retirement cliff, Carlson said, adding that this drain of experienced talent further tested shops large and small, including Peerless, which saw two long-time employees retire over the past year.

Still, despite these challenges, most shops, including Peerless, are thriving, she said.

“We had a slump last year, but we’re coming out of it, and we’re at almost 90-degree climb now, so it’s good,” she said, using an aviation-industry term to get her point across. “We’re seeing a lot of large customers who had really slowed down during the pandemic coming back in full force, and we’re seeing customers come back that we hadn’t done business with in three years because of the pandemic.”

 

Uplifting Thoughts

Speaking of 90-degree climbs … the F-35s are not expected to arrive until 2026. But already, expectations, and the overall outlook for the city, are sky high.

After years of effort and lobbying on the part of city, state, and national officials, the latest-generation F-35s will be coming to Barnes, providing — as Sullivan, McCabe, Willenborg, and others told BusinessWest — both a point of pride and an economic boost for the city and region.

It’s a lightning strike, to be sure, and one with a powerful jolt.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Package Machinery

Plans are moving forward for a large warehouse facility on the former Package Machinery complex.

For more than 35 years now, the property at 330 Chestnut St. in East Longmeadow, known colloquially as the Package Machinery complex, has been the subject of question marks about what will come next there.

Indeed, while there have been sporadic uses of portions of the sprawling property, especially its massive warehouse facility, over the years, it has been mostly vacant. The once-mowed acreage adjacent to the administration and production facilities is completely overgrown with weeds and other forms of vegetation. And the large ‘X’s on the front of the property instruct fire crews not to enter because it has been deemed unsafe to do so.

So the questions persist — only, these days, months after a controversial plan to build a large warehouse facility there were first unveiled, and weeks after the plan was approved by the town’s Planning Board with a lengthy list of conditions, they are somewhat different in nature.

Now, the questions mostly concern what these conditions, including one requiring a right turn out of the property, will mean for certain areas of the community, including its downtown and famous (make that infamous) rotary, and other communities, including neighboring Enfield and Longmeadow. They also concern whether these conditions will be altered and new ones added, and even whether the project will hold up under potential litigation from residents.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families.”

The matter will be the subject of a reopened public hearing on June 20, said Planning Board Chairman Jon Torcia, adding that, when it voted to approve the project in May, the board noted the concerns about traffic and noise, but ultimately concluded that this was a use allowed within that zone, and one that should be approved, with conditions.

Overall, 2023 is shaping up as a possible watershed year for this growing community of more than 16,000 residents.

Indeed, beyond the controversy over the future of 330 Chestnut St., there is also the matter of a proposed new high school for the town, one with a sticker price now north of $177 million, with the town’s share expected to be roughly $120 million.

The matter is due to come up for a vote on Election Day, Nov. 7, and to say this a huge vote for the community would an understatement.

The current high school opened its doors in 1960 and is the last of the high schools built in this region during that time that is still standing. Some see the high school as a potentially limiting factor in the town’s ability to compete with other surrounding communities for families, current students, and even businesses. Meanwhile, the building is very much energy-inefficient at a time when municipalities are moving to build schools and other facilities that move in the other direction.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families,” said School Superintendent Gordon Smith, adding that, if voters approve the measure in November, ground would likely be broken in the summer of 2024, with the new building, to be built on athletic fields behind the current facility, to be ready for occupancy in the fall of 2026.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

But despite its aging high school and its uncertain future, East Longmeadow remains a popular landing spot for both families and businesses, especially with a uniform tax rate.

“The town has become very desirable,” said Bill Laplante, owner of Laplante Construction, a residential builder with offices on Main Street. And he speaks from experience — he grew up in East Longmeadow, graduated from its high school, and raised a family there. “When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

Elaborating, he said that, while there are more building lots in this town than in neighboring Longmeadow or many other communities, the inventory certainly isn’t what it was years ago. This means lots that become available in the few subdivisions being built go quickly, and the prices of existing homes move higher (more on all this later).

Beyond the warehouse and high school, there are some other big decisions that might be made in 2023, including what to do with another long-vacant property: the former home of Carlin Combustion Engineering on Maple Street. It is due to be acquired by the town, said Town Manager Mary McNally, adding that a request for proposals will likely be issued. Meanwhile, there are plans on the table for renovating one of the town’s gems, Heritage Park, plans that might move off the table — or not, depending on a number of factors, including the high-school project and its cost to the taxpayers.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at East Longmeadow and the many important decisions that will likely be made this year.

 

Developing Stories

As noted earlier, the property at 330 Chestnut, across the street from the Lenox manufacturing facility, has been a declining eyesore, and a source of seemingly endless speculation, for many years.

It appeared that an answer had been found several years ago, when a development group, East Longmeadow Redevelopers LLC, put plans on the table for a mixed-use facility, or ‘village,’ as it was called by some, one that would include housing and commercial uses. Those plans were conceived just before the start of the pandemic, said McNally, adding that the project essentially died on the vine amid COVID-related issues such as spiraling costs and supply-chain woes, as well as disagreement between the developer and the Town Council over how much of the space would be devoted to commercial uses.

“When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

In its place, East Longmeadow Developers LLC proposed the large warehouse facility — more than 500,000 square feet in size, with 100 docking bays — which has drawn considerable opposition from residents, especially those in an over-55 luxury condo development called the Fields at Chestnut, citing increased truck traffic and noise.

The project is allowed, from a zoning perspective, and the Planning Board approved the proposal, with approximately 20 conditions, earlier this spring, Torcia said. One of those conditions, mandating a right turn out of the property, away from the Fields of Chestnut, was not discussed at earlier hearings, he noted, adding that it would certainly be the focus of discussion at the public hearing slated for June 20.

The developers have estimated there will be roughly 400 vehicle trips per day at the site, he said, adding that he believes that most of these trucks will take a second right — rather than a left and head for the center of town — and proceed to highways through roads in Enfield and Longmeadow.

“I think this project will bring benefits in that it will rehabilitate a blighted property that has not been operational for quite some time,” he explained. “But we did hear from people who spoke at the meetings who were rightfully concerned about an increase in traffic, going from a property where there’s been no activity to one with considerable activity.”

Mary McNally

Mary McNally says there’s plenty of support for a new high school, but there are also cost concerns.

There has been no activity, or very little of it, at the Carlin Combustion site for the better part of a decade, said McNally, but that could soon change now that the town is acquiring the property from its current owner.

She noted that motorists navigating Maple Street at or above the posted speed limit might not even notice the property, with its overgrown weeds and rusting signs hinting at its former use. But it has not gone unnoticed by town officials or the authors of the master plan, who have identified it as a potential asset.

East Longmeadow at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 16,430
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.20
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.20
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lenox; Cartamundi; CareOne at Redstone; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center
* Latest information available

Indeed, there are many possible future uses for the property, said McNally, adding that some would like it devoted to open space — it abuts a rail trail and a rail depot converted into an ice-cream parlor — or as home to a new public-safety complex, while others, and she puts herself in this category, would like to see housing of a more affordable variety than most all of the homes currently being built in this community.

“I think housing is the best option, and the Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options,” she explained. “There are a lot of new homes going up for $600,000 and $700,000; a lot of people who live here would like to stay here and perhaps downsize from a $200,000, $300,000, or $400,000 home into something smaller.”

 

School of Thought

When asked what plan B might be if residents do not support the proposal to build a new high school this fall, Smith, said that, in essence, there isn’t one. Or at least one that makes sense, in his opinion.

The only option for the town would be to spend an estimated $120 million to renovate the school and bring it up to modern codes, he said, adding that this isn’t much of an option.

Elaborating, he said that, through two phases of a feasibility study and feedback from residents and other constituencies, the town has moved to the point where new construction has been deemed the best option.

“The public feedback was ‘you might as well go for new construction because of some of the challenges that have been identified,’” he said, noting, as one example, that if the town were to upgrade the HVAC system to bring it to code, doing so would decrease the room size because of the need to create new walls to fit the HVAC equipment that would go between those walls.

“The Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options.”

He said the town has been talking about a new high school for at least a decade. Over those 10 years, the price tag has only increased, and the current projections — and these could change with final design — is approximately $177 million, with $55 million to $57 million to be reimbursed by the state.

This will obviously be a large burden on the taxpayers, said McNally, adding that, for a small community like this one, “the numbers are frightening.”

The exact impact on the tax rate hasn’t been determined, she said, adding that some estimates put the hit at $1,000 annually for the average taxpayer. Overall, she said it is difficult to project how November’s vote will go.

“There’s a lot of support for the school; I think everyone acknowledges, or most people acknowledge, that it’s needed. But then there’s the cost barrier. But in the absence of a new school, I’m not sure we can compete as well with Wilbraham and Longmeadow, both of which have relatively new schools.”

Meanwhile, a project of this size and scope might impact or delay other capital projects, such as long-needed, long-talked-about improvements to Heritage Park.

Indeed, McNally produced a thick file folder detailing roughly $7 million worth of improvements that include a new recreation center, an indoor gym, walking trails, dredging the pond, athletic fields, and more.

“We need soccer fields and play areas,” she said, adding that soccer fields at the Lenox complex, used by the town for years, are being converted to solar farms, and other facilities will no longer be available for public use. “Unfortunately, the school vote has somewhat tapered my encouragement of the progress of some of these other projects because you can’t pay for everything at the same time.”

Despite some of these municipal issues and question marks moving forward, East Longmeadow remains a community in demand. That’s true on the commercial side — many area banks have located branches there over the past decade or so, for example, and Chase, which is renovating a property in the center of town, is the latest to join that list — and on the residential side as well.

Indeed, Laplante said building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

“You do a search for available building lots in town, and you find that there really aren’t that many,” he said. “There are scattered lots that are in established neighborhoods, but you don’t see many available building lots in a neighborhood setting.”

Still, there some new homes being built, including one his company is handling in a new subdivision off Prospect Street called Bella Vista. Overall, Laplante has built three of the homes in the complex — another high-end development where the lots are absorbed quickly, which in many ways reflects what’s been happening in this community over the past several years.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says Lenox’ tourist economy largely rebounded in 2022.

 

Heading into the high season for tourism in Lenox, Jennifer Nacht didn’t believe this community, home to Tanglewood and dozens of other popular cultural institutions, could do much better than it did last year when it came to filling up rooms at its large portfolio of hotels and inns.

Turns out, she was wrong.

Indeed, a seemingly insatiable appetite on the part of the public for some fun time off away from home, coupled with the relaxing of three-day minimums at many of those lodging facilities, has pushed the numbers even higher, said Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, adding that, in many respects, Lenox started turning the clock back to 2019 last year.

“Last year was so busy,” she said, to the point where she wasn’t sure if 2023 could surpass it, but things are trending that way. “In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”

Still, while the inns and hotels, many of the restaurants, and nearly all of the numerous outdoor attractions staged a full recovery in 2022, many of the theaters and galleries continue to make their way back, said Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing and Communications for Shakespeare & Company, which operates on 33 acres in Lenox.

“In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”

She told BusinessWest that most theaters struggled somewhat last year, with few if any sellouts, as the public was still wary about COVID-19, especially early in the summer.

“We didn’t have terminally light crowds, but the people just weren’t here — it was still a building year for theater,” said Stevenson, who also sits on the Lenox Cultural District Steering Committee. “Visitors were coming back to the Berkshires — outdoor recreation had a banner year — but a lot of the theaters and music venues still struggled; it didn’t feel like we were fully back to normal and where we wanted to be. It felt like we were at 75%.”

Early indications are that theaters will likely improve on last year’s numbers, she said, adding that ticket sales are climbing higher.

“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year,” she explained. “I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”

As summer commences, Lenox will look to build on the momentum it gained from last year, while also leaning on the lessons learned during the pandemic and the opportunities created by it, especially in the broad realm of outdoor dining, which was in many ways new to the community and came of age during that time.

Meanwhile, the chamber will continue to build on its multi-faceted efforts to market the community and bring people to it by spotlighting the myriad things to do and many ways one can fill a day — or several days — while visiting (much more on that later).

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Lenox and how its economy, dominated by tourism, has made it most of the way back from the depths of the pandemic and is looking to set the bar still higher in the months and years to come.

 

Coming Attractions

Nacht knows all about being a business owner in Lenox. She was “one of the gang,” as she put it, the owner of the Scoop, an ice-cream and candy shop on Church Street, which she eventually sold to cryptocurrency tycoon Ryan Salame in 2021; he now owns several businesses in the community.

“I had skin in the game,” she noted, adding that, by then, she was already managing the chamber as well, putting the 40-year-old institution back on a path to better fiscal health and a more effective execution of its mission, which she described this way: “to be a full-service marketing firm for our members.”

And when she says full-service, she means it.

Shakespeare & Company

Shakespeare & Company has a robust slate of performances scheduled for 2023.

“If a member comes in and needs help with graphic design, we’ll do that, too,” she said, adding that, mostly, this work as a marketing firm involves promoting the community, its events, its cultural institutions, and a whole lot more. It does this in a number of ways, including a weekly email blast sent to a growing list of subscribers now numbering more than 1,700.

A quick look at the most recent missive, under the headline “All the Good Stuff to Know This Week from the Lenox Chamber of Commerce and Its Members,” reveals just how much is going on in this community as summer beckons.

There’s the start to the Lenox Farmer’s Market on Church Street, the Lenox Loves Music Sunday series in Lilac Park, the Lenox Wine Fete, which took place on June 3, the Summer Lenox Art Walk, set for June 10-11, a Community Conversation at the Lenox Library titled “The Impact of the Pandemic on Mental Health and How to Manage Moving Forward,” a performance of Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Shakespeare & Company, the Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Summer Food Series, and performances of What the Constitution Means to Me, featuring two-time Tony Award-nominated actor Kate Baldwin, at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge.

Then there are reminders about some of the region’s attractions, many opening for the summer, including the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home; the Wit Gallery; and ‘ghost tours’ of Ventfort Hall in Lenox, home to the Gilded Age Museum, as well as looks ahead to the Jackson Browne concert on Aug. 31 at Tanglewood (tickets went on sale June 1) and other events.

“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year. I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”

The list goes on and on. There’s even a reminder about wellness clinics offered by the Berkshire Humane Society.

The email blasts are part of just part of the chamber’s work to bring people to the region, said Nacht, adding that, while there are some service businesses and representatives of other sectors, the vast majority of the chamber’s 136 members are focused, on one level or another, on tourism and hospitality. They include hotels and inns, restaurants and taverns, theaters, art galleries, bookstores, summer camps, and more.

And while most of the chamber’s work on behalf of these members falls into the category of marketing, there are other initiatives as well, said Nacht, including work with town officials on business-related issues, such as a WiFi bylaw, quarterly meet-and-greets held in conjunction with the chambers in Lee and Stockbridge, and a recently staged job fair designed to help businesses navigate a still-difficult workforce environment.

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,095
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.16
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.03
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

“We had 20 tables of members who were looking for summer help, temporary help, permanent help,” she recalled. “And we had more than 100 people show up; it was really successful event — many of our members actually hired people from the job fair.”

Overall, though, most members are successfully “staffed up,” as she put it, thanks to returning college students and other applicants. And they will need to be as a summer that promises to be even better, from a business standpoint, is poised to begin.

 

Staging a Comeback

For the theaters and music venues, there is still some rebuilding to do from the pandemic, Stevenson told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2022 provided some steps in the right direction, there is certainly room for improvement in the upcoming season.

“Last year was tough,” she said, “and there was a lot of guesswork throughout the season: ‘who are we talking to?’ ‘Who’s here?’ Who wants to come?’”

Elaborating, she said COVID was still on the public’s mind, especially earlier in the summer, when the numbers of cases were still running high. Meanwhile, and as noted earlier in that rundown of all that is happening in Lenox and surrounding towns, there is a lot to do there, and individual venues and attractions are competing with one another for the time and interest of residents and visitors. And in 2002, “it felt like the crowds we were competing for were small and finite.”

There were other issues last summer, including weather — a windstorm cost Shakespeare & Company two performances, Stevenson said, adding quickly that the outlook for 2023 is positive, not just for theaters and other performance venues, but the region in general, as visitation continues to rebound from the COVID years.

Shakespeare & Company recently launched its new season with the two-person show Dear Jack, Dear Louise, she noted, adding that there is a full and intriguing slate of performances slated for this year. The first Shakespearian offering is a rendition of Henry VI Part 2, billed as The Contention. “Henry VI is said to be the inspiration for Game of Thrones, so we’ve been leaning on that a lot.”

Coming later in the summer are August Wilson’s Fences, featuring horror-movie icon (think Candyman) Tony Todd; Golda’s Balcony, a play about Golda Mier; a stage reading of Hamlet featuring Christopher Lloyd; and, in the outdoor theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a “late-’70s music spin,” she added.

Overall, there is a little something for everyone, a well-worn phrase that could also be applied to Lenox itself, said both Stevenson and Nacht, noting many new restaurants downtown and, overall, a calendar full of events and things to do.

In short, a community that took some huge strides toward making a full recovery from COVID is looking to take even more in the year to come.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Molly Keegan

Molly Keegan co-founded the Hadley Business Council to address the needs of local companies.

Each spring, the town of Hadley attracts attention for its asparagus crops, as well as its crowded hotels and restaurants due to college graduations in surrounding towns.

This year’s asparagus crop is strong, and the Asparagus Festival is back and bigger than ever (more on that later). Graduations are all on schedule, too. Getting to all those events — well, that can be a challenge.

Route 9 — Russell Street in Hadley — is undergoing a reconstruction of two and a quarter miles of roadway, which involves replacing infrastructure below the road as well as upgrading and widening at the surface.

In most towns with just over 5,300 residents, a road project would present only a minor inconvenience. But Hadley’s geography places it in a unique situation because Route 9 serves as the main artery connecting it to Northampton, Amherst, and several other towns. Between the universities and businesses in the area, traffic through Hadley — a largely rural community both north and south of Russell Street — can easily top 100,000 vehicles a day.

To keep things moving, communication becomes essential. With college graduations scheduled for the latter part of May, followed immediately by Memorial Day, Carolyn Brennan, Hadley’s town administrator, said mid- to late May is among the most challenging times.

“Once we get through the next few weeks, that will be huge,” Brennan said, noting that traffic becomes more manageable once the colleges empty out for the summer.

The week of May 7 proved particularly disruptive, as town projects were scheduled on several side roads — the same side roads drivers were using to avoid the Route 9 construction.

“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example.”

“We called it the perfect nightmare,” Brennan said, adding that police got involved to encourage residents to sign up for daily notices about where construction was taking place. “I’m so proud of the Hadley Police Department for taking a proactive approach to send out alerts every morning to residents so they know what streets will be impacted.”

While it’s helpful when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) issues weekly updates on Route 9 construction, Molly Keegan, Hadley Select Board member and co-owner of Curran and Keegan Financial, felt businesses in town needed more.

As an active member of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Keegan felt Route 9 construction created several issues for Hadley businesses that did not affect chamber members in other towns. So she and Kishore Parmar, whose Pioneer Valley Hotel Group owns two hotels in Hadley, formed the Hadley Business Council.

“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example,” Keegan said. “Not everyone on the Amherst Area Chamber is keenly affected by the construction in the way that Hadley businesses are.”

Kelly Tornow

Kelly Tornow says cannabis companies like HadLeaf need to use every means to get the word out, as advertising is strictly regulated.

After reaching out to the DOT and Baltazar Contractors, the Ludlow-based construction company doing the roadwork, Keegan and Parmar met with town department heads. The purpose of all these meetings was to make everyone aware of the business council and to encourage better communication in all directions.

“We are trying to find ways to leverage the business council so we are all talking, rather than having it be a complaint department,” Keegan said. “Anyone can complain; we’re looking to leverage these relationships.”

Now that the entity has been established, there are already conversations about how it may address future opportunities for Hadley businesses. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber, has suggested the Hadley Business Council could look at designing a map that would promote agricultural tourism. Stops along the way would be ice cream at Flayvors of Cook Farm, petting a cow at Mapleline Farm, and more. Keegan noted that farmers in Hadley are looking for ideas like this to promote agri-tourism.

 

Green Days

Located on Route 9, HadLeaf Cannabis is one business accustomed to working through challenges. The group that started HadLeaf signed its community host agreement in February 2020, allowing it to start building the dispensary. Weeks later, COVID-19 shut everything down and caused huge delays. A planned opening for early 2021 was pushed back by delays until HadLeaf was finally able to open in October 2022.

“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open,” said Matt McTeague, regional manager for HadLeaf. “Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”

Kelly Tornow, general manager of HadLeaf, has worked in retail for most of her career. Since joining the operation in February 2022, she was part of the effort to get the dispensary up and running.

“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open. Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”

“This is the first time I’ve been involved with launching a retail operation from the ground up,” Tornow said. “The biggest challenge was learning all the laws and regulations that come with cannabis.”

To overcome situations like road construction, most retail businesses simply increase their advertising, but advertising cannabis is strictly regulated.

“We’re trying all the avenues that are open to us to get our name out there,” Tornow said, noting that membership in the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce is one avenue that has been successful. “Because we’re members of the chamber, we have a presence at their golf tournaments and other community events.”

Because podcasts are allowed under the advertising regulations, an informational podcast wil launch soon at hadleafuniversity.com. “We will produce it in the store with different speakers and vendors,” Tornow explained. “The idea is to educate consumers about different aspects of cannabis.”

The HadLeaf name has been a positive marketing tool as well. McTeague said many people compliment him on the creativity of the name. “We wanted something that would be relevant to cannabis and identify with the town of Hadley. We tried a couple combinations, but HadLeaf really stuck.”

But the term ‘Hadley grass’ has nothing to do with cannabis; that’s another name for the crop that has made Hadley the asparagus capital of the world.

For decades, Hadley asparagus has had the reputation of being served in fine restaurants across the globe. According to mediterraneanliving.com, for many years Queen Elizabeth II served Hadley asparagus at her annual Spring Fest.

Asparagus Festival

More than 8,000 people came out to last year’s Asparagus Festival, set for June 3 this year.
Photo by Erin O’Neill

New England Public Media (NEPM) sponsors the annual Asparagus Festival, scheduled this year for Saturday, June 3 on the Hadley Town Common. While the event is in its ninth year, the festival was not held for two years during COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the event drew between 6,000 and 7,000 attendees. Last year, an estimated 8,000 people came out on a sunny Saturday to enjoy the return of the festival. Vanessa Cerillo, NEPM’s senior director of Marketing, Communication, and Events, expects the same kind of crowd this year.

“The Asparagus Festival is about celebrating the wonderful agricultural heritage of Hadley,” Cerillo said. “We’re excited to produce the event and partner with the town of Hadley for the year-long planning that goes into the event.”

More than 100 local food, crafts, cultural, and agricultural vendors will be represented at the festival’s Farmers and Makers Market. Local breweries will set up in the Beers and Spears tent, while food trucks will be on hand with traditional fare as well as fried asparagus and even asparagus ice cream.

For the first time this year, the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) will take part in the festival, offering free bicycle valet service.

“Everyone who rides their bikes to the festival can leave it with a valet, where it will remain secure while they enjoy the festival,” Cerillo said. “The festival gets so packed with cars that we are encouraging people to ride their bikes to it, if they can.”

Festival attendance is free with a suggested $5 per person (or $20 per family) donation to support public media in Western Mass.

 

Worth the Wait

In addition to approving a new budget at the Hadley town meeting held in early May, the community unanimously approved expansion of ambulance service. Action EMS provides primary ambulance coverage for Hadley. A second ambulance run by the town will shortly be added due to the call volume, which is affected by those 100,000 drivers who use Route 9 every day.

“We certainly benefit from the entire commercial district along Route 9,” Keegan said. “Because of the high traffic volume, we need to provide services like we are a small city and not a rural hamlet.”

To staff the ambulance, the town will hire two additional firefighters trained as EMTs. Brennan said the ambulance is scheduled to be ready by July 1.

“There’s quite a lot involved when you put an ambulance into service,” she explained. “We spent all of last year outfitting the ambulance, training the staff, getting state approvals, and more.”

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,325
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $11.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.54
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

One long-term project Brennan discussed involves increased maintenance on the West Street levee along the Connecticut River that plays a vital role in flood control for the town.

“The levee is doing its job, but we are continuing to work with engineers to make sure it provides protection well into the future,” she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to achieve FEMA certification, which is a multi-year process.

More immediate town business involves compensation and succession planning. In order to make sure Hadley is paying its employees comparable wages, the town has hired a consulting firm to study compensation. The firm has also been charged with developing a succession plan.

“We have people in key departments who will be looking to retire soon,” Brennan said. “Like many small towns, we have several one-person departments, so we’re getting ready for the number of retirements that are likely to happen in the next few years.”

Another long-term project involves what Keegan called “a big conversation” about housing.

“We are taking a more focused look at our master plan, working with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and with UMass,” she said. “If we are going to expand our housing, we need to figure out where should it go and what should it look like.”

The old Russell School, located across the street from Town Hall, will undergo a feasibility study to figure out the best options for possible reuse. Like many Western Mass. towns with older buildings, the cost of rehabilitation to bring it in line with today’s public building codes can exceed millions of dollars.

“The Russell School is a beloved building with a good number of people who want to preserve it and others who don’t want to spend the money to keep it,” Brennan said, noting that the study will look at options for the town to keep the school, pursue a public/private partnership, or sell it outright to a private entity.

Meanwhile, Route 9 construction continues, with the work moving along on schedule — even if vehicle traffic slows, at times, to a crawl. The project is expected to be completed by 2026.

Despite the current headaches, the investment is necessary, Brennan said, with a wider road and new infrastructure transforming Route 9 in ways that will benefit the town for years to come.

Keegan agreed. “I keep telling people, it will be worth the wait.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Doug Moglin and Heather Kies

Doug Moglin and Heather Kies stand at the construction site for Whalley Computer Associates’ 85,000-square-foot addition.

When Whalley Computer Associates in Southwick recently broke ground for a new 85,000-square-foot warehouse and office addition, Doug Moglin said the company was making a statement about its commitment to the town.

“We’ve been operating in Southwick for 44 years, and the new facility represents our investment in the next 25 to 30 years,” said Moglin, vice president for Whalley’s OEM business.

While many of its customers are based in New England, Whalley sells all over the U.S. and internationally. Warehousing is essential because a big part of the business involves acquiring various types of computer equipment from manufacturers, customizing it to clients’ specific needs, and then shipping out the final product. All of that requires space, which can present a challenge. Moglin gave an example of a national retail chain that needed new servers, a case that explains the need for the expansion.

“One day, 8,000 servers showed up to our near-capacity warehouse,” he explained. “And because only eight servers fit on each pallet, it quickly became a math problem.”

The company currently uses warehouse space in Westfield to handle the overflow, but the need keeps growing. For several years, senior managers had discussed building more warehouse capacity on the parcels that surround Whalley’s main facility in Southwick. Supply-chain issues during the pandemic accelerated those discussions.

“Supply-chain reliability is a concern for our customers, so having components on hand is a huge benefit,” Moglin explained. “Having the capacity to hold more inventory brings additional customers to us because, instead of buying direct from manufacturers or companies like ours out of the area, they have a local resource that provides better service and better support.”

Heather Kies, marketing manager for Whalley, called its evolution “a great story of a company that’s growing but still staying in its hometown.”

The Southwick Select Board and the Massachusetts Office of Business Development worked with Whalley to secure a tax-increment financing (TIF) agreement.

Russell Fox, chair of the Select Board and a selectman for most of the past 40 years, said the TIF was well worth the effort to keep the project in Southwick. Under the agreement, Whalley has agreed to add to the 200 workers it currently employs. “The Whalley project is all positive news for Southwick,” Fox said.

“The reconfiguration addresses the concerns of people who don’t want a huge operation. I think it’s a good way to use this industrially zoned parcel.”

In another part of town, the Planning Board is now considering a reconfiguration of the site where a Carvana facility was once proposed but then shot down by residents over concerns of increased traffic along College Highway. Now the same area has been redrawn as five separate lots, with some facing the road and smaller lots positioned in the back of the parcel. Fox sees the new plan as a great compromise.

“The reconfiguration addresses the concerns of people who don’t want a huge operation. I think it’s a good way to use this industrially zoned parcel,” Fox said, adding that, when new businesses occupy that parcel, it will help the town make its case to add a traffic light at the Tannery Road intersection.

Moving forward, the town’s goal is to continue decades of work to create an attractive balance. Fox noted that, while Southwick is known as a recreational community — it is home to the Congamond Lakes, a successful motocross track, and two golf courses — it is also a town that wants and needs to continually grow its business community.

Overall, it strives to be a community where people can play, work, and live, with new housing developments under construction and others set to come off the drawing board, as we’ll see later.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Southwick and how this community on the Connecticut border is building momentum — in all kinds of ways.

 

Getting Down to Business

A key agenda item at the upcoming Southwick town meeting in May involves bringing fiber optics into town to handle its cable-TV and internet services.

The process involves forming a municipal light plant, which voters approved at a special town meeting last fall. A second vote for the plant will be taken at the May meeting. Fox pointed out that the municipal light plant is an entity in name only. If the second vote is successful, Southwick will begin interviewing firms to install and maintain the fiber-optic network. Whip City Fiber in Westfield will be among the companies under consideration.

“We’re telling all bidders that they must cover the entire town and not just the densely populated neighborhoods; that’s a non-negotiable point,” he said. “We are a community, so everyone must have access.”

The fiber-optic network is considered an important step forward for the community, one that will bring faster, more reliable service to existing residential and business customers, and provide one more selling point as town leaders continue their work to attract more employers, across a wide range of sectors.

Diane DeMarco has a special trade-show display

Diane DeMarco has a special trade-show display room to help clients pick the right materials for their needs.

The town already boasts a large and growing business community, one that is served by the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, which has increased its membership among Southwick businesses, a sign of growth both in Southwick and in the chamber.

Indeed, last year, the chamber reported 13 members from Southwick, while this year, that number has grown to 20.

Diane DeMarco, owner of Spotlight Graphics in Southwick, is a long-time chamber member. For 10 years, the company has provided area businesses with logo signage, trade-show materials, and graphic vehicle wrapping, among many other services offered.

When COVID hit, Spotlight lost a few clients when it was forced to shut down. Since then, DeMarco reports she has gained back many more clients than she lost. “Business has been very good for us. We have new clients coming on board, and word of mouth about us is spreading.”

She credits customer loyalty through the years thanks to the relationships she and her staff have built. “Our customers aren’t buying their graphics from a company; they are working with Allie, David, or Diane,” she said, listing long-time employees at the business.

In addition to offering full-service, quality work, Spotlight Graphics is a nationally certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) and certified by the state as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE). DeMarco explained the state designation has led to work from clients who are required to do business with DBE firms as part of their state contract. She described it as a win-win.

“The client is fulfilling their contractual requirement for the state by working with a woman-owned business, and they are getting a quality product at a fair price,” she said.

While DeMarco competes with online graphic firms that offer cheaper prices, she’s not worried because they often can’t match Spotlight’s quality.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,232
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.11
Commercial Tax Rate: $16.11
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

“Sometimes a client will buy an inexpensive retractable banner stand or go for the cheap price on a poster,” she said. “Then, when the stand breaks or the poster is the wrong color, they come to us to get it done right.”

In fact, Spotlight clients can see and touch the quality of banner stands and other graphic materials at its trade-show display room. DeMarco said online and print catalogs provide only an approximate idea of the size and quality of trade-show materials.

“People who are new to trade shows or have to revamp their current displays like to stop by because they can see the actual items they would use and get answers to their questions from our staff.”

 

No Place Like Home

While its business community continues to grow, Southwick is experiencing residential growth as well.

Indeed, the Greens of Southwick, a housing development located on both sides of College Highway on the former Southwick Country Club property, is nearing completion. With 25 lots on the west side and 38 on the east side, only a handful of parcels remain for this custom-built home development.

Fox appreciated the quality of the homes that added to the number of new residences in Southwick. “The developers did a tremendous job with the houses there,” he said. “The whole project is a real asset to our town.”

Next up for new housing, a 100-unit condominium complex has been approved at Depot and Powder Mill roads. While construction has not yet started, the town has already secured a grant to install sidewalks around the perimeter of the eventual construction. Fox said the sidewalks make sense because the location of the condos is an active area.

“The sidewalk will connect to Whalley Park, the rail trail, the Southwick Recreation Center, and to the schools at the other end of Powder Ridge,” he explained.

In Southwick, much of today’s activity is as much about the future as it is about the present.

As Moglin noted about Whalley Computer’s building addition, “this is not a 2024 investment; this is a 2044 investment, and beyond.”

The same can be said of the fiber-optic network soon to be built, the plans to divide and then develop the site eyed by Carvana, and the many housing projects in various stages of development.

In short, this is a community with expanding horizons, both literally and figuratively.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

David Bourgeois

David Bourgeois says Amherst Burger focuses on fun food sourced locally.

By all indications, from bustling sidewalks to traffic congestion, Amherst is most definitely back.

As the home of UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town had always benefited from the presence of all those students, faculty, staff, and visitors, both economically and with the energy they brought. When the pandemic hit, all those constituencies at all three campuses left town while people everywhere dealt with COVID-19.

Slowly but surely, the students returned as everyone learned how to work their way through the pandemic. Now, after persevering through a few very difficult years, there’s new energy and excitement in and about Amherst.

“When the colleges came back and started to re-engage with the community, it really set the tone for everyone else,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “The outpouring of students returning to downtown was huge.”

Currently, downtown Amherst enjoys a 4% vacancy rate for its commercial properties. Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said seven new restaurants have either recently opened or will do so by the end of the year, including a new White Lion brewery.

“At the Drake, the average age of our audience is in the 40s, and 70% of them live outside Amherst. It’s making our downtown destination-worthy, and as a result, we’re bringing in bigger bands and touring groups.”

“A staple of a successful downtown center is a brewery,” Gould said. “It’s something we’ve been trying to get for several years.”

Gould and the BID played an important role in establishing the Drake, an arts and entertainment venue downtown. Averaging 200 guests a night with four shows a week, the Drake is achieving the BID’s goal of bringing people, vibrancy, and a tricke-down effect to downtown.

While the return of the students is worth celebrating, older adults have also become essential in Amherst’s comeback.

“At the Drake, the average age of our audience is in the 40s, and 70% of them live outside Amherst,” Gould said, adding that audience polling shows they are eating at Amherst restaurants and going out for drinks after attending performances at the club. “It’s making our downtown destination-worthy, and as a result, we’re bringing in bigger bands and touring groups.”

Gould also credits Amherst’s revival to building owners downtown and in the Mill District who have helped entrepreneurs enter the restaurant or retail business, or open ventures themselves, rather than let their properties sit idle.

Alysia Bryant’s Carefree Cakery

Where the wheelbarrow of scrap wood sits is where the main counter of Alysia Bryant’s Carefree Cakery will be located when she opens in June.

“Landlords understand that opening a new business is hard, so they want to help people get started,” she said. “It’s an exciting shift that’s been happening.”

Barry Roberts owns several properties in Amherst and decided to create a burger restaurant when his previous tenant, Shanghai Gourmet, closed.

“We have lots of wonderful places to eat in Amherst,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID. “But I thought there was a need for a moderately priced place where you can get burgers, beer, and ice cream.”

After brightening up the wall colors and repurposing booths, the Amherst Burger Company was launched. At press time, the restaurant was scheduled to open its doors by late April.

To manage the new restaurant, Roberts hired David Bourgeois, who has experience running other Amherst restaurants. The emphasis at Amherst Burger is on fun food sourced locally.

“We get our beef from Echodale Farm in Easthampton, our ice cream from Cook Farm in Hadley, and our milk from Mapleline Farm in Hadley,” Bourgeois said. “We are looking to build relationships with additional local farms as their crops come into season.”

 

Schools of Thought

While downtown has become home to many new businesses, the Mill District in North Amherst is emerging as another hotspot.

When BusinessWest visited Alysia Bryant, owner of Carefree Cakery, the walls in her store were still two-by-four studs. Slated for a June opening, the venture will feature fair-trade ingredients in all its baked goods.

Amherst Burger Company

Amherst Burger Company is just one of many new additions to the downtown landscape.

Bryant started college with the intent of becoming a doctor, but soon realized she didn’t have the passion for it and shifted gears to a business curriculum. At that time, she also began making brownies for friends in her dorm room. When her friends became bored with plain brownies, Bryant added different ingredients, such as peanut-butter swirl and cheesecake swirl, and discovered how much she enjoyed the process of modifying recipes to create new treats.

“I realized that I had a passion for helping people and that my skill was baking,” she said. “So I asked, ‘how on earth could I do both at the same time?’”

While the idea for her own place incubated, Bryant spent five years managing the Sherwin-Williams paint store in Hadley, where she refined her skills before running her own business. Additionally, she researched how to source fair-trade ingredients such as vanilla extract, chocolate, and other essential baking items.

“I knew fair-trade products would be more expensive,” she said. “And my biggest concern was, would people be willing to pay for them?”

To get the answer, Bryant teamed up with the Holyoke chapter of EforAll, a national nonprofit entrepreneurial organization, to conduct surveys on pricing and flavors. She was surprised at the positive feedback. “After the survey results, I felt less trepidation and more excitement about Carefree Cakery.”

The owners of Futura Café, located next door, are planning their opening in June at the same time Bryant opens her doors. They will join nearly a dozen other businesses featuring, among other things, vintage clothing, a general store, and an art gallery.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,263
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $20.10
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.10
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“I enjoy being in the Mill District because there’s real collaboration among the businesses,” Bryant said. “They’ve put an emphasis on building community here.”

Pazmany concurred, noting that the Mill District has created many new community events, including a recent Easter egg hunt that sold out. “It’s a family-friendly place that keeps growing as more people experience the shops there.”

And family-friendly locations are needed because the Amherst area is, well, attracting more families.

Indeed, over the past few years, Massachusetts has seen a slight decline in its population — less than 1%. But in that same time, Hampshire County has seen an increase in its population of roughly 11%, with Amherst on the leading edge of that growth.

“Private development of housing is a major economic driver at this time,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman said. “There’s a demand for housing because so many people want to live in Amherst.”

Realtors are noting trends of growing numbers of families looking to move back to their hometowns, and Amherst is no exception.

“I’ve talked with people who were unleashed from their offices and could live anywhere, and they chose to live in Amherst because of the schools, open space, and cultural attractions downtown,” Bockelman said. “Our town has become a real magnet for people who work remote most of the time.”

 

Signs of Progress

A key municipal project in the works is the renovation of the North Common, a project Bockelman said will transform the center of Amherst. The area is technically a green space, though most of it is currently covered in wood chips. He said the new design will be a great space for everyone.

“During the pandemic, we learned that people like to get takeout food but then want to linger downtown, and, of course, we want people to linger downtown,” he said. “With the new design, they will be able to get takeout from one of our restaurants and sit at a picnic table or park bench in the middle of a bucolic lawn.”

As the project goes out to bid, several contractors have already told Bockelman they hope to win the contract because the North Common will be such a high-profile job. Construction is scheduled to start in late fall, with completion slated for spring 2024.

“It will be a great civic space where we will have flag raisings, celebrations of different cultures, and, because it’s Amherst, we’ve even created a special space to stage protests,” he said.

Gould said more evidence that Amherst is back can be seen in the restaurants that are busier today than they were before the pandemic. “Restaurant owners are telling me that they’ve never had numbers like this. Many are looking at opening second restaurants.”

Meanwhile, the student population continues to increase as Hampshire College plans to add 200 additional students in the fall.

And downtown will get another boost, with Amherst Cinema being chosen as one of only 12 film houses in the U.S. to show entries into the Sundance Film Festival when it takes place next year. The popular cinema will be the only place in the Northeast to view the Sundance entries.

“That means, during the festival, people will be coming here from Manhattan and Boston because Amherst Cinemas is the closest place in this region to see those films,” Gould said.

Even longtime attractions like the Emily Dickinson Museum are benefiting from the new energy in Amherst. After closing for renovations for part of last year, the museum is busier than ever and draws visitors from all over the world. Many new visitors are young people who discovered the Belle of Amherst through the Apple TV+ series Dickinson.

In the office Pazmany and Gould share, the phone has been ringing much more of late with people complaining they can’t find a hotel room in the area. As much as Pazmany wants to accommodate all visitors to the area, she also recognizes one of those proverbial ‘good problems to have.’

There are actually several of them, she said, noting that people are also complaining about traffic and a need for more places to park.

“Well, the complaint desk is active again, and that’s certainly a sign that we’re busy again,” she said, adding that, after the COVID years, such complaints are more than welcome.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says the ‘hill’ off Palmer’s Mass Pike exit is a challenging site.

You might say Ryan McNutt is a man with a plan. The Palmer town manager keeps a copy of the town’s master plan on his desk for anyone who wants to know the projects and priorities for the community in the years ahead.

McNutt sees a real benefit in a formal plan because it reduces what can be an overwhelming world of choices.

“When you have a document that we’ve all agreed on, it allows us to work toward the different benchmarks that are laid out for us,” he said. “Having a plan just makes it easier to get things done.”

And there are a lot of initiatives that developers, the town, and the state are trying to get done in Palmer — everything from a hotel and water park on the site once proposed for a casino to a stop on the planned, and highly anticipated, east-west rail line; from new cannabis businesses and a brewery to some infrastructure projects, and much more.

Overall, it’s an intriguing tome for this town roughly halfway between Springfield and Worcester, one that could change the landscape in all kinds of ways.

One key benchmark involves developing the land near Exit 63 on the Massachusetts Turnpike, commonly known as the Palmer exit.

With several empty land parcels near the exit ramp, McNutt and others see this as a significant economic opportunity. He was prepared to have the town purchase one of the parcels, clean up the lot, and advertise it for development with the hope it would be a catalyst for others.

“When you have a document that we’ve all agreed on, it allows us to work toward the different benchmarks that are laid out for us. Having a plan just makes it easier to get things done.”

While planning that move, a developer bought the parcel from the current owner and signed on to build the Liberty Plaza, scheduled to open late next year. Committed retail stores include a Chipotle restaurant, Starbucks, Jersey Mike’s Subs, and two other retail spaces not yet finalized.

“This is a great success for the town because it turns an empty lot into the kind of plaza you would expect to see close to a turnpike exit,” McNutt said. “Best of all, we achieved the result we wanted without having to buy anything.”

But this project pales in comparison to another proposed project, one that involves development of an area known as the ‘hill.’ Located directly at the end of the turnpike exit, the parcel represents nearly 200 acres of land. It was this area that was the proposed site for a casino complex.

According to Quabog Hills Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Andrew Surprise, Kalahari Resorts is in discussion with the town about a potential 400- to 500-room hotel with an indoor water park. Kalahari Resorts currently has hotel complexes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas. Themed around African adventure, the hotels emphasize family vacations by featuring large indoor water parks, and business gatherings by offering large conference centers.

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise says the Quaboag Hills Chamber has rebounded following a loss of members and direction during the pandemic.

“If Kalahari eventually locates here, it would be a huge economic benefit to Palmer and the entire region,” Surprise said.

At the town level, McNutt said Palmer is working with the company to address bringing public utilities and access roads to the hill parcel.

“It’s a challenging site,” he noted. “While nothing is a sure thing, I’m glad to see this company feels optimistic enough to keep exploring the opportunity.”

Meanwhile, those in — or looking to enter — the cannabis industry are also finding opportunities in Palmer.

Indeed, while there are no cannabis retailers currently operating in town, that will soon change. Kali Cannabis has begun building a retail operation on Shearer Street, close to the turnpike exit. Cannabis retailer Silver Therapeutics has also broken ground on its facility, and two additional companies, Green Gold Group and Green Adventure, are planning retail operations in Palmer. The latter companies are still completing the permitting process with the Cannabis Control Commission.

In short order, the town could see four cannabis establishments open their doors.

“We will have to see what the market does to determine the right number of cannabis retailers,” McNutt said. “We’re going to let capitalism solve that one.”

As for the chamber, in the middle of the pandemic, it faced a shrinking membership base and a loss of direction. During that time, Surprise became the executive director, with a mandate to turn things around. After nearly three years, he is happy to report the chamber is back.

“We’ve added dozens of new members in the last two years, with more businesses signing on every day,” he said, adding that, in the past year, the chamber has brought $364,000 in economic-development money to its members.

 

Tracking Progress

Another engine of economic development involves a train stop in Palmer as part of the east-west rail project currently under consideration. In the budget that Gov. Maura Healey will present to the legislature for approval, she has identified funding for train stops in Pittsfield and Palmer.

“While the budget hasn’t yet passed, it’s a promising sign because it shows the Commonwealth believes in the rail project and supports Palmer,” McNutt said.

If approved, a rail stop in Palmer offers residents the possibility of direct access to Boston without driving. But Surprise looks at that potential from a different angle. “I’m more focused on bringing people from Boston and Eastern Mass. here, so they can visit the region, spend money in this area, and help our economy.”

It’s an economy that’s growing and becoming increasingly diverse, with many new additions, including cannabis-based businesses as well as the town’s first brewery, created by Rachel Rosenbloom and her husband, Michael Bedrosian, who saw opportunity in Palmer and are seizing it.

“We knew town officials were looking to revitalize downtown, and we thought it would be a good idea to add something to the community that would encourage people to go downtown,” Rosenbloom said.

While the couple have been home brewers for 10 years, Rosenbloom is a professional brewer, working at Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton for the past five years. Palmer is known as the Town of Seven Railroads because the rail industry was an important part of the town’s early industrial development. That knowledge inspired the couple to name their business Seven Railroads Brewery.

“We didn’t want to go with an obvious name like Palmer Brewing Company,” Rosenbloom said. “We wanted to choose a name that really meant something to the community and to the area.”

Once they receive the proper construction permits for their Park Street location, the couple will start installing their brewing equipment. They have secured a license to brew and are still waiting for approval of their license to pour, which will determine how soon they can open the taproom and start serving the public.

“We’re going to concentrate on being a brewery, and while we won’t be serving food, we will invite local food trucks and let patrons know they can bring in food,” Rosenbloom said.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 12,448
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $21.40; Three Rivers, $21.82; Bondsville, $22.54; Thorndike, $22.25
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
*Latest information available

She is hopeful the taproom can open this spring or early summer, and she’s not the only one looking forward to it.

“Everyone we talk to is super excited and can’t wait for us to open,” she said. “The response we’ve gotten from the community has been so positive, with several local businesses reaching out to help and to discuss working with us in the future.”

Last spring, Surprise resumed publishing the chamber’s recreation guide and business directory after not producing it during the pandemic years. Published in time to distribute at the Brimfield Antique and Flea Market (which brings more than 250,000 people to the region every year), the guide’s return proved a big success.

“We distributed half our print run at the flea market as well as to more than 60 locations in the region, with many asking for more copies,” Surprise said. “People really liked the pocket-guide format, and, of course, it’s available online, too.”

With the 2023 edition, Surprise is looking to create different trails for antique shops, breweries and wineries, boutique shops, and more. He hopes the increased activity will increase the tourism dollars spent in the region. “Right now, our efforts are all about planting seeds and seeing what grows.”

Meanwhile, Palmer continues to seek a new use for the 100-year-old Converse Middle School. McNutt said the town looked into the costs to modernize it for municipal use, but the price tag was too high. Now he’s looking to see if housing developers, specifically those building for residents age 55 and over, can propose an effective use for the site.

As part of its master plan, Palmer is also working on replacing two main bridges in town, on Church Street and Main Street. After minor repairs, the Main Street bridge has been deemed safe for now, while the Church Street bridge was closed. A truss bridge is in use until a new Church Street bridge gets built.

“It’s a complicated construction project, but we are still on schedule with our benchmarks,” McNutt said. “It is still a goal that I will drive my car across the new bridge this year.”

A boat ramp for Forest Lake is one project that is now complete. As a small, quiet spot, McNutt explained that the lake is a popular place for parents to teach children how to fish.

In the past, boat owners would launch from a sandy area along the lake and park their vehicles on the adjacent road. That would often lead to two safety issues of launching during muddy times and then parking vehicles on a fairly busy road. The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game and Department of Conservation corrected those issues with a dedicated boat launch and an adjoining parking lot.

“From a safety, convenience, and aesthetic point of view, the boat launch was a great project all around that will benefit people for years to come,” McNutt said.

 

Bottom Line

In order to keep town projects on the path to completion, Palmer has a master-plan implementation committee consisting of citizens and town officials to make sure the actions that occur are aligned with the goals the town has identified.

“As we succeed and complete these projects, it serves as a catalyst and allows us to get even more done for the town,” McNutt said.

After all, it’s part of the plan.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

MJ Adams

MJ Adams, seen with one of Greenfield’s signature bees, says commercial and residential development are equally important downtown.

 

MJ Adams recalled a community event in February 2020 called “A Deliberate Downtown: Growing by Design.”

“Because so many interesting things were happening downtown at that time, and we were getting ready to launch a downtown-revitalization effort, we wanted to engage everyone in the community conversation about downtown,” said Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development.

Then the pandemic struck, the world went into lockdown, and the city pressed pause on its plan, she said. But only a pause.

“The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things about the city’s growth plans for the short term, all of 2020 and most of 2021, but it did not change the grit, determination, and resiliency of our city’s business and government leaders,” Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said in a recent state-of-the-city address, noting that municipal leaders moved forward with construction and revitalization programs, aided by a rush of state and federal money intended to pump life into the economy and infrastructure.

During that time, the city broke ground on a new, $20 million library (set to open this spring), solidified a location for its new $21 million fire station (expected to open early next year), and built a temporary fire station to ensure continued service.

“These projects are a testament to the willingness of Greenfield citizens to fund essential services that serve our city and surrounding communities,” she said, adding to that list a skate park soon to open between Chapman and Davis streets downtown, funded with a combination of state grant money and city capital-improvement funding.

It’s all part of what the mayor calls the city’s ‘rurban’ lifestyle, an appealing combination of urban amenities and a rural feel, all highlighted by a downtown set to undergo significant changes to make it more liveable, walkable, and attractive for businesses and visitors alike.

“Downtown areas throughout the nation are changing; some have dried up completely, while others, like ours, are focusing on recognizing demographic and business shifts and are embracing that change,” Wedegartner said in her address. “We have a robust downtown-redevelopment strategy focused on transformational change incorporating available and new housing, new infrastructure improvements, and retail and commercial opportunities. Here is where we merge our economic-development, infrastructure, and housing efforts into a cohesive plan.”

 

What’s in Store?

A significant element in the downtown mix is the former Wilson’s Department Store site, which is being converted into an intriguing mixed-use development.

The city brought together the Community Builders and MassDevelopment in the acquisition and redevelopment of the former Wilson’s property, originally built in 1882. The redevelopment will create approximately 65 residential rental units and will reactivate prominent first-floor and basement retail spaces through the relocation and expansion of Franklin Community Co-op’s Greenfield store, Green Fields Market.

“In addition to creating much-needed, high-quality housing in Greenfield, relocating and expanding Green Fields Market will provide the community with access to healthy food in an area of Greenfield currently without a full-service grocery store,” said Rachana Crowley, director of Real Estate Development at the Community Builders, when the project was announced. “We’re proud to be a part of this team which will create new housing and employment opportunities and invest in a strong and robust Main Street in Greenfield.”

Adams said attracting a combination of commercial and residential tenants through mixed-use development has been important in the ongoing downtown plan. “What happens downtown, how we perceive it, is how the region perceives us as a community. So we knew we had to work on downtown. And we knew we couldn’t leave Wilson’s sitting empty.”

Jessye Deane

Jessye Deane says Greenfield businesses thrive through connections with myriad agencies that provide technical, financial, and other forms of support.

Adams called upper-story redevelopment “a significant building block in our efforts to create more business development and housing in Greenfield.” But the Wilson’s project is only one piece; another 36-unit development on Wells Street will hit the construction phase soon, and developers are eyeing other potential residential-development sites both within and outside of Greenfield’s downtown sector.

“We know we need to take a look at the missing middle-market supply of housing that serves working people who are not eligible for subsidized housing but are also struggling to find housing in any market now,” she said. “This is an issue for the whole state. Everyone is feeling, quite accurately, that we’ve made progress with affordable rental housing, but now we need to work on other aspects of the market.”

Adams feels like Greenfield is an attractive market for people looking for a place to live because it’s considered more affordable than other communities and boasts strong transit links to the rest of the region and beyond.

A $7.8 million, state- and federally funded multi-modal Main Street improvement project should only lend momentum to that perception, she and Wedegartner believe. The mayor appropriated $288,900 in capital funds for engineering and design of the project, which begins 100 feet to the east of Colrain Street and ends at High Street. The project is on track to be included in MassDOT’s Transportation Improvement Program, with construction slated to begin as early as fall 2026.

“While this project is underway, the city will also be able to upgrade underground utilities, primarily our water and sewer infrastructure. This will save the city money as we will not need to dig up Main Street twice,” the mayor noted, adding that additional grant money is being used to fund a parking-management study for the downtown area.

One significant goal of all this, she told BusinessWest, is to make Main Street more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, including continued efforts to make Court Square a pedestrian plaza. “Route 2A can never be pedestrian-only; Main Street has to be open to all traffic. But there’s significant work being done curb to curb.”

“I’m fond of saying that, in five years, you’re not going to recognize Main Street.”

Wedegartner stressed that development activity in Greenfield extends well beyond downtown. The Planning Department and City Council continue work to rezone about 40 acres across Route 2A from the I-91 Industrial Park as additional industrial space geared to attracting more advanced manufacturers and sustaining existing manufacturers who have run out of space in the current industrial park.

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, said one of the city’s selling points is its balance between that industrial sector and the sorts of small, locally owned shops and eateries that dot the downtown, as well as attractions ranging from Greenfield Garden Cinemas, which recently celebrated its 94th birthday, to Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $19.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.65
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

The owners of Greenspace Co-work, located upstairs from Hawks & Reed, have been bringing local businesses together at a monthly event called Business Breakdown, and Deane has been impressed with what they’re saying.

“The Business Breakdowns are so interesting; we’re hearing how many people not originally from this area chose to start a business in Greenfield because there are so many resources available — partnerships with the chamber and the Franklin County CDC and the city — and how glad they are that they did choose Greenfield.

“Greenfield is the seat of Franklin County,” she added. “When Greenfield does well, all of Franklin County does well. So it’s good to see Greenfield making such a concerted effort to revitalize the downtown.”

 

Partners in Progress

With technical and financial assistance and other resources provided to businesses through agencies like the CDC, Common Capital, the chamber, and others, and workforce-development efforts at Greenfield Community College, Franklin County benefits strongly from a culture of partnership, Deane said.

“It feels like there’s this collective effort to really build on the partnerships; it’s one of the things Franklin County generally does very well,” she explained. “Working through the pandemic, we had effective partnerships, and I’m really seeing those grow as we’re able to share resources and think more strategically about the next generation of Greenfield and what the city should look like.”

That said, “I’ve been really impressed with the energy and momentum I’m seeing in Greenfield,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve seen the city of Greenfield creating an environment more attractive to businesses, while simultaneously supporting the outstanding businesses we already have to make sure we’re ensuring their success.”

That’s Wedegartner’s goal too, of course, even as she asks people for patience as all the visible signs of progress come together downtown over the next few years, from the new library and fire station to new housing and a more walkable city center.

“I’m fond of saying that, in five years, you’re not going to recognize Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s going to be so different and so much more vital in so many ways. But it’s going to take time.”

 

Community Spotlight Cover Story Features

The Paper City Looks Back — and Ahead

Holyoke City Hall

Go just about anywhere in the Paper City — City Hall offices, manufacturing facilities, the local utility, restaurants, some cannabis dispensaries, anywhere — and you will find pictures of what would be called ‘old Holyoke.’ And some images of the new Holyoke as well.

They’re everywhere. Pictures of the old but still-standing mills, the canals, Mount Tom, High Street in a different age, the Hadley Falls Dam, and especially City Hall, the iconic Gothic Revival structure built in 1871 that is, in many ways, the symbol of this historic city.

These pictures you see everywhere are visible evidence of the enormous pride people from this city, or now doing business in it, take in Holyoke.

You see this this pride in every community in Western Mass., from the small towns in Franklin County to the capital of the region, Springfield. But in Holyoke, it’s … well, different. And it just seems like there is more of it.

This much is made clear in the stories that follow in this special section commemorating the city’s 150th birthday. People from Holyoke take a special pride in being from their city, and for many reasons.

There is history — this is the country’s first planned industrial city. There is architecture. There are landmarks. There are institutions. There is tremendous diversity. There is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Road Race. Mostly, though, there are people — those who lived a century and more ago, and those who call it home today.

As the city turns 150, there is much to celebrate, and certainly not all of it is in the past, although the past is what many people like to focus on.

There was a time when Holyoke was a model industrial city producing some of the finest papers and textiles in the world. The mills producing these products created thousands of jobs, enormous wealth, and tremendous prosperity.

The city’s fortunes changed, obviously, as these mills closed or moved south or overseas starting just after World War II. For decades, the city was in decline, even as it remained a center of jobs and manufacturing.

Today, there is a sense of revitalization and vibrancy, with new leadership, especially Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, and an economy that is far more diverse and fueled by everything from a surging creative-arts sector to a cannabis industry that found in Holyoke a welcome mat, millions of square feet of old mill space perfect for cultivation and even dispensaries, and inexpensive, green energy.

Another factor powering this revitalization is entrepreneurship. Through the efforts of EforAll, the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Holyoke Community College, and other agents of change, Holyoke residents, and especially those making up the minority majority, are creating new businesses, from restaurants to dance studios to fabric shops, that are changing the face of High Street — and the entire city.

These stories and many others are told in the pages that follow. Together, they tell of a city with momentum. A city with vision. A city with renewed optimism about what can be done when people work collaboratively. A city that has a lot to celebrate.

 

Holyoke. Wanna Make Something of It?

By Darby O’Brien

 

Unless you’re from Holyoke, you probably won’t get it.

We’re a little like Southie on the other side of the state. Hardscrabble Holyokers have grit and never quit. Holyoke is a city with soul. It’s a city of neighborhoods. Churchill, Elmwood, the Flats, the Highlands, Oakdale, and Springdale. As Liberty Bank President and Holyoker Dave Glidden says, “you can take the kid out of Holyoke, but you can’t take Holyoke out of the kid.”

Just look at the cast of characters that came out of this place. Start with the famous drummers. Hal Blaine, a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, played with the legendary Wrecking Crew on 40 number-one hits, and Ronnie Hurst played in Steppenwolf. Holyokers Michael and John Shea wrote the Notre Dame fight song. We have Emmy-winning actress Ann Dowd. Alan Eisenstock was a writer and producer on shows like Mork and Mindy, Sanford and Son, and Family Matters. My nephew, Lenny Jacobson, is another one you’ve seen on the tube, from big-time TV spots to shows like Nurse Jackie, and he just won the 2023 JFK Award.

We’ve also got Neil Sheehan, the New York Times writer who released the Pentagon Papers and won a Pulitzer Prize for his book A Bright Shining Lie, considered to be one of the best books about the Vietnam War. Mitch Epstein is a world-renowned photographer. Frank Leja, who lived down the street from me as a kid, signed as a ‘bonus baby’ with the New York Yankees at 17. To this day, he’s the youngest player ever to appear in the pinstripes. The list goes on. Maybe it’s in the water. We’ve got four reservoirs. They’re all closed for fishing now, but we sneak in and cast a line anyway.

Another thing unique to Holyoke is the game of Pickie. We invented the game in the streets and alleys downtown. Just saw off your mother’s broom for a bat, and grab some Pee Gee balls, and you’re set. It’s always been a sports town. Betsy Frey carries on the family business at Holyoke Sporting Goods, probably one of the last independent sporting-goods stores left. Part of what keeps it going is the boatload of Holyoke merchandise she sells in the store, especially around parade time. You’ve heard about Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, right? One of the biggest in the country.

The late “Made in Holyoke” rapper Justin Chavez said, “it’s a city full of pride and hope, a city that’s alive.” My old buddy John Hickey, who was the Water and Power chief, coined the slogan “Holyoke. Best City by a Dam Site.”

Damn right.

 

Darby O’Brien, a Holyoke native, is the owner of the marketing and public relations firm Darby O’Brien Advertising in South Hadley.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says the city has made great strides when it comes to growing and diversifying an economy once dominated by GE.

It’s called ‘Site 9.’

This is a 16-acre parcel within the William Stanley Business Park, created at the site of the massive General Electric transformer manufacturing complex in Pittsfield, which closed nearly 30 years ago.

The site has been available for development for more than two decades now, said Linda Tyer, Pittsfield’s mayor for the past seven years, but there have been no takers because, in a word, this site is ‘intimidating.’

“Every time we host a business and we identify this as a potential location, they look at it, and they’re instantly intimidated because of the condition that’s in,” she explained. “It’s a big scar in the heart of our community that’s a remnant of our past. People have looked at it, and they’ve just said, ‘I can’t envision my business here.’”

Gov. Charlie Baker was in the city a few weeks ago to hand-deliver a $3 million check that might change this equation. The money will go toward infrastructure work, putting new roads in, greening the space, and other measures that will make this parcel more shovel-ready and, ultimately, a part of this city’s future, not merely its past.

“If we don’t get any interest for the next 10 years, at least it’s not this giant wound in the heart of our city,” Tyer went on, adding she is expecting plenty of interest in the years to come.

Site 9 is where we begin our look at Pittsfield, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series. This is a city that has been trying to move beyond its past, and the dominating influence of GE on just about every facet of everyday life, since the company left. And in many ways, it has been making great progress.

Its economy is far more diverse and far less dependent on one company or one sector, said Tyer, adding that this was quite necessary given the devastation and outmigration that occurred when GE pulled up stakes. Today, the city boasts a few large employers — such as Berkshire Health Systems and General Dynamics — but the economy is dominated by small businesses across several sectors including manufacturing, IT, healthcare, and especially tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Those latter categories now provide a good number of jobs and have contributed to a rebirth of North Street, the main thoroughfare in the city, after it was decimated by GE’s departure, said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, a county-wide organization focused on economic development and promotion of the region.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago,” he said, adding that a strong focus on the arts and hospitality has changed the narrative in this community.

The pandemic obviously took a heavy toll on these businesses and the overall vibrancy of Pittsfield, said Butler, but it has managed to come almost all the way back this year, with the arts venues rebounding and hospitality venues back to something approaching normal.

James Galli, general manager of the Hotel on North, so named because it is on North Street, agreed. He said the hotel is on pace to have its best year since opening in 2015, and the mix of guests that it attracts provides some good insight into Pittsfield and what now drives its economy.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago.”

“We get a lot of travelers coming in from Boston and New York to go to Barrington Stage and the Colonial Theatre,” he said, citing two of the main cultural draws in the city. “We get a lot of millennials coming in for hiking and the beauty of the area, some business travelers coming in for General Dynamics and some of the area businesses in town — and it’s a good mix. We are the center of the Berkshires, so we get people staying with us for two, three, four days at a time; they’ll go down to South County or up to North County or into the Pioneer Valley, but they’ll stay with us because we’re very central and they can do a lot more if they stay with us.”

In some ways, the pandemic has actually benefited the Berkshires and especially its largest city, said those we spoke with, noting that the remote-work phenomenon has made it possible for those working for businesses in New York, Boston, and other expensive metropolitan areas to do so from virtually anywhere.

And with its high quality of life and (comparatively) low real-estate prices and overall cost of living, Pittsfield has become an attractive alternative, said Tyer, noting that the city is in the midst of a housing boom that has slowed only slightly even in the wake of rising interest rates and persistently high prices.

 

The Next Chapter

It’s called the ‘Library Suite.’

This is the largest suite among the 45 guest rooms at Hotel on North, and easily the most talked about. That’s because, as that name suggests, it’s decorated with books — some 5,000 of them by Galli’s count.

“There’s a moveable ladder, and … it looks like a library,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s everything from full sets of encyclopedias to children’s books, the Harry Potter collection; we’ve found them at tag sales over the years and made it into a unique, different type of room. It speaks for itself.”

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years.”

The library suite, which boasts about 850 square feet and goes for as much as $700 a night, depending on the season, has been occupied most every night over the past several months, said Galli, noting, again, that visitors of all kinds are coming back to Pittsfield, and to this hotel, which was created out of two historic buildings on North Street.

Business started to pick back up in June 2021 as the state essentially reopened, he said, and momentum continued to build into this year, which has yielded better numbers than the years just prior to the pandemic.

He attributes this to many factors, including some pent-up demand for travel and vacations as well as the unique nature of the hotel, which has several different kinds of rooms, each of them is unique.

“A lot of people are looking for a hotel that’s a little different — a boutique or independent hotel,” he said. “There’s a clientele that goes for the branded properties, but the people who stay with us are looking for that unique experience when they walk in the door.”

But Galli also credits Pittsfield’s resurgence in recent years, especially its cultural attractions and other quality-of-life attributes, making the city a destination for people of all ages.

Hotel on North is part of a new look and feel on North Street, said Butler, noting that the well-documented vibrancy of the GE chapter in the city’s history was followed by the dark and dismal time that he grew up in: “North Street was not a place to be in the ’90s.” The vibrancy has returned in the form of cultural attractions and new restaurants and bars.

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years,” he told BusinessWest. “You have investments like Berkshire Theatre Group with their theater in downtown Pittsfield, and Barrington Stage Company, which has become a major anchor, as well as a number of smaller cultural offerings and pop-ups and galleries in downtown Pittsfield.

“And this has been further bolstered by the emergence, over the past eight to 10 years, of a vibrant food scene — an exciting, trending type of food environment,” he went on, citing establishments, new and old, like Methuselah Bar and Lounge, Berkshire Palate (located in Hotel on North), Pancho’s Mexican Resaurant, Trattoria Rustica, Flat Burger Society, Patrick’s Pub, and Otto’s Kitchen & Comfort.

“There’s some finer dining options — downtown Pittsfield’s a great place to go host some clients if you’re a business or to have a good date night as a couple or a fancy night out with friends,” Butler explained. “But there’s also a lot of great casual offerings in downtown Pittsfield; there’s some great pubs, some great cocktail lounges. There’s also a lot of immigrant-owned businesses in downtown Pittsfield, which adds to the diversity and provides a more rich experience.”

 

At Home with the Idea

This diversification and strengthening of the city’s economy has become the main economic-development strategy for Tyer since she became mayor.

“I have some family history with General Electric — my great-grandparents were part of the GE economy,” she told BusinessWest. “And when I became mayor, I felt strongly that the economy cannot be dependent on one sector; my priority has been that we have diversity in the economy, and that includes everything from the travel, tourism, and hospitality sector to the cultural economy, and it also includes manufacturing and science and technology.”

To attract businesses across all these sectors, and to help existing companies expand, the city has created what Tyer calls its ‘red-carpet team,’ a name that hints strongly at its mission.

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 43,927
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.56
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.90
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

“We want to make sure that businesses that are here now, that are homegrown and might want to expand into a new market, expand their facilities, or grow their employment base, have the same level of support from the city of Pittsfield as we would give to a new business that wanted to start up in the city,” she explained. “We’ve been successful at balancing that approach.”

The red-carpet team consists of a number of city department leaders who work collectively to help counsel and guide a new or existing business toward fulfillment of whatever goal they might have. This integrated process enables a CEO to have one meeting, rather than several, said Tyer, adding that having everyone seated around one table enables the city to be more responsive and move more quickly.

And, overall, there have been a number of interested parties, she said, noting that the Berkshires, and Pittsfield, has a lot to offer employers, including quality of life and lower cost of living, as well as a population that is stabilizing, rather than declining, as it had been for decades.

“We have great neighborhoods, we’re still affordable, and we have beautiful outdoor recreation,” she said. “The combination of all of that is the magic that Pittsfield has going into the future.”

Much of this magic became even more forceful during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that, while most hospitality-related businesses had to shut down for an extended period, the Pittsfield area’s outdoor recreation and quality of life came more into focus for many looking to escape what COVID brought with it.

The hiking trails became even more popular, and the Berkshires — and its largest city — became an attractive alternative for those looking to escape larger cities, their congestion, and their higher costs.

“Our housing market has been on fire,” said Tyer, noting that many professionals from Boston, New York, and other major cities have moved to the Berkshires. “And I think it speaks to this phenomenon that people can be employed by a Boston firm but work from home here in Pittsfield and have all the amenities and quality of life of a small city in a beautiful region of the state.”

The housing market shows no signs of slowing, said those we spoke with, despite rising prices and, more recently, soaring interest rates as a result of Fed action to stem the tide of inflation.

“There’s still this competition, these bidding wars, for homes,” Tyer said. “And the seller is still selling; the market hasn’t really slowed down.”

This phenomenon has led to an increase in the value of homes across the city, she went on, adding that this brings benefits on many levels — everything from the city’s bond rating to its tax rate. It also creates some problems for first-time homebuyers and those looking to trade up, and rising prices within the rental market as well, creating shortages of what would be considered affordable housing.

But in the larger scheme of things, these would be considered some of those proverbial good problems to have, said the mayor, especially in a city that had seen so much hardship over the previous 30 years.

 

The General Idea

The sports teams at Pittsfield High School are still nicknamed the Generals, said Tyer, adding that this just one of the myriad ways to measure the influence that GE had in this city for the better part of a century.

But while the city can still pay homage to its past in this and other ways, it has managed to move past it in almost all others.

Yes, Site 9 and many other parcels that were part of the massive complex remain undeveloped, but overall, Pittsfield and its economy have moved on. It took some time, as it does when a city loses an employer of such magnitude, but the city’s economy, like North Street itself, has been reinvented, and vibrancy has returned.

“We’ve overcome that group depression that we all suffered, and I think there’s a lot of excitement around the art and culture economy; the small-business, science, and technology economy; and some long-standing businesses that have grown since my time in public service,” she told BusinessWest. “I think we’ve overcome the ‘we’re a dying community because we lost GE’ sentiment, and I think we’re a growing, emerging community.”

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

When Westmass Area Development Corp. and its board of directors went all in and acquired the massive and environmentally challenged Ludlow Mills complex in 2011, Jeff Daley said, they did so with the understanding that they were embarking on a long and difficult journey.

But they probably didn’t know how long and just how difficult.

Indeed, the process of transforming the former jute-making complex into a mixed-used property and destination has come complete with a number of challenges, many of them related to simply making various parts of the complex ready for redevelopment, said Daley, the executive director of Westmass since 2019.

But, in many respects, the Ludlow Mills redevelopment initiative has turned a critical corner, he noted, adding that much of the work to ready specific buildings and the property as a whole for development has now been completed, and the focus, increasingly, is on development.

“We’re certainly at a turning point, where we’re focusing our efforts on redevelopment as opposed to staying afloat and cleaning the site — it was a very dirty site back when they first bought it,” he told BusinessWest, referring to asbestos and ground contamination. “And there’s still a lot of cleanup left to do, but the focus is shifting from preserving and investing in the cleaning of the site to continuing that cleaning, which we need to do, but also looking now toward projects that we can invest good dollars in and get good returns from.”

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge. And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

That is certainly the plan, and the hope, with Building 8, or what many refer to as the ‘clocktower building,’ because it is home to the town’s most recognizable landmark.

With some imaginative financing assistance — Westmass will actually be taking an equity stake in the project — Winn Development will soon proceed with an initiative to transform the property into a 96-unit housing complex with retail on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, a $1 million project to put a new roof on Building 11, the largest structure on the campus, is underway, with the goal of facilitating development of that 480,000-square-foot property into another mix of housing and commercial businesses, and perhaps a parking garage as well.

Also, work is nearly complete on Riverside Drive, a new road that winds along the Chicopee River, which will connect the front of the property to the undeveloped acreage at its eastern end. Another road, hopefully to be funded with a MassWorks grant (word on the application should be received in the fall), will be built into that property, greatly facilitating its development, said Daley, noting there has been a good deal of interest expressed in that property due to a shortage of developable land in the region.

While the Ludlow Mills complex is certainly the dominant business story in Ludlow, there are other developments of note, starting in Town Hall. There, discussions continue about whether and how to change the community’s form of government, said Marc Strange, the recently hired town administrator.

“Officials are considering a mayoral form of government or a town manager/town council format similar to what exists in East Longmeadow,” said Strange, who served previously as director of Planning and Economic Development in Agawam and also as a selectman in Longmeadow, noting that the town has certainly outgrown its current format with five selectmen, a town administrator, and town meeting.

Karen Randall

Karen Randall says the business started by her father 60 years ago, has grown and evolved, just as Ludlow has.

“That’s a pretty big lift, and the town needs to be on board with it,” he explained. “For now, we’re chipping away toward that goal and making small, incremental changes to get everyone working in the same direction.”

Meanwhile, the community is looking to fund improvements to the downtown area that greets those as they come over the bridge that links the city to Indian Orchard, said Strange, adding that, while Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, it is always looking to build on this base.

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge,” he said. “And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Ludlow, a community that is a developing story in every sense of that phrase.

 

Growth Patterns

As she talked with BusinessWest outside the main entrance to Randall’s Farm, the business that her father started with what amounted to a vegetable stand, Karen Randall reflected on how much this enterprise — and the town of Ludlow itself — have changed over the past 60 years.

“None of this was here,” she said as she swept her hand in front of her and pointed out the many businesses now located along Center Street. “Ludlow has grown, and we’ve grown with Ludlow.”

Elaborating, she said the town benefits from its location — off turnpike exit 7 and near a number of growing residential communities, including Wilbraham, Granby, Belchertown, and others — and from its own growth; it has seen a number of new residential developments in recent years that have brought many young people to what was an industrial town that grew from the Ludlow Mills complex.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful, in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

Randall’s Farm has certainly benefited from the growth in and around Ludlow, she said, adding that it draws regular, daily traffic from those living in the community, but also steady traffic from those an exit or two down the pike.

“We have customers from within a 20-mile radius,” Randall said, adding that business has been solid this year, and she is expecting the fall, the busiest time for this enterprise, to be very busy as the region continues the two-year-long process of returning to normal from the pandemic and its many side effects.

The pandemic and its aftermath have brought changes at Randall’s — it has discontinued many of its entertainment-related endeavors, including a corn maze and workshops on various subjects — and challenges, including the workforce issues that have impacted businesses in every sector.

Overall, the pandemic has been for Randall’s what it has been for many business ventures, she said — a valuable learning experience.

“COVID taught us a lot of lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and it’s taught us that we can adapt quickly to whatever was coming down the pike,” she explained. “We didn’t miss a beat; we had the same issues that everyone else did — some people may have retired sooner, while others stopped working sooner during the first months of the pandemic, but we persevered, and I think we become stronger because of what we learned.”

Heading into the busy fall season, Randall’s, like other businesses, continues to face workforce challenges — there are some days when it does not have a donut maker, for example — but Randall believes it will be ready. The biggest challenge may be climate, specifically a lack of rain and its still-unknown impact on pumpkins, apples, and other crops grown locally.

“We’re hiring front-line people — we think we have the donut-making issue squared away — and we’re getting ready,” she told BusinessWest. “And we’ll see how this drought effects the season.”

planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills

Crews work to create a parking lot for the planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills, one of many new developments at the complex.

Overall, Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, said Strange, adding that one of the town’s goals is to improve infrastructure and make the Center Street corridor more attractive and even more of an asset.

Which brings him back to that area, technically the community’s downtown, that greets people coming over the bridge from Indian Orchard. The town will apply for a Community Compact grant to develop a broad economic-development plan that will encompass that area and others in the community.

“There’s some successful businesses in there, but we also have some empty storefronts,” he explained. “Our Memorial Park is there, and that’s where we’ll have Celebrate Ludlow. I think there’s a foundation for something special by way of economic development in that corridor.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful,” he went on, “in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

 

Run of the Mills

There should be some shovels hitting the ground soon at at Ludlow Mills, which has certainly been the focal point of development in Ludlow over the past decade. Indeed, continued progress is being made in what will be at least a 20-year effort to put the various spaces — as well as 40 acres of developable green space — to new and productive use.

Running through recent and upcoming developments, Daley started with Building 8, a long-awaited project that will bring another residential complex to the site after the highly successful renovation of Building 10 into apartments; there is now a lengthy waiting list for units in that property.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,002
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.99
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of Government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

The plan calls for apartments on the upper floors and a mix of retail on the first floor, Daley explained, adding that a coffee shop or sandwich shop would be an ideal use given the growing numbers of people living and working in the complex or within a few blocks of it. That growing population could inspire other types of retain as well, he added.

“We can’t overlook the fact that, once those apartments are done, there will be 160 units right in that vicinity, with an average of two people per unit. That’s a captured audience of more than 300 people to support small businesses; there might be a doctor’s office or lawyer’s offices, for example.”

To make the project happen in these times of inflation and soaring construction costs — an overall 28% increase in the projected price tag for this initiative — Westmass needed to get creative and take a “sizable equity investment” in the project, Daley said. He didn’t say how sizeable, but he did note that this step was needed to keep this project on track.

“It made the project go, and we really want to see the project go — for the town of Ludlow, for the mills, and, selfishly, we want to see that first floor activated so we can generate some revenues from retail and commercial businesses,” he explained.

As for Building 11, the next major target for redevelopment, a mix of housing and commercial retail would be ideal, he said, adding there will be options when it comes to what type of housing might be seen.

“There’s certainly a need for independent living, there’s a need for care living, dementia living, those types of facilities,” he said. “But also for more market-rate housing.”

Overall, the Ludlow Mills property is well-positioned for development, Daley said, adding that everything in its inventory, from commercial and industrial space to raw land, are in demand.

“We have a lot of interest in not only the land, but everything,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s not a lot of inventory out there — for commercial properties or green space. Our property is flat and mostly dry, so it becomes pretty attractive for development.”

As Daley said, Ludlow Mills has been a longer and more difficult journey than anyone could have anticipated when the property was acquired in 2011, but an important turning point has been reached, and a new chapter in this story is set to unfold.

 

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

Community Spotlight Cover Story

Community Spotlight

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage soon to take shape in the city’s downtown.

‘Good traffic.’

That’s the phrase used by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — who acknowledged that it is somewhat of an oxymoron — to describe traffic that is, well, positive in nature.

This would be traffic generated by vibrancy, by people coming into a city from somewhere else; traffic indicative of progress, as opposed to insufficient infrastructure, poor planning, or both.

Springfield saw quite a bit of this ‘good traffic’ prior to the pandemic, said Sarno, noting that it was generated by concerts at MGM Springfield’s venues, Thunderbirds games, conventions and college graduations at the MassMutual Center, special gatherings like the Winter Weekend staged by the Red Sox in early 2020, or any combination of the above. Sometimes, a random Friday night would be enough to generate such traffic.

And after two years of relative quiet in the wake of the pandemic, the ‘good traffic’ is starting to make a comeback, as is the city as a whole, said Sarno, Springfield’s longest-serving mayor, with 14 years in the corner office, adding that there is promise for a whole lot more in the months and years to come, as pieces to a puzzle come together — or back together, as the case may be.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

These pieces include everything from a resurgent Thunderbirds squad, which made it all the way the AHL finals after taking a full year off due to COVID, to new housing, including the long-delayed renovation of the former Court Square hotel; from a casino in comeback mode, buoyed by the promise of sports gambling, to the return of the Marriott brand downtown after more than $40 million in renovations to the property in Tower Square; from new restaurants and clubs on Worthington Street to a new parking garage soon to rise where an existing structure is being razed.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods. I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

The “state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly parking garage,” as Sarno described it, will be part of a larger development in the area around the MassMutual Center, an initiative aimed at bringing people to that site before, during, and perhaps after events (more on that later).

The city still faces a number of stern challenges, many of them COVID-related, said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, citing such matters as the impact of remote work and hybrid schedules on downtown office buildings, an ongoing workforce crisis that has impacted in businesses in all sectors, and the pressing need to redevelop vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

But he, like the mayor, sees progress on many fronts and, overall, a pronounced recovery from a pandemic that hit the city very hard.

“We’re seeing many positive signs that Springfield is making its way back from the pandemic and the many challenges it created,” said Sheehan, who cited, among many yardsticks of momentum, a long line to get a table at Wahlburgers during a recent visit. “And we’re seeing these signs not only in the downtown, but the neighborhoods as well.”

Sarno agreed. He said that, over his lengthy tenure as mayor, the city has coped with a number of challenges and crises, from the June 2011 tornado to the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. But COVID has been different, and it has tested the city and its business community in many different ways.

“It’s been a difficult two years; the pandemic threw everyone a huge curveball,” he explained, adding that city leaders were trying to respond to an unprecedented health crisis while also making good use of state and especially federal money to help small businesses keep the lights on.

“My team has been tested, and, true, it’s been through a lot of disasters before,” he went on. “But this was like shadowboxing — it was surreal.”

COVID isn’t over, and challenges for small businesses remain, but in many respects, the city can get back to business, and it is doing just that.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Springfield, its ongoing bounce-back from COVID, and, yes, the return of that ‘good traffic.’

State of the City

It was affectionately known as the ‘dog and pony show.’

That’s what some called an annual gathering, orchestrated by the city in conjunction with the Springfield Regional Chamber, at which officials gave what amounted to a progress report on the city, with a large dollar amount attached to all the various economic-development and infrastructure projects — from MGM Springfield to the renovation of Union Station to the reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct — that were in progress or on the drawing board.

The city hasn’t staged one of these sessions in several years, mostly due to COVID, said Sarno, but one is being planned, probably for early next year. And there will be quite a bit to talk about, he went on, hinting at new developments at sites ranging from Union Station to the former Municipal Hospital on State Street, while offering what amounts to a preview of that gathering.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

And he started with the new, 1,000-space parking garage, which he and Sheehan anticipate will be much more than that.

Indeed, plans for the site include ‘activation’ — that’s a word you hear often when it comes to properties in the downtown — of a surface parking lot next to the present (and future) garage, and, overall, creation of an atmosphere similar, said the mayor, to what is seen at Fenway Park in Boston on game nights.

“Bruce Landon Way will be activated, and many times, it will be shut down,” said Sheehan, adding that the current surface lot, and Bruce Landon Way itself, will become extensions of the MassMutual Center.

“They can have their events literally flowing out to Bruce Landon Way, creating much more activation within the downtown,” he explained. “And it will be utilized for pre- and post-event programming.”

Elaborating, he said the current surface lot will be public space that the Convention Center Authority will lease out for various kinds of functions, bringing more people downtown.

Meanwhile, a new entrance to the MassMutual Center will be added at the corner of State and Main streets, providing the facility with two points of entry and, with this new addition, what the mayor likened to a “Broadway marquee,” a much stronger bridge to MGM Springfield and other businesses south of the arena.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself,” said Sheehan. “And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

That new entrance may help spur development of several vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the MGM casino, said Sarno, adding that requests for proposals to redevelop these properties, now under city control, will be issued soon.

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield, says the facility was designed to reflect the history and culture of the city.

These developments, coupled with the ongoing renovation of 31 Elm St., the former Court Square Hotel, into market-rate apartments due to be ready for occupancy in roughly a year, are expected to create more interest in Springfield and its downtown within the development community, said the mayor, noting, again, that needed pieces are coming together.

These pieces include housing, which will create a larger population of people living in the downtown; restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, a broad category that includes MGM Springfield, restaurants, and the Thunderbirds; and a vibrant business community.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself. And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

Individual pieces coming into place include not only 31 Elm, but the recently opened housing in the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street; some new restaurants and clubs on and around Worthington Street, including Dewey’s Lounge, the Del Raye, and Jackalope; and the planned new Big Y supermarket, which will address a recognized need in what has long been recognized as a food desert.

Staying Power

Then, there’s Tower Square and the Marriott flag that has been returned to the hotel several years after it was lost.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the two years worth of renovations to that hotel and planned reopening of the facility, Dinesh Patel showed off finishing-touch work in several areas, including the lobby, the fitness center, the pool room, and some of the meeting rooms.

He also opened the door the large ballroom, revealing a training session for dozens of the more than 180 people expected to be hired before the facility opens its doors. Like most of the renovation work itself, conducted at the height of the pandemic and its aftermath amid supply-chain issues and soaring prices for many products and materials, the hiring process has been a stern challenge as qualified help remains in short supply.

But for Patel and partner Mid Vitta, whose work to reclaim the Marriott flag — and reinvent Tower Square — earned them BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2022, it has been what amounts to a labor of love. The two saw an opportunity in the once-thriving but then-challenged retail and office complex in the heart of downtown, and have made the most of it, finding some imaginative reuse of many spaces. These include the recruitment of the YMCA, which has brought its childcare and fitness-center operations, as well as its administrative offices, to Tower Square. It also includes that new and decidedly different kind of Big Y store in space formerly occupied by CVS.

As for the hotel, which will open in time for the induction ceremonies for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, Patel said the timing is good for the property to come back online.

“Gas prices are coming down, and people are traveling again,” he said. “They want to get out and go places; we see a lot of pent-up demand.”

As he offered a tour of the nearly-ready facility, Patel noted the many nods to Springfield, its history, and its culture, from the basketball-themed art in the fitness center to the wall coverings depicting blueprints of noted inventions that happened in Springfield (from the monkey wrench to rail cars) to the many photographs of ‘old Springfield’ found on the walls of the stairs leading to the meeting facilities on the sixth floor.

“We wanted to tell the story of Springfield,” Patel said. “And we tell that story all through the hotel.”

Increasingly, that story is one of progress and recovery from COVID, not only in the downtown, where much of the interest is focused, but in many other neighborhoods as well, said both Sarno and Sheehan, noting that neighborhood plans have been developed for many different sections of the city that address everything from sidewalks to lighting to beautification, with gathered suggestions then forwarded to an ARPA advisory committee.

Overall, new schools and libraries are being built, infrastructure improvements are being undertaken, and businesses continue to be supported as they face the lingering effects of COVID through initiatives such as the Prime the Pump program, which provided grants of various sizes to businesses in need.

The city has received nearly $124 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to date, and it has distributed more than $50 million, including $4 million dispensed in the seventh round to date, earlier this month. Those funds went to small businesses, new businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, housing, capital projects, and direct financial assistance to households and seniors, said Sarno, adding that that the basic strategy has been put that money to use in ways where the impact can be dramatic and immediate.

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area is one of the highlights of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield.

“The majority of the monies that have been distributed have really helped a lot of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” he explained. “It’s a very eclectic mix, from mom-and-pop businesses to larger ventures to direct assistance.”

There have been efforts in the broad category of workforce development as well, he went on, adding that businesses of all kinds continue to be impacted by an ultra-tight labor market, just as many are starting to see business pick up again.

Overall, there have been more than 30 meetings conducted with residents and business owners in attendance, said the mayor, adding that these listening sessions were staged to gain direct feedback on how federal COVID relief money can best be spent in Springfield.

Identified needs and challenges range from workforce issues to childcare to transportation, said Sheehan, adding that what has come from these sessions is dialogue, which has often led to action, on how the city can collaborate with other groups and agencies to address these matters. And it has been a very fruitful learning experience.

“It created an opportunity to look at things differently,” he noted. “And I do think it has caused people to look at how we can work collaboratively to solve some pretty significant problems.”

Bottom Line

To motorists who are stuck in it, there is really no such thing as ‘good traffic.’

But while drivers don’t use that phrase, elected officials and economic-development leaders certainly do. As Sarno told BusinessWest, good traffic is a barometer of a city’s vibrancy, a measure of whether, and to what degree, a community has become a destination.

For a long while, Springfield didn’t have much, if any, of this ‘good traffic,’ and then, in the 18 months or so before COVID, it did. The pandemic and its many side effects took much of that traffic away, but there are many signs that it’s back and here to stay.

As the mayor said, the city is starting to get its mojo back. 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s priorities have included housing, business development, infrastructure, schools, and the emerging cannabis sector.

 

 

When people ask Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle to list her priorities for the city, her answer is always, “housing, housing, housing, and housing.”

And there’s a reason for that — actually, several of them, which LaChapelle summed up in this poignant way: “Easthampton is the cool-kid city.”

By that, she meant that this former mill town has become a destination for businesses, but also a very desirable place to live because of its arts, culture, attractive neighborhoods, and recreational spaces. That mix has created a need for housing — a major need.

“If we don’t put a huge focus on housing, and if we don’t get housing units done by 2025, our city will be in trouble,” said the mayor, adding that her administration has, indeed, focused significantly on this issue, and it has yielded results, such as the One Ferry project, an initiative that is creating not only new housing but retail and office space as well.

Several old mill buildings on Ferry Street are undergoing a massive effort converting the former factories there to condominiums and rental housing, as well as some retail and office space.

So far, the renovation work has focused on three buildings: 3 Ferry St. was finished in 2020, and it is now fully occupied with residents and several businesses. Meanwhile, 5 Ferry St. consists mainly of apartments with condominiums on the top floor; it is expected to open later this year.

“All but two condos are sold at 5 Ferry St., and the developer reported a 65% lease rate,” LaChapelle said, adding that “70% occupancy is usually the goal for a new development, so they are right there.”

Work has also begun on Building 7, scheduled to open in 2024. When complete, the three buildings will add nearly 150 units of housing to Easthampton.

“The Ferry Street project is what we hoped it would be, a spark for community development and neighborhood pride,” the mayor said. “Watching the progress at the site has been a real confidence booster for the city.”

While housing is indeed a priority, it is just one of many priorities in a community that has seen a great deal of change, evolution, and growth over the past quarter-century, and is poised for more of all the above.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses. This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

Other focal points for LaChapelle and her administration include new business development, business-sector recovery from COVID, infrastructure, schools, growth of the city’s emerging cannabis sector, and more, and the mayor reports progress on all these fronts, especially those involving assistance and mentoring to small businesses.

Many are included in a broad initiative called Blueprint Easthampton. Designed to promote entrepreneurial innovation, the initiative also emphasizes partnerships with key constituents in the community such as nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

Keith Woodruff

Keith Woodruff was one of the first local business owners to open an online store on the Shop Where I Live site.

LaChapelle said Blueprint Easthampton is like an octopus in the way it keeps reaching out to different areas. One notable partnership is with the Coalition for Community Empowerment, a collaboration with the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Lawyers for Civil Rights. They have embarked on a statewide program to provide small-business technical assistance and open paths to entrepreneurs from at-risk populations. LaChapelle said at least a dozen businesses in Easthampton have benefited in some way from this effort.

“At a deeper level, three businesses have received grants, and two others have signed up for extensive business coaching,” LaChapelle said, explaining that startup businesses often have to realign their ideas to serve the market that exists.

“In one case, a baker had a business plan based on a delivery and storefront model,” she noted. “After coaching from the coalition, she realized her idea would work better without the storefront.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Easthampton, the many forms of progress being seen there, and what’s next for the ‘cool-kid city.’

 

‘Shop Where I Live’

In January, LaChapelle began her third term as mayor. Unlike her previous terms, which each lasted two years, the mayor’s term now runs four years. It’s a change that makes long-term planning easier on many fronts.

“With a four-year term, the mayor isn’t distracted with campaigning after only 18 months,” she said. “The longer term also makes it easier to manage the timing of grant cycles.”

The longer term is beneficial when coping with pressing issues, said LaChapelle, adding, again, that there are many of them, especially in a community that has become home to small businesses across many sectors, from technology to the arts to hospitality, that were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

In partnership with the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, the city secured a grant from the state’s Rapid Recovery Plan, which was set up to address the economic impact COVID-19 had on cities and towns. The grant resulted in an online retail effort run by the chamber known as easthampton.shopwhereilive.com.

Moe Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, explained that the Shop Where I Live program is an Amazon-type experience involving local businesses.

“Many businesses don’t have the resources or the time to set up online shopping, so this site makes that possible,” she said.

Consumers can choose offerings from several local businesses, put them all into an online shopping cart, and make one payment. Because the site is supported by a state grant, it’s open to all Easthampton businesses whether they belong to the chamber or not.

Moe Belliveau

Moe Belliveau said Shop Where I Live will help businesses respond to economic challenges both now and in the future.

“For members, this will be an ongoing benefit,” Belliveau said. “For non-members, the first year is free, then they can choose to join the chamber or pay a service fee to remain on the site.”

Each merchant can offer up to 100 products in their online store, said Belliveau, adding that Shop Where I Live is not restricted to retail operations. Services such as health clubs, web developers, and insurance agents can be found there, too.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses,” Belliveau said. “This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

KW Home, an interior-design firm and retail showroom, was one of the first businesses to open an online store on Shop Where I Live. Owner Keith Woodruff expects the site to benefit his business going forward.

“For the last two years I’ve had to operate by appointment only with limited hours,” he explained. “Many consumers are still concerned about shopping in person, so having the online store will be a big help.”

KW Home is an example of a business that provides a service and sells products. Most of Woodruff’s work is driven by working with clients to present design plans specific to their homes and then providing the furniture, lighting fixtures, and other items to execute the plan.

He said 80% of what he sells are special orders for clients. Most items run the gamut from a specific type of fabric for a chair or couch to custom window treatments. He also carries items in limited fabric offerings that are more easily available and work well with the online store.

“In order to make the launch date of June 30, I put only a few items on the site,” Woodruff said. “As this rolls out, I plan to add smaller accessories on there to give people more choices.”

 

Work in Progress

One of the many disruptions COVID caused was the nature of where people work. Even now, some people have returned to their worksites, some continue to work from home, while others have left their jobs to pursue the business idea they’d always wanted to try.

Amid these changing dynamics, Belliveau conducted research on how best to use the space at the chamber office on Union Street. The result is a new co-work space called Work Hub on Union.

“We’re looking to address folks who still work from home but need a temporary space, as well as entrepreneurs who are just starting out but are not yet ready for a permanent space,” said Belliveau, adding that the chamber will remain on site, so those in Work Hub can benefit from its support.

“We are designing this so the furniture can be moved around to create educational space,” she explained. “We’ll be able to run things like development programs and entrepreneurial support programs. In short, it’s a much more productive use of the space.”

While inclusivity is a big part of Blueprint Easthampton, so is accessibility. Working with two land trusts, the city recently bought 22 acres of land near Mount Tom that connect to state-owned property. The purchase was intended to save the land from development. Instead, that area will soon have an ADA-accessible trailhead that goes up to the summit of the mountain.

“I ran on improving accessibility for everyone, so this project makes me very proud,” LaChapelle said.

Riverside Industries was a partner in the trail project. Located in the center of Easthampton, Riverside’s mission is “empowering people of all abilities to help them achieve their highest potential and live their best lives.” It is best-known for placing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into employment throughout Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin counties.

Lynn Ostrowski Ireland, president and CEO of Riverside, said anyone can use the new trail because it can accommodate manual or electric wheelchairs, and the ascent along the trail is no greater than the inclines in Riverside’s Cottage Street headquarters.

As someone who has previewed the trail, Ostrowski Ireland reported the summit view is “beyond spectacular.”

“There are plenty of places along the trail to pull off and take a break or just to stop and enjoy the view along the way,” she said. “We will definitely bring clients there and let their families know about it, too. It’s really something everyone can enjoy.”

Natural surroundings like Mount Tom are part of the attraction for new students at Williston Northampton School. The private college-prep school approaches the fall with a full enrollment. Ann Hallock, director of communications at Williston, said 495 students will be on campus, hailing from all over the U.S. as well as 30 different countries.

“We consider our location in Easthampton to be a unique selling point of the school,” Hallock said. “Students love the location, especially being able to walk into town for restaurants or visit shops or go for hikes on Mount Tom. Parents like all that too when they come to visit their kids.”

Williston students also get involved with several local organizations, such as the Easthampton Community Center and the Emily Williston Library.

When classes begin in the fall, the new Mountain View School, housing students in grades K-8, will be fully open to all its students. As the finishing touches were added this year, middle-school students moved in during the spring. Now that construction is complete, the elementary students will begin their classes at Mountain View in the fall.

With the new school project done, LaChapelle has shifted her attention to finding a reuse for the Maple Street, Center, and Pepin schools, the three buildings replaced by Mountain View. Later this summer, the mayor will issue a request for proposals that she hopes will attract the attention of developers who are planning their next construction season.

Naturally, the mayor would like to see the buildings turn into housing.

“Depending on how they are developed, the three buildings could add as many as 150 rental housing units,” she said. “Realistically, we’re hoping to see 70 to 80 units get added to the housing rolls, with 20% to 25% of those designated affordable.”

The search for a developer comes after 18 months of residents working with a consultant to determine the needs and wishes of each neighborhood where the schools are located.

“It’s exciting because every step of the way, we have been talking with residents about the buildings,” the mayor said. “The residents have done an amazing job, and after all their input, it’s safe to say the people have spoken.”

When the people spoke and voted to allow cannabis sales in Easthampton, no one knew what the impact might be on the city. In the beginning, there were fears of higher crime, underage use of cannabis, and fire-suppression issues in the shops. Now, with five dispensaries operating in the city, LaChapelle said none of those concerns came to pass.

Instead, the biggest effect was increased wear and tear on their roads.

“The revenue we’ve received from cannabis has largely been spent on our roads because they have been heavily impacted with the additional traffic,” she told BusinessWest.

The mayor added that it’s actually good news that the impact was on roads because many of them weren’t in good shape before cannabis came to town.

“We had to reprioritize which roads get paved because suddenly there are thousands more people driving on these roads,” she said.

 

Bottom Line

Now that the city is in a good place with its budget and has improved its bond rating since COVID, LaChapelle is reflective on how far Easthampton has come.

“I’m super proud of the people in our city departments and their leaders in how they’ve taken all our projects head on,” she said. “I feel we haven’t dropped any of the balls we were juggling before COVID.”

She quickly added that, because Easthampton is such a desirable place to live, there’s plenty of work to be done going forward.

That’s the reality when you’re the ‘cool-kid city.’

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Mayor William Reichelt

Mayor William Reichelt says West Springfield is making significant progress on many of the goals he set when first elected in 2015.

While the country will be celebrating its 250th birthday in 2026, West Springfield will mark that same milestone two years earlier.

And the planning for what will be a huge party is very much underway, said Mayor William Reichelt, noting that a committee has been put together, chairs of that board have been selected, and a dialogue will soon be launched with town residents to determine how, where, and in what ways they want to observe that birthday.

And while two years will go by quickly, especially with all this planning and execution to handle, this community that operates as a city but still calls itself a town could look much different by the time the big party kicks off.

Several of its major roadways, including Memorial Avenue and sections of Route 5, will be redone or in the process of being redone (hopefully the former, said the mayor as he crossed his fingers — figuratively, anyway) by then. There will be some new businesses on those stretches — Amherst Brewing is moving into the former Hofbrauhaus property, for example — and some of them well before 2024. And there may actually be some cannabis-related ventures in this town that has thus far said ‘no’ to this now-booming industry; a critical City Council vote on the matter took place on July 18, just after this issue of BusinessWest went to press, and Reichelt, who backed a measure to permit the licensing of such establishments, was confident that he had the requisite six votes for passage.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast.”

“We’re in a much different place than we were four years ago, when it was 8-1 [against],” he said, adding that the measure would enable businesses to be located on large stretches of Riverdale Street, the preferred location among those in that industry.

And there is a chance, albeit a slight chance at this point, that the massive power-generating plant near the rotary at the Memorial Bridge may disappear from the landscape it has dominated for decades. Indeed, it has been decommissioned, and its owners are deciding what to do with the property.

“We’re in discussions now about what remediation will look like; I would like to see a clean site so another developer can do something with it, but we’re still in the talking stage,” Reichelt said, adding that the community is looking closely at what happened with a similar but larger property in Salem that is being redeveloped.

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons, features an eclectic mix of businesses and will soon add a restaurant.

But enough about what might and might not happen over the next two years. For now, West Springfield and its mayor are making progress on many of the goals he set down when he was first elected in 2015, including infrastructure, new schools and additions to existing schools, attracting new businesses, and creating what he called a “walkable downtown” with plenty of attractions.

Early on, he said he wanted to create ‘another Northampton.’ “But people have this weird dislike of Northampton, for some reason, so now, we say we want it to be like West Hartford,” Reichelt noted, adding that his community is certainly moving in that direction with initiatives ranging from a walking trail and improved infrastructure along the historic town green to the reinvention of 95 Elm St.

Formerly home to United Bank and still known to many as the ‘United Bank building,’ the three-story office complex is now home to a mix of businesses, and a new restaurant will soon be added to that mix.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on West Springfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

 

Party Planning

Returning to the subject of the 250th birthday party, Reichelt said the wheels are in motion for that celebration, and some pieces are starting to fall into place.

That list includes a special commemorative 250th birthday beer to be created by Two Weeks Notice Brewing, which set up shop in West Springfield several years ago and has established a firm presence in the community; no word yet on just what this brew will be or what it will be called.

Meanwhile, old documents and photos are being collected, and a commemorative history — a significant update to one produced for the 200th birthday in 1974 — is being planned, said Reichelt, adding that there is preliminary talk of staging an event similar to the Taste of West Springfield that was put on for many years by the community’s Rotary Club.

“We’re talking about bringing something like that back, maybe with a food truck festival on the common,” he said, reiterating that planning for the 250th is still very much in the early stages.

And while this planning continues, officials are making progress on a number of different fronts in the community, everything from the planning of infrastructure work on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale Street to determining how to spend roughly $8 million in ARPA funds (other infrastructure projects are at the top of that list) to contemplating what might be done if that massive power plant actually comes down.

Reflecting on that list, and his first six and half years in office, Reichelt, now one of the longest-serving mayors in the region, said he’s learned during his tenure that it often (always?) takes a long time to get something done, and, as a result, communities and those who lead them must be patient and perseverant.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast,” he told BusinessWest. “Projects that I started talking about back in 2016 … we’re just starting to get funding for and breaking ground now.”

As an example, he pointed to the last remaining piece, the restaurant at 95 Elm St., something he’s been pursuing for years and an element he believes will be a nice compliment to what already exists on that street — a few restaurants, the Majestic Theatre, and a bagel shop already at 95 Elm — and make the area more of a destination.

Hofbrauhaus

At top, the town common now boasts new walking paths. Above, the former Hofbrauhaus property will become a new site for Amherst Brewing.

It’s also taken some time to make the planned improvements to the green area, which now boasts new traffic lights, improved intersections, and a half-mile loop for walking and other uses, said the mayor, adding that a similar upgrade is planned for Elm Street.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it,” he said. “We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Meanwhile, there are ambitious plans on the table for improving the full length of Memorial Avenue, from the Route 5 rotary to the recently widened Morgan Sullivan Bridge. The $25 million, state-funded project is slated to commence next April, and it will take two years to complete.

Significant work is also planned for Route 5 (Riverdale Street) and specifically the stretch north of I-91, said Reichelt, adding that the broad goal is to redevelop that section of the street, which has always been far less popular with retailers than the stretch south of the highway.

“There’s this perception … businesses have no desire to be north of the I-91 overpass,” he said. “They all want to be between the overpass and East Elm connection, where are no vacancies.”

As for the aforementioned power plant, it is very early in the process of deciding what its fate will be, said Reichelt, adding that, if all goes well, the community could have 10 acres of land right off Route 5 and Memorial Avenue that could be redeveloped for a number of uses. There is a landfill next door, so there are some limitations, he noted, but industrial, commercial, and infrastructure opportunities exist, including a connection to the rotary so that motorists can go both north and south from Agawam Avenue.

 

What’s Down the Road

But much of the attention is now focused on cannabis-related businesses, that July 18 vote, and what will likely happen if that measure passes.

At present, the only business allowed in West Springfield for cannabis-related ventures is to advertise their products and services on billboards along the highways that run through the community. That will change, of course, if the measure passes, as the mayor predicts it will, and he expects West Side to be an attractive mailing address for such companies.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it. We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Indeed, Reichelt said he no longer uses the phrase ‘crossroads of the region’ to describe his community, preferring ‘retail capital of Western Mass.,’ a nod to the many regional and national retail heavyweights — from Costco to Dick’s Sporting Goods to Home Depot — that have located stores in the community.

The traffic that drew those major retailers should also attract cannabis businesses and especially dispensaries, he added.

Reichelt noted that he believes that there is sufficient momentum to get the measure passed, and there may be more with the recent 3% increase in property taxes, the town’s first in several years. Indeed, he said the tax revenue generated from cannabis-related businesses and its potential to help prevent another such increase in rates may help incentivize the council.

“It’s four years later, and the landscape has really changed,” he said. “You hear a lot of the same legalization arguments that you heard back in 2016, but that argument was settled in 2016 — it’s legal in Massachusetts now. To think that it’s not in town is … not based in reality. There are signs on Riverdale and Westfield Street and Memorial Avenue pointing to the different places you can buy marijuana outside of town; look at the tax money that’s leaving here.”

While the July 18 date was one to circle, there’s another key date fast approaching — Sept. 16. That’s the kickoff to the Big E, which will take another big step this year to returning to normal — as in 2019 conditions.

The fair was canceled in 2020, and while it was staged in 2021, it did not have a full lineup of entertainment, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, adding that, for 2022, it will be all systems go.

Much of the entertainment has already been announced, he said, noting that Lynyrd Skynrd will close the fair this year. Meanwhile, there will be a number of new attractions and events — including an opportunity for fair attendees to communicate with those at the International Space Station — and even food items, including noodles, vegan offerings, and full-sized donuts.

Cassidy said advanced ticket sales are running well ahead of the pace for last year, which was a near-record year for the fair, and other strong years. “People don’t even know what what the fair is going to offer, but they’re already supporting it by buying tickets, sometimes nine months in advance of the event,” he told BusinessWest. “And that provides a great deal of emotional support for those of us who run the place because we know that our patrons care about the organization.”

But while projections are certainly good for this year, he will watch closely what happens at several other state and regional fairs set to open in the coming weeks.

Indeed, one wildcard could be gas prices, which, while they’re coming down, remain historically high and could deter some families from driving long distances for entertainment.

 

Bottom Line

Reflecting on why this city still calls itself a town, Reichelt recalled that the vote to change the charter and convert from town government to city government was close — as in very close.

“They decided when they wrote the town charter to maintain the ‘town’ name to maintain that town feel,” he said, adding that many people have approached him and said ‘Will, it doesn’t feel like a town anymore.’

Such sentiments lead him to believe that maybe, just maybe, by the time West Springfield turns 250, it will not only operate a city government, but call itself a city.

If so, that will be only one of many potentially significant changes that will take place between now and then in a community where there is always movement and the landscape is, well, a work in progress.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Karl Stinehart, left, and Russ Fox

Karl Stinehart, left, and Russ Fox say Southwick’s goal is preserve its high quality of life while also creating needed business tax revenue.

 

Southwick residents love the natural beauty and the many recreation choices their town offers but they also like reasonable tax rates.

Russell Fox, chair of the Southwick Select Board, said to accomplish both means business development must be part of the equation to ease the tax burden.

“It’s a balancing act that the Select Board takes very seriously,” said Fox, who has been a selectman off and on (mostly on) for more than 40 years. “I would not want to see families who have lived in town for generations say they can no longer afford to stay here.”

A balancing act indeed, as last year residents made it know that they will support some business development proposals, but not all. After the town’s planning board and select board had approved a $100 million project involving the online used car seller Carvana, residents expressed a number of concerns about the size of the project and its impact on the community.

The site where the Carvana project was proposed is a 90-acre parcel on College Highway near Tannery Road. After residents rejected Carvana, Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer for Southwick said the owner of the property has since come up with a creative solution.

“The parcel will be broken into five lots,” Stinehart said. “We can now look to attract a retail store or a light manufacturer, something that won’t have the negative impact of a large facility.”

That’s the kind of progress that gets the attention of Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a great idea for them to split up that parcel to make it more attractive for smaller businesses,” Oulette said. Currently, 13 Southwick businesses belong to the Greater Westfield Chamber.

Stinehart pointed to the town’s tax rate of $16.98 per thousand for both residential and businesses as another incentive for economic development in Southwick. Oulette agreed.

“Southwick’s tax rate is competitive and should help the town to attract more business there,” Oulette said.

Overall, there are many types of development happening in this recreational town, both commercial and residential.

“It’s a balancing act that the Select Board takes very seriously. would not want to see families who have lived in town for generations say they can no longer afford to stay here.”

That list includes Faded Flowers LLC, which has been cleared to build a cannabis-growing facility. Stinehart said town voters have approved this facility, which will grow and process cannabis for commercial distribution. At the same time, voters have rejected hosting any retail dispensaries in town.

“We are in the early stages of this project,” Stinehart said. “They have done some site work but have not yet built the facility. Once complete there will be a lag time before the business is productive, so we are a long way from seeing any revenue for the town.”

Meanwhile, the Greens of Southwick is a development of custom-built homes on the land that was formerly Southwick Country Club. Located on both sides of College Highway, the west side of the development features 25 lots, with only two still available. More recently work began on the east side of the property where 38 lots are planned. Phase one of the east side has only three lots available.

On the other side of town, a 100-unit condominium project near the intersection of Depot Street and Powder Mill Road has also been approved.

“When those are built, the people who live there will have close access to the Rail Trail and can easily walk to the center of town,” said Stinehart.

While all these new homes will create additional tax revenue, residents who live on Lake Congamond are begrudgingly contributing more to the town’s tax coffers due to improvements to their current homes.

For several years, many of the modest homes on the shores of the lake are getting major renovations by their owners. As a result, these lakefront residences are now assessed at a higher tax rate than before the reno work.

“People are very upset with us about their increased taxes and we tell them how the state sets the tax rate, we have nothing to do with it,” said Fox.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Southwick and the ongoing efforts to create that balance that Fox spoke of.

 

Work and Play

Calling the lake a tremendous asset to Southwick, Fox also noted that part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds the town received were used to install weir gates on Congamond.

“Weir gates help us address flood control and keep contaminated water from flowing into the lake,” Fox said. Every spring the town treats the lake with aluminum sulfate or “alum” to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. Without the weir gates, contaminated water from flash floods would back up into the lake and negate the alum treatment. That affects the health of the lake, and the town budget, as Southwick spent $600,000 for the alum treatment.

Looking longer term, Fox said the town would like to dredge certain areas of the lake to keep it healthy.

“Lakes die naturally from sediment that keeps increasing over the years on the lakebed,” he explained. “Right now, there is an estimated six feet of sediment on the bottom of Lake Congamond.”

Because Congamond acts as a recharger for the aquifer, Fox is also hoping to start a dialogue with Westfield and West Springfield, as both communities get their water from the aquifer.

“It might be beneficial for all three towns to kick in to dredge the lake to make sure it keeps providing clean water,” he said.

Most of the $1.4 million Southwick received in its first allotment of ARPA funds was spent on a water project of a different sort, a new water pump and filtration station.

“This is a benefit to every water ratepayer and helps the town with improved water pressure,” said Fox.

Like nearly every town, Southwick has plenty of paving projects to tackle. Stinehart said town officials plan to use some of the ARPA money to fix roads in town but there’s a hitch. Budgets for road projects are set long before any paving happens.

“Because asphalt is petroleum-based, our paving projects now cost much more than we had planned,” Stinehart said. “The price inflation shortens the length of roads we can cover for that amount of money.”

As Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, big decisions are determined directly by residents.

“Everything we do must ultimately be approved by the voters at the Town Meeting,” said Fox. “I tell people all the time it’s the purest form of government.”

Stinehart explained several areas where voters have decided to make investments in their community.

“We continue to expand our paramedic EMS service which is run by the Fire Department,” he noted. “We’re adding more people so we can deliver that service at the highest level.”

Southwick is the lead community for a shared services grant to fund one full time and one part time nurse. In addition to Southwick, the nurses will cover Granville, Tolland, Blandford, Russell and Montgomery and serve in a visiting nurse-type of role. Stinehart explained that because of COVID, some people are still reluctant to go to medical facilities for routine treatment. With several towns taking part, the need for the service can be addressed at a more reasonable cost for everyone.

“It’s tough for one small community to budget for having a nurse on call, but with several towns paying it becomes more affordable for each town and it’s financially worthwhile for the nurse,” Stinehart said.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.59
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

When entering Southwick drivers are greeted with a welcome sign that brands the town as a “recreational community.” One notable recreation spot in town is The Wick 338, the motocross course that continues to grow in prominence in the sport. On July 9, the course will host the Southwick National Motocross Championship, which will be televised nationally on NBC.

“Based on ticket sales so far, the organizers are anticipating one of the largest events ever,” said Fox. “I hope they have good weather for it.”

The town also hosts two popular golf courses with The Ranch and Edgewood Country Club. Stinehart discussed a new golf game in town that has begun to take off: disc golf.

“The folks at the New England Disc Golf Center have told us people are playing hundreds of rounds of disc golf every week,” Stinehart said. “It’s a relatively new sport that’s gaining in popularity.”

Southwick is still basking in the glow of its 250th anniversary celebration. Though 2020 was the actual year of the anniversary, COVID forced the town to delay scheduled events and create new ones. In a “making lemonade out of lemons” kind of way, Fox remarked that they were able to celebrate the 250th for two years instead of just one.

“In 2020 we had a rolling parade where we drove floats into neighborhoods and then last year we held a traditional parade,” Stinehart said. “We’re still selling souvenirs from the event.”

 

Something to Celebrate

The anniversary celebration was so successful, the organizing committee had a surplus after all the costs were covered. That money will be used to make improvements to the town green and renovate the memorial to veterans who were Southwick residents.

“It’s a good use of the money and it will improve the municipal center of our community,” Stinehart said.

Reflecting on the anniversary, Fox said even with a two-year celebration, COVID prevented them from holding all the activities they would have liked to host.

At that point, Stinehart quipped, “Well, there will be a 275th anniversary.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Alex McGill says his company considered other options, but decided it wanted to be in East Longmeadow

Roughly 60 years ago, McGill Hose and Coupling opened on Benton Drive in East Longmeadow. About six months ago, it moved into a new building around the corner on Industrial Drive that is more than double the size of its old location.

McGill is a custom fabricator of hoses and tubes for a wide variety of industries, everything from fuel delivery to food and beverage to pharmaceuticals. In short, any industry that requires hoses and tubing can be served by the company. Alex McGill, vice president at McGill, said the pandemic and supply chain challenges have caused some hiccups, but at the same time brought more business from pharmaceutical companies, especially in the Northeast.

“The opportunity came about because of the level of service we offer and because we are accessible to our customers,” McGill noted. “Our willingness to work around the clock to make sure customers get what they need has won us quite a lot of business over the years.”

While the company could be located anywhere, and could have moved anywhere when expansion became necessary, McGill has chosen to remain in East Longmeadow.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors,” he said adding, “we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

Secure Energy Systems has a story that is similar in many ways. The company was located on Somers Road until 2016 when a fire destroyed the company’s building. Nearby Cartamundi provided temporary space for Secure Energy while it sought out a new location.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors, we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

“The owners of the company had purchased a property in Enfield, but it just didn’t feel right to them,” said Erin Bissonnette, senior energy sales representative for Secure Energy. “They wanted to stay in East Longmeadow because they felt this was their home and they didn’t want to leave.”

So, in 2018 Secure Energy found the right space a few doors down from the manufacturer Cartamundi on Shaker Road and bought the building that formerly housed the laser company Biolitec.

These stories are among many others that relate how East Longmeadow has become an increasingly popular home for families and businesses alike. As for the ‘why’ this is happening — there are many reasons for that, including quality of life, a still-favorable commercial tax rate, available land and property, and, overall, a pro-business approach that is prompting new businesses to settle there, existing businesses to stay, and entrepreneurs to find space there to get started, as we’ll see.

And while businesses owners are choosing to invest in the community, East Longmeadow is making investments in itself.

The East Longmeadow Town Council recently passed the Fiscal 2023 budget, which includes funding for 19 capital projects in town. One prominent project involves a major redevelopment of Heritage Park. According to Town Manager Mary McNally, the initial design and permitting phase of the redevelopment will come from Community Preservation monies. Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will cover the other 18 projects.

“They range from investing in the town’s IT needs to police cruisers, a fire engine and DPW trucks,” McNally said. “There are enough projects to stimulate lots of economic activity in town, providing we can get the contractors and the materials to get it all done.” 

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how all these many kinds of investments are paying off for East Longmeadow.

 

Right Place, Right Time

After a renovation that Bissonnette described as “down to the steel beams” Secure Energy, which specializes in the procurement of natural gas and electricity for its commercial and industrial clients, now has a modern, airy office with amenities for employees such as a kitchen, large gym, and an outdoor gathering space. And there is plenty of room for growth.

“We negotiate with the same suppliers the utilities use and lock in the price and a term for the energy commodity, whether it’s for 6 months or 60 months,” Bissonnette said.

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out. They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

As a result, a business can know what their energy will cost for the length of the term, a service more valuable these days than ever before.

“Some clients will forget they extended their term beyond 2022 and will call us in a panic,” Bissonnette said. “Then we reassure them that our energy advisors grabbed the lowest prices months ago and locked in that rate. As a result, customers who were concerned are now very happy.” 

Secure Energy is part of a growing, very diverse business community in East Longmeadow, one that takes full advantage of many amenities, including a favorable location near population centers and the border with Connecticut, as well as land on which to build and grow.

McGill Hose and Coupling is another example.

Erin Bissonnette

Erin Bissonnette says Secure Energy wanted to stay in East Longmeadow, because it “felt like home.”

As McGill employees settle into its new location, Alex McGill said the company’s next goal involves growing the business and the team working in East Longmeadow.

“We’re putting more of an emphasis on our employees,” McGill said. “We’re building a team atmosphere that has become a real catalyst for our recent growth.”

Using the strategy “if you treat your employees right, they will treat your customers right” is already paying off.

“We are poised for a nice shot of growth,” McGill continued. “We are paying attention to the future and investing in our employee culture serves as the guiding light for our growth.”

The same sentiments apply to the town and many of the investments it is making.

Indeed, as part of the budget, the town council also approved hiring for 13 positions in various town departments. McNally said Town Hall is scheduled to get 5 full time and one part time position out of the total.

“The staff at Town Hall work very hard to get things done,” McNally said. “Life would be easier if we had more staff, so I’m very pleased the council saw fit to fund these positions.” The extra staff presents a challenge of finding room where the new hires can work. The town is currently trying to find a balance between locating a department or two to another building without spreading municipal offices all over the town.

Meanwhwhile, a new high school represents a longer-term investment that is moving through town and state approval processes. The town will host three visioning sessions to show residents what a new school could look like and to solicit ideas from the public on what they would like to see for a new high school.

“These will be hybrid meetings so the public can take part in person or virtually,” McNally said. “I hope we get a good turnout and that people will participate.”

One of those 18 ARPA projects includes roof repairs to the current high school.

“This is a fix that can’t wait for the years-long process of building a new school,” said McNally.

Another investment trend in East Longmeadow involves people investing in themselves.

Grace Barone, executive director of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, said recent networking events she has held are attracting many young entrepreneurs. Barone said new pop-up shops are beginning to appear and most of them are women-owned businesses.

Grace Barone

Grace Barone

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out,” said Barone. “They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

One of those entrepreneurs recently leased space in the Reminder Building, where the Chamber office is also located. Chris Buendo, owner of the building, said he has welcomed startups to the Reminder Building and now has an eclectic mix of tenants. In fact, he allows tenants to provide a 60-day notice to break their lease instead of holding them to a typical one year or longer term.

“The shorter notice takes a little pressure off a start-up company,” said Buendo. “Rather than signing a long-term lease that they may later regret, I have faith that what they are doing is going to work so I want to relieve some of that pressure so they can succeed.”

The height of the pandemic was a scary time for commercial real estate, and Buendo said he lost many tenants who abandoned their office space to work from home. As the world slowly emerges from COVID concerns, he said business has come back.

“The good news is I’m getting calls again,” Buendo said. “Working from home is nice but it’s not a perfect scenario, so people are calling me to say it’s time to return to the office.” And return they have, as Buendo noted he has only one available space in the Reminder building.

Chris Buendo

Chris Buendo says growing interest in office space in the town is a sign of progress.

At the town level, in addition to the new jobs approved by the council, several key positions have turned over because of retirements and career changes. McNally explained that over the last year the town has brought on a new planning director and a new library director. McNally herself plans to retire when her contract ends on June 30.

At press time the town had chosen a new town manager and was in the process of negotiating the final contract before announcing the new person.

 

The Bottom Line

As for McNally, her next move is well planned.

“I’ll be on the golf course, at the ocean, or with my family, not necessarily in that order,” McNally said. “I’m a lawyer by training so I could re-new my license if I get bored, but for now I’m ready to call it a day.”

As she prepares for retirement, McNally is pleased that thanks to investments from the private sector and the town, East Longmeadow is in solid financial shape going forward and in a position to continue the remarkable pattern of growth it has seen in recent years. u

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jaclyn Stevenson

Jaclyn Stevenson says Shakespeare & Company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer.

 

Jennifer Nacht describes the beginning of the summer season in Lenox as a light switch that clicks on to a time of “happy mayhem.”

Unofficially, the season begins after Memorial Day weekend, but Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, noted that the weekends leading up to the holiday were plenty busy, as well. In fact, as early as January she first began to see a vibrant summer on the horizon for Lenox.

Back then, Nacht had begun planning the Lenox Art Walk event scheduled for this month. Her attempt to reserve hotel rooms for artists who planned to travel to the event was more difficult than anticipated.

“I was able to find only three rooms after calling several different hotels back in January,” Nacht said. “They were all so apologetic and said that because of weddings and other events, every place was booked full.” 

This difficulty with finding rooms is just one indication of what promises to be a sizzling summer for Lenox, which, because of its tourism-based economy, faced innumerable challenges during the past two summers of COVID, and is poised for a breakout year.

Indeed, ‘healthy’ and ‘robust’ are terms that Marybeth Mitts, chair of the Lenox Select Board, uses to describe tourism in her community as high season, the three months of summer, commence.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019,” Mitts said, adding that, with a full summer of Boston Symphony Orchestra performances as well as a Popular Artists series, Tanglewood’s economic impact on Lenox and the Berkshires is considerable.

As one small snapshot, Nacht pointed out that James Taylor’s annual shows on July 3 and 4 will bring more than 36,000 people to town over just those two days.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019.”

Shakespeare and Company is another Lenox-based arts institution projecting not just a solid summer, but a solid year.

Indeed the theater company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer. Jaclyn Stevenson, director of marketing and communications, said the longer season is experimental, and will incorporate performances both indoors and outdoors.

Last year when COVID numbers stubbornly stayed high enough to threaten Shakespeare and Company’s ability to stage indoor plays, plans for an outdoor theatre that was a “someday” project, moved on to the fast track.

“The Spruce Theatre was constructed in 90 days in the summer of 2021,” Stevenson said. Modeled after the amphitheaters of ancient Greece, the stage rests in front of several tall spruce trees that are incorporated into the design.

“When the idea for it was presented in the context of COVID, it was much easier for everyone to understand the vision Artistic Director Allyn Burrows had for the theater,” added Stevenson.

While the company already had its outdoor Roman Garden Theatre that seats 280, the Spruce Theatre is a 500-seat facility with room to stage larger productions. In fact, the opening play for the Spruce Theatre was a production of King Lear featuring actor Christopher Lloyd in the title role.

“Having Christopher Lloyd here to christen the stage was a real coup,” Stevenson remembered. “It was the kind of fanfare we would not have been able to create otherwise in a COVID world.”

For this, the latest installment of its Ciommunity Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how Lenox is well-positioned to further rebound from COVID and take full advantage of what is expected to be a big year for the tourism sector — and communities that rely on such businesses to fuel their economy.

 

Art and Soul

The Art Walk is a good example of an event that was created at the height of the pandemic after the town was forced to cancel its annual Apple Squeeze event. As an alternative to the town-wide festival, Nacht and others developed the Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when Apple Squeeze would have taken place.

The first Art Walk consisted of 40 artists set up in different areas of town known as “artist villages.” These villages were arranged to accommodate only small groups of people with an emphasis on foot-traffic flow to keep everyone moving through the exhibits.

The event received great feedback and has quickly become a tradition in Lenox. Now in its third year, Art Walk features spring and fall editions. Meanwhile, the Apple Squeeze has returned, and will take place on Sept. 24.

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says the summer is looking very promising for Lenox and its many tourism-related businesses.

“It’s very validating to see these events that we put together on the fly are now becoming established,” said Nacht, noting that Lenox Loves Music is another event created during the pandemic that has had staying power.

In Lenox, music and entertainment are an important part of the town’s identity. When Tanglewood, Shakespeare and Company and the other entertainment venues shut down at the height of COVID, the chamber began working with the Berkshire Music School on a series of Sunday afternoon concerts, and Lenox Loves Music was born.

“The new events really help the merchants,” Nacht said. “Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

Like the Art Walk, the popularity of Lenox Loves Music has made it a keeper, with concerts every Friday in June and September.

“We run all these events in the shoulder months of May and June then September and October,” Nacht said. “Once our high season hits, beginning the weekend of July 4, we’re packed with visitors so we don’t need to entice tourists because they are already here.”

Shakespeare and Company is another organization that has extended its season to the shoulder months. In years past, the company would stage three plays by the Bard and three contemporary works. With the expanded season, it is staging two Shakespeare plays along with five or six modern plays.

“The mission of our company is based on the work of Shakespeare,” Stevenson said. “We choose our plays thoughtfully to reflect the spirit of the Bard and to show people new things.”

In addition to staging plays, the company also has a robust actor-training program and a nationally recognized theatre-in-education program.

Stevenson noted that a high-school-age theater group had recently performed Romeo and Juliet on the Spruce Theatre stage.

“The new events really help the merchants. Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

“It was so cool to see students on the same stage where actors from all over the world will be performing Much Ado About Nothing in July,” Stevenson said. “You could see the joy of them being in that space.”

 

Setting the Stage

To accommodate all the tourists visiting these attractions, and locals as well, Lenox has a number of projects in the works to refurbish some of its municipal buildings while plans are in the works to build several new structures for town departments.

Beginning with Town Hall, Mitts said improvements are underway to replace the carpet and curtains in the auditorium as well as install a new roof and gold leaf on the Town Hall cupola.

“The town has capital plans within the next five years to begin construction on a new wastewater treatment plant, and a new public safety structure to include the Lenox police and fire departments,” Mitts said.

In addition to roof and chimney repairs to the library, Mitts said a key project involves updating the HVAC system.

“We’re installing a new interstitial system to manage ventilation in the building,” Mitts said. “This is to ensure proper storage of the library’s collections including rare books and ephemera of the region.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of refurbishing project is taking place at Mass Audubon Society’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, a popular destination for hikers at all levels. Last July a wind and rainstorm felled thousands of trees and severely damaged a boardwalk at Pike’s Pond. With $200, 000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the state and private donations, cleanup and renovations are in progress.

“Many of the trails and structures have been restored, however, there is on-going work to bring the facility back up to the full capacity it enjoyed in June 2021,” Mitts said.

As for the chamber of commerce, Nacht said that while the pandemic really challenged the agency in many different ways, it also presented an opportunity for the chamber to show what it could do to support efforts in town.

“People are now confident in the chamber and look to us for help with their events,” Nacht said offering the example of a proverbial ‘good problem to have’ at a recent farmers’ market.

“The farmers’ market brought so many people to town there weren’t enough lunch places for people,” Nacht said. The chamber arranged for a food truck run by someone who had worked in Lenox restaurants for 20 years. “He was excited to be back in Lenox and tells people he’s living his dream with his food truck.”

“It’s nice to feel that kind of energy coming back to Lenox,” she went on, adding that energy levels are expected to soar even higher during what is shaping up to be a very memorable summer.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Carolyn Brennan

Carolyn Brennan says that while Hadley is a small town, the traffic and visitation it sees every day create some big-city challenges.

In some ways Hadley is a tale of two communities.

One is a small farming town, known locally — and even beyond — for its asparagus. The other Hadley exists on Route 9, the main artery running through town that can see up to 100,000 vehicles a day bringing people to shopping centers, universities, hotels — and neighboring towns.

This dual nature brings obvious opportunities and challenges — and many of both — to this Hampshire County community.

The opportunities are clearly evident all along Route 9 — retail outlets of every kind that bring people, and vital tax revenue, to the town. The challenges … they are clearly evident as well.

And one of the biggest is meeting the demands of those 100,000 vehicles using the town’s infrastructure with the staff and budget of a small town.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day,” said Carolyn Brennan, town administrator.

In the first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, Hadley received $1.5 million, which was used to address repairs to two culverts as well as repairs to the dike that runs next to the Connecticut River. The town sought separate funding for its largest infrastructure project, a 2¼-mile reconstruction of Route 9. When complete the road will be widened for additional traffic lanes and bus shelters, and storm drains will be upgraded.

Brennan said that because Route 9 is a state road, the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is splitting costs with the town. Brennan explained that the town will open the road to fix the infrastructure below, and MassDOT will handle the widening and new pavement.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day.”

“The initial phase of the work has begun, like clearing brush and marking utility poles that will be moved,” Brennan said. “There will be much more activity in the next few months as the town begins to replace storm water and sewer lines.” The project is expected to be completed by 2026.

According to Brennan, communication is essential to keep traffic flowing while construction is occurring. Baltazar Contractors stays in close contact with the town when road work is planned. This approach is already paying dividends, as Baltazar had initially planned road work for May 13, the day of the UMass commencement ceremony at McGuirk Stadium.

“We quickly notified them to not do any road work that day to avoid a traffic tie-up,” Brennan said. “It would have been insane.”

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says businesses and events in Hadley are returning to their pre-pandemic levels.

Brennan also shares the weekly construction schedule with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Hadley has been incredible with communicating when road work will be taking place,” Pazmany said. “It allows us to let businesses know what the traffic patterns will be.”

And lately, traffic has been heavier as the region returns to something approaching normalcy after two years of pandemic.

Indeed, business in Hadley is definitely picking up, with Pazmany reporting that more businesses are returning to pre-pandemic hours of operation and events like the Asparagus Festival (June 11) are back on the schedule.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer,” Pazmany said. “The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a town that is much more than a bridge between Amherst and Northampton.

 

Fruits of Their Labor

Echoing Pazmany, Drew Perron, co-owner of Arizona Pizza at the Hampshire Mall said his business is vibrant, with numbers approaching those of 2019. He gave credit to his staff to help get through the worst of the pandemic.

“Many of our employees are long-termers and have been with us from seven to 12 years,” Perron said. “We made it through this entire ordeal thanks to their dedication.”

Once part of a chain, Arizona Pizza is now locally owned by Perron and his business partner. While its location is tucked around the back of the mall, customers have no problem finding it.

“I’m very thankful we have a number of regulars who kept us going through COVID and they continue to support us,” Perron said.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer. The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

With Cinemark theaters located next to Arizona Pizza, blockbuster movies help keep the restaurant busy.

“Doctor Strange came out last weekend, and that was a good weekend for us,” Perron noted. “I communicate with the general manager at Cinemark, because the more successful they are, the more successful we’re going to be.”

Perron and Cinemark working together is an example of the cooperative spirit that motivated Andrea Bordenca to locate two businesses in Hadley.

Bordenca is CEO for both Diversified Equipment Services & Consulting Organization (DESCO) and Venture Way Collaborative.

DESCO is a service company where technicians maintain and repair technology such as EKG machines, operating room tables, and similar equipment found in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Founded by her father in 1970, Bordenca worked through the ranks of DESCO with positions in quality assurance and sales. While her dad taught her some basics of business, Bordenca realized she had no leadership skills and was motivated to enroll in the Institute for Generative Learning (IGL) an international leadership training and coaching organization.

“I wanted to create a higher leadership role for myself to carry on the legacy of my father and of DESCO,” she explained, adding that she credits IGL for teaching her how to be a leader and how to grow the company by centering DESCO’s focus on building and aligning teams.

“Over the past 15 years, we have more than doubled in size, doubled in revenue, and quadrupled in profitability,” Bordenca said.

Her training at IGL so inspired Bordenca that she now owns the U.S. affiliate for the training organization. Other affiliates are in Latin America, the United Kingdom and Asia, making her one of four owners and operators of IGL.

That brings us to her second business, Venture Way Cooperative in Hadley, where IGL is located. While DESCO had been in Eastern Mass since its founding, Bordenca moved the company’s headquarters to the Venture Way location in May 2020.

“When I came to Western Mass I saw lots of collaboration and a sense of commitment for each other to succeed,” said Bordenca. “I just didn’t see that kind of collaboration in Eastern Mass.”

The two organizations currently have 61 employees, with Bordenca serving as CEO for both entities. DESCO has a national presence with an office in Miami and field technicians who work from home in various states. She was able to coordinate the company’s move to Hadley without losing any employees.

“We’re looking to triple in size over the next five years,” Bordenca said. “We want to share our culture and our ability to build teams and create engagements to other states.”

When BusinessWest spoke with Bordenca she was planning a ribbon cutting and open house to introduce more people to IGL and DESCO. To illustrate what happens at DESCO, a service technician will hold a demonstration at the open house of how they service a sterilizing machine. The technician will also work with something more familiar to most people, an ice machine — DESCO also services ice machines for restaurants, hotels and surgery centers.

“On the training side of Venture Way, I’ve invited local speakers to talk about the work they’re involved in to begin a dialog about the ways community members can help affect change together,” Bordenca said. “This is the first of many events like this and we’ve begun lining up great local leaders to present in the coming months.”

One way Bordenca sees Venture Way helping DESCO is by training a more diverse workforce to step in as older workers retire. She admitted that technicians in the industry have traditionally been mostly white and male.

“We want to make sure our industry is visible to all genders and races,” she said. “At Venture Way we can expose people to what we do and even offer mini courses so more people can get a taste of this as a career.”

Large numbers of workers reaching retirement age is happening in all professions. Brennan said it’s an ongoing challenge for Hadley.

“In the next few years, we will see a significant number of highly skilled, intelligent workers retiring and leaving with lots of historical knowledge about the town,” Brennan said. “The real challenge is encouraging younger people to work in municipal government.”

Brennan is working on a more robust internship program between UMass and the town to introduce public policy majors to the workings of a municipality.

“Once people start working with a municipality, they’re hooked for life,” Brennan said, relating to her own experience where, after working in municipal government, she took a job in the private sector for a short time but could not wait to get back into municipal work. “I was hooked, and we just have to get new people hooked.”

Pazmany, who recently took part in a workforce-strategies panel, said a trend is emerging where modern workers want to be part of something bigger than just having a job and are more concerned about a community focus in their work.

In her role at the chamber, Pazmany makes many direct connections among area businesses and has found new ways to help employers fill positions.

“Members are allowed to upload job listings, which we then upload to our social media sites,” Pazmany said. “We’ve posted hundreds of jobs in the past several months.”

 

Experts in Their Fields

Bordenca said she’s excited about moving DESCO to Hadley, calling it the perfect location for what the company does.

“Hadley is more centrally located to serve customers throughout the Northeast in places like New York and Vermont,” Bordenca said. “This location makes us feel closer to our employees and our customers in lots of ways.”

Perron concurred, noting that Hadley is a town that works well for his restaurant. He also gave credit to the current Hampshire Mall management as the best he’s seen in well over a decade.

“I like being a tenant here because the mall managers are very good about working with us and caring about us,” Perron said.

He’s also encouraged by the continued growth of the Route 9 corridor and the number of people it brings to the town.

“I see an uptrend happening here,” said Perron, who is clearly not alone in that assessment.