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By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says businesses in town, including her own, Berkshire Hills Music Academy, are anxious to ramp up operations as the economy reopens.

 

For Mike Sullivan, the past 15 months have been a learning experience on many levels.

As town administrator in South Hadley, Sullivan has learned just how essential online payment systems and Zoom meetings have become for residents who need to do business with the town.

“As we make more access points available to the public, we’ve seen participation in government increase,” Sullivan said, adding that, while many people are looking forward to meeting in person again, Zoom is also here to stay.

The pandemic also taught him about the efficiencies of running Town Hall. By limiting in-person visits to appointment only, staff have been able to more efficiently get business done. Going forward, he looks to follow a model other towns have adopted of limiting hours or closing to the public one day a week.

“There are multiple ways to take care of business,” Sullivan said. “I appreciate that some people have complicated business they need to conduct in person, and we will accommodate them. When residents use online platforms or even ‘snail mail’ instead of visiting Town Hall, it saves money for the town and for everyone’s individual taxes.”

Sullivan made plenty of adjustments to keep South Hadley moving forward during the pandemic. Attendees to last year’s town meeting, for example, never left their cars.

“People tuned into the discussion over their car radios, just like an old drive-in movie,” he said. A similar drive-in town meeting is planned for this year, but there will also be a seating area for those who feel safe enough to leave their cars. “We’re looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Michelle Theroux, president of the South Hadley and Granby Chamber of Commerce, said one indication of a return to normalcy is the “we’re hiring” signs around town. She acknowledges there are many factors why people are not immediately returning to work, but even with recruitment issues, the signs represent a positive step.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce,” she said.

As the end of the pandemic nears, Theroux credits the South Hadley community for its support of small business. From restaurant takeout orders to holiday shopping, it was local people who provided enough support so that no chamber-member businesses permanently closed due to the pandemic.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive,” she said. “It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Because small business is such an essential part of South Hadley, banks in town worked with the chamber to secure Paycheck Protection Program funds for businesses in town. In addition, the chamber recently partnered with the Northampton chamber and the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism to secure $20,000 in state grants.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce.”

The chamber also spread the word among its members on how they could help each other, as well as support businesses that are not necessarily top of mind.

“If you look at the South Hadley Commons, we all think of the great restaurants there,” Theroux said. “The Commons also has a movie theater and a number of small boutiques that offer unique and personalized items you can’t find at a big-box store.”

 

Forward Momentum

One key project that kept going during the pandemic involves the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza. At one time the site of a Big Y supermarket, the parcel now features various retail stores anchored by Rocky’s Hardware. The site has been approved for a 60-unit, mixed-income apartment complex that will occupy three acres in the back of the parcel.

“Way Finders of Springfield is running the housing-complex project, and they are waiting for federal funding to come through before they break ground,” Sullivan said.

Theroux is excited about the project because it provides a glimpse at the future of development.

“At Woodlawn, you have a multi-use site with different types of businesses and living options all in one central location,” she said, while predicting that the entire area surrounding Woodlawn will see a revitalization over the next several years. As one example, Northampton Cooperative Bank and PeoplesBank have recently opened branches in or near the Woodlawn Plaza.

Sullivan also pointed with pride to the new senior center on Dayton Street, which is scheduled to open June 30.

“We were able to successfully build the senior center during the pandemic, and the costs were below the estimated bids,” he said. “Even with increases in some of the materials, we will still come in nearly $700,000 under the original estimate.”

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $19.46 (Fire District 1); $19.80 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

Six years ago, Mohawk Paper opened a plant in South Hadley to great fanfare and optimism for a long relationship with the community. Last year, in pursuit of more favorable taxes and incentives, the company closed its operations in South Hadley and moved to Ohio.

As tough as it was to see Mohawk pack up and leave, Sullivan noted that E Ink, the company located across Gaylord Street from the former Mohawk plant, has good news moving forward. “E Ink is planning to double in size because they have a new product line coming out.”

E Ink makes the agent used in tablets like the Amazon Kindle, which allows an electronic page to read like a physical book. In addition to tablets, E Ink screens are used in a variety of applications ranging from signage at MBTA stations and international airports to retail price signs.

On top of contributing as a successful company, Sullivan noted that E Ink is a strong supporter of community projects and events in South Hadley.

Meanwhile, the Ledges Golf Club, owned by the town and a financial drag for many years, is on its way to performing at par. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, golf courses across the state were mandated to stay closed for several weeks. Sullivan called the lost months a “kick in the shins” because, once it opened, the Ledges did brisk business all season and came close to hitting a break-even point.

“This year, we made $200,000 in revenue in just March and April,” Sullivan said. “By the end of the fiscal year next June, we think the Ledges will break even.”

In addition to her duties as chamber president, Theroux’s full time job is executive director of Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), a music-infused program that helps young adults with special needs to expand their social, vocational, and life skills. Before the pandemic, BHMA employed just over 100 people. Though it normally offers both residential and day programs, state mandates forced BHMA to quickly shift to remote classes for its day students. After furloughs and layoffs due to the new mandates, 64 staff remain.

“Our current state is a hybrid model where we have about 40% of our day students back on campus, with the rest joining us by remote,” Theroux said. “Once we can fully reopen, we’d like to staff up to where we were before the pandemic.”

Looking ahead to the fall, she wasn’t sure what to expect for new enrollments, but was pleasantly surprised to see strong numbers for BHMA’s incoming class.

“Once their loved one is vaccinated, many families are all in on our program, and that’s a huge positive for us,” Theroux said. “Three months ago, I would not have been as confident about what next year would look like.”

 

Back to School

After more than a year of remote learning, Mount Holyoke College students have begun to return to campus. While remote learning is still available, many have indicated they plan to return to campus in the fall.

“The presence of Mount Holyoke students back on campus will provide a real boost to South Hadley feeling normal again,” Theroux said.

Sullivan is on the move, too. After a long career of public service, he has announced he will retire in June. Looking back, he points to a number of projects he’s helped shepherd to success. One area of particular pride is the progress South Hadley has made in hiring a more diverse workforce. As an example, he mentioned Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen, who recently joined South Hadley’s force after several years in Amherst.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive. It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Sullivan in only one of South Hadley’s leaders who are moving on. Planning Director Richard Harris is also retiring, and the superintendent of schools left in December to pursue another professional path.

While grateful for their service to the town, Theroux sees this as a time for South Hadley to bring new faces into leadership roles.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, I’m optimistic about the future and a new era of leadership for our town,” she said, adding that she looks forward to people once again enjoying all that South Hadley has to offer.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

After a year when everyone got used to pivoting — and got sick of that word — Chicopee Mayor John Vieau is happy to be pivoting in a different direction.

Specifically, he made some adjustments to a standing meeting with his staff — but this time for a more positive reason. Since the earliest days of the pandemic, Vieau met three times a week with a COVID-19 task force made up of city department heads. He’s still meeting with the group, but their focus has now shifted from COVID to reopening Chicopee. Among the agenda items are reinstalling basketball hoops and opening essential city buildings.

“For the last year, anyone needing services at City Hall, the library, or the Council on Aging had to make an appointment, so we’re excited about welcoming the public again,” he said.

Vieau pointed with pride to municipal employees for all their efforts during the pandemic, noting that the city made it through the last 14 months without having to furlough or lay off even one employee. “The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Moving forward, proper training and advancement of city employees is a priority for the mayor. Noting that both the fire and police chiefs worked their way into the top jobs in their respective departments, Vieau wants the same opportunities for those who follow. “I want to make sure there is always a success ladder available for employees and the right training is available for them.”

Like every community, local businesses in Chicopee were hit hard by the pandemic. That’s why the city contracted with the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce to offer free grant application assistance to any Chicopee business.

“The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Julie Copoulos, executive director of the chamber, noted that, because her organization has such a large network, it’s able to get information out quickly and to find out what a small business might need.

“Many business owners just needed someone who could say, ‘hey, I think this grant application fits you and would be a good one to apply for,’” Copoulos said. “These programs can save a person’s business, but the application can be complex, so it really helps to have a person who has been through the process, to sit with you and get it done.”

 

Positive Shifts

Two Chicopee chamber members did not see a slowdown during the pandemic, but instead ramped up their efforts. Universal Plastics shifted its production to make COVID testing machines and face shields, while Callaway Golf manufactured the company’s top-end Chrome Soft golf ball in a year when the golf business jumped 8%.

“Universal Plastics is an excellent example of what great companies do,” Vieau said. “During a time of uncertainty, they modified their production to meet current demands.”

Copoulos credits Chicopee businesses for being resilient and adaptable during a challenging year. “It was amazing to see these folks turn on a dime and change their business model,” she said. “Now they are in the process of changing it back.”

A new Chicopee Center project conducted in partnership with MassDevelopment is designed to bring more business to downtown and support the businesses already there, the mayor noted. “I’m excited about the future of downtown. It will be a thriving area with a small-town feel, and it will be one of the coolest downtowns you’ll see.”

Chicopee officials recently selected a developer for the last parcel of the former Facemate property. Plans for the site include a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing is expected to locate.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site, showing the athletic-field complex and the renovated Baskin building.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts recently purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park and plans to move all its operations from its longtime location in Hadley. The Food Bank is making the move to expand its warehouse space and locate closer to major highways. “We’re going to be right at the center of the effort to solve food insecurity,” Vieau said.

In addition to businesses reopening, new ones are locating in Chicopee. On the day BusinessWest spoke with the mayor, he had just attended a ribbon cutting for La Diaspora, a new art consignment store. Vieau also noted that the pandemic did not slow down construction of a new Florence Bank branch that recently opened on Memorial Drive.

Like communities everywhere, home sales in Chicopee are booming. Copoulos said Chicopee has an advantage over neighboring communities by offering some of the lowest residential real-estate prices in the Pioneer Valley.

“Chicopee has huge opportunity right now because young families are getting priced out of towns like Easthampton and Northampton,” she said. “Chicopee is accessible for first-time homebuyers, and I look forward to young families locating here.”

 

Back to School

Vieau also looks forward to Chicopee students returning to their schools.

“Nearly all our classrooms are air-conditioned,” he noted, “and we’ve enhanced the air quality in all the school buildings as well.”

Both Vieau and Copoulos spoke of a general feeling of optimism now that COVID-19 is more under control and the economy is opening back up statewide. Both were excited to talk about the Center Fresh Farmers Market starting in June. Hosted by the chamber, Center Fresh represents a chance for people to get together again.

“I’m excited that we will be able to see people on the street again, face to face,” Copoulos said.

Added Vieau, “efforts like this help reignite downtown. We’ve been on pause far too long.”

While he admits the pandemic was a true test for Chicopee, the mayor pointed out that the city is finishing strong. In addition to hosting a regional vaccination site at the Castle of Knights, the city has partnered with Holyoke Health Center and its mobile vaccine clinic. Overall, he believes Chicopee’s success in weathering the coronavirus is due to efforts by people all over the city.

“It has been a team effort with different people stepping up to help,” Vieau said, citing examples like library staff who made comfort calls to check in on people and help them sign up for vaccines, and the Council on Aging providing up to 300 to-go lunches five days a week. “People all over Chicopee were willing to redefine their roles and their jobs because they wanted to do the right thing.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
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

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Nadim's

Nadim Kashouh says the return of office workers will be critical to the success of businesses downtown.

The wording in the initial guidance that has come down on the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, and, more specifically, the $130.2 billion designated for city and county fiscal relief, is somewhat vague and leaves a lot to the imagination.

“Funds can be used to respond to the COVID-19 public-health emergency and its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries, such as tourism, travel, and hospitality,” it reads, before going on to note that such funds may also be used for everything from investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure to “providing government services in a way that covers the revenue gaps created by the COVID-19 emergency.”

As he reads this guidance, Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Economic Development officer, draws immediate parallels to the federal money Springfield received nearly a decade ago in the wake of the June 1, 2011 tornado that tore through several parts of the city. Even the dollar amounts — roughly $100 million, in each case — are strikingly similar.

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield,” he noted, adding that a reconstruction fund of $96.7 million was put to a number of uses, including business assistance, housing replacement and reconstruction, infrastructure, and more. “And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

How, and how effectively, Springfield can put its American Rescue Plan funds to work will likely play an important role when it comes to how quickly and profoundly the city can recover from a very different kind of disaster. And, like many area communities, Springfield has been hard hit by the pandemic, with many question marks looming over the future.

A city that was in the midst of what many were calling a renaissance in the years leading up to COVID saw much of its momentum halted or certainly slowed by the pandemic. A central business district that was thriving and teeming with events, activity, and new businesses has been eerily quiet, with many constituencies — from office workers to hockey fans; beer garden attendees to concertgoers — absent or in far smaller numbers.

As for those office workers, there are now lingering questions about when they will return (the vast majority haven’t yet) and how many of them will return, casting the future of the office towers that dominate the skyline into doubt.

But there are some signs of life and abundant optimism for the balance of this year and beyond.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest on a quiet late Tuesday afternoon, Nadim Kashouh was looking forward to the upcoming weekend — moreso than any time probably since last Father’s Day, when he struggled mightily to keep up with a flood of takeout orders.

Gymnastics — in the form of youth competitions featuring teams from across New England — were returning to the MassMutual Center for the first time in more than a year. And Kashouh’s eatery, Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, located just a block from the convention center, always does well when the gymnasts come to town.

“If they turn right when they leave the building, they find us — and a lot of them do turn right,” said Kashouh, noting that not many people have been coming to town, as in downtown, since COVID changed the landscape in March 2020. “It’s exciting to have the gymnastics back.”

And there are other signs of life as well. The AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds are not playing hockey — they are one of three teams in the league to essentially opt out of play in a abbreviated 2021 season — but they are gearing up for the 2021-22 slate, and management is optimistic there will be considerable pent-up demand for their product (see related story HERE).

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield. And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

Meanwhile, in Pynchon Plaza, various works by the sculptor Don Gummer are now on display, yet another sign that the Quadrangle, one of the city’s tourism mainstays, is moving ever closer to something approaching normal (see related story HERE).

While COVID has certainly slowed the pace of progress in Springfield, it has also provided an opportunity to step back, look at some of the key development challenges and opportunities in the city, and work to be ready for the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic. That’s been the case with two key areas downtown — the area around MGM Springfield, which is underperforming in many ways, and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ the area surrounding the site of the natural-gas explosion in November 2012 (more on these later).

“Our thought process throughout this has been to take the mindset, ‘once we’re through it, we want to be ready to go,’” Sheehan said. “And some of the funding that is coming will be able to help those initiatives be realized.”

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the City of Homes and its prospects for not merely turning back the clock to the vibrancy it enjoyed pre-COVID, but taking further steps forward.

 

Food for Thought

As the owner of one of the more prominent and visible restaurants downtown, Kashouh has long been a popular voice with the local media when it comes to commentary about business downtown and the impact of everything from the casino to the Thunderbirds; from concerts at Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center to, yes, those gymnastics competitions.

As he did son again with BusinessWest, he first flashed back to the view in very early 2020, a time when, as he put it, “the pieces had fallen into place and everything was clicking.”

Over the past 13 months, of course, most of the pieces have fallen out of place, he said, adding that most of the key ingredients for success at his establishment — the shows on weekend nights; the hockey games, conventions, and other events at the MassMutual Center; and, especially, the downtown office workers — have been mostly missing in action as a direct result of the pandemic.

He said they’re all important, but perhaps the most critical is the office traffic, which consistently filled the restaurant at lunch and often the bar area after 5 o’clock. These days, the office crowd is a fraction of what it was, and the impact is profound.

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back,” he said, referring to some commercial lenders once based downtown. “But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.

“It’s going to be a while before things go back to where they were before,” he went on. “I was hoping that by summer things would be back to normal, but now it doesn’t look like it.”

Given this obvious trickle-down effect, the question of when, and to what extent, the office workers return to downtown looms large over the city and those in the Economic Development office.

Indeed, Sheehan, citing a story he read recently involving Citibank and its announced intention to downsize its office footprint in New York by roughly 40%, said it is becoming obvious that the pandemic will change the way businesses approach their real-estate needs moving forward, leading to endless speculation about the office market and the businesses that rely on it.

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications, one of the first signs of redevelopment in Springfield’s so-called ‘blast zone.’

As for the present tense, the situation has improved — but only marginally.

“People are starting to come back to downtown to work, but it’s not fully engaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be until sometime late fall,” Sheehan said. “And I don’t think we’re really going to get back to 100% until the turn of the calendar to 2022. And that obviously has a ripple effect on all the businesses that depend on that population coming in every day, so that’s an ongoing concern for the city.”

This brings him back to that language in the guidance concerning the American Rescue Plan, which, he said, could and likely will extend to efforts to help keep existing businesses downtown and bring new ones there.

“Our objective, in terms of deployment of resources, is to keep as many leases in place and tenants in place as possible, and maintain, to the level that we can, the value of those leases,” he explained, “so that we don’t ultimately experience a huge negative devaluation in the commercial real-estate market.”

The process, already underway, starts with understanding the needs on both sides of the equation, meaning landlord and tenant, he went on, adding that some business sectors are doing better than others, with service and hospitality (those businesses relying on direct interaction with the public) faring the worst.

Overall, the city could access as much as $127 million in Rescue Act funds, depending on how the ‘county’ portion of the award is allocated, said Sheehan, adding that city officials are having discussions with the those at the Treasury Department about how they can be deployed.

Speaking in general terms, which is all he can really do at this point, he said the broad goal of this latest round of funding will be to provide a “softer landing” to the wild, turbulent ride COVID has given the city, which differentiates this round from the funding provided in the CARES Act in 2020.

“With the CARES Act funding, we were in the throes of the virus and the public-health orders associated with it,” he explained. “That funding was basically to alleviate the distress. With this round, it’s about how we’re going to rebuild after the virus and bring the economy back to … not necessarily what we had before, but, hopefully, even better.

“The CARES Act was wound triage,” he went on. “The funding that we’re dealing with in terms of the rescue plan is more post-operative care — that’s the analogy you would use.”

 

Forward Thinking

While the city has been mostly living within the moment during the pandemic and dealing with the day to day, planning for the future has gone on, again, with an eye toward enabling the city to emerge from the pandemic with an opportunity to seize whatever opportunities present themselves.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.

Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower-cost option to Boston.

Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential-laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.

The latter is the focal point of a master development plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the surrounding area development.” In the report, the consultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic development and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”

This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Implementation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:

• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over market) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;

• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic market rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;

• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and

• Resulting property disinvestment, code violations, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacerbated on some levels by the pandemic.

Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building, Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield remains underutilized and largely vacant, despite expectations the casino would prompt greater vibrancy.

For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while opportunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.

“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $18.90
Commercial tax rate: $39.23
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back. But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.”

Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the district is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively affordable cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural attractions, including the Springfield Museums.”

This potential is reflected in the ongoing renovation of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.

One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the development of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,” as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.

 

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.

The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.

When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Center, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.

Amd with them come more expressions of confidence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop, making it an oft-discussed part of conversations about expanded east-west rail.

As the nation recovers from a year of dealing with COVID-19, Palmer Town Manger Ryan McNutt looks to the future with optimism.

While larger cities had to contend with high COVID infection numbers and revenue losses from business taxes, Palmer maintained low infection numbers and relies more on residential taxes, which remained stable.

These days, as many people in the larger metropolitan areas work from home, there is no certainty they will return to five days a week in the office. That dynamic, McNutt believes, gives Palmer a real opportunity. With the average home price in Palmer at $191,000 compared to the Greater Boston area average of more than a half-million dollars, he wants to take advantage of this moment.

“The ability to start a family and work toward the American dream is much more difficult to afford in the Greater Boston area and much easier in our area,” he told BusinessWest. “We may see a change in working conditions where office workers spend up to four days a week at home, which would allow them to live in Western Mass. and take advantage of our affordability.”

McNutt is creating a marketing plan to reach out to the Boston area as well as other densely populated urban areas to promote the value and quality of life available in Palmer and surrounding areas.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario.”

One huge boon for Palmer in this regard would be the proposed east-west rail project. The plan to offer passenger rail service from Pittsfield to Boston has been included in the federal infrastructure plan about to go to Congress. McNutt said east-west rail would be transformative for his town.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario,” he said. Though many steps remain before the plan wins approval and comes to fruition, town planners are looking to identify the right location, and they want to make sure it’s shovel-ready.

“I want to be so ready that, if we were told they could helicopter in a train station and drop it where a site was selected, we want to be ready for that helicopter,” he said.

 

Engine of Opportunity

The economic potential of a train stop in Palmer is not lost on Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabog Hills Chamber of Commerce. On the job since January, Surprise looks to help chamber members increase their engagement with state and local officials, as well as identify economic programs to benefit the area.

He has already begun working on a grant for downtown Palmer through the Transformative Development Initiative, a MassDevelopment program. The grant provides incentives for businesses to locate in condensed areas, like downtown settings, that are walkable.

“That’s a positive for us because Palmer’s downtown is very walkable,” Surprise said.

He is also applying to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to have downtown Palmer designated as a cultural district. In addition to being a walkable area, a community must show it hosts arts and cultural events on a regular basis.

Surprise admits these projects will take several years to be successful, but the effort would be worth it. “A well-developed and vibrant downtown will help us bring in other businesses.”

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise

“Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

As part of his outreach to local officials, he reminds them of Palmer’s tradition and continued relevance as a manufacturing town.

“There has been a lot of talk on the national level about restoring manufacturing jobs,” he said, adding that communities like Palmer that have plenty of available land could be attractive to Boston-area high-tech companies looking for manufacturing space. “Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

The chamber recently conducted a survey among its members to find out how they weathered the pandemic. Results so far show that two-thirds of businesses have been able to avoid employee layoffs. By finding alternatives such as reducing hours, many avoided having to reduce their staffs.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.63; Three Rivers, $23.28; Bondsville, $23.67; Thorndike, $23.62
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

“We conducted the survey to learn what types of services the chamber could offer to help businesses find success going forward,” Surprise said, noting that these are only preliminary results, as all surveys have not yet been returned.

As a first step, the chamber is planning a number of seminars for small businesses to help them increase foot traffic and bring in new customers through approaches such as digital marketing.

“Many small businesses are not familiar with digital or social media marketing, and it’s really a necessary tool in the 21st century,” he noted.

 

On the Right Track

McNutt is hopeful some kind of infrastructure package passes Congress because, like municipal leaders all over the country, he faces big projects that need attention.

“There are 47,000 deficient bridges in the U.S., including the nine that are in Palmer,” he said.

But for a small community, he added, taking on a big infrastructure project is a heavy lift, and Palmer has been working with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal to secure funding for at least two bridges, on Main Street and Church Street, which need the most attention.

One project that could add significantly to the town tax revenues involves building 300 seasonal cottages on Forest Lake. McNutt is excited about the potential for this project.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

“Right now the cottages are planned for warm-weather use and would bring plenty of folks in to stay in town,” he said. “They will most likely go to local restaurants and make other purchases, so we could see a real economic multiplier effect from this project.”

Palmer has also agreed to be a host community for the cannabis industry. Two retail sites and two cultivation businesses have run into delays to start their enterprises, but McNutt blames COVID for the slowdown.

“The Cannabis Control Commission held fewer meetings than they normally would, and site visits were more difficult to do,” he explained. “In short, everything in the regulatory environment was just harder to do during the pandemic.” He feels confident at least one site will be up and running this year or early in 2022.

As the number of people vaccinated increases and COVID concerns decrease, he believes the opportunity is now for Palmer and surrounding towns.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

McNutt noted that people can still pursue the American dream by locating to Palmer because, in addition to its natural surroundings, the town has easy access to metropolitan areas. In short, he said, “we have the best of both worlds.”

Community Spotlight

East Longmeadow Focuses on Improvements

By Mark Morris

From left, Michael Meunier, owner Kendall Knapik, and Orpheus Barrows from Pioneer Valley Arms.

From left, Michael Meunier, owner Kendall Knapik, and Orpheus Barrows from Pioneer Valley Arms.


When Mary McNally reflects on 2020, it’s with no small amount of gratitude for how well her town has weathered the pandemic up to this point.

“To state the obvious,” she said, “it’s been one heck of a year.”

As East Longmeadow’s town manager, she credits all the municipal staff, in particular the Health Department, for its efforts to advise and inform the public on COVID-19 matters, as well as the town’s emergency manager, Fire Chief Paul Morrissette.

“The pandemic gave people the chance to see how dedicated and committed municipal public workers are to the mission that is their vocation,” McNally said. “Their willingness to do what has to be done and go wherever they are needed is something people are aware of and appreciate. I certainly do.”

Though Town Hall has been closed since March 16 of last year, staffers have been able to meet the community’s demand for services through online meetings, e-mails, and phone calls.

“We had staff, including department heads, who met people in the parking lot of Town Hall if they needed access to a particular department for a document or other item,” she said. “It was like they were carhops at the old A&W.” Without committing to any specific timeline, she is hopeful Town Hall will reopen to the public in the next 90 to 120 days.

Though she has been the full-time town manager for only 16 months, McNally has been working on a master plan for East Longmeadow to better prioritize important projects. The town recently received a grant from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to hire a consultant to develop the plan. McNally said a recent Zoom session to plot out the vision of the master plan drew great participation from residents. Part of the grant requires the master plan to be completed by June, and she is confident about meeting that deadline.

“To state the obvious, it’s been one heck of a year.”

Back in December, the town council changed a zoning bylaw that has a direct impact on the site of the former Package Machinery. Once zoned only as industrial, the change allows for mixed use, which would allow residential as well as commercial buildings to locate there. McNally said the new zoning bylaw applies townwide.

“Previously, mixed-use zoning didn’t exist in East Longmeadow,” McNally said. “Because this zoning change applies to more than just the Package Machinery site, it opens the door for developments all over town.”

At this time, there are no formal proposals to develop the Package Machinery site, but past discussions have suggested construction of single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, and light-use business entities, she noted. “The idea would be to have a new walkable neighborhood near the bike trail and the center of town.”

 

Business Perspectives

While several businesses in East Longmeadow suffered from the pandemic, others experienced more demand for what they sell. Bobbi Hill is the fourth generation to work for W.B. Hill, a custom builder of oil trucks that has been incorporated since 1910 and located in East Longmeadow since 1965.

Hill’s title is manager, which she defines as running sales, marketing, parts, and human resources. The company primarily builds and maintains tank trucks, the kind that carry home heating oil and trailer tanks (known as ‘trailers’ or ‘tankers’) that connect to a truck cab, most often associated with hauling gasoline. Despite the world burning less petroleum during the pandemic, Hill said she saw only minor impact in a couple areas of business.

“The pandemic had a little impact on service work for tankers that needed repair,” she noted, quickly adding that COVID has not affected sales of new tank trucks, which have a backlog of orders. “If a customer walked in today to order a tank truck, I probably wouldn’t be able to deliver it until September.”

In the only consumer-facing part of the business, W.B. Hill is an official vehicle-inspection station. At the beginning of the pandemic, it shut down the consumer-vehicle business but continued with tanker inspections. “Pandemic or not, tankers need to be inspected,” she said. “They go through a lot of rigorous testing every year and cannot travel with an expired sticker.”

Though business is brisk right now and there is still plenty of demand to transport heating oil and gasoline, Hill has begun looking to the future.

“With electricity being pushed all over the country, I’m looking for us to become more of a parts business,” she said. By purchasing a building next door from Northeast Wholesale Lumber, she conceded that her “big dreams” of increasing the parts business is not happening right away because of high startup costs. Until then, Northeast continues to lease half the building.

“We are experiencing a bit of a boom in housing due in large part to the low interest rates.”

“We sell parts now, but I’d like to do more online and on a much larger scale,” she said. “There really isn’t anyone in New England who sells parts for these vehicles.”

Though a relatively new business in East Longmeadow, Pioneer Valley Arms (PVA) is another business that remained active during the pandemic. Owner Kendall Knapik, who opened the shop two years ago, had to shut down in the early days of the pandemic. A lawsuit by other gun stores claiming infringement of Second Amendment rights forced Gov. Charlie Baker to deem gun stores an essential business. When she reopened, Knapik’s already-successful shop saw a jump in sales.

“After the pandemic hit, our customer volume tripled,” she said. “We’ve increased our clientele tremendously, and we’re teaching many more safety classes.”

The combination of COVID-19, protests that took place in different parts of the country, and the presidential election all played a role in driving sales, she added. “Uncertainty and election years tend to drive sales more than a typical year.”

Knapik talked about a new wave of people coming in to protect themselves, their homes, and their loved ones. After 10 years in an industry she described as most often serving middle-aged male clients, Knapik opened her business to counter what she called the “usual gun-shop attitude.”

“It’s an attitude where shop owners and employees tend to be closed off to new clientele such as females,” she explained. “I wanted to have a shop where women and men would feel welcome and not afraid to come in.”

E. Longmeadow at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 15,720
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $21.06
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.06
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 and Rehabilitation
* Latest information available

Her strategy seems to be working, as female customers to the store have increased 30%. “I’ve done more background checks on gun sales for women in the past few weeks than ever before.”

Knapik made it clear that proper training and gun safety are the top priorities for PVA. She and her staff now hold safety classes every night of the week and, since the pandemic, have increased the number of classes during the day on Sunday.

“Our store draws many who are first-time buyers, so we get a lot of new people who just want to come in to learn about getting their gun license and what’s involved,” she said. “It’s something we definitely encourage.”

A potential gun owner must take a safety course in order to apply for a license-to-carry permit in Massachusetts.

“Some people are ready to pursue the process right away, while others need to mentally prepare themselves for it,” Knapik explained. “We’re just happy to be there to help them, whether they decide to pursue a license or not.”

 

Community Focus

Knapik credits her involvement in the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce for helping to establish her business in town, and called joining the chamber “the best marketing decision we made.”

“Customers have really responded to the small shop and family-owned feel of PVA,” she said, adding that she and her staff are on a first-name basis with many of their customers.

While Knapik praised East Longmeadow as a welcoming place to do business, increasing numbers of people are finding it a good place to call home as well. McNally said 28 new houses and condominiums were completed in 2020, and an additional 19 homes and condos are currently under construction.

“We are experiencing a bit of a boom in housing due in large part to the low interest rates,” she said. Three developments — Bella Vista, Hidden Pond, and Fairway Lanes — have added 45 new building lots to the town.

Looking ahead, East Longmeadow continues to work with the Massachusetts School Building Assoc. to study whether the town needs to replace the 60-year-old high school with a new building or if the existing facility can be renovated to suit educational needs for the future. McNally sees the potential for a new high school as a key to keeping the community vital.

“If people have confidence in the educational system, it inspires them to be happy citizens who want to contribute to the betterment of the town.”

McNally concluded that, while many of the projects in town have not been completed, all are progressing. “We have several big projects that all require lots of time, attention, and planning. I’m pleased because we have a dedicated staff working on them full-time.”

Clearly, despite enduring “one heck of a year” marked by a worldwide pandemic, East Longmeadow is staying on track with important projects that promise to add economic vibrancy and quality of life.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tyler Saremi

Tyler Saremi sees potential in West Springfield’s downtown, and is taking steps to inject some economic vibrancy.

When Tyler Saremi looks at what is considered downtown West Springfield — the Elm Street/Park Street area — he doesn’t see Northampton or West Hartford.

But he can easily imagine a day when that section of this city that still calls itself a town can attain something approaching a level of vibrancy and an eclectic mix of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, that define those communities.

And he’s doing his best to bring that day closer. Indeed, the multi-faceted business run by his family that he serves as vice president, Saremi LLP, acquired 95 Elm St. — known to most as the United Bank building because it was the main tenant for many years — with the goal of … well, turning back the clock in many respects.

The century-old building has, over the decades, been home to cafés, restaurants, a grocery store, banks, and other types of retail, said Saremi, adding that it has always been a destination, and the broad goal with this project is to make it one again. Thus, it has been rebranded as Town Common.

Already, Tandem Bagel, the Hadley-based company with locations there and also in Easthampton and Northampton, will soon occupy space where bank-teller windows have stood on the first floor; the target date for opening is July. Meanwhile, at the other end of the first floor, Saremi pointed to the place where intends to put a restaurant. He said two other leases have been signed, and several more are pending.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back,” he said. “Our main intention is a café and a restaurant on the first floor; whether we have to open a restaurant ourselves or partner with someone, we don’t care. That’s part of our commitment to West Springfield — it needs a café, and it needs a restaurant, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up.”

The redevelopment of 95 Elm St. is just one of the intriguing stories unfolding in West Springfield, a community that is, like many others, trying to rebound from a pandemic that has taken a huge toll on hospitality-related businesses. And West Side, as it’s called, has many of them, said Mayor Will Reichelt, who counted 20 hotels and motels and a number of restaurants in his community.

But the biggest business in that sector, obviously, is the Big E, which is responsible for filling many those hotels, motels, and restaurants, not just during the 17 days of the annual fair, but almost year-round, as that venue hosts a number of shows centered on everything from horses to toy railroads; dogs to guns and knives.

The Big E has been mostly empty and silent since the pandemic arrived a year ago, and while the outlook for 2021 is more promising, there remains a huge number of unknows, especially with regard to the fair, a situation that Big E President and CEO Gene Cassidy summed up this way:

“It’s like you’re navigating your way down a dark alleyway; you don’t know what’s in front of you — if there’s suddenly going to be a crack in the pavement or if you’re going to walk into a dumpster,” he said, using that phrase to indicate how difficult it is to plan when the rules keep changing, often without much, if any, notice. “Our goal, simply, is to plan to produce a product that people are going to enjoy.”

Cassidy is quite confident there will be a Big E this September — he just doesn’t how many people will be allowed to attend. He doesn’t think it will be full capacity, as in 100,000 people on a weekend day, as in fairs past. Instead, he’s expecting some percentage of that number, which won’t be ideal, but certainly better than last year.

And while most of his energy and attention is still focused on this year’s fair, he said he’s spending a good amount of time lobbying officials to understand the importance of fairs and live events in general, and to help ensure the long-term survival of such institutions, something he believes is now imperiled.

Overall, though, he’s optimistic about the rest of 2021.

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all, and he’s moving forward with planning after having to cancel the 2020 fair.

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up,” he said, noting that various expert projections of herd immunity by fall or even sooner are encouraging, even as innumerable challenges and question marks loom.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes a hard look at West Side and its efforts to become even more of a destination, even as its business community continues to battle COVID-19 and all the challenges it has brought.

 

Road to Progress

Reichelt, now wrapping up his second term in office, with plans to seek a third, said he can’t find too many silver linings from the pandemic and all the havoc it caused in 2020.

But he can find at least one — acceleration of the process to replace the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects his city with Agawam. The bridge project, which commenced two years ago, has to pause during the 17-day run of the Big E, he explained, adding that work actually comes to a halt for three weeks or more because of logistical concerns.

Obviously, that didn’t happen in 2020, he went on, adding that a project that was due to be completed this summer will now be done by spring.

“The work is way ahead of schedule,” he said. “Without the Big E, they probably gained a month of working time, and that will certainly help out on the back end.”

The broad mission moving forward is to get more people to travel over that bridge and other thoroughfares into West Side, said Reichelt, adding that the city has always considered itself at the crossroads of this region — I-91 and the turnpike connect there, and Route 5 runs through it as well. This location has long been a huge asset, one that paved the way, if you will, for major retailers and car dealers alike to populate Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue. It has also brought visitors to the community not only for the Big E and shows on its grounds, but for myriad other tourism- and business-related functions, from leaf peeping to the semiannual EASTEC trade show.

The ongoing goal is to continually take advantage of this asset, build on the foundation that’s been laid, and try to spread the vibrancy to other areas of the city.

Which brings us back to Elm Street, Town Common, and the huge ‘Under New Management’ banner now adorning it.

As he gave BusinessWest a tour, Saremi pointed out the spot where Tandem Bagel would go, then did the same with the restaurant. Venturing to the second floor, much of which is now occupied by Saremi LLP, he showed where a number of smaller spaces, individual offices, and even co-working space might be carved out.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

Later, he pointed out one of the huge windows to the traffic — specifically, the juncture of Route 20 and Elm Street.

“This intersection has so much traffic … we need to get people to stop here in downtown West Side, get out, walk around, go to some shops, get something to eat — that’s how I see it,” he noted, adding that there are already some attractions there, including the Celery Stalk restaurant, a legendary luncheon stop; as well as bNapoli restaurant and the Majestic Theater. The broad goal is to build on that critical mass, he said, noting that clusters of eateries and entertainment venues have been the formula for success in Northampton, West Hartford, and other communities.

Reichelt concurred, and told BusinessWest the city is always striving to build on its already-impressive portfolio of retail- and hospitality-related businesses — and also fill in some spots that are less vibrant than others.

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says initiatives like a new economic recovery director and a series of infrastructure plans will help keep West Springfield on the right track.

As an example, he pointed to Riverdale Street, which actually has two distinct sections, if you will. There’s the one south of I-91, which is thriving and always has, said the mayor, who worked at the Donut Dip on that throughfare in his youth and thus speaks from experience. Then there’s the stretch north of the highway, which, while still vibrant by most measures, has some vacancies and, in general, is underperforming.

Reichelt said the city will look to help address this situation, and other business and economic-development issues in the city, through the hiring, at least on a temporary basis, of what’s being called an ‘economic recovery director.’

“The goal with this new position is to build better business relationships in the community, help with business retention, and focus on some of the underutilized areas, like the north-of-91 section of Riverdale,” he explained.

Already, there are signs of progress, he said, noting the reopened White Hut, the expansion of Calabrese Market on Park Street, and the sale of the former Hofbrahaus property to the owner of the Hangar Pub and Grill and growing ‘Wings Over’ stable of restaurants, among other positive developments.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Meanwhile, a number of infrastructure plans now in place are designed to improve traffic flow and, ultimately, promote more vibrancy in the city. First up is Park Street, he said, adding that it is being repaved and steps are being taken to taken to make the commons more accessible and safer to use. Those plans include what the mayor called a mile-long loop or walking and biking trail around the green space.

Elm Street will follow, he went on, adding that this will be a multi-faceted initiative designed to beautify the area, add more parking, redesign the intersection of Elm Street and Route 20, and allow people to make more and better use of the green space there.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this project is in the design phase and should commence in 2022. Likewise, a huge, $25 million project to improve traffic flow on Memorial Avenue will take place that same year.

 

Fair Assessment

Sitting in the large conference room in the Big E’s administration building, Cassidy reflected on what has been an ultra-challenging 12 months for this regional institution — and what lies ahead, to the extent that he could, obviously.

He said every aspect of this enterprise — from the annual fall fair to the year-round shows that draw visitors from across the Northeast, to the restaurant on the grounds, Storrowton Tavern — have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

And the hurt is still being felt. The shows slated for weekends in January and February were all canceled, he said, with some, including the huge Western Mass. Home & Garden Show, moved back on the calendar, in this case to August.

The Big E has received some support — nearly $1 million in the first round of PPP, with an application in for the second round of funding. There have been some cutbacks — the workforce has been trimmed from 30 full-time employees to 25 — and those who are left have found themselves with … let’s call them broadened job descriptions.

“Those of us who are still here have had to do jobs we’ve never had to before,” he noted, adding that such tasks include everything from directing traffic for the few events that have been staged to making sure the buildings on the grounds are secure. “Everyone has had to pitch in.”

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.90
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.49
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

As for the last three quarters of 2021, Cassidy said there are certainly some signs of optimism with his industry. For example, the Canadian government recently gave the green light for the popular Calgary Stampede to take place in June. Meanwhile, the Pasco County Fair in Florida was recently staged, albeit with a number of restrictions and safety precautions in place.

Cassidy took it in while on a trip to Tampa for ‘Florida Week’ and a number of trade association meetings that were staged in-person, which is significant in and of itself, he noted, adding that the main topic of conversation, obviously, was how to stage events safely.

“Interestingly, at the Pasco County Fair, we were there on a Tuesday night, it was chilly, but the fair manager indicated that attendance actually exceeded what it was last year, and he attributed that to the fact that people want to get out,” he recalled. “They want to resume ‘normal,’ and that’s in a state where businesses have been open and Main Street is open.”

But while he can look ahead and try to plan, there are too many question marks to do the latter with any amount of efficacy. These question marks surround everything from what the attendance restrictions will be to whether — and under what conditions — the state buildings can open, to whether individuals and families will be willing to come back out and be part of a mass gathering on the midway or one of the concert venues.

The major consideration is what will be permitted for attendance, said Cassidy, adding that it’s a simple but troubling fact that the costs of operating the fair will be roughly the same whether it’s at full capacity, 50%, or some other number. But the bottom line is that a smaller fair, attendance-wise, is certainly preferable to no fair at all.

“It costs the same to produce the fair for 1.6 million people as it does to produce the fair for one,” he said. “Our staff is preparing a conventional Big E and will try to deliver the product we’re known for.”

Cassidy believes that, as he saw in Florida, there will a significant amount of pent-up demand and that people will want to return to the fairgrounds.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Reichelt agreed, and said the return of the fair this fall, even a smaller fair, will help the region’s economy and, specifically, many of those hospitality-related businesses that have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

“Having it happen will be good, not only for the Big E, but for the region to bring back that sense of normalcy,” he noted. “And it will be helpful for businesses in the area as they start to recover from all this.”

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says Holyoke lost considerable momentum to the pandemic, but it has a solid foundation on which to mount its recovery.

When he made up his mind roughly a year ago not to seek re-election to the state House seat he had held for four terms, Aaron Vega had an informal list of things he would like to do next when it came to his career.

Working in Holyoke City Hall certainly wasn’t one of them. But … things changed, in many ways, and in a profound way.

For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic limited some of the other options he was thinking about professionally, especially those in higher education, economic development, and workforce development. More importantly, though, Marcos Marrero, the long-time director of Planning and Economic Development in Holyoke, decided that he, too, wanted a change. And as he went about looking for someone to fill his rather large shoes, he started talking to Vega, someone who obviously knew the city, was heavily invested in its future, and was looking for work.

“Working for the city wasn’t really on my shortlist — and not in a negative way,” said Vega, the former Holyoke city councilor who started his five-year appointment just a few weeks ago. “Marcos reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in taking the position; it came out of the clear blue sky. I was honored that he saw me as someone who could take the reins and keep going.”

He takes the helm in economic development when Holyoke, like most communities, and especially the urban centers, are looking to regain momentum lost due to the pandemic.

And, in the case of the Paper City, it’s a large amount of momentum.

Indeed, over the past several years, Holyoke had made great strides in a number of areas — downtown revitalization, with its cultural economy, with entrepreneurship and new business development, and, most recently, with cultivation (pun intended) of a new and potential-laden industry sector: cannabis. Indeed, with Mayor Alex Morse — who will not be seeking re-election in November and has been offered the the job of town manager of Provincetown — putting out the red carpet for the cannabis sector and the city blessed with millions of square feet of vacant mill space that is in some ways ideal for cannabis growing and other aspects of this business, Holyoke has become a destination for companies looking for a home.

The pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress in most of these areas, though. It has certainly impacted the cultural economy, most notably with the news that Gateway City Arts, the multi-purpose arts venue, has closed, and its owners are looking for a buyer. But signs of lost momentum are everywhere. The Cubit Building, once a symbol of downtown revitalization, is still humming on its residential floors, but the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center has been all but shut down by the pandemic. Meanwhile, there are still a number of vacancies on High Street and other downtown throughfares. And the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a significant economic engine for Holyoke and the region as a whole, has been canceled for the second year in a row.

“A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

“That’s been a huge financial hit to the restaurants and many other kinds of businesses,” Vega said of the parade. “The trickle-down impact is severe.”

Even the cannabis sector has been slowed a little by the pandemic, but in most all respects, it remains a powerful force in Holyoke, with more than 30 ventures currently at some stage of progression and perhaps 300 new jobs coming to the city with the slated opening in the next few months of Florida-based Truelieve’s facility on Canal Street.

The company, which has more than 2 million square feet of cultivation facilities and more than 70 dispensaries across several states, will operate a multi-faceted, vertically integrated operation that will include cultivation, production, and office operations in a 145,000-square-foot facility formerly occupied by Conklin Office.

“We understand scale, we understand supply chain, and we’re going to be bringing that experience to Massachusetts as we build out our cultivation here,” said Lynn Ricci, director of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for the company, adding that the company expects to begin operations by the third quarter this year and employ between 250 and 300 people from the Holyoke area when fully operational.

For this, the latest in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Holyoke, an historic city that has bounced back from its decline in the ’60s and ’70s, and must now, in some ways, bounce back again.

 

Growth Opportunities

Vega is certainly no stranger to the large office he now occupies on the third floor of the City Hall annex building.

When he was a state representative, he would meet with Marrero there every month so he could keep pace with what was happening in the city where he grew up, spent most of his childhood life, and still lives.

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses in the arts and hospitality sectors to be devastated by the pandemic.

“We had a standing meeting with him in this office to keep up to date on all the projects that were going on, particularly around cannabis, because I was on the Committee on Cannabis Policy,” he explained. “So I was familiar with most of what was going on in this office, and I knew everyone in this office.”

Today, he’s having those same meetings with Patricia Duffy, his former legislative aide who successfully ran for his House seat last year.

“We just met a few days ago,” he said with a laugh. “We have a standing monthly meeting. It’s interesting being on the other side of the table — I spent the last eight years fighting for funding for all these programs, and now I’m actually utilizing them, and that’s kind of fun.”

Offering a similar update of sorts for BusinessWest, Vega focused on the momentum that has been lost in the city and the need to turn the clock back, in some respects, and put Holyoke back on the intriguing path it was on before March 2020.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face.”

Before getting to that, though, he was asked to elaborate on the circumstances that brought him to his current post.

“I wanted to focus more,” he said simply when asked why he wanted to move from his House seat. “One of the great things about being a state rep is all the different topics and issues that come across your desk. But, that said, you don’t really get to focus on anything; the best description of my job as state rep was that I was in a permanent liberal-arts education — and there were certain topics that I just wasn’t passionate about.”

He is certainly passionate about Holyoke, and his goal now is built on what had been achieved in the years before the pandemic.

“What Alex and Marcos did was change the conversation about Holyoke, they changed the direction of a lot of the development, and they helped usher in a plan — the urban-renewal plan,” he explained. “A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

The story the city can tell is a good one, although, as noted, it was better before the pandemic.

“Things were happening in this city; the momentum was happening,” Vega said. “It took a while to build that momentum, and hopefully we can get it back soon.”

The loss of Gateway City Arts, however, is a serious setback for the community.

“It was firing on all cylinders,” he said, referring to everything from its event venue to its popular restaurant. “And it’s ironic because we’re six or seven months away from having 200 to 400 more people working in downtown Holyoke in the cannabis industry — people who will be looking for a place to go eat or have a beer or listen to music after work. The irony is that we don’t have that right now.

“The biggest hit has been with momentum,” he went on. “Our restaurants took a hit, just like Northampton and Springfield; the housing developments, especially if they were dealing with state incentives, have been pushed out — everything’s taking longer now.”

Overall, Vega said, the pandemic has made it difficult for some small businesses to survive, and it’s made it more difficult for all of them to operate as they would like.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face,” he said, adding quickly that there is interest in some of the components of that business, and, likewise, the phone is starting to ring, and more interest is being shown in Holyoke within the development community.

“There’s a couple of key projects where, if we can get them online, we can regain some of that momentum,” he told BusinessWest, noting that one such project is a large housing initiative downtown, a 92-unit project being undertaken by WinnDevelopment at the former Farr Alpaca mills that has been slowed by the always-complicated process of applying for and receiving historic tax credits.

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street is ramping up for opening, and is projected to employ between 250 and 300 people when fully operational.

Meanwhile, some projects that were “percolating,” as Vega put it, before the pandemic and back-burnered to one extent or another are perhaps poised to be revisited and moved off the drawing board. These include some indoor agriculture that is not cannabis-related.

“The biggest price-point stuff that they’re talking about right now is lettuce and herbs,” he noted, “because there’s a quick-growing cycle; you can turn lettuce around in 30 days. So many restaurants want locally grown, hormone-free lettuce … there’s real potential there, and they can grow other vegetables, too. The price point is not as good as cannabis, but we’ve been talking about urban farming for a while, and we’re trying to create opportunities.”

 

On a Roll

Speaking of cannabis, while the pandemic has slowed some aspects of that sector, the industry is poised for additional growth, especially in the Paper City. The next important chapter looks to be written by Truelieve, which just received its occupancy permit. But there are many companies with plans in various stages of development.

Indeed, Vega said, there are two growing facilities now online and three dispensaries, but, overall, there are 40 host agreements and 40 provisional licenses at the state level.

As for Truelieve, its story touches on many of the opportunities and challenges that Holyoke and its old mills present, said Ricci, who started by noting that the company was mostly in Florida before last year, when it started expanding aggressively into other states, including a cultivation facility in Pennsylvania (added through acquisition) and dispensaries in Connecticut and other states.

“We really see 2021 as a big year for national expansion and being a true multi-state operator,” she explained, adding that, when looking for places in which to broaden the portfolio with new facilities, Truelieve focuses on cities and towns with large minority populations, communities that clearly need the jobs and everything else these ventures bring to the fore.

“Investing in a majority minority community was important to us,” she said. And upon concluding that the Bay State would be a good market to enter, Holyoke soon came onto its radar.

Holyoke at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1850
Population: 40,135
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.74
Median Household Income: $33,030
Family Household Income: $36,262
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center; Holyoke Community College; ISO New England; Hazen Paper
* Latest information available

“We wanted to make sure, going in, that we were revitalizing and adding to the community and providing jobs; those kinds of things are important to us as a core value of the company,” she noted. “When we found this location in Holyoke, an area that had certainly seen better times, we thought, ‘we could invest here and provide the jobs.’”

As for the site in Holyoke, renovating the historic mill has been “a huge undertaking,” Ricci said, adding that the company entered into a sale/lease-back arrangement in order to secure the nearly $40 million required for this project (cannabis operations cannot obtain traditional bank financing, because the product is illegal on a federal level).

The actual buildout was an involved process that began more than a year ago and was slowed by state mandates that shut down many types of construction during the early months of the pandemic.

“The property is beautiful in its own way — there’s big, wide staircases and beautiful brickwork, but … it needed a lot of work,” she told BusinessWest. “It has been a challenge, and not just to set up different rooms, but to make sure everything was set up properly.”

Staffing is the next challenge to be overcome, Ricci said, adding that final inspections of the facility are expected sometime this quarter, with growing due to begin, as noted, in the second quarter.

Other facilities are in various stages of the pipeline, said Vega, who told BusinessWest that, while the city is welcoming all types of cannabis businesses, the larger cultivation facilities hold the most promise for jobs and overall impact on the city and the region, and he can envision the day when perhaps eight to 12 such ventures are operating in the city.

And, like his predecessor, he sees opportunities not merely for the growing and selling of cannabis, but also encouraging businesses that can provide needed products to those ventures.

“A lot of the products used by these businesses are made in Texas and Florida, the simple things like the planters — we should be making those here in Holyoke,” he noted. “I equate it to the ‘green’ industries. It’s great seeing solar fields — we have some in Holyoke — but we should be building solar panels in Western Mass., not just installing them.”

 

Bottom Line

Making progress in that area is just one of the ways Holyoke will be looking to regain the considerable amount of momentum it lost to the pandemic.

The city that had come so far in the past decade has the foundation that Vega mentioned in place. It has the building blocks, and it has a cannabis industry hungry for the open spaces, low energy prices, and other amenities that this city can provide.

The pandemic certainly slowed the pace of progress, but Vega and other officials are confident that the Paper City can soon regain its stride.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders to address the urgent needs of the business community during the pandemic.

 

Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, first made the observation, “it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

While Epictetus did not live in Amherst, town officials and business leaders there have certainly adopted the philosopher’s adage in their robust efforts to return the town to vitality in the face of a pandemic.

Last March, when COVID-19 began to affect life in communities everywhere, Amherst took a broader hit than most because UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College all shut down earlier than other area institutions.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said the suddenly empty campuses posed a shock to the system.

“We lost 40,000 people in a 48-hour period,” she recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

With college closings and retail activity coming to a screeching halt, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said his town lost its two major industries because of the pandemic. Still, he noted, “despite all that, the town has been resilient, and we are prepared to emerge from the pandemic in a very strong way.”

Early on, Amherst quickly mobilized a COVID-19 response team as Bockelman and the department heads of the Police, Fire, Public Works, and other departments met daily to strategize, he explained. “We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

The next priority was to maintain continuity of government functions. Amherst migrated town staff to remote work and incorporated Zoom meetings to assure key bodies such as the Town Council and the School Committee could keep moving forward. Permit-granting committees soon followed.

“We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

As plans were coming together to allow outdoor dining, the Town Council passed a special bylaw to delegate simple zoning decisions to the building commissioner. This move sped up the permitting process and cut down on much of the bureaucratic red tape.

“For example, permits for serving alcohol outdoors or expanding the footprint of a restaurant could be done through one person instead of going through an often-lengthy permitting process,” Bockelman said.

To address the urgent needs of the local business community, he also met weekly with Gould and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The BID and chamber share office space on Pleasant Street, so Pazmany and Gould worked together to learn about the many grants available to local businesses impacted by COVID-19. The main goal was to help owners stay in business.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says one of her most important roles has been helping business owners navigate the grant system.

“We knew that closing their doors would mean closing their doors forever,” Pazmany said. “That’s what we were trying to avoid.”

 

Granting a Reprieve

Before the pandemic, the chamber would host 56 events in a typical year. Pazmany said she quickly moved to digital events to keep everyone together. “We went from 56 events to 56,000 connections on Facebook and other social media.”

More importantly, in addition to helping local businesses apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Gould and Pazmany have successfully secured grant programs at the state and federal level.

A number of Amherst businesses received grants through the state COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program, which provided a total of $668 million for Massachusetts businesses. Amherst also secured $140,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for local businesses.

State Sen. Joan Comerford helped the Chamber and BID to fund the recently formed Relief and Resiliency Microgrant Program. Originally designed to provide $500 microgrants, Pazmany said they were able to secure matching dollars, so $1,000 grants will soon be awarded to 18 of Amherst’s small-business owners in the first round of the program.

“The microgrant money will help defray some costs and allow people to keep going,” she said. “Many of these business owners are not even paying themselves; they just want to pay their bills.”

One of the more important roles Pazmany and Gould have taken on involves helping business owners navigate the grant system. Whether it’s identifying eligible funding, helping to fill out forms, or solving technical issues, Pazmany said they are not limiting their support to just chamber members. “Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

While outdoor dining and takeout have enabled restaurants to keep their doors open, the BID launched an effort to do more, buying meals from local restaurants and giving them to families in need. The effort began two months ago with the moniker December Dinner Delights and recently received funding to continue through April. Gould sees this as a win-win.

“We pay the restaurants $1,500 twice a week to help them sustain business, and we provide meals for families in our community,” she noted.

Another effort to support local business involves a gift-card program run by the chamber. Launched at the beginning of the holiday season, the gift cards can be redeemed at more than two dozen local businesses, from restaurants to a cat groomer. Pazmany said she has had to reorder cards to keep up with demand. “It works because you are able to give someone a gift and, at the same time, support a small business; it’s the best type of reinvestment in our community.”

As for town-run programs, last spring, municipal leaders had to figure out what to do about the farmers’ market it runs every Saturday from April through November. In the past, it was held in a cramped parking lot that would not conform to social-distancing protocols. Because the town common had no activities scheduled, the farmers’ market set up there — and had its most successful year ever.

“Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

“Our town common is a bucolic setting, and people who were cooped up all week could safely come and buy things,” Bockelman said. The manager of the farmers’ market reported the average sales week in 2020 equaled the best sales week in 2019, and the booths sold out of their products every week.

The farmers’ market was a highly visible way to revitalize interest in Amherst, as are continuing “quality-of-life developments,” as Bockelman called them, such as the newly opened Groff Park and the building of a new playground at Kendrick Park.

But smaller acts, like making picnic tables available in parks and other public places, were popular as well, he added. “As soon as we put out the tables, people were immediately using them. It was awesome.”

 

Forward Thinking

Looking to the future, Amherst is making decisions on four major capital projects slated for construction in 2022. On the drawing board are a new elementary school, a new library, a new Public Works facility, and a new fire station.

“We are trying to incorporate these projects into our ongoing budget so the taxpayer does not have to take on too much of a burden,” Bockelman said.

The desirability of Amherst as a place to live keeps housing prices high, which he calls a two-edged sword because it hurts the town’s ability to build a diverse socioeconomic community.

“People value diversity in Amherst,” he said. Still, he added, “it’s much more diverse than most people realize, especially our school district.”

To deepen that diverse profile, Amherst is looking to invest in property to develop more affordable housing. Bockelman pointed to a recently approved development on Northampton Road and a potential land purchase on Belchertown Road as additional projects in the works. “The town is willing to make the investment to develop and retain affordable-housing units in Amherst.”

To better address diversity in business, the chamber makes available an open-source document for proprietors who want to identify their business as being run by a woman, minority, or LGBTQ individual.

Pazmany said it’s simply good for business, noting that “we are getting steady requests from people who want to do business with various self-identifying businesses.”

Amherst at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
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

One element in the town’s strategy emphasizes Amherst’s potential as a tourist destination. Several national news articles have suggested that this decade may become a second “roaring 20s” with a renewed emphasis on cultural attractions. If that’s so, Pazmany pointed out, Amherst has plenty to offer, such as Museums10, a collaborative of 10 area museums, of which seven are located in town. Together, the museums cover various aspects of history, art, literature, and the natural world.

“In a normal year, Museums10 will bring more than a half-million people to the area,” she said. “The Emily Dickinson Poetry Festival itself is a global event.”

For the more immediate future, the plan is to have outdoor dining up and running by April 1. The BID was able to supply enough table umbrellas and heaters during the summer to boost last year’s effort. Because there are so many barriers in place to ensure safe outdoor dining, the BID also paid 35 artists to turn the plain concrete into a medium to express themselves.

“The barriers became nice displays of public art, and they give downtown a bit of an art-walk feel,” Gould said.

Simple touches like the artwork and adding planters around town generated positive comments from visitors and business owners alike. Pazmany appreciated the boost of confidence. “In this next phase, we just want our businesses to be up and running so they can take a paycheck and start to rehire people.”

Most Amherst leaders, in fact, look to the coming year with great anticipation. Bockelman noted that the town has several fundamental strengths, including the university and colleges. Pazmany added that UMass has already reported an increase in enrollment for the coming fall.

Gould admits that pushing forward on grants and other relief efforts helped Amherst through the worst of the pandemic. “Despite how hard everyone was hit, we’ve created a resiliency that kept our businesses here.”

Bockelman agreed. “Everyone’s efforts worked because they were sequential and were patiently done. We just kept moving forward.”

Epictetus would be proud.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says a heavy focus on outdoor experiences last year helped Lenox weather the economic impact of the pandemic.

For the past year, the town of Lenox showed what happens when uncertainty meets a can-do attitude.

Despite the formidable challenges of COVID-19, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said, Lenox residents and businesses have been remarkably resilient.

“Throughout the pandemic, our residents demonstrated how much they love our town,” Ketchen said. “They make their homes here, and our businesses are invested in their customers and their community.”

What began as a normal year of planning events at the Lenox Chamber of Commerce was suddenly derailed in March. Once they realized the pandemic was going to last more than a couple months, Executive Director Jennifer Nacht said, chamber members and town officials quickly met to put together a plan to salvage at least some activity for Lenox.

“We went through each season and developed a general outline of things we could do,” Nacht said. “Even though we did not know what the year was going to look like, we were able to turn around some great activities.”

Like many towns, Lenox encouraged restaurants to offer tented outdoor dining and allowed them to expand outdoor seating into public parking spaces. The town also added covered dining terraces in public spaces around town.

“The select board lifted alcohol restrictions so people could bring a bottle of wine to Lilac Park, for example, where we had set up a dining terrace,” Nacht said.

“You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

Some developments last spring were rough. In May, the town learned that, due to COVID-19 concerns, Tanglewood had canceled its 2020 season. For some perspective on the importance of Lenox’s largest summer attraction, a Williams College study in 2017 estimated the economic impact of Tanglewood to Berkshire County and Western Mass. at nearly $103 million annually.

Because they didn’t know what to expect when Tanglewood called off its season, Nacht said everyone concentrated their efforts on making Lenox a welcome and inviting place. Outdoor dining was a first step that helped to establish a more vibrant atmosphere, and it inspired further activities.

For example, the Lenox Cultural District and the chamber organized Lenox Loves Music, an initiative that featured live music performed at the Church Street Dining Terrace for seven straight Sundays in August and September. It was a hit.

“Because we were able to turn on a dime and get everything set up, we were able to make the outside experience fun,” Nacht said. “As a result, we were better able to weather the financial impact of the pandemic.”

 

Hit the Road

If entry points to walking and biking trails are any indication, Ketchen said the pandemic helped many people discover the town’s outdoor attractions for the first time. “You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

For more than 40 years, Lenox has held Apple Squeeze, a harvest celebration that takes over much of the downtown area with 150 food and craft vendors. The event was canceled for 2020 because of concerns that, even with restrictions, too many people would gather, leading to unsafe crowd sizes.

Lenox Loves Music

Lenox Loves Music was a hit during a time when live music was in short supply.

As an alternative, the chamber and American Arts Marketing developed the Lenox Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when the Apple Squeeze would have taken place. Forty artists set up in different areas around town in ‘artist villages,’ which were arranged so no more than 50 people could be in one area at a time. Foot-traffic flow was also designed to keep people moving through the exhibits.

Nacht said the Art Walk received great feedback, and the artists involved loved exhibiting their work. The event also led to phone calls from event organizers from several Eastern Mass. towns who wanted to know how to stage a similar event.

The old adage about necessity being the mother of invention definitely has proven true for Lenox. “We just tried some different things that we probably would have never attempted, or done so quickly, had it not been for the pandemic,” Nacht said.

In the beginning of the summer, traffic in town was about half of what it would be during a normal season. As the weather became warmer and travel restrictions eased around the state, both traffic and business picked up.

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way,” Nacht said, adding that good weather in the summer and fall extended the outdoor season nearly to Thanksgiving.

While lodging in the area was restricted by the number of rooms that could be offered, she noted, from September through November, inn and hotel rooms were booked to the capacity they were allowed.

As the owner of the Scoop, a Lenox ice-cream store, Nacht was one of many business owners forced to move customer interactions outdoors. She found a fun way to adjust.

“We did it sort of Cape Cod style, where people order at one window and pick up their ice cream at a second window,” she explained, adding that, while 2020 was not as successful as previous years, the Scoop still saw steady business throughout its season. Even non-food stores, inspired by all the outdoor activity, set up tents in front of their shops to add to the vitality.

In a normal year, Lenox Winterland is a tradition to kick off the holiday season that features a tree-lighting ceremony and Santa Claus meeting with children. In this very-not-normal year, Winterland was forced to cancel.

Instead of losing their holiday spirit, however, the Cultural District and chamber presented a creative alternative. Local businesses and artists teamed up to decorate 30 Christmas trees, which were displayed in a tree walk through town. Nacht said the inaugural Holiday Tree Walk was so well-received, plans are in the works to expand and make it an annual event.

“Despite the obstacles of COVID, we had a decent tourism business,” she said. “We’ll continue to offer more fun events to keep the vibrancy of the town going and improving.”

 

Passing the Test

Lenox has always been proud of its cultural amenities, such as Tanglewood, Edith Wharton’s house at the Mount, Shakespeare and Co., and others. As those were scaled back, Ketchen said, the town’s outdoor amenities gained exposure they might not have otherwise.

“Once we are allowed to enjoy our cultural institutions to their fullest again, people will also have more awareness of all the recreational opportunities Lenox has,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a big positive for us as we look to the future.”

While Nacht hopes to see Tanglewood up and running, at least in some form, in 2021, she admits the past year was quite the learning experience. “We are so dependent on Tanglewood, it was an interesting test to see what we could do without Tanglewood there.”

Despite the challenges put on municipal budgets, Ketchen said Lenox was able to pursue several modest infrastructure projects in 2020, such as maintaining roads and public-utility infrastructure. “When folks are ready to come to Lenox for the recreation and the culture, the public utilities and infrastructure will be waiting for them.”

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way.”

In short, Lenox is not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, it’s finding ways to come out stronger on the other side. Indeed, when this community, which depends on cultural tourism, was challenged to find creative solutions to stay afloat, it answered the call. Nacht credited Lenox businesses for making quick and significant adjustments in their operations.

“It was really inspiring to see our businesses make the best out of a not-so-great situation,” she said. “It says a lot about their commitment to our town.”

Undaunted by the near future, Nacht noted several businesses are planning for April openings. And she looks forward to the new year knowing that Lenox can present all the outdoor events that worked well in 2020.

“With knowledge, you just learn to do things better, and we learned a lot last year,” she added. “Once the tulips come out, that’s when we start to see everything come alive again.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For MJ Adams, 2020 felt like someone had pushed a ‘pause’ button.

Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Greenfield, had taken part in a dynamic public forum early in the year titled “A Deliberate Downtown” that focused on revitalization plans for Greenfield.

Then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear the pause would last for more than a few weeks, she and her staff shifted their focus.

“We knew there was going to be an immediate cash-flow problem for local businesses, so we moved quickly to develop a small-business assistance program to provide micro-enterprise grants,” Adams said.

Working with other Franklin County towns, Greenfield pooled its available block-grant funds with those from Montague, Shelburne, and Buckland.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before,” Adams said. “The micro-enterprise grants provided a cash source for small businesses until they were able to access funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.”

On the public-health side of the pandemic, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner credited the emergency-management team in Greenfield for their early and quick action.

“We were one of the first communities in the state to attempt to manage the public-health side of COVID-19 from the get-go,” she said, adding that her team also set up contact tracing early in the pandemic. The John Zon Community Center has served as an emergency-command area for COVID testing for Greenfield and surrounding communities. First responders are now able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the facility.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says major projects along Main Street speak to a sense of momentum despite pandemic-related obstacles.

Like most communities, Wedegartner admits Greenfield has taken an economic hit due to the pandemic. She pointed to the micro-enterprise grants as an important early step that prevented a tough situation from becoming worse. Inaugurated to her first term as mayor a year ago, Wedegartner said finding herself in emergency public-health and safety meetings a month later was quite a shock.

“While I’m pleased that we started planning early for the pandemic, I have to say it’s not where I thought I would be in my first year in office.”

 

Great Outdoors

Wedegartner is not letting COVID-19 challenges dampen the many good things happening in Greenfield. She pointed with pride to the approval of a new, $20 million library and the ongoing construction of a new, $17 million fire station. Groundbreaking at the library is scheduled for April 21, while firefighters are expected to move into their new facility in July. Once complete, Adams noted that both ends of Main Street will be anchored with major public investments.

“It’s a clear statement that the town is very much committed to public safety, as well as culture and education,” she said.

These qualities, and a resilient business community, are why Greenfield is poised to bounce back quickly, according to Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. She specifically mentioned the area’s many outdoor recreation options as assets that contribute to the local economy.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before.”

“For spring and summer, we will put a strong focus on outdoor recreation because it’s a safe and healthy thing to do,” Szynal said. “You don’t have to travel far, and you can access some of the best river rapids around. We have ski areas and great golf courses — basically four seasons of outdoor activities.”

Before the pandemic, Adams and her staff were working with local restaurants to consider outdoor dining. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated those plans as moving outside was one way eateries could generate at least some revenue. With restaurants scrambled to figure out ad hoc ways to set up outside, Adams said now is the time to see how to make this concept work better for everyone for the long haul.

“We’re looking at Court Square to see if we can shut down the street that runs in front of City Hall to make that a more permanent outdoor dining space,” she said, admitting there are traffic-impact and access issues that need to be considered before the street can be closed. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time and even have conceptual drawings to see how that space would look.”

Szynal emphasized that restaurants are one key to bringing more people to downtown Greenfield, so she hopes to draw more places to eat. While outdoor dining presents challenges, she believes the net result is positive. “Dining outside helps the downtown become a little more pedestrian. It’s a different vibe, a good vibe.”

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $23.55
Commercial Tax Rate: $23.55
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, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Wedegartner promotes the fact that Greenfield has a walkable downtown and plenty of housing within a short walk of it. A former Realtor in Franklin County, she still has contacts in real estate who tell her that houses in Greenfield barely hit the market before they are sold.

Adams said the city is poised to take advantage of welcoming new people to the area. “As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there’s a discussion about how much people miss the feeling of community and how to re-establish that. At the same time, there are people who want to live closer to nature and further away from the heavily populated cities. Greenfield can satisfy both of those concerns.”

Because the pandemic has resulted in so many people working from home, Szynal predicts a shift in where people choose to live.

Wedegartner concurred, citing the example of a couple who recently moved to Greenfield from the Boston area after learning they would be working from home for the next two years. “They bought one of the more beautiful homes in town for a fraction of what they would have paid for that type of home in the Boston area.”

While real-estate sales have been brisk across Western Mass., Franklin County has been particularly robust. Szynal shared statistics from October that compared sales among Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Total sales for all three were up 9.2%, while in Franklin County alone, sales increased more than 32%. She credits that growth to a number of factors, including the affordability of housing and an active arts and culture scene.

“If you have the ability to work remotely,” she asked, “why not relocate to somewhere that is beautiful and more affordable?”

 

Downtown Vision

Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for more than a century, wrapped up its final sales and closed last February. While that came as sad news to many, Wedegartner and Adams are hopeful about interest in the building from Green Fields Market, the grocery store run by the Franklin Community Co-op. While Green Fields representatives have not committed to the Wilson’s site, they have shown an interest in locating downtown.

“I would love to keep the co-op downtown,” Adams said. “A grocery store where you have residents living is an important part of a livable, walkable downtown.”

A former brownfield site, the Lunt Silversmith property has been cleaned up and will be available for redevelopment later this year. The site is near what Adams called “the recovery healthcare campus” where Behavioral Health Network and a number of other social-service agencies provide care and support for people in recovery.

Another redevelopment project involves the First National Bank building across from the town common. Adams said the initial vision was to make the building an arts and cultural space. After studying that as a possibility, it now appears that’s not going to happen.

The building is important, Adams noted, because it provides a face to the town common. “While the First National Bank building won’t be what we originally hoped it would be, our challenge is to figure out the right use for it.”

Just before COVID-19 hit, Adams and her team conducted a survey of residents and businesses to help define the future of downtown Greenfield. The large number of responses from both residents and businesses impressed even the survey consultants.

“The high rate of return on the surveys speaks to people’s interest and engagement of what our future will look like,” Adams said.

As people start receiving the vaccine, she believes the region will be able to put the coronavirus era in the rear-view mirror fairly soon.

“I’m a planner, so it’s exciting that there is a plan to get people vaccinated and that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Which would finally get the city off that pause button — and into ‘go’ mode.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

As the world looks to generate energy from different sources and reduce waste, a new facility just opened in Agawam that contributes to both efforts.

What looks like a plain green building on Main Street is actually a plant that converts food waste into natural gas and fertilizer. Vanguard Renewables, based in Wellesley, approached Agawam Mayor William Sapelli about locating an organics-recovery facility in Agawam. After addressing some initial concerns about truck traffic and potential odor from the plant, the town gave the go-ahead.

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this,” Sapelli said, noting that this is only the second plant of its type in Massachusetts.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say the nearby Hood dairy plant has a pallet of yogurt that does not meet specifications or has expired. Hood can bring that pallet to the Agawam facility, where large extracting machines separate the packaging from the yogurt. The packaging gets bundled and brought to a recycling facility, while the yogurt is mixed with other food waste and water. This forms a slurry, which is then delivered by tanker truck to an anerobic digester, a large, dome-shaped structure. (The closest digesters to Agawam are located on farms in Deerfield and Hadley.)

The slurry is mixed with farm-animal waste in the digester, where two things happen. First, biogas rises from the mix and gets converted to renewable natural gas for heating and cooling. Then, the remains of the slurry, known as digestate, are used as low-carbon fertilizer for area farmers.

“In the past, all this waste was incinerated or dumped into a landfill, but now it’s being turned into energy and fertilizer,” Sapelli said, calling the process “amazing.” As the Agawam facility ramps up to full capacity, it will be able to process 250 tons of food waste per day, according to Vanguard.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this.”

That’s just one project that has Agawam officials excited as they move past a challenging 2020 for all municipalities. While the pandemic is still a daily reality, they say this town is focused on growth as a new year dawns.

 

Bridge to Tomorrow

For the past couple of years, the largest infrastructure project in Agawam has been the rebuilding of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge connecting Agawam and West Springfield. The original completion date was scheduled for May 2022. After Sapelli met with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to incentivize the project contractor, Northern Construction, to work overtime and weekends to shorten the deadline, the date was moved to August 2021.

Once the pandemic hit and fewer people were out and about, bridge construction accelerated further. Favorable weather, as well as lighter traffic from both vehicles and pedestrians, allowed crews to get more done every day. Then, the Big E canceled its 2020 fair.

“By contract, the crews had to stop work during the Big E,” Sapelli said. “When the fair was canceled this fall, it gave them an extra 17 days to work on the bridge.” While noting that he is not putting pressure on the construction crews, he predicted the bridge may now be completed by June 2021.

The mayor is also pleased that many of the headaches and traffic jams that usually occur with a major construction project have not materialized. “It’s been a great project,” he said. “You don’t hear a mayor say that very often.”

Like every community, Agawam has had to deal with COVID-19. In fact, the mayor himself had a false alarm after testing positive on a quick test. After going into self-quarantine for several days and not experiencing any symptoms, he took a PCR test (referred to as the ‘gold standard’ of COVID testing), which revealed he had never been infected with coronavirus.

the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June

With the pandemic reducing traffic and accelerating the pace of work last year, the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June.

“I asked if I was asymptomatic or if I’d had it a week before, and the answer to both was, ‘no, it was a false positive,’” he said.

While state mandates have limited public access to Town Hall, Sapelli explained that, even if it were open to the public, the building’s layout just doesn’t work well with COVID-19 mandates.

“For example, the public area in the Collector of Taxes office measures about five feet by eight feet,” Sapelli said. “With social distancing, that means no more than one person can stand there; anyone else would have to wait in the hall, which is also cramped.”

Still, with an emphasis on safety first, Sapelli said Town Hall is open for business for anyone who calls ahead for an appointment.

In order to reduce COVID-19 risks and still encourage in-person education, Agawam’s public schools have adopted a hybrid model. Students whose last names begin with the letters A-K attend class on Monday and Tuesday, while those with L-Z last names attend Thursday and Friday. On the three days they are not scheduled in person, students attend class remotely.

The Department of Health and the superintendent of schools are employing the hybrid model as long as COVID-19 cases within the education community remain low compared to the community as a whole. As a former Agawam school superintendent, Sapelli supports this direction.

“The hybrid approach has been working for Agawam. First, we’re making sure everyone is safe so we can get our students in front of teachers,” he said, adding that parents who are uncomfortable with the hybrid model may choose remote learning full-time.

Bars and restaurants everywhere have greatly suffered during the pandemic from mandated closings, limited seating, and other restrictions. To support those businesses in Agawam, the City Council and the mayor have co-sponsored a resolution to waive the $1,500 liquor-license fee in 2021 for all bars, restaurants, and banquet halls.

“We recognize they’ve lost a lot of revenue and have not been able to host the types of events and gatherings they normally do,” Sapelli said. “Waiving the fee is one thing we can do during the pandemic to help local businesses in these tough times.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
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, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

The fee waiver is just one of the ways the City Council and the mayor are working together to help local businesses, he added. “We are business-friendly. When a new business wants to locate in Agawam, we try to expedite the permitting process by having a team meeting that includes everyone from our fire and police departments to the health inspectors and building inspectors. They all meet together with the business owner, so it becomes one-stop shopping.”

 

House Calls

That cooperative attitude makes life easier for Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development in Agawam, who told BusinessWest about several projects in the area of South Westfield Street in the Feeding Hills section of town. One of the most anticipated projects is the Villas at Pine Crossing, an over-55 community that will add 44 units of senior housing to the market.

“Our office frequently gets calls from residents who are looking to downsize, but they want to stay in Agawam,” Strange said. “The designs at the Villas are more friendly for an aging population, something that is desperately needed in Agawam and everywhere else.”

He said he’s grateful the developer chose Agawam for the Villas, and welcomes similar projects. “We’re hoping this will trigger future developments for 55-plus communities in Agawam.”

The land parcel that was once the Tuckahoe Turf Farm sits adjacent to the Villas at Pine Crossing. After years of considering new uses for the property, Agawam officials are now looking at a solar-energy installation for part of the site. “The revenue from the solar field will allow us to develop the rest of the property for recreational uses, such as walking trails and such,” Sapelli said.

Agawam also completed a project in 2020 to convert all its streetlights to LED fixtures, which emit brighter light but also help the city reap potential savings of $220,000 every year. “Agawam is looking to save about $100,000 per year in energy costs and nearly $120,000 per year in streetlight maintenance,” Strange said.

During construction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, crews are using two desirable land parcels to stage and store equipment. Once the bridge is complete, those two parcels will be available for development as well.

“To be clear, as exciting as it is to market prime commercial sites, the new bridge will have an impact on the town that goes well beyond those two parcels,” Strange said.

All of which promises a brighter future for Agawam — literally and figuratively.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tom Bernard says myriad entities in North Adams, from restaurants to municipal offices to MCLA, have had to do business differently this year.

The last time BusinessWest spoke with Mayor Thomas Bernard for the Community Spotlight, about a year ago, he was talking up the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which was hatched in 2011 and is revisited regularly.

At a public information session last year, city leaders discussed the plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — and some specifics of what’s happening in each.

But 2020 has been about reacting as much as planning — though Bernard says communities need to do both, even during a pandemic.

“I look at my wonderfully organized and beautifully color-coded and phased planning documents from January and February, and I think about our February staff meeting where we discussed this COVID thing — ‘what could this mean for us?’” he recalled. “It’s been such a difficult year, but I can still point to some really great signs of progress.”

That includes continued movement toward adaptive reuse of old mill space, plans to renovate 67-year-old Greylock Elementary School, and a regional housing-production study that uncovered a need for more affordable housing, but more market-rate housing as well.

That said, it’s been a tough year for many businesses, too.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive.”

“Everyone has been struggling,” the mayor said. “Our restaurants did a terrific job early on in making the pivot to curbside and delivery, and they did fairly well when the weather was nice, and then a lot of them got really creative in how to expand their outdoor dining. The city and the licensing board tried to be as friendly and accommodating and make it as easy as possible for people,” Bernard noted, adding, of course, that winter will pose new hardships.

Municipal business continued apace as well, albeit sometimes with a creative, socially distanced flair.

For example, “as part of our property-disposition strategy, we did an auction of city properties, and we did it down at the municipal ballfield. There was plenty of space in the bleachers and stands for bidders, and the auctioneer was out on the field, taking bids. We brought people back to City Hall, one at a time, to do the paperwork. We went nine for 10 on properties we put up for auction.”

 

The Old College Try

Another success story took place at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) — simply because it made it through a semester of on-campus learning with no major COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We heard loud and clear that the campus experience is important,” said Gina Puc, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, noting, of course, that it’s a somewhat different experience than usual, with students alternating between the classroom and online learning in their residence halls, while only 550 of the 1,225 enrolled students this fall were on campus, all in single rooms.

“And it worked — our positivity rate was 10 times lower than the state’s,” she said. “We made it through the entire semester without having to alter our plans. The students were the main reason we were able to stay the course. We had incredible adherence to all the social-distancing and health and safety guidelines in place.”

The testing program was so successful, in fact, that MCLA was able to donate 130 leftover COVID tests to the city’s public schools, to perform asymptomatic testing on teachers and staff.

“They did such a great job with their testing program,” Bernard added. “Their positivity stayed low, contact tracing was good, and it helped that they were out before the holidays, so Thanksgiving didn’t play into it.”

Enrollment was down about 20%, but mostly among first-year students, reflecting a nationwide trend. “The 2020 high-school graduates didn’t even get their own graduation ceremonies, and it certainly disrupted their college plans,” Puc said.

But she’s confident the college will build off its unusual, but encouraging, fall semester and continue to attract students to North Adams. “We have an incredible combination of beauty and the kinds of cultural amenities usually found in urban areas,” she said.

Students studying the arts have plenty of local institutions at which to intern, but the college’s STEM center and the addition of a radiologic technology program in the health sciences reflect the regional growth of careers in those fields, as reflected by big players like General Dynamics, the Berkshire Innovation Center, and Berkshire Health Systems, and a host of smaller companies.

Tourism is a critical industry in North Adams as well, and visitor numbers were certainly down in 2020 overall, Bernard said, although MASS MoCA had a successful reopening and continues to do well. “The big advantage they have is space — you can be there in a socially distanced way. But, still, fewer people have come through this year.”

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
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

The exception is outdoor recreation, which has thrived across the Berkshires this year.

“As much as we’ve done incredible work because of our location, because of MASS MoCA and Williamstown Theatre Festival and Williams College and Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre and all these tremendous cultural resources, we don’t always appreciate how gorgeous it is out here,” Bernard said. “But, for a lot of people, that’s a huge draw.”

While the number of people visiting for foliage season may have been down from past years, he said he drove around the iconic Route 2 hairpin turn on a number of occasions, and always saw people stopping to take photos.

“Again, what a great, socially distanced way to appreciate the nature of the Berkshires in a year when you can’t engage in the area as fully as you might otherwise,” he said. “You can still get in the car, a motorcycle, or take a bike ride, and see it all. We know there’s demand for that.”

 

Hit the Road

He belives tourism in and around North Adams should rebound fine post-pandemic — if only because people’s dollars go further here, because of the mix of reasonably priced attractions and no-cost nature.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive,” he said.

As part of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the city recently landed some funding for a comprehensive mapping and marketing effort of its trail systems. “It’s for people who want to visit, maybe go to a museum, have a good meal, stay a few days as tourists, but then they want to get out on the trails.”

Add it all up, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021.

“I’m bullish and optimistic about what spring and summer could bring,” Bernard went on. “I think there will still be caution, I think there will be wariness, but I think there’s also pent-up demand, too, and people will think about where they want to go and what they want to do.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

the new Ludlow Senior Center

Depending on how the pandemic progresses, the new Ludlow Senior Center could begin hosting some indoor programs by February.

 

Despite the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, the town of Ludlow keeps building and improving.

As coronavirus rates continue to rise across Massachusetts, Manuel Silva, chairman of the Ludlow Board of Selectmen, said officials in town are closely monitoring the number of cases there.

A long-time selectman who served an earlier term as chairman, Silva said the pandemic has brought more challenges than a typical year. Like most places, Ludlow Town Hall is closed to the general public except by appointment. Silva said some town functions, such as the town clerk and tax collector’s offices, are conducting limited public business from the rear of the building, where they can offer service through a window. “It almost looks like an ice-cream stand,” he said with a laugh.

While Ludlow Mills features several ongoing projects (more on that later), Silva wanted to talk to BusinessWest about a few prominent municipal projects that are nearing completion.

For example, construction on Harris Brook Elementary School is progressing, with a good chance that students will begin attending next fall. Harris Brook is being built to replace Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, with the new school located on what used to be playing fields for the adjacent Chapin School.

It’s possible the old buildings may be repurposed and given a second life, Silva said. “We are looking at doing a study on both Chapin and Veterans Park to see what other use the town might have for them.”

He and other town officials are scheduled to tour Harris Brook and inspect the progress that’s been made on it. Once the new school is complete, Ludlow will receive reimbursement from the state for nearly half the cost of the $60 million project.

Another project nearing completion involves road improvements to Center Street, a main artery in Ludlow. Because the street is also part of Route 21, a state highway, the Commonwealth paid for most of the $5.6 million in improvements.

Harris Brook Elementary School

Construction continues on Harris Brook Elementary School, which will replace both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools.

Perhaps no one in Ludlow is more enthusiastically looking forward to opening the new Ludlow Senior Center than Jodi Zepke. As director of the Council on Aging, she and her staff plan to move out of the basement of the former high school on Chestnut Street and into the new building on State Street. While staff will be taking occupancy of the new building in mid-December, the Senior Center will remain closed to the public because of COVID-19 concerns, a situation that Zepke said poses both pros and cons.

“We’re excited to get into the building. It will give the staff an opportunity to get comfortable in their new surroundings before we have seniors come back,” she said. “At the same time, we know how excited everyone is to visit the new building as soon as they can.”

In what she called a “perfect world” scenario, the Senior Center could begin hosting some of Council on Aging programs indoors at the new facility in February. Throughout the warmer months, the council’s popular exercise and social programs were held outdoors at the park adjacent to the current senior center. As the weather became colder at the end of October, the outdoor programs wrapped up for the season.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart.”

“The outdoor programming was a great opportunity for people to see each other, get out of the house, and do some exercising,” Zepke said, noting that said groups took part in yoga, tai chi, and discussion groups, all socially distanced. Several of the exercise programs are available on local cable-access TV. While the broadcasts can help keep people active, she recognizes that people still need the socialization such programs provide for seniors in town.

“The most important thing is to remain connected to people, otherwise the social isolation is terrible,” she said. “We’re pushing for at least some indoor programming because we’re already seeing the mental-health effects of staying home all the time.”

Before COVID-19, the Senior Center hosted a popular daily lunch program. When coronavirus hit and it was no longer possible to bring people to the center, Zepke said her staff switched gears overnight and converted the daily lunch to a thrice-weekly grab-and-go meal where people drive up and receive a box lunch from center staff who are dressed in appropriate PPE. Zepke calls it one of the best things her organization has done since the pandemic hit.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.62
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

“It’s an opportunity for us to see people and take a few minutes to chat with them,” she said. “It’s the highlight of my day.”

 

Milling About

One of the brightest spots in Ludlow’s economic development for the last several years has been the redevelopment of a series of old mills located on the banks of the Chicopee River. The Westmass Area Development Corp. owns the mills and works closely with the town to bring new vitality to the entire area. Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the partnership between Ludlow and Westmass is a win-win.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart,” he said. “Instead, they are developing state-of-the-art projects that enhance the whole State Street corridor.”

Notable tenants in the mill project include businesses such as Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts and Iron Duke Brewing, but Stefancik also pointed to a successful housing development known as Residences at Mill 10, which added 75 units of senior housing to Ludlow when it opened in 2017.

Looking forward, plans are in the works to develop the clock tower, also known as Mill Building 8. WinnDevelopment, builder of Residences at Mill 10, has proposed a plan for 95 units of senior housing in the building, with 48,000 square feet on the first floor dedicated to retail space. Stefancik said the project is in the early stages, and the next steps include site-plan approval and a public hearing.

“We’re fortunate that WinnDevelopment is coming back to work on Mill Building 8 because their work is first-rate,” he said. “They completed Residences at Mill 10 three years ago, and since its opening, it has been wildly successful.”

As more residents move to the area, Stefancik said the Ludlow Riverwalk, located behind the mill complex, is growing in popularity. “It’s becoming a walkable neighborhood area, and we like to see that.”

Earlier this year, a key infrastructure component in the redevelopment of the mills was approved. The Riverside Drive project is a proposed roadway that replaces an old access road in the mill complex. The project is currently out for bid, with construction expected to start next year on 4,130 feet of roadway that runs through the mill complex from East Street to First Avenue. When complete, Riverside Drive will improve access to all areas of Ludlow Mills.

The revitalization of the mills has become a major asset for the town of Ludlow.

“It’s been one of the areas where we’ve seen massive growth for economic development and housing opportunities,” Stefancik said, adding that potential exists for even more growth in the years ahead — something that’s true not only for the mill complex, but for the town itself.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For Longmeadow Town Manager Lyn Simmons, it’s been quite a first year on the job.

With 16 years of experience in municipal government in of Northampton — the last six years as chief of staff for Mayor David Narkewicz — Simmons became Longmeadow’s town manager a year ago this month. After three months on the job, Longmeadow — like the entire world — found itself in uncharted territory.

As challenging as the pandemic has been, Simmons said one positive has been the opportunity to build relationships with department heads and the emergency-management team much faster than she might have under less-hectic circumstances.

“We had to come together quickly and navigate all of this together,” Simmons said. “As difficult as the pandemic has been, the team that’s in place here and the relationships that we’ve formed have made dealing with it much easier.”

She also credits Longmeadow residents for their response in handling the pandemic, noting that people in town are adhering to public-health guidelines and taking personal responsibility. “We see people social distancing, wearing masks, and doing what they need to do to help protect themselves, their families, and our community.”

Lyn Simmons

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation.”

Because most residents complied with state mandates, Longmeadow experienced low numbers of the coronavirus throughout the summer. While the number of cases in town has begun to increase during the fall, this reflects the overall trend in Western Mass. and across the state, Simmons said, adding that a team of municipal employees is monitoring pandemic-related grants and other funding sources that might be available through the state and federal government.

“The pandemic has certainly been a disruption to normal life, whether it’s doing business with town offices or making adjustments to programs that are run by the Parks and Rec department, or the Adult Center,” she noted. But business not been halted, and as she spoke with BusinessWest, she outlined some of the ways progress continues in this small, residential town.

Worth Their Salt

In the midst of all the COVID-related disruption, Simmons points to two town projects she calls bright spots during these challenging times. First, a new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility — a $24 million project on Dwight Road, on the site of a former tennis club — is nearing completion.

The second project is the $14 million Adult Center, where finishing touches are being applied as it gets closer to opening day. While the Council on Aging will have a large presence, the Parks and Recreation department will also run programs and activities from the facility, making it a resource for all residents.

After COVID-19 hit, safety protocols were implemented at the DPW and Adult Center sites to allow construction work to continue and keep both projects on track to open in early 2021.

“The only disruption we had occurred earlier in the spring when the subcontractor who was providing and installing a salt-storage shed was quarantined crossing the state line from New York,” Simmons said. “We’ve been able to move past that, and the salt shed is fully constructed now.”

With 95% of property in Longmeadow devoted to residential dwellings, town officials pay close attention to activity in the real-estate market. Like most towns, the normal sales bump that occurs each spring was delayed by the pandemic. Sales activity returned in July and has remained brisk since then, with most houses selling at the asking price.

“We’ve been able to capture that strong real-estate market,” Simmons said. “On average, houses are staying on the market for about 20 days; low interest rates have certainly helped.”

The demographics in Longmeadow have remained similar to what they’ve historically been. Simmons said the town has a healthy mix of approximately 29% families and about 30% in the over-60 demographic. One key indicator that remains steady is school enrollment, where no declines have been reported.

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation,” she noted.

Looking to the future, the town owns a 10-acre parcel on Academy Drive known as the Water Tower property. Prior to the pandemic, the area was under consideration for an over-55 housing development. If this project moves forward, Simmons said, it might solve a dilemma for many seniors in town. Many aging residents want to continue to live in Longmeadow but would also like to downsize from their current home to one-level living, and an over-55 housing development could be a good solution.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.21
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.21
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

“Once we get the pandemic behind us, I expect our discussions of this site to be dusted off and brought back into the public sphere,” she added.

Meanwhile, conversations about two other potential projects are continuing, including development of a former church at the intersection of Williams Street and Redfern Drive with a different use, and a project on Williams Street that involves building a long-term-care facility. “As far as I know, those plans are still in the works,” Simmons said of the latter plan, “but it’s been slow-moving.”

 

Sharing Resources

More concrete progress can be found on a regional level. Last year, Longmeadow joined with Chicopee to form an emergency communications center called WESTCOMM. By taking a regional approach to emergency dispatch calls, both towns save money, increase efficiency, and have backup support when multiple calls come into either town.

Now nearly a year into the program, WESTCOMM has been a great success — and is growing, Simmons said. “Since WESTCOMM launched in December, we’ve added two more communities this year, when East Longmeadow and Monson came on board with Longmeadow and Chicopee.”

WESTCOMM currently operates out of the Chicopee Police Department, but officials are exploring a move to a larger facility as more communities come on board. Simmons said she expects to hear more about that in the coming year.

Before the pandemic, Longmeadow was looking to share some public-health services with neighboring East Longmeadow. Because the health departments and boards of health for both towns are expending all their energy on COVID-19 concerns, that project has been set aside at least until the pandemic is over, she added. “Looking at a merger of two health departments right now is a little more than we can take on at the moment.”

Simmons was born and raised in Northampton, and she first became familiar with Longmeadow while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Bay Path University.

As she completes her first year as Longmeadow’s town manager, she’s proud of how well people in the community have responded throughout the pandemic.

“I appreciate everyone’s understanding and support as we all try to get through this time together,” she said. “I am really looking forward to the new year when we will open both the new DPW and Adult Center in town.”

Simmons added that she can’t wait for the public to see both buildings and hopes to take residents on tours of the new facilities when they formally open in 2021 — a year when municipal leaders in all communities hope they can put COVID-19 behind them and are able to focus fully on the future once again.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year — because advocacy is needed, and events are few.

For the past four years, Amy Cahillane has led the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) in its many efforts to boost vibrancy in the city’s center.

The DNA typically handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales.

Note that word ‘typically.’ Because this hasn’t been a typical year.

“The pandemic changed it completely,” said Cahillane, the DNA’s executive director. “We usually focus heavily on events — it’s sort of our centerpiece. In light of COVID, I’d say 98% of our events were unable to happen. Arts Night Out is a monthly gathering where we invite lots of people into a small space to share food and drinks. That was one of our first COVID casualties — there’s no way to do that safely.”

But the DNA’s second major role is advocacy, making sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall and that people feel their voice is heard, through public meetings and community forums on issues that impact businesses. That function was magnified in this unusual year.

“As everything changed, we were forced to change our focus because our small-business community is in desperate need of help, as is every other downtown in this area,” she told BusinessWest. “Even had our events not been canceled, it became clear pretty quickly we’d have to change our focus to advocacy at both the state and local levels, just to keep businesses afloat.”

Much of that advocacy came in the form of pushing for state and local aid, while other efforts were narrowly targeted, like making sure downtown parking was altered so restaurants could expand outdoor seating — “anything we could think of that could help them carry on through this trying to time, until we see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

And the city’s leaders have been responsive, Cahillane said, from a round of direct emergency grants to the business community to making the changes needed to bolster restaurants.

“They stepped up right away to work with our organization and downtown restaurants to make it possible to have outdoor seating, and make it last as long as possible. They got that up and running pretty quickly, and the License Commission was very fast turning around approvals for those who wanted to serve liquor outside.”

Debra Flynn, who owns Eastside Grill, was among the first downtown restaurateurs to pivot to curbside takeout and delivery once eateries were forced to shut down in early spring. “We had no idea how to do it,” she said, adding that it was important to buy the right containers to keep food warm and make sure meals were presented with care, even in the boxes.

“I can’t complain right now; we’ve had such wonderful support from our community,” she said, noting that she was able to set about 30 seats outside and eventually bring patrons back inside as well. “But I’m nervous going forward.”

“It’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

That’s because the weather is getting colder, and while regulars are comfortable with the safety protocols being taken inside, she worries that folks who haven’t visited recently might not want to do so during flu season. And while the governor’s new mandate that businesses need to close by 9:30 p.m. doesn’t affect Eastside, it does impact the operations of other downtown restaurants. “They’re very nervous and upset about this whole thing,” she noted.

 

Shifting Winds

Alana Traub, who owns Honey & Wine, a clothing shop in Thornes Marketplace, has had a worrisome time this year, too.

“Everything changed for my business with the pandemic, when all businesses closed for quite a while,” she told BusinessWest. “When it finally did reopen in June, it was extremely slow going; I think people were really nervous to go out, and maybe they didn’t even know if we were open or not.

“Since then, it’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

If there’s a downtown that’s well-positioned to rebound after the pandemic, Cahillane said, it’s Northampton.

“Even among my circle of friends, we are dying to go back out to restaurants, go bar hopping,” she said. “I think these businesses downtown are doing everything they can to hang on.”

Perhaps the economic shakeup — and some business closures that have followed in its wake — will present opportunities for some new faces to enter the downtown scene, she added. “A pandemic seems an odd time to start a business, but we’ve seen several open up; we might see a new round of creative, exciting businesses downtown.”

Lindsay Pope made the jump over the summer, purchasing Yoga Sanctuary, also at Thornes, from former owner Sara Rose Page on Aug. 1. A former member at the studio, Pope said she decided to become a business owner in this uncertain time because she feared Page may not have found another buyer.

“I feel like this time is incredibly liberating,” Pope said. “What do I have to lose? The alternate was that we could have lost this space, and instead, we’re going to give it another shot.”

With the times in mind, she launched not only reinvigorated studio programming in September, but also new online programming and an online video-library platform. “We’re going to try to evolve to meet the needs of the times and the next generation. That’s what we’re all being called to do right now in the chaos that’s happening.”

Cahillane said many other businesses have pivoted as well — although she admitted she’s a little sick of that word.

“Restaurants that never did curbside were nervous to try it, but our community showed up and started ordering curbside. Stores that never did local deliveries wondered if people would take advantage of it, but they did. People definitely have been incredibly supportive of downtown — the question is whether that’s enough.”

 

Holding Pattern

Before the pandemic struck, the DNA — which cites beautification among its top goals, along with programming and advocacy — was coming off a couple of years that saw a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade to make the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

To say 2020 has been a different sort of year is an understatement, although traffic has returned to some degree in recent months, and many businesses, including those in the retail marijuana trade, continue to do well. But anxiety lingers for many.

“I think everyone is concerned,” Cahillane said. “There is certainly more traffic than there was in March, April, or May, for sure. But winter is coming. It’s easy right now to park your car and walk outside, or enjoy some coffee on the sidewalk, when it’s sunny and pretty and the leaves are changing.

“But I think the first sign of snowfall will change that picture pretty dramatically,” she went on. “Are people going to be comfortable shopping indoors in the winter? I don’t know. Or sit inside a restaurant in the winter? I don’t know. And because so much is unknown about COVID, are people going to be extra anxious during flu season, when they don’t know if the person next to them has a cold or something more? There are so many unknowns. People are definitely concerned.”

Yet, Traub senses optimism from other business owners in Thornes and downtown in general, not because the pandemic is close to ending, but because Northampton is a strong enough business community to fully rebound once it does.

“That’s the general consensus,” she said. “I think everyone is also being realistic because no one knows what’s ahead. This is so unprecedented.”

Still, she moved her five-year-old business here from Franklin County for a reason. “I would call this the shopping destination in Western Mass. It’s definitely been a lot of fun, and I’ve been happy with my move to Northampton.”

And waiting for a time when the city is truly on the move again.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson says many local businesses have had to pivot and be nimble in the face of COVID-19.

Despite all the challenges a pandemic brings, Mary McNally says, town officials and business leaders in East Longmeadow are looking forward with a sense of optimism.

After serving in an interim role, McNally became East Longmeadow’s permanent town manager in December 2019 — just before every town in America began dealing with the effects of COVID-19.

Even though Town Hall has been closed to the public since mid-March, McNally said the staff has worked hard to maintain town services to the public and keep projects moving.

“All of our Planning Department functions, such as petitions and site-plan reviews, are being conducted — business as usual,” McNally said. “That is, if you accept Zoom meetings as business as usual.”

According to Charlie Christianson, those types of adjustments have enabled the town and its businesses to find their way during these difficult times. Christianson, board president of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, said COVID-19 forced a number of companies to pivot and find new ways to stay viable. He cited Go Graphix, maker of signs, vehicle wraps, and other marketing materials, as an example of an East Longmeadow company that made a big adjustment and found success by doing so.

“When business fell off at the beginning of the pandemic, Go Graphix pivoted early to make plexiglass partitions as well as signs to help communicate social distancing and mask wearing. Now, it’s a big part of their business.”

In addition to his work with the chamber, Christianson runs CMD Technology Group, a provider of IT solutions and support. With so many people working from home, his business was able to pivot to set up workers who needed remote connections.

“We have seen a lot of activity in our remote-access business where we help companies get their remote employees into their online system in an effective and secure way,” he explained.

“All of our Planning Department functions, such as petitions and site-plan reviews, are being conducted — business as usual. That is, if you accept Zoom meetings as business as usual.”

Chamber member Steve Graham, CEO of Toner Plastics, said several of the products his company makes are considered essential, a designation that kept his workers busy all year. Perhaps the most notable product Toner makes these days is the elastic for N95 masks.

“Since the pandemic, you can imagine the demand for that product went through the roof,” Graham said, adding that, during a time when other companies were cutting back due to COVID-19, his company had to quickly ramp up for more production.

With Toner facilities in Pittsfield and Rhode Island, as well as in East Longmeadow, Graham appreciates the opportunity to continue his operations during these challenging times. “We’re fortunate that we are able to keep people employed and continue to ship to our customers; best of all, none of our employees have been inflicted with COVID-19.”

 

Go with the Flow

Despite the pandemic, municipal projects in East Longmeadow keep moving. The town applied for a $600,000 grant through MassWorks to improve sewage outflow where it connects to the Springfield system, allowing East Longmeadow to more accurately monitor what gets sent to Springfield.

“While it’s not a glamourous project, it’s a big undertaking and represents a real improvement in our town’s infrastructure,” McNally said.

After years of applying to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, East Longmeadow is in the eligibility period to explore funding for a new high school. McNally said this milestone is significant because it represents the first step in the process to eventually replace the current, 60-year old facility.

For many years, residents have been concerned about the site of the former Package Machinery site, with any potential development hampered by its industrial zoning status. McNally said the Town Council and the Planning Board have recently taken action to change the zoning status to mixed use, which would allow residential as well as commercial buildings to locate there.

“While no official project is in front of the Town Council, one development that has been discussed could include single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, and light-use business entities,” McNally said. “The idea is to have a new walkable neighborhood near the bike trail and the center of town.”

To keep projects like these moving forward, McNally and her staff are working to develop a new master plan for East Longmeadow. The last master plan for the town dates back to 1976, prompting her to put this effort high on the must-do list. The first phase of the plan is scheduled to be complete by June 2021.

A master plan allows the town to move from talking about projects to getting them done. One example is Heritage Park, where architect drawings were generated in 2016 to add athletic fields, an amphitheater, and other improvements. The $5 million price tag has kept the redevelopment in the discussion stage.

McNally said including Heritage Park in the master plan improves its chances of eventually reaching completion. “It’s a beautiful resource, and we want to capitalize on it to make the park available to everyone, but right now it’s still a work in progress.”

“We have seen a lot of activity in our remote-access business where we help companies get their remote employees into their online system in an effective and secure way.”

During the pandemic, the chamber has been successful in bringing people together to talk about the challenges of COVID-19 and a variety of business topics. Christianson credits the chamber’s ability to quickly embrace the virtual world.

“To say we didn’t skip a beat would be an exaggeration, but we’ve done a pretty good job to help our members and to keep a consistent value proposition for them.”

He noted that the chamber has even found a way to keep the popular Feast in the East event going. Traditionally, this is a networking event in which members sample food from area restaurants while local chefs compete for the Top Chef Trophy.

“This year’s event will be like the show Iron Chef, with three local chefs competing in front of judges,” he explained. Offered as a paid Zoom event, ticket purchasers can watch the competition and receive a ‘takeout’ package of offers from local restaurants. “Through creative thought and hard work, the chamber found another way to still run this popular event.”

 

Here’s the Scoop

One of the real strengths of East Longmeadow, according to Christianson, is the healthy mix of residential and business interests. One intriguing project scheduled to open next year involves the train depot built in 1876 and located in the center of town.

Earlier this year, Graham bought the train depot and the three acres where it sits. He is in the process of converting it into an ice-cream shop called the Depot at Graham Central Station.

“Even though there have been a lot of delays due to COVID, we are finishing up the conversion, and we’re looking forward to opening the depot for the town to enjoy next spring,” he said. Because of its close proximity to the bike path, he hopes to open in the morning and offer light breakfast items, too.

While the anticipation of a new ice-cream shop in town is certainly something to look forward to, Graham said he’s anticipating even bigger news on many fronts.

As a plastics manufacturer, he works with industries as far-ranging as aerospace and automotive to medical devices and retail displays. “We are affected by many of these industries, and when they were down, it had an impact on us,” hs said.

But recent conversations with his customers reveals that many industries are starting to come back, and come back strong. “I have a great deal of optimism for the future.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

John Page and Claudia Pazmany

John Page and Claudia Pazmany say the chamber has stepped up its role this year in many ways to help businesses, including those in Hadley.

Before the pandemic, up to 80,000 cars would travel on Route 9 in Hadley each day, bringing workers, students, and customers to and through the town.

Known for its agriculture, proximity to the Five College community, and a robust retail corridor along Route 9, Hadley has been challenged, like all towns, since the arrival of COVID-19. But efforts by a group of town officials are meeting those challenges to keep Hadley viable today and well into the future.

David Nixon, deputy town administrator, said area colleges play an important role in the local economy. Hadley’s location is central to the Five College community, but Nixon actually sees it as a 30-campus community because that’s how many colleges are within an hour’s drive of Hadley.

While some campuses are open, others have stayed closed, and some are taking a hybrid approach, mixing on-site classes with distance learning.

“This has had an impact on local businesses,” he said, noting that less activity at the colleges, most notably UMass Amherst, which borders Hadley, adds to the struggles many businesses are facing as they try to comply with pandemic restrictions and stay afloat. “Right now, we are doing as much as possible to keep people safe and to support our businesses.”

Hadley officials have reduced licensing fees and expedited the process for businesses that are adapting to state COVID-19 guidelines. For example, when restaurants had to amend their food and liquor license permits to allow outdoor service, Nixon said the town was quick to respond to get the changes made.

“We’ve also expedited the inspections that are necessary when a business changes the footprint of their building,” he added, noting that cooperation among the town’s Planning Board, building inspectors, Fire Department, and Select Board ensured an easier process for the businesses involved.

Hadley is also one of seven communities benefiting from a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses stay afloat during the pandemic. Easthampton is the lead community on the grant, which allows businesses with five or fewer employees to apply for up to $10,000 in grant money.

David Nixon

David Nixon

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9. By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Also pitching in to help businesses is the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which covers Hadley and other surrounding towns. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the chamber, said the area has been fortunate in that the number of COVID-19 cases is lower than most parts of the state. To keep it that way, the chamber is now providing PPE, as well as printed posters and floor decals, that reinforce messages of social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. Available at no charge to chamber members, the signage is just one of the ways to help businesses get back on their feet.

“These are not business-saving techniques by themselves, but we hope to help our members reduce their costs as they open back up under the new guidelines,” she told BusinessWest.

 

Lines of Communication

The chamber has stepped up its role during the pandemic in other ways as well. “Our ability to advocate for and to market our businesses has become even stronger since COVID-19,” Pazmany noted, adding that it’s one of the few “silver linings” of these times.

The town and the chamber have been working together on a series of Zoom meetings with local businesses to hear their concerns and offer whatever help they can, she said. “We’ve been hosting these meetings to keep an open conversation between the town and businesses.”

One of the popular topics in the meetings has been the widening of Route 9, which is expected to start next year. The $26 million project will add travel and turning lanes to the road.

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9,” Nixon said. “By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Pazmany said the Route 9 widening has been in the planning phase for years, and once complete, the improvements will benefit all who use the roadway.

“Many people use the bus to go to work and school. Among other things, the widening project will provide much safer bus stops and allow buses to get more people moving in an efficient manner.”

The widening project will begin at Town Hall and go east for 2.6 miles to the intersection of Route 9 and Maple Street.

Business owners located along Route 9 have expressed concerns about the loss of business due to COVID-19 being followed up by a loss of business due to road construction. To alleviate that concern, the town has applied for an economic-development grant to market the Route 9 corridor. John Page, the chamber’s marketing and membership manager, said the idea is to position Route 9 as a great place to open a business.

“The grant would be about marketing and planning the future of Route 9 post-COVID,” he explained. “Hopefully, that’s coming sooner rather than later.”

As plans for the future of the town come into focus, Pazmany reminded everyone that Hadley has a great deal to offer right now.

“For those looking for a day trip, this is the time to come and visit,” she said, adding that, with the arrival of autumn, “Hadley will be at its most beautiful and picturesque in the next few weeks.”

She noted that many local restaurants participate in farm-to-table efforts with Hadley farms supplying many of the vegetables.

And, as more people take part in outdoor activities, the Norwottuck Rail Trail bike path has seen more riders than ever before, she said. The path runs completely through Hadley and features scenic views of farms and neighborhoods.

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.78
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.78
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

Nixon said the rail trail gives people another perspective on his town. “I often talk about the view of Hadley from Route 9 and the view from the bike path. They look like two completely different communities.”

 

Moving On

Two out of three building projects started last year in Hadley have been completed. The new Senior Center is complete and providing remote programs for residents. The new fire substation is also up and running, and the town library is close to completion.

As those projects conclude, Nixon is planning to wrap up his 15-year career with Hadley and retire on Dec. 31. To transition out of his role as town administrator, he has assumed the title of deputy town administrator while he helps Carolyn Brennan, the recently hired town administrator, transition into the job.

As someone who has been involved in municipal governments for more than 30 years, Brennan’s experience ranges from working with councils on aging in Amherst, Hampden, and East Longmeadow. She remains active as a selectman in Wilbraham, where she lives. Back when Brennan was a student at UMass, she lived in Hadley and worked at the Shady Lawn Rest Home.

Brennan said she’s glad to be back and described Hadley as being in great shape thanks to the town employees and Nixon’s management. “Having worked in other municipalities, I’m impressed with the all of the employees; they are real stakeholders in their community.”

She also appreciates having Nixon work with her while she gets acclimated to the job. “With David staying on until the end of the year, you couldn’t ask for a better transition plan for the town and for me.”

As for Nixon, he reflected on his career with Hadley and spoke of how rewarding it was to serve the town for 15 years.

“I’ll definitely miss the people,” he said. “I’m glad I was part of advancing our community a little further down the road.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith says getting town business done during COVID-19 has been more challenging than usual, but projects continue to be approved.

Wilbraham is a mostly residential town with two main business districts — the town center, as it’s known, on Main Street, and along a lengthy stretch of Route 20, or Boston Road.

The fact that both have seen development activity during the ongoing pandemic is good news indeed, said Jeffrey Smith, chairman of the Planning Board.

Take, for example, a couple of vacant buildings next to Home Depot that have been vacant for about a decade. They will soon become a 7,000-square-foot O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store and a 2,340-square-foot Valvoline instant oil-change facility.

“It’s great,” Smith said. “Being on the Planning Board and being a resident in town, I hear from people all the time, in casual converations, ‘what’s going on with that place?’ This is one of those vacant and seemingly abandoned properties that is getting a great redo, and I think it’s going to be a welcome addition. The site has been an eyesore for some time.”

Then there’s the former Papa Gino’s restaurant near the Springfield line that’s been vacant several years, but will soon be home to an expansion of Springfield-based Vanguard Dental. Meanwhile, Excel Therapy and Conditioning, a physical-therapy practice that’s expanding to sports rehabilitation and personal training, will set up shop on Boston Road as well.

“We had to work fast to fast-track this during the height of the pandemic, with Town Hall closed,” recalled John Pearsall, director of Planning. “They were in a situation where their lease was running out and they had a chance to purchase this building and move and expand their practice. That’s been a good success story, saving a local business during these difficult times.”

Doing due diligence on development projects hasn’t been easy with offices closed, Smith noted.

“Just like every other town, we’re dealing with COVID, and all Planning and Zoning board meetings have to be done remotely. John and I used to meet quite a bit more in person during the week and outside our regularly scheduled meetings, and we do a little less of that right now. Everything has become more cumbersome, with a lot of extra steps.”

“For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

Yet, important work continues, including efforts by the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Health, and licensing authorities to get restaurants reopened in recent months.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to help our businesses stay afloat during these difficult times,” Pearsall said. “And they seem to be very active. I think people are happy to have that option, whether it’s curbside pickup or being able to go out and have a meal outside the home. That’s a big thing for people these days.”

As the town continues to develop a Route 20 renovation plan — including widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more — business continue to see it as an attractive destination, Smith and Pearsall said. That bodes well for 2021, when the process of getting anything permitted in town — and, let’s be honest, life in general — promises to be slightly easier.

Center of Activity

Most schools throughout Western Mass. are currently teaching students remotely. But not Wilbraham & Monson Academy, which launched an ambitious plan earlier this year — including everything from reconfiguring buildings to implementing strict safety guidelines — to bring students back to campus.

“We worked extensively as a town with WMA to reopen and allow students back,” Smith said, recalling Head of School Brian Easler working the Planning Board, Board of Health, and Board of Selectmen to produce a comprehensive plan to get students back safely for in-person learning. “I was surprised at the lengths they went and the protocols they put in place to get reopened.”

The town had a stake in the plan that went beyond what was best for students and their families, Pearsall said. “We were happy to see them open because they provide a real anchor to the town center.”

It’s a center that has long been the subject of speculation. Two years ago, an effort to allow a mixed-use development in the area of Main and Springfield streets failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes. Since then, town officials have struggled to balance the need to fill vacant buildings with general pushback when it comes to change.

Currently, two vacant buildings at the corner of Main Street and Burt Lane have been slated for demolition and development, Smith said.

“We’ve been working at least the last two years with the owner of the property and getting something viable in place for those buildings,” he told BusinessWest. “If everything goes as planned, that will be a major change in the way the town center looks. The owner of the property has worked extensively with us and other committees and boards in town to come up with a design concept that would fit in with the town center.

“It’s a very sensitive area; it’s looked the way it has for quite some time,” he added. “This is a new use on this spot — mixed-use development, with retail on the ground floor and apartments on the second floor. Actually, it’s bringing in an old use. At one point, a hotel stood on this spot. So we’re bringing residential use back, and resurrecting something that was done years ago.”

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.38
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

Some folks in the neighborhood are open to change, Pearsall said. “For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

The former post office on Crane Park Drive recently changed ownership and could be repurposed as commercial office space, he added, while a new cosmetology business, Inner Glow Skin Studio, is moving in. Meanwhile, the old Masonic Hall on Woodland Dell Road was purchased by a local resident who is converting it to office space for his dental-management business.

“We’re taking a property that was tax-exempt and putting it back on the tax rolls,” Smith added.

Also along Main Street, Rice’s Fruit Farm and adjoining Fern Valley Farms have been enjoying a strong year, with pick-your-own-apples business boosted by cooperative weather and families looking for something to do. In fact, Rice’s has been working with town Planning and Zoning officials on parking expansions to accommodate the enterprise’s growth.

“It’s been very successful,” Smith said, adding that a parking crunch is, in one sense, a good problem to have. “They’re kind of taking the next step.”

Developing Stories

Wilbraham also has two solar farms under construction, a 1.4-MW project on Tinkham Road and a 3.4-MW project on Beebe Road; the latter development straddles the Hampden town line, with another 2 MW available for that community.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“There’s a need for fiber and high-speed internet,” Smith said. “We moved some time ago to be a municipal light plant, which means we can essentially be a supplier of high-speed internet.”

“There’s a broadband committee, being coordinated by our IT director, to move that project forward,” Pearsall added.

Residential growth advances slowly in a small town, but some trends have emerged. Even before COVID-19 struck, Pearsall noted, more people were starting to work from home.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest and activity from people trying to do home-based businesses,” he said. “We’ve also seen a lot of interest in so-called in-law apartments in town, and we have zoning for that, where elderly parents own a home and want their children to live with them, or the children own the home and create an apartment for their parents. That seems very popular right now.”

It’s another way times are changing and town leaders must adapt — in a year when they’ve certainly had plenty of practice.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee are partnering in a restaurant project at the former Court Square Hotel property.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that his city is certainly well-versed in dealing with natural and man-made disasters — everything from the tornado in June 2011 to the natural-gas explosion a year and a half later.

“Battle-tested” was the phrase he used to describe a community that has been though a lot over the past few decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic … this is a different kind of disaster.

The new façade of the Tower Square Hotel, which expects to be under the Marriott flag next spring.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways,” he said, using that phrase to essentially describe a foe that’s hard to hit and an exercise that amounts to punching air. “With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

But the city is certainly punching back against the pandemic, said the mayor and Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, noting that it has undertaken initiatives aimed at everything from helping small businesses keep the doors open to assisting residents with paying their mortgage, rent, and utility bills.

And while the pandemic has certainly cost the city some vital momentum, the development community, which usually takes a long view, remains bullish on the city, said Sheehan, noting that there has been strong interest in projects ranging from the former School Department headquarters building on State Street to properties in the so-called ‘blast zone’ (damaged by that aforementioned natural-gas explosion), to buildings in the general vicinity of MGM Springfield in the city’s South End.

“One of more positive things we’re seeing is that development interest in Springfield remains strong,” he told BusinessWest. “And for some larger-scale projects, it’s new interest, from outside the area. And that bodes well for the whole effort that’s been made in terms of the downtown renaissance and the casino development; the development community’s message on Springfield is a good one.”

In the meantime, some projects are already moving forward, most notably the conversion of the long-dormant former Court Square Hotel into apartments and retail space, but also the extensive renovations (although that’s not the word being used) at the Tower Square Hotel in anticipation of regaining the Marriott flag that long flew over the facility, the new Wahlburger’s restaurant going up next to MGM Springfield, the new White Lion Brewery in Tower Square, the conversion of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, movement to reinvent the Eastfield Mall, a plan to redevelop Apremont Triangle, and much more.

But despite these projects, and despite the mayor’s confidence that the city will rebound quickly once the pandemic eases, there are certainly concerns about what toll the pandemic will take on existing businesses, especially those in retail, hospitality, and the commercial real-estate sector — specifically, the office towers downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno says he’s confident that the city can make a strong — and quick — rebound from COVID-19.

There is strong speculation that businesses that now have some or most employees working remotely will continue with these arrangements after the pandemic eases, leaving many likely looking for smaller office footprints. Sheehan noted that such potential downsizing might be offset by businesses needing larger spaces for each employee in a world where social distancing might still be the norm, but there is certainly concern that the office buildings that dominate the downtown landscape will need to find new tenants or new uses for that space.

“There’s some conflicting data out there — the average size of a typical commercial office lease was going down prior to COVID, and a big reason was the rise of the communal working space,” he explained. “Well, now, the communal working space isn’t working so well anymore; there are some impacts that are forcing companies to require more space, not less.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways. With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Still, before COVID, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate was somewhat high,” he went on. “We collectively need to be working with the building owners and businesses to make sure those numbers don’t exacerbate as we come out of COVID. But, clearly, there is concern about the commercial real-estate market.”

For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, the focus turns to the unofficial capital of the region, the current battle against COVID-19 and the many forms it takes, and the outlook for the future, both short- and long-term.

View to the Future

As he walked around the former Court Square Hotel while talking with BusinessWest about his involvement with the project to give the landmark a new life, Peter A. Picknelly pointed to the windows in the northwest corner of the sixth floor, and noted that this was where a City Hall employee had just told him she wanted to live as he and business partner Andy Yee were leaving a meeting with the mayor.

But then he quickly corrected himself.

“No, she was referring to that corner,” he noted, pointing toward the windows on the northeast side, the ones with a better overall view of Court Square and Main Street. “That’s the one she said she wanted.”

Talk about actually living in the still-handsome structure that dominates Court Square is now actually real, whereas for the better part of 30 years it had been nothing but a pipe dream. That’s how long people have been talking about renovating this property, and that’s how challenging this initiative has been.

Indeed, like Union Station, another project that took decades to finally move beyond the talk stage, Court Square’s redevelopment became real because of a public-private partnership with a number of players, ranging from Picknelly’s Opal Development and WinnCompanies to MGM Springfield, to the city, the state, and federal government.

“This project was a bear, and that building was an albatross around the neck of a lot of mayors,” Sarno said. “This was all about persistence and not giving up when it would have been easy to do that.”

As for Picknelly, this is a legacy project of a sort, he said, noting that his father, Peter L. Picknelly, had long talked about creating a boutique hotel at the site — which, after its days as a hotel, was home to a number of law offices because of its proximity to the courthouse — as a way to inject some life into a still-struggling downtown.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan says the city’s first priority has been to assist businesses and help ensure they’re still in business when the pandemic eases.

The boutique-hotel concept became less viable as new hotels were built in the city, he went on, but the urgent need to convert the property for a new use — identified as the top priority in the Urban Land Institute study completed more than a decade ago — remained.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant?” asked Picknelly, who again partnered with Yee — the two have resurrected both the Student Prince and the White Hut — to create a restaurant in the northwest corner of the property (more on that in a bit). “This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

The Court Square project is just one example of how things are moving forward in the city, even in the midst of the pandemic, said Sheehan, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, Springfield remains an attractive target for the development community — and for the same reasons that existed before the pandemic, namely an abundance of opportunities, growing momentum in the central business district, the casino, Union Station, the burgeoning cannabis industry, and more.

Still, the the pandemic has certainly been a major disruptive force in that it has imperiled small businesses across many sectors, especially hospitality; brought a relative stillness to the downtown area as many employees continue to work at home; closed the casino for nearly four months and forced it to reopen at one-third capacity; cancelled all shows, sports, and other gatherings at the casino, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere; and even forced the Basketball Hall of Fame to reschedule its induction ceremonies (normally held this month) to the spring and move them to Mohegan Sun.

So the first order of business for the city has been to try to control, or limit, the damage, said Sarno and Sheehan, adding that it has been doing this in a number of ways, including its Prime the Pump initiative.

The Court Square project

The Court Square project, roughly 30 years in the making, was made possible by a comprehensive public-private partnership.

The program, using Community Development Block Grant monies, has provided small grants to city businesses in amounts up to $15,000. The awards have come over several rounds, with the first focused on restaurants, perhaps the hardest-hit individual sector, with subsequent rounds having a broader focus that includes more business sectors and nonprofits. Sheehan said businesses receiving grant funds have also represented a diversity of ownership.

“Prime the Pump numbers in terms of minority representation were huge — more than 72% of the awards were to minority-owned, women-owned, or veterans, and all of the nonprofits we supported had 30% or more minority participation on their board of directors,” he explained, adding that these numbers are significant because many minority-owned businesses had difficulty attaining other forms of support, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In addition to helping businesses weather the storm, the city has also provided financial assistance to residents, said the mayor, noting that this aid has gone toward paying mortgages, utility bills, and rent, assistance that also helps the city’s many landlords.

“In this region, I don’t think any community has done more to help their businesses and their residents,” Sarno noted. “We have put out well over $5 million, and perhaps $6 million. We’ve been very proactive, and we’re going to continue working with businesses, such as our restaurants, to help them stay open.”

Such support is critical, said Sheehan, because in order to rebound sufficiently once the pandemic subsides, consumers will need to find outlets for that pent-up demand the mayor mentioned.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant? This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

“When there is a vaccine, or when our numbers are so low that people feel safe and feel willing to go back out, the responsiveness will be there,” he noted. “My concern is making sure that the businesses we have are still in business when we get there.”

When We Meet Again

While he talked about COVID-19 using mostly the present tense, Sarno also spent a good deal of time talking about the future.

He said the pandemic will — eventually and somehow — relent. And, as he said earlier, he is confident the city will rebound, and quickly, and perhaps return to where it was before ‘COVID’ became part of the lexicon. For a reference point, he chose Red Sox Winter Weekend in January, an event staged by the team but hosted by MGM Springfield. It brought thousands of people to the city, filling hotels and restaurants and creating traffic jams downtown as motorists tried to maneuver around closed streets and various gatherings.

In many ways, Red Sox Winter Weekend is emblematic of all that’s been lost due to the pandemic. It won’t all come back overnight, Sarno and Sheehan noted, but the vibrancy will return.

“COVID-19 has really knocked us for a bit of a loop,” the mayor said, stating the obvious. “But I think there there’s a lot of pent-up … not only frustration, but desire to get back out there, so when we defeat this, I really think we’re going to rebound very nicely, and even quickly, because we continue to move projects forward and put new projects on the board.”

Tower Square Hotel

These renderings show what the front lobby (above) and ballroom will look like in the Tower Square Hotel that is being ‘reimagined’ and ‘redesigned’ and will soon be flying the Marriott flag.

This optimism extends to MGM, which had been struggling to meet projections (made years ago) for gross gambling revenue before the pandemic, and has, as noted, been operating at one-third capacity since early summer, with the hotel and banquet facilities closed.

“When MGM was hustling and bustling, with shows coming in, downtown was thriving,” Sarno said. “I’m hoping that, as we head into the last quarter and eventually the holiday season, if people can regain their confidence in going out to places like this, we see things pick up.”

And there will be some positive changes to greet visitors as they return, starting with a new Marriott.

Indeed, work continues on a massive project that Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, insists is not a renovation, because that word doesn’t do justice to the massive overhaul. He instead said the hotel has been “reimagined” and “redesigned.”

Indeed, slated to open — or reopen, as the case may be — next spring or summer, the 266-room facility is getting a new look from top to bottom, inside and out. The most visible sign of the change is a new, more modern façade that greets visitors coming over the Memorial Bridge. But the entire hotel is being made over to new and stringent standards set by Marriott.

“This is not a reflagging; it’s a new build, and that’s why the work is so extensive,” he explained. “Everything that that a guest could see or touch is being replaced. Beyond that, we’ve moved walls, we’ve moved emergency staircases in the building to accomplish higher ceilings … it’s impressive what has been done.”

The timing of the project — during the middle of a pandemic — has been beneficial in one respect: there was minimal displacement of guests due to the ongoing work and, therefore, not a significant loss of overall business. But the pandemic has also been a hindrance because it’s made getting needed construction materials much more difficult, causing delays in the work and uncertainty about when it can all be completed.

“You might get a shower wall in, but not the shower tub,” Marks explained. “And you can’t do the wall without the tub, so you have to wait, and this happens all the time. If everything goes smoothly from here, it might be April when we reopen, or it could also be summer.”

By then, he thinks the world, and downtown Springfield, will look considerably different, and there will be a considerable amount of pent-up demand.

“Especially for the leisure travelers,” he said. “People are really itching to get out; they’re all waiting to go somewhere, and also go to events, weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. I’m hopeful that we’ll be opening right when the pent-up demand is coming.”

As for the restaurant planned for the Court Square property, Picknelly and Yee project it will be open for business by the fall of 2022, and that, when it does debut, it will be an important addition to a downtown that may look somewhat different, but will likely still be a destination and a place people not only want to visit, but live in.

“Winn has done 100 renovation projects like this around the country,” Picknelly said. “They are 100% convinced that this building will be fully occupied by the time we open — there’s no doubt in their minds, based on the projections. I think that says a lot about people still wanting to live in urban areas, and I think it says a lot about Springfield and what people think of this city.”

Fighting Spirit

Returning to his analogy about shadow boxing, Sarno said COVID-19 has certainly proven to be a difficult sparring partner.

Unlike the tornado, which passed through quickly and left a trail of destruction to be cleaned up, COVID has already lingered far longer than most thought it would, and no one really knows for sure how much longer we’ll be living with it.

Meanwhile, as for the damage it will cause, there is simply no way of knowing that, either, and the toll creeps higher with each passing week.

But, as the mayor noted, the city is already punching back, and it intends to keep on punching with the goal of regaining the momentum it has lost and turning back the clock — even if it’s only six or seven months.

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says a burgeoning cannabis sector is just one of many positive developments in Palmer.

If there’s one thing capitalism doesn’t like, Ryan McNutt says, it’s uncertainty. And COVID-19 has certainly injected plenty of that into the regional and national economic picture.

But unlike more densely populated areas like Boston, where the death toll — and accompanying anxiety — are higher, leading to a slower return to acitity, Palmer has seen only seven coronavirus-related deaths. Even now, only nine people are under some sort of quarantine order, following a long stretch of no cases at all.

How much Palmer’s low case count has affected business activity is hard to tell, said McNutt, who became town manager last year. But there’s reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector,” he told BusinessWest. “And some other Western Mass. communities are seeing that as well.”

Local projects run the gamut from a bar on Main Street being converted to a pizza restaurant to Adaptas Solutions adding a building to its complex in the Palmer Industrial Park.

“It’s a growing business — even in this pandemic, people are still adding jobs, adding capacity, adding new product lines,” said McNutt, noting that Sanderson MacLeod, which specializes in manufacturing twisted wire brushes, has grown recently by shifting to new product lines, some of them medical, during the pandemic. “Capitalism is creative destruction. People are going to enter new markets, or enter existing markets where others couldn’t fill those markets, and Palmer will benefit from that.”

The cannabis sector certainly shows no signs of slowdown, with four businesses — Altitude Organic and Heka Health on the retail side and and MINT Cultivation Facilities and the WingWell Group on the cultivation side — getting ready to open in the coming months.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector.”

“This will be an amazing amount of unrestricted local revenue,” McNutt said, though he was quick to add that most neighboring states still haven’t legalized cannabis. “Once those states or the federal government legalize, there will be diminishing returns. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from other states.”

That said, he expects the industry to be a net positive for Palmer’s tax base for a long time to come, even if it’s hard to predict the exact impact. “There’s obviously a floor of cannabis users, but what is the ceiling?”

It’s a question he can apply to many types of economic development, including a long-talked-about rail line that could eventually be a game changer for this community of just over 13,000 residents.

Focused Approach

When McNutt, the former city manager of Claremont, N.H., took over in Palmer last July, economic development was a key focus from the start.

“Economic development is important, making sure we grow the tax base and make it sustainable for the people who live here but also create opportunities to attract new people coming in,” he said. “We can do that to some degree ourselves, and then there are macro things happening, like the east-west rail line. Some days I’m more confident that will come in, some other days I’m less confident. I try to stay on the optimistic side of it.”

Palmer at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.80; Three Rivers, $23.42; Bondsville, $23.89; Thorndike, $24.16
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

That said, “if our folks at the federal level are really looking at this country, starting to talk more and more about having a national infrastructure package, then I think the east-west rail line is more promising, because it will take federal money; it will take being a component of a larger national infrastructure package to make it doable. But that east-west rail line would be so transformative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In recent years, the Palmer Town Council established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer. The town’s position, roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges and south to the University of Connecticut, makes it a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

In addition, McNutt noted, Palmer has a workforce of close to 8,000 people, and 85% of them work outside of Palmer, mostly in Worcester but more than 100 in Pittsfield. A rail line would ease the commute for many, while individuals who want to work in the Boston area, where housing prices can be exorbitant, could instead choose to live in towns along the rail line, like Palmer.

“There are a lot of good opportunities that make Palmer an attractive community, as long as we market ourselves correctly,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can so when a national infrastructure package gets introduced, we will be shovel-ready.

Speaking of infrastructure, Palmer boasts nine bridges that span four rivers, all built around 80 years ago with a life expectancy of about 50 years, he said. The cost to repair them is about $3 million per bridge, on average, and with the entire municipal budget, including schools, around $40 million, “it’s not like we have the internal capacity to just fix those bridges.”

The town submitted a $7.5 million grant application to the federal BUILD program last year to repair a couple of those bridges, competing with $10 billion worth of applications — across all 50 states — for about $900 million in funding. Despite those odds, Palmer made it to the final round of consideration before being dropped, and McNutt said the region’s federal lawmakers encouraged him to reapply this year. He’s cautiously optimistic the news will be better this time around.

“I think both Democrats and Republicans agree we’ve let huge swaths of this country fall apart since the end of World War II. Bridges, ports, airports … we’ve got to get on top of this. Everyone understands the deficiency across the country is bipartisan. The amount of jobs that could will be created would keep people working for the 20 years fixing the stuff we’ve let go for 70 years. And borrowing money has never been cheaper.”

Bang for the Buck

McNutt said he’s always thinking in terms of economic development, and its importance in communities with tax-rate increases constrained by Proposition 2½.

“I’m conservative when it comes to taxpayer resources,” he said. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know the strain Proposition 2½ places upon communities and municipalities, considering the rising fixed expenditures and costs we face, especially on the school side. And at the same time, I really believe that taxpayers pay a lot of money. I’m very keen on making sure people get value for that taxpayer dollar, so we’re always looking for grants and efficiencies in doing business, to be able to control those costs.”

For that reason, he went on, it’s important for towns of Palmer’s size and demographics to attract an influx of younger residents, and expanded rail could help boost that effort.

“Everybody who’s aging and on a fixed income, they really have a limited runway in what the property taxes can get to,” he noted. “That’s something that’s always my first focus — what is the tax base, what is the tax rate, and what is the economic capacity to pay it? How quickly do we need to find new revenue to support municipal operations without having everything fall on the backs of the retiree who’s lived in Palmer their whole life, and not necessarily getting new revenue themselves?”

Fortunately, even during a pandemic, growth is possible — and, in many cases, happening — and the promise of east-west rail service only boosts McNutt’s sense of what’s possible. While his confidence on that front may waver, depending on the day, his belief in Palmer’s potential — and its ability to weather the current storm — certainly does not.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Despite what she described as “shifting sands and shifting times,” Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle believes her city is more than holding its own in the face of COVID-19.

By that, she meant this community of roughly 16,000 people is moving ahead with a number of municipal projects and economic-development initiatives. And it is also undertaking several efforts, often in cooperation with other entities — such as the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce — to help its business community, and especially the very small businesses that dominate the landscape, weather this intense storm.

“We’re focused on a good, basic plan that addresses infrastructure and quality of life for everyone in our city,” she said, as she addressed the former — and the latter as well.

In that first category, she listed everything from a $100 million school-building project to a $45 million mixed-use development, called One Ferry, that involves renovating old mill buildings and reworking the infrastructure in the Ferry Street area.

“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times. It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”

And in the second category, she mentioned several initiatives, from small-business grants to a community-block-grant program designed to help microbusinesses, to efforts to help renters. Indeed, the city has put aside $300,000 in relief for renters; the relief begins in the fall and is meant to keep an important source of affordable housing in place.

“If you start losing renters, many of the owners will have to sell because they’ll have trouble paying their mortgages,” the mayor said, adding that there are many ripple effects from the pandemic, and the city’s strategy is to keep the ripples from gaining size and strength.

Overall, LaChapelle acknowledged that COVID-19 is forcing businesses, families, and institutions to make pivotal changes during very uncertain times, but she remains an optimist.

“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times,” she noted. “It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”

Progress Report

Like other mayors BusinessWest has spoken with in recent weeks, LaChapelle said COVID-19 has certainly impacted businesses in every sector, changed daily life in innumerable ways, and even altered how city government carries out its business.

But in many respects, it hasn’t slowed the pace of progress in the city — at least when it comes to a number of important municipal and development projects, including the aforementioned school project.

Mo Belliveau

Mo Belliveau

“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them.”

The as-yet-unnamed school, located on Park Street, is an example of several elements of the city’s plan coming together. The new building will house students from pre-K through grade 8, replacing three older elementary schools in Easthampton. New road infrastructure is planned in front of the building as well, with the addition of a roundabout intersection.

LaChapelle noted that the $100 million project is slightly ahead of schedule and should be completed by late 2021 or early 2022. The roundabout will be completed this month.

Meanwhile, other projects are taking shape or getting ready to move off the drawing board. One involves River Valley Co-op, the Northampton-based food cooperative, which is currently building a 23,000-square-foot market in Easthampton on the site of the former Cernak Oldsmobile Pontiac dealership. The co-op is scheduled to open by spring or summer of next year.

Once complete, the mayor explained, River Valley will employ 60 full-time union workers with the potential to expand to nearly 100 workers in the next two years. Road improvements that will benefit the new co-op include a dedicated turning lane into the market and straightening the road in front.

“This is an area along Route 10 that has been a traffic pain point for economic development,” she said. “While it’s a $400,000 project, we expect the return to far exceed those dollars.”

Another project in the works is One Ferry, an initiative expected to bring new residents, new businesses, and more vibrancy to the city.

“In the next 18 to 24 months, this project will add quality apartments, condominiums, and office space,” LaChapelle said, adding that public infrastructure to support this project includes a roundabout that connects a residential area, the industrial park, and the mill district of Easthampton. The first building in the project, recently completed, provides space for two businesses and two apartments.

“Right now, this project is providing jobs and vitality for the area, and that will only increase,” she noted. “One Ferry is huge for our future.”

Dave Delvecchio

Dave Delvecchio

“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options. It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”

Another bright note for the future involves Adhesive Applications, which makes adhesive tapes for use in more than a dozen industries. The longtime Easthampton manufacturer is planning a 40,000- to 50,000-square-foot addition to the company, the mayor said.

The chamber and the mayor’s office are also working together on Blueprint Easthampton, a resource map designed for entrepreneurs and business people.

“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them,” said Mo Belliveau, executive director of the chamber.

According to a news release on Blueprint Easthampton, the mapping initiative will improve access to available business tools and strengthen the links between the city and the business community.

New Normal

While work continues on these projects, efforts continue to assist those businesses impacted by the pandemic. And the Greater Easthampton Chamber has played a large role in such efforts.

Prior to the pandemic, Belliveau had begun shifting the emphasis at the agency away from events and more on education and discussion-type programming. After organizing and scheduling programs for the year, stay-at-home orders went into effect in March and wiped out all those plans.

“Like so many small businesses, we at the chamber had to pivot along with our partners and find new ways to provide meaningful value to our community,” Belliveau said, adding that many of these new ways involve providing information — and other forms of support — to businesses during the pandemic.

Indeed, Easthampton received a $30,000 grant from the state attorney general’s office designed to help small businesses pay for COVID-19-related expenses and allow them to continue their operations. LaChapelle invited the chamber to be the administrator of what became the Greater Easthampton Sustaining Small Business Grant (SSBG) program. Applicants could request up to $1,500 and use the grant for buying PPE, paying their rent, or purchasing supplies needed to comply with state guidelines on reopening.

A total of 31 businesses qualified for the grants, which were to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Fortunately, all 31 applicants received grant money totaling more than $43,000, thanks to donations from Easthampton-businesses Applied Mortgage, which kicked in an additional $10,000, and Suite 3, which covered the remainder of the funding requests.

“My goal going forward is to find other businesses that are able to contribute to this effort so we can do another round of funding,” Belliveau said. “The need is great, and the money from this first effort went fast.”

In addition, Easthampton and six surrounding communities recently became eligible for a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses get through the pandemic. Businesses with five or fewer employees can apply for up to $10,000 in grant money. Easthampton was the lead community in applying for the block grant.

“We have many innovative small businesses in Easthampton who still can’t reopen,” LaChapelle said. “This grant program is designed to help them stay afloat.”

Dave DelVecchio is president of Suite3, a company that provides IT services for businesses of all sizes. While most of his customer base is in Western Mass., Suite3 also has clients internationally and in several U.S. states.

As an IT service provider, DelVecchio measures success by “ticket requests,” an indication that a customer needs support. When COVID-19 started taking its toll and many businesses were shut down in March and April, ticket requests were at their lowest point. Since then, Suite3’s business has come back to pre-pandemic levels.

As a past president and current treasurer of the chamber, DelVecchio was concerned about the impact COVID-19 was having on the business community, and especially its growing portfolio of restaurants.

“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options,” he said. “It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”

He added that Easthampton has a good number of other businesses affected by COVID-19 that did not receive as much attention as the restaurants.

“Businesses such as travel agencies and professions that require personal interaction, like chiropractors and massage therapists, were also affected by the virus,” he said, noting that the SSBG and Community Development Block Grant can make a real difference for such businesses.

Coming Together

DelVecchio credits Belliveau with changing the focus of the chamber to more education without losing its important role as a provider of networking opportunities. Part of the changing organization involved moving from an annual fee model to monthly dues. While that can be a risky move, DelVecchio noted there was almost no attrition in membership.

“We are grateful that we continue to get support from the business community and they see value in the chamber,” he said, “especially at a time when expenses are being put under greater scrutiny.”

This support is another indication of how the community, which had been thriving before the pandemic, has come together to cope with a crisis that has provided a real test — or another real test — for residents and businesses alike.

As the mayor noted earlier, Easthampton’s grit and resilience has helped it survive a number of economic downturns and other challenges in the past. And those qualities will see it through this one as well.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says COVID-19 has put a damper on many of his plans for Chicopee, but he remains optimistic about the city and its future.

John Vieau wasn’t exactly planning on running for mayor last summer.

That’s because he was reasonably sure that incumbent and two-time Mayor Richard Kos would be seeking another two-year term — and Kos eventually did take out papers for re-election. And when Kos ultimately decided in February 2019 to return to his law practice instead of the corner office, Vieau, a Willimansett native and long-time alderman from Ward 3, didn’t exactly jump into the race.

Indeed, he had to think long and hard about this decision, especially the prospect of leaving a well-paying job with the Commonwealth — specifically, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) — and take a pay cut to serve as mayor.

“I’m not a gambler,” said Vieau with a laugh, adding that he ultimately decided to run for mayor — and prevail over a crowded field — but take a leave of absence from his job with MassDOT so he can ultimately return when he’s finished with City Hall.

That careful due diligence notwithstanding, being mayor has been a long-time goal, if not a dream job, for Vieau, who said he fully understood everything that came with the territory … except maybe a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of municipal management — from greeting guests at City Hall (elbow bumps instead of handshakes) to making a budget — and made just about every facet of economic development, from maintaining the momentum that was building downtown to beginning the next stage in the life of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park, that much more difficult.

“It’s put a lot of things on pause,” said Vieau, who put the accent on ‘lot,’ noting that the pandemic has impacted municipalities as hard as it has hit specific economic sectors and individual businesses. It has affected how city business is conducted, sharply reduced revenues, and, as noted, put a number of projects on ice.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores. And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

“All the ideas and things that were happening are sitting on the back burner as we combat this time of uncertainty and crisis,” he said while summing things up succinctly, before amending to say ‘most all’ the ideas and projects.

Indeed, there are some things happening, from a new Florence Bank branch at the site of the old Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Avenue to a new restaurant, Jaad, located downtown. But, as he said, the pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress at a time when he thought the downtown, and the city as a whole, were seeing a renaissance of sorts.

But Vieau, while not exactly welcoming the challenge of COVID-19, is embracing it to some extent and looking upon it as a stern test of his management and leadership capabilities — a trial by extreme fire, if you will.

He noted that he took his first full weekend off since March early last month, and said it felt good to get some rest. But he fully understands that the future is a very large question mark, and the pandemic certainly isn’t done making life difficult for the residents and leaders of the region’s second-largest city.

“We have to remain diligent,” he said, echoing the governor when it comes to the pandemic and how the city, the state, and the country, are far from out of the woods. “We have to do everything we can to keep this under control.”

For this, the latest installment if its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with the city’s relatively new mayor about life in the age of COVID-19 and how he’s trying to see his community through to the other side of this crisis.

Numbers Game

At one point in his talk with BusinessWest, Vieau paused and reached for some papers on his desk — the latest reports on the state of the pandemic in his city.

He didn’t have to consult the paperwork to know the numbers — he had already pretty much committed them to memory — but he did so to show just how much data he and others in municipal management have to keep track of, and just how committed he is to understanding everything he can about the spread of the virus on any given day — or moment, for that matter.

“I look at the numbers every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 deaths in the city, people with underlying conditions, ages 58 to 100. We have, today, 41 open cases of COVID-19, 399 people who have recovered, and we have 45 people in the N/A group, meaning they’re probably residents of the city that are now in assisted living, some form of nursing home, or other facility that’s not in Chicopee.”

This attention to detail is just part of managing the pandemic, or managing during the pandemic, to be more precise, he said, adding that he has a 10 a.m. conference call with his ‘COVID team’ every day, and these calls have led to some aggressive and ultimately effective efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Indeed, Chicopee was among the first, and most vigilant, cities when it came to requiring masks in stores and other public places and putting other measures in place to slow the spread of the virus.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores,” he noted. “And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park into apartments is one of many projects in Chicopee now clouded by question marks as a result of the pandemic.

This is not exactly what Vieau signed on for when he took out papers for mayor last winter, soon after Kos opted not to seek re-election. What he did sign up for was a chance to take what has become a career of service to the city to a higher level.

That career started with a stint on the Planning Board — he was appointed by Kos during his first stint as mayor — and went to a different plane when he was talked into running for the open Ward 3 seat on the Board of Aldermen 16 years ago, not long after he took a job at MassDOT handling eminent-domain work.

“I saw this an opportunity to get more involved,” he told BusinessWest. “This was the area where I grew up; to have a chance to represent it as an alderman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Vieau spent the last four of those 16 years as president of the board, and was content to go on representing his ward until Kos decided not to seek another term. Vieau said he received calls from the media within an hour of Kos’s announcement asking if he was going to run, and his quick answer was ‘no,’ for those reasons stated earlier. But after talking with family, friends, constituents, and his employer, and after learning he could take a leave of absence, he ultimately decided to run.

There were many planks to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.

“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keeping people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.

For example, $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.

Holding Patterns

One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress registered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents responded by turning out in large numbers.

The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it. We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylinders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events on Friday nights and had food trucks … all these fun things were happening, and … COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”

The hope is that businesses downtown can weather what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stronger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.

These building blocks include the Mass Development-funded Transformational Development Initiative (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.

One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,298
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.93
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

These projects, which the mayor expects to proceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.

“We’re looking at young professionals and empty-nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”

As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were funneled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he continued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, City Hall.

Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, adding that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the structure, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”

Managing the Situation

As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get weekends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.

But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.

This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.

After all, he has made public service a second career.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

While communities nationwide continue to grapple with what he calls the “grumpy cloud” of COVID-19, Westfield Mayor Donald Humason is looking to project a little sunshine.

“A lot of it has to do with the attitude in Westfield,” the mayor said. “We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.” 

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, agreed, and wants everyone to know Westfield is open for business.

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon says the Greater Westfield Chamber remains strong and active, and has even welcomed some new members.

While the chamber remains strong with more than 5,000 members, two new businesses have recently joined. Play Now, a new toy store on Silver Street, and Results in Wellness, a health and wellness clinic on Springfield Road, were both planning ribbon-cutting ceremonies at press time. Also scheduled to open is a Five Below store, where everything is priced between $1 and $5.

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody,” Phelon said.

After many months of not being able to hold any chamber events, she’s also excited about hosting the annual chamber golf tournament, scheduled for Aug. 31 at East Mountain Country Club. “We will, of course, be following all the guidelines for masks and distancing. It certainly helps that this is an outdoor event.”

Speaking of outdoor events, the Westfield Starfires began their Futures Collegiate Baseball League season on July 8. The team modified Bullens Field to provide a safe experience for fans and staff by following state guidelines for COVID-19 safety. Phelon attended as part of a contingent of chamber members and reported that fans simply wore their masks and were able to enjoy refreshments at properly distanced picnic tables.

“We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.”

Considering what’s already been lost in this unprecedented year, the shout of ‘play ball!’ was certainly welcome — and city and chamber officials hope it heralds the start of a back half of 2020 that’s far more promising than the first half.

Full Power

While it was uncertain if the Starfires would be able to play this season, the crew at Westfield Gas & Electric never stopped.

General Manager Anthony Contrino said his crews have consistently provided essential services for customers of the municipal utility. After a crash course on handling COVID-19 in the workplace that kept people safe and followed state guidelines, G & E crews have handled only emergency situations for the last several months. More recently, the utility has been able to handle non-emergency work like in-home gas and electric installations.

Contrino said the many disaster-recovery drills he and his colleagues have done in the past helped prepare them well for COVID-19.

“We’ve had a lot of remote-workforce capabilities in place, but they’ve never been tested to this degree,” he said, calling it a “blessing in disguise” as the last several months confirmed that the processes they had set up work when they are most needed.

Administrative staff returned to their offices at the end of June after the building was reconfigured with the latest pandemic protocols in place.

“I commend my co-workers, who have done a very good job during this time for their service to the city and all of our customers,” Contrino said, adding that Westfield G & E received the Reliable Public Power Provider Award for excellence in operating efficiently, reliably, and safely.

Westfield

Westfield Mayor Don Humason says he has heard from business, both downtown and elsewhere, looking to expand once they feel they can.

Whip City Fiber, a separate business that provides fiber-optic internet service, is also run by Westfield G & E. Contrino said 70% of Westfield now has access to the utility’s fiber-optic network. “In 2020, we have continued to add customers to areas that have access to fiber optics in their neighborhood.”

The plan going forward is to expand the network to the remaining 30% of the city. “Customer demand will determine where we build out the remainder of the network,” he noted.

In addition to serving Westfield, Whip City Fiber is working with 19 towns in Western Mass. to establish their internet service, Contrino added. “We are working in places like the hilltowns that were underserved with internet service, so they are appreciative that we can help them get up and running.”

Once established, customers in the hilltowns will have access to gigabit service, or 1,000 megabits coming into their homes. By installing fiber optics, Contrino said, these towns are “future-proofing” their internet systems. “We already had the competencies in place to build fiber-optic networks, so by expanding our services to other towns, we become more cost-effective for Westfield residents.”

Getting Around

On the recreation front, the Greenway Rail Trail, an elevated bike path, is expanding across the city. By the end of next year, bike paths and five bridges will be added to the trail.

“The completion of the bike trail will be a real economic driver for Westfield,” Humason said. “I think it will attract cyclists from other parts of the country, as well as the state.”

Phelon added that serious cyclists will be able to ride continuously from Westfield to New Haven, Conn., and the trail is a valuable asset for casual cyclists as well.

“Bike riders will now have a way to quickly get across town because the trail goes through the center of Westfield,” she noted. “Because it’s elevated and above all the traffic, they will be able to go from one end of town to the other, complete with off-ramps into different neighborhoods.” 

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody.”

The mayor is hopeful that enterprising businesses will locate near the bike trail to serve the bikers, walkers, and others who use it.

“The bike trail fits in nicely with the flavor of old Westfield and our history of industry and agriculture,” he said. “Even if you’re not interested in all that, it’s an easy way to get across town.”

Humason said he’s pleased to see that a number of road improvements over the years now connect the downtown area from the south side of the city all the way to the Mass Pike exit.

The latest road project near completion involves widening and adding sidewalks along Western Avenue. The project also improves traffic flow with turning lanes into Westfield State University, as well as pull-off areas for PVTA buses.

“Western Avenue is one of the longest streets in the city, and it deserved to get this treatment,” the mayor said, adding that certain parts of the road also have traffic islands to separate the east and west lanes. “It’s an easier road to drive now, and it looks really nice.” 

The mayor said the city completed a similar project on East Mountain Road, another long street. “If we continually work on the longer streets and keep them in good order when we have the revenue, we can work on the smaller streets in the neighborhoods and the downtown corridor, so we can keep the city in good shape.” 

Future projects coming to Westfield include a new entry gate to the military side of Barnes Airport to service the both the Army Aviation facility and the Air National Guard base. The new entrance will allow the base to modernize function and security for everyone entering the base.

A public park is also planned just outside the gate that will feature one of the F-15 fighter jets that flew over New York City on 9/11. A plaque to tell the story of the jet’s mission on Sept. 11, 2001 will also be part of the display.

Moving On

Also in the near future, Phelon will be retiring from the Greater Westfield Chamber. Before she leaves on Sept. 25, her plan is to work with the new executive director to ensure continuity in the many chamber projects.

“I want to make sure the next director understands our community, as well as our members, and can work with our public and private partners at the local and state level,” she said.

Despite the tough economic times of the last six months, prospects for Westfield look strong, she told BusinessWest, adding that she’s encouraged by the fact that no businesses have decided to not reopen. Meanwhile, Contrino said his crews have not been asked to shut off any business customers because they are permanently closing. Humason said he’s heard only from businesses looking forward to expanding once they can.

“Like many towns, we’re going through the COVID economy, but that’s not going to last forever,” the mayor said. “We’ll be ready to grow when the restraints have finally been taken off because the people in Westfield have put a lot of time, attention, and money into its city and its downtown.”

Community Spotlight Franklin County Special Coverage

Waiting Game

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield, which is developing plans for a September opening.

Magic Wings is a year-round operation, Kathy Fiore said — even when its doors are shut.

“This is different from a clothing store,” said Fiore, who co-owns the butterfly conservatory in Deerfield with her brother. “When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

And that means expenses that don’t disappear when no visitors show up — which they haven’t since the facility closed to the public in mid-March, part of a state-mandated economic shutdown in response to COVID-19.

“We kind of saw it coming, and then it just happened,” she said of the closure. “As owners of the business, we’ve tried to remain positive and upbeat and assure our staff, assure our customers.”

As for when Magic Wings will be allowed to reopen, phase 3 looks most likely, which means very soon. But the state’s guidance is only one consideration. The other is keeping visitors safe and helping prevent a viral flareup in a region that has effectively depressed infection rates, as opposed to states like Florida and Texas that were more lax about regulating crowds — and have seen cases spike in recent weeks.

“When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

“My brother and are watching how things are going,” Fiore said. “We’re certainly watching other businesses open back up, but we’re also hearing about the resurgence in certain places, about people getting together and going right back to a situation we don’t want to be in.”

Historic Deerfield, which shuttered its buildings to the public a few weeks before the start of its 2020 season, doesn’t expect to reopen most of them until September.

“We had a lot of different challenges and things to figure out,” said Laurie Nivison, director of Marketing, explaining why the organization’s leadership isn’t rushing back before they feel it’s safe. “Just thinking ahead to when it might be possible to open again, we decided to move some bigger things to the fall. The fall season is always a big time for us. That’s when people start thinking they want to come to Deerfield, so we said, ‘let’s look at opening around Labor Day weekend.’”

Losing an entire spring and most of summer is a considerable financial hit, of course, and the center was forced to lay off dozens of staff. But at the same time, it has looked to stay relevant and connected to the community in several ways, including putting a series of ‘Maker Monday’ workshops online, taking a virtual approach to teaching people how to stencil, make their own paper, or building a decoupage box, to name a few recent examples.

Meanwhile, museum curators have been sharing plenty of interesting artifacts from the collection online, while the director of historic preservation recently took people on a virtual tour of the attic of one of the historic houses.

“People never have the opportunity to do that, so that was great,” Nivison said. “We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

Many Franklin County attractions, especially of the outdoor variety — such as Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East in Charlemont, where people can engage in ziplining, biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities — are already open. But indoor attractions face different challenges and are on a different reopening pace, due to both state guidelines and their own sense of caution.

But a wider reopening is the goal, as area tourism officials consider the region a connected ecosystem of activity that draws visitors to take in multiple sites, not just one. In short, the more attractions are open, the more each will benefit.

Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen

Because it’s an indoor attraction, Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen until she’s confident visitors will be safe.

“We’re talking a lot about how we can convince visitors to come back when the time is right because there’s so much outdoor fun you can have here,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “We have hiking, cycling, fly fishing, regular fishing, walking trails — there’s so much opportunity for things to do here that are perfectly safe and healthy.”

Safety First

Szynal was just scratching the surface when she spoke to BusinessWest. From retail destinations like Yankee Candle Village to museums, golf courses, wineries, and covered bridges, it’s a region that has plenty to offer, and attractions like Magic Wings and Historic Deerfield certainly sense anticipation among fans and potential visitors when they connect with the community on social media.

But they also don’t want to jump the gun and see the region turn into another Houston.

“It’s been a little unnerving, but from the beginning, my brother and I didn’t want to reopen until we feel it’s safe, even if the government lifts the regulations for businesses like Magic Wings. We don’t mind waiting it out a little bit to make sure everything is safe,” Fiore said.

“We normally can take in a lot of people, but we’re different because we’re an indoor facility,” she added, noting that Magic Wings will follow the state’s guidelines for social distancing, masks, and crowd count, while considering options like visiting by appointment as well. “We’re trying to think of all the different things we can do to make sure people are really safe but still have a pleasant experience.”

It helped, she said, that the conservatory procured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep its staff paid, and now that reopening approaches, she’s hoping to get everyone back on the regular payroll. “We’re responsible for the livelihood of a lot of people.”

But the shutdown also posed an opportunity, she added. “It’s beautiful here — it’s in pristine shape, because we were able to do some cleanup things, different projects, that we don’t have the opportunity to do when we’re open every single day. We hope to welcome people back to a nice, fresh environment that’s better than they remember.”

While the museum houses of Historic Deerfield remain closed for now, the organization got a boost from the reopening of Deerfield Inn and Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern. The week she spoke with BusinessWest, Nivison said the restaurant already had more than 100 reservations lined up for the following week.

Those facilities will benefit from September’s museum reopening, but this fall may still look a little different than most, as tours may be limited — or be smaller, self-guided experiences — while outdoor tours may be expanded. Demonstrations of trades like blacksmithing may be moved outdoors, while the annual Revolutionary muster event, typically held on Patriots’ Day in April, will likely happen this fall as well.

“We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

“We want to be able to give a good experience to folks and really take advantage of all the outdoor things they can do,” Nivison said. “There are a lot of things we can do.”

One thing people aren’t doing as much as they normally would is getting married — with crowded destination receptions, anyway. Because Magic Wings is a popular spot for weddings and receptions, that was another significant revenue loss this spring and summer, Fiore said.

“Couples had to shift everything, and a couple bumped their weddings into 2021. One couple canceled altogether,” she told BusinessWest, noting that weddings already have a lot of moving parts, and couples are simply unsure right now how many guests they’ll be allowed to include until the state offers more guidance.

All Aflutter

That said, Fiore has been buoyed by the number of people calling since the closure. In addition to its social-media presence, Magic Wings also recently ran a television commercial featuring soothing sights and sounds inside the conservatory — to put a smile on viewers’ faces more than anything.

“It was an opportunity for people to take a deep breath,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re all experiencing something totally new, and we’re all concerned and feeling anxious about what’s going to happen — what’s safe and what’s not.

“People love butterflies, and they do come see us from all around,” she added. “But they also want to know it’s not going to be a huge health hazard, and that’s what we’re working toward.”

Szynal understands the concerns, too.

“People are taking this seriously,” she said. “I see the masks. When people are out on errands, walking through stores, they’re giving each other space. As long as this behavior continues, people will feel better moving around a bit more” — and that includes visiting Franklin County attractions.

“I feel people respect this virus and respect each other,” she concluded. “So far, they’re taking the steps they need to keep Massachusetts on the right track.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti says the addition of a Spanish-speaking accelerator program will enable EforAll Holyoke to become an even more impactful component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

It’s been more than three years now since Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse told a TV reporter, tongue in cheek (or not), that he wanted to rename Holyoke ‘Rolling Paper City,’ in a nod to its past — and its potential future as home to businesses in the cannabis industry spawned by a ballot initiative in the fall of 2016.

Things have moved slowly as the city has looked to take full advantage of both its red-carpet treatment for the cannabis industry and vast supply of old mill space — ideal for cultivation as well as other types of businesses in this sector — more slowly than most would have anticipated.

But by most accounts, 2020 should be the year this sector begins to, well, light things up in Holyoke.

Indeed, while Green Thumb Industries, better known to most as GTI, is the only cannabis-related business operating in Holyoke at the moment, that is certain to change soon. True Leaf is ready to commence cultivation operations in the large building on Canal Street that was formerly home to Conklin Office, said Morse, and there are other businesses moving ever closer to the starting line.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry,” said Morse, who, while filling his role as CEO of the city, is also running for Congress this fall. “We’re looking at hundreds of jobs between cultivation and dispensing, and we’re seeing the growth in commercial property values as a result of these investments.”

Meanwhile, there are large tracts of real estate either sold to or under option to a number of other cannabis-related businesses, said Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of Planning and Economic Development.

“We have about 20 companies that have approached us for a host-community agreement; a few of those are no longer proceeding, but we have probably close to a dozen that are still in some part of the process, and we expect a couple to open at some point this year,” said Marrero, who noted that, for decades, Holyoke’s problem was that it had far too much unused or underutilized old mill space. It’s certainly not there yet, but some are starting to think about the possibility of actually running out of that commodity.

But cannabis is certainly not the only promising story in Holyoke at the moment. Indeed, progress is evident on a number of fronts, from the development of several co-working spaces in the city to a thriving cultural economy; from the prospects for a new retail plaza in the vicinity of the Holyoke Mall to Holyoke Community College’s culinary-arts center in the heart of downtown; from Amazon’s new distribution center just off I-91, which has brought more than 100 jobs to the city, to Holyoke Medical Center’s recently announced proposal to build a new, standalone inpatient behavioral-health facility on its campus.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry.”

Then there are the city’s efforts to foster entrepreneurship, especially through the agency known as EforAll Holyoke, which last year cut the ceremonial ribbon at its facilities on High Street.

The agency, originally known as SPARK, will graduate its third accelerator class on March 26, said Executive Director Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, adding that EforAll will soon be expanding with a Spanish-language accelerator, something that’s definitely needed in this diverse community.

“Many people can understand English, but to learn in the language you’re comfortable with … that makes such a difference,” she noted, adding that other EforAll locations have offered programs in Spanish. “There is a need for this here.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on what is still known as the Paper City, a community that has greatly diversified its economy is looking to continue that pattern in the coming years.

In Good Company

Murphy-Romboletti says she won’t be leading the Spanish-speaking accelerator — she’ll be hiring someone to assume that responsibility — but she is taking steps to be better able communicate in that language.

“I’m using Rosetta Stone, and I’m basically telling the people in my life who speak Spanish that they should only speak Spanish to me so I can learn,” she said. “Just growing up in Holyoke, I feel like I understand it fairly well, but I’m still struggling to communicate.”

These language lessons are just one of many items on her plate, including final preparations for the March 26 graduation ceremony, at which accelerator participants will showcase their businesses and many will receive what Murphy-Romboletti refers to affectionately as “those big giant checks” — facsimiles in amounts that will range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, as well as some seed money.

Those awards may not sound significant, but to small-business owner, they can provide a huge boost, she went on, adding that they can cover the cost of forming a limited liability corporation (LLC), buy a new copier, or perhaps purchase some insurance.

“Those are the little things that a startup often has a hard time attaining,” she said. “That money is very important to them.”

As for the seed money, provided by an array of sources, it is awarded based on how well businesses meet stated goals for growth and development.

“We have them set goals for each quarter, and the entrepreneurs keep meeting monthly with their mentors,” she explained. “We survey them before we meet, and there’s a peer-ranking process based on the progress they’ve made toward the goals they set at the beginning of the quarter. It’s a combination of mentor feedback and peer feedback, and it’s a good way to keep the momentum going.”

Summarizing the breakdown of the first several cohorts, Murphy-Romboletti said there has been a good mix of businesses, including several food-related ventures, some professional services, a few nonprofits, and some construction-related endeavors. None are large in size or scope, but most all of them have promise, and many are already contributing to vibrancy in Holyoke by leasing real estate, buying goods and services, and providing them as well.

“When an entrepreneur is getting started, it can be a very lonely process, and we want people to know they don’t have to go through this whole thing alone,” she said. “And I think we’re starting to see the impact this has on the local economy, when there’s new businesses registering and they’re getting bank accounts for their business, and they’re doing things the right way so they can be legitimate businesses that will contribute to the economy.”

Marrero agreed, noting that the companies fostered by these efforts to promote entrepreneurship have created more than 100 jobs, most of them in Holyoke.

“Not everything is a home run — there are a lot of singles, but that’s another way of getting into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “We’re continuing our efforts to create a culture of entrepreneurship, and we’re starting to see some results.”

Thus, promoting entrepreneurship is an economic-development strategy in Holyoke, said Morse, adding that, while it’s good to attract large corporations like Amazon, growing organically by fostering small businesses is usually a more reliable path to growth.

But there are several other growth strategies being executed, and the cannabis industry, and the city’s pursuit of it, could certainly be considered one of them.

Indeed, while some communities were somewhat cautious in their approach to this sector and others (West Springfield, for example) decided they didn’t want such businesses within their boundaries at all, Holyoke has, seemingly since the day the ballot initiative was passed, been quite aggressive in pursuit of cannabis businesses — and jobs.

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back. The plans are still coming together.”

And, as the mayor noted earlier, 2020 is shaping up as a year when many of the businesses that have been putting down roots, to use an industry phrase, will start to see their efforts bear fruit.

True Leaf has been aggressively building out its massive space, said Marrero, and it is expected to employ more than 100 people when it that cultivation and processing operation opens later this year. Other similar businesses are also in the process of readying spaces, including Boston Bud Co., Solierge, and Canna Provisions, which will soon be opening a dispensary in downtown Holyoke.

“Once they open, that will create a lot more economic activity, including hiring, and as soon as they have sales, that will also generate income for the city,” he went on, adding that there will be a ramp-up period for the cultivators as the first crops grow. But when these companies are fully operational, he expects that more than 200 jobs will be added.

Meanwhile, mill space continues to be absorbed by this sector, he said, adding that 5 Appleton St. was recently acquired for cannabis-related uses, bringing the total amount of real estate sold or under option to roughly 500,000 square feet, by his estimates, thus creating speculation, and even concern, that no one could have imagined even a decade ago.

“Eight years ago, the concern was that there was too much empty space,” said Marrero. “The long-term proposition and concern for someone in my position is that we might be running out of inventory, which is funny to think, but it could happen.”

What’s in Store

Meanwhile, retail is also an economic-development strategy, or at least a key contributor to the city’s tax base and overall vibrancy. It remains so, but that sector is changing, primarily because of the city’s new corporate citizen, Amazon, and others like it. The landscape is changing — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Evidence of this change is evident at Holyoke Mall Crossing, a retail center just off I-91 at the intersection of Holyoke Street and Lower Westfield Road. Actually, it’s more a former retail center, said owner Ned Barowsky, who acquired the property in 1996. Indeed, a number of former retail spaces now have different uses, as homes to professionals, healthcare facilities, and service providers, as evidenced by the current tenant list.

It includes Baystate Dental, Rehab Solutions, Ross Webber & Grinnell Insurance, ServiceNet, Vonnahme Eye, Great Clips, and H&R Block. It doesn’t include Kaoud Oriental Rugs and Pier 1, two long-time tenants that became the latest retail outlets to leave that location, leaving 13,000 square feet of contiguous space on the ground floor that Barowsky is now working aggressively to lease with ads touting this as “the best location in Western Mass.” And he expects that there will be more healthcare and professionals in this space instead of traditional retailers.

“Slowly but surely, I’ve been converting my building, which was once 100% retail, into office and medical uses,” he said, adding that he expects this trend, which started roughly a decade ago, to continue. “The only true retail left is Hunt’s Photo and Video, which is doing very well.”

Because of the location at the junction of the turnpike and I-91, he said, the site would be ideal for medical practices and other healthcare-related businesses, and he’s already talked with several interested parties.

While spending most of his time and energy working to fill Holyoke Mall Crossing, Barowsky is in early-stage work on a new retail development on a five-acre parcel adjacent to that property that he acquired from the mall. His primary motivation was to create more parking for the healthcare and service-oriented businesses now populating the Crossing, and he will keep one acre for that purpose. As for the rest, a vision is coming into focus.

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back,” he told BusinessWest. “The plans are still coming together.”

Meanwhile, at the Holyoke Mall, which recently marked 40 years of dominating the local retail landscape, the landscape is shifting there as well, from traditional retail — although there is still plenty of that — to family entertainment and recreation.

“They’re been very savvy about remaining relevant, not like other malls,” said Marrero, citing recent additions such as a Planet Fitness and bowling alleys, as well as new theaters now under construction in the site once occupied by Sears. “They’re integrating a lot more lifestyle entertainment.”

Barowsky, who, as noted, has been a neighbor of the mall for a quarter-century, said that facility is still thriving because of its ability to adjust and put emphasis on entertainment at a time when traditional retail is struggling.

“They’re doing a lot of entertainment-related things to get people in, and hopefully people will shop while they’re there,” he said. “They’re doing a great job of adjusting — the parking lot is still full all the time.”

While the mall is evolving, so too is the downtown area, said Marrero, adding that several new businesses have opened in recent months and more are in the planning stages, including a restaurant, Jud’s, along the Canal Walk; a high-end salon called the Plan, which describes itself as a “sustainable, mission-driven beauty company” and “a force for positive change”; and the Avalon Café, a lounge and game café expected to open soon on Dwight Street.

Most of the growth involves small businesses, said those we spoke with, noting that this organic growth will likely inspire additional vibrancy across many sectors.

“When a forest burns, the forest doesn’t grow back by planting a giant oak tree in the middle of it,” said Marrero. “You have to organically grow an economic ecosystem that feeds off of itself and allows bigger businesses to come in; it’s the small businesses that start putting together the foundation for a place where people want to work and live and enjoy the surroundings.”

Building Blocks

This is what Holyoke has been building toward, said all those we spoke with — building that economic ecosystem that feeds off itself.

There are, as noted, a number of moving parts, from cannabis-related ventures to the small businesses in the accelerator cohorts at EforAll, to the new entertainment options at the Holyoke Mall.

As with the cannabis sector itself, the pieces are coming together slowly but surely. And 2020 is shaping up as a year when it all comes together.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mark Avery, co-founder of Two Weeks Notice Brewing, says the company is working hard to build its brand.

Mark Avery says he doesn’t tell the story as much as he used to — maybe because so many people have heard it by now — but he still gets asked on a fairly regular basis.

And he never tires of telling it, because it’s a good story — and, perhaps more importantly, it’s good marketing.

As he recalls, he was out driving one day and thinking about how great it would be to finally give his two weeks notice at work and start making a living doing what had become his passion — brewing beer.

“And that’s when a lightbulb went off in my head,” he said, “and Two Weeks Notice Brewing was essentially born. I Googled it to see if anyone else had it, and luckily no one else did.”

“The vast majority of what we see is redevelopment projects, and we see a steady amount of development happening every year.”

Today, Avery and business partner Derrick Upson — the individual to whom he left those two weeks notice — are brewing a number of labels at their location on Bosworth Street in West Springfield, across Memorial Avenue from the Big E. They include everything from ‘Resignation IPA’ to ‘Casual Friday,’ a pale ale; from ‘West Side Big Slide,’ another IPA that features the Big E’s famous yellow slide on the label, to ‘Bumby Love,’ an imperial stout. Meanwhile, the tap room the partners opened soon after labeling their first can has become an increasingly popular venue, as evidenced by the large crowd on a recent Saturday.

Thus, Two Weeks Notice has become one of many intriguing development stories in West Springfield in recent months. Or redevelopment stories, as the case may be. Indeed, while this community of 29,000 lies on the crossroads of New England, literally — both I-91 and the Mass Turnpike have exits in it — there isn’t much undeveloped land left. Thus, most of the new-business stories involve redevelopment of existing property.

City Planner Allyson Manuel says many of the business projects in West Springfield involve redevelopment of existing properties.

In the case of Two Weeks Notice, it was a comprehensive renovation of the former Angie’s Tortellinis property, a complicated undertaking, as we’ll see. And there have been several others in recent years, said City Planner Allyson Manuel, listing everything from a new seafood restaurant taking the site of the old Bertucci’s on Riverdale Street to remaking an old junkyard operation into the Hot Brass shooting and archery range just off Memorial Avenue.

And now, the city is looking to write more of these stories, especially at two landmark restaurants on or just off Memorial Avenue that are now sporting ‘closed’ signs in their windows.

One is the site that most still refer to as the Hofbrahaus, even though that restaurant closed several years ago, with 1105 Main (also the address) opening in that same space. The other is the small but nonetheless significant White Hut, an eatery with a very loyal following that closed abruptly a few weeks ago.

The site has been in the news almost constantly since, with TV film crews seen getting close-up shots of that aforementioned sign, with most of the news centered on exploratory efforts by Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, principals of the Bean Restaurant Group, to launch another rescue operation.

The first, of course, was a reopening of another culinary landmark, the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, after it closed briefly in 2014. At press time, the partners were still essentially crunching numbers, said a spokesperson for the Bean Group, adding that a decision on the fate of the beloved burger restaurant would be coming “soon.”

Two landmark restaurants in West Side — the White Hut, above, and 1105 Main (formerly the Hofbrauhaus), now have ‘closed’ signs in their windows.

Meanwhile, there are other properties awaiting redevelopment, said Manuel, listing the former home to United Bank on Elm Street and a mill property off Front Street that was gifted to the city by Neenah Paper Co. in 2018, among others.

But the more pressing news involves infrastructure, she told BusinessWest, adding that the city, and especially businesses along Memorial Avenue, eagerly await the completion of what amounts to the replacement and widening of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects the city to Agawam; the latest target date is late summer 2021, an improvement over the original timetable due to incentives being offered by the state for early completion. The other major project is an upgrade to Memorial Avenue itself, a comprehensive project that calls for reconfigured lanes and a bike lane and promises improved traffic flow.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest tells West Side’s story, which is increasingly one of redevelopment.

Feeling a Draught

Avery told BusinessWest that the Angie’s Tortellinis property — it actually had other uses after Angie’s moved to Westfield several years ago — had been vacant for some time when he and Upson first looked at it.

By then, at least a few other brewers had been through and decided that the property would be too difficult to convert for that use. They thought otherwise, although they conceded it would be a stern challenge.

“There were drop ceilings everywhere, the heat hadn’t been on in more than a year, probably … it was a dump when we got it,” he recalled, adding that a number of refrigeration units had to be ripped out and the area that is now that tap room required almost complete demolition and rebuilding.

Backing up a bit, and returning to that story about the name now over the door, he said Upson was his boss at a company called Pioneer Tool Supply, which was located in West Springfield when he started and eventually relocated to the industrial park in Agawam. When not working, Avery was spending most of his time home brewing — and thinking about taking that from a pastime to a career.

After that lightbulb moment noted earlier, he had a name, and he also had several recipes. He was set to partner with another individual and open a brewery in Westfield, but the two eventually concluded that the partnership wasn’t going to work. That’s when Upson, who by then was big into craft beers, entered the equation, and Avery eventually did give his two weeks notice.

They started selling cans in the fall of 2018 and haven’t looked back. The company’s various brands are now on tap in a number of area bars and restaurants, including several in West Springfield and Agawam, and loyal followers can buy cans at the brewery. On the Saturday we visited, Avery had just finished brewing a batch of what he called Performance Review 13 — and, yes, there were a dozen versions before it.

“These are the beers where I kind of play around with different hops, different yeasts, and different styles if I want to,” he explained. “It gives me a little creativity to break up the monotony of production.”

The tap room is now open Thursday through Sunday, and while business — and growth — have been steady, Avery says more aggressive marketing, and just getting the word out, is perhaps the company’s top priority at the moment.

“We’re working to get our name out — we’re still fairly unknown at this point,” he explained. “People will come in and say, ‘this is the first time we’re been here,’ or ‘we’ve never heard of you guys’ — even people in West Side. So we need to change that and grow the brand. For the most part, it’s just doing interesting and fun events.”

While Two Weeks Notice Brewing goes about building its brand, there are other things brewing in West Springfield, pun intended. Especially those infrastructure projects.

Like its neighbor to the west, Agawam, West Side has struggled during the lengthy but very necessary project to replace the 70-year-old Morgan-Sullivan Bridge. Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, which worked with officials in both cities to minimize the impact of the bridge work during the fair’s 17-day run, said businesses along Memorial Avenue have definitely been affected by the project, which began roughly 18 months ago.

“In the late afternoons, traffic gets backed up all the way to our to our main entrance,” he said, noting that it is several hundred yards from the bridge. “Many businesses are struggling, and people are going elsewhere to do business.”

He praised the state for incentivizing the contractor handling the work, Palmer-based Northern Construction Service, thus pushing up the closing date and making this fall’s Big E hopefully the last that will have to cope with the bridge work.

But not long after that project is over, another much-anticipated project, the redesign and reconstruction of Memorial Avenue, will commence, said Manuel, noting there is no timetable at present, but the target date is the spring or summer of 2022 — after the bridge project is done.

When asked to summarize the scope of the project, she summoned the phrase ‘road diet’ to describe what will take place before elaborating.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.65
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

“This is the new best practice, and it involves reducing the amount of pavement while at the same time incorporating amenities or facilities for transportation other than personal vehicles, such as bikes, pedestrians, and buses,” she explained. “By designing it more efficiently, especially when it comes to the intersections and turning areas, you ideally need fewer lanes — that’s what is meant by road diet.

“The plans are not finalized,” she went on. “But it will have a bike lane and new sidewalks and trees; in addition to trying to improve traffic flow, it’s also a beautification project.”

Thus, there will be significant change to a thoroughfare that is already in a seemingly constant state of motion, not only with vehicular traffic, but also with businesses coming and going.

That’s certainly the case today, with a new, larger Planet Fitness opening in the Century Plaza, and the fate of both the White Hut and the Hofbrauhaus property still unknown.

Both landmarks date back to the 1930s, and they have become part of the landscape on Memorial Avenue, said Manuel, adding that the hope is that both will soon have new names over the door, or, in the case of the White Hut, perhaps the same name but with new ownership.

As for the Hofbrauhaus property, it presents both challenges and opportunities.

“The size of the facility is a bit daunting for another restaurant,” she noted. “But the location is so good that I’m sure that something will happen there.”

Meanwhile, movement is also a constant on the other major thoroughfare in the city, Riverdale Street, where the new seafood restaurant is set to open soon, said Manuel. It’s not far from a recently opened Marriott Courtyard, which was built on the site of the former Boston Billiards, yet another example of redevelopment in this city.

“The vast majority of what we see is redevelopment projects, and we see a steady amount of development happening every year,” she said, adding there are many other examples of this, including the ongoing expansion of Titan Industries on Baldwin Street, Hot Brass, and the Holyoke Creative Arts Center moving into one of the mills vacated by Neenah Paper.

Lager Than Life

The hope, and the expectation, is that this pattern will continue, Manuel said, adding that, while the city is indeed land-poor, it is opportunity-rich given its location, easy accessibility, and inventory of properties that can be redeveloped.

Sometimes it takes some imagination and determination — as was certainly the case with Two Weeks Notice and the former tortellini factory — but West Springfield has generally proven to be a mailing address worthy of such diligence.

Avery noted the same while finishing that batch of Performance Review 13, which will hopefully become yet another positive chapter in a business story written in a city where more such sagas are penned each year.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A $50 million renovation will transform Elm Court, on the Stockbridge line, into a new resort.

Historic properties are getting a second act in Lenox these days.

Take the $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and has transformed it into a high-end wellness resort, called Miraval Berkshires Resort & Spa, featuring 102 guest rooms and suites, and a luxury, 46-room hotel, Wyndhurst Manor & Club.

Set to open in May, the complex known as Miraval Berkshires is the third Miraval property nationwide, following its flagship in Tucson, Ariz. — named among the top 20 destination spas in the world last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers — and a second location in Austin, Texas, which opened last year. Hyatt acquired Miraval in 2017, and Wyndhurst Manor & Club is part of Hyatt’s Destination Hotels brand.

The 29,000-square-foot spa in Lenox “was conceived to excite all five senses and encourage mindfulness and introspection,” according to the company, and will include 28 treatment rooms, an indoor/outdoor lounge pool, separate relaxation rooms for women and men, a salon, a sauna, a steam room, a retail boutique, and a courtyard that evokes “a sense of harmony with nature.”

The neighboring Wyndhurst Manor & Club, a renovated Tudor-style mansion built in 1894, will offer a more traditional hotel experience, but guests there can purchase day packages for Miraval.

“We are excited to continue the Miraval brand’s expansion with the upcoming opening of Miraval Berkshires, as well as to welcome Wyndhurst Manor & Club to the Hyatt family,” said Susan Santiago, senior vice president of Miraval Resorts, in a release. “These two properties will offer distinct and memorable travel experiences, and we look forward to inspiring once-in-a-lifetime, transformative experiences for all guests who visit our Miraval and Wyndhurst resorts in the heart of the Berkshires.”

Then there’s the Elm Court estate on the Stockbridge-Lenox line, constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt. It completed a series of renovations in 1919 and evolved into an inn in the ’40s and ’50s, hosting dinners, events, and overnight accommodations. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

These days, Travaasa Berkshire County is working on a $50 million renovation of the property to develop a new resort there, featuring 112 rooms, including 16 existing suites in the Gilded Age mansion. After a series of starts and stops, including a holdup in land court in Lenox and a pause for infrastructure improvements to the roadway and water and sewer lines, the project is now moving forward.

“Travaasa Berkshire County’s plan preserves and protects a beloved historic property, respects community character, conserves open space, and contributes to the hospitality culture of the region,” the project website notes. “A tasteful, responsible commercial use of this property by a financially healthy organization will revive a dormant estate, create living-wage hospitality jobs at all skill levels, and maintain the property on town tax rolls.”

Even the Mount, Edith Wharton’s English manor-style home during the early part of the 20th century, is making news these days. Her classic novel The Age of Innocence is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, the Manor is displaying Wharton’s personal copy of the book.

“We have many, many of her works that either have bookplates or her signature — or both, as with this copy — and so, to finally have her own copy of The Age Of Innocence join this collection of her work, it’s amazing. It’s incredible,” Nynke Dorhout, the Mount’s librarian, told Northeast Public Radio recently.

Looking Ahead

Lenox is much more than its historical properties, of course. It’s also long been renowned for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But the business community has seen new energy in recent years as well, with projects like a Courtyard by Marriott that opened in 2017 and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space; the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years; an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies; and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,205
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.10
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.78
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

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

Meanwhile, to encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, and this town of just over 5,000 is looking decidely to the future, while continuing to celebrate and restore its rich past.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Claudia Pazmany says the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Downtown BID have found many ways to partner to raise the town’s profile.

The Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce shares a downtown storefront with the Amherst Downtown Business Improvement District (BID). More important, the two organizations share a common vision.

“In general, BIDs and chambers aren’t always symbiotic, but we have found a way to really bridge that,” said Claudia Pazmany, the chamber’s executive director.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the BID, agreed. “We’ve been working very closely with the chamber; it’s been great bouncing a lot of ideas off each other,” she said. “I think both the BID and the chamber have this approach that a rising tide lifts all shops. We want the Amherst area to thrive and succeed.”

Gould, who came on board the BID five months ago, said part of her focus has been heavily marketing a buy-local, shop-local, eat-local philosophy, and it’s bearing results. For example, a ‘red-ticket’ month held during the holidays, in which shoppers got a red ticket for each $25 spent downtown, which went into a drawing for cash prizes, generated about $500,000. “That’s money that stays local instead of going to the big-box stores.”

The BID is also conducting conversations with residents and businesses about zoning and development — particularly targeting those who generally oppose any change.

“We’re getting some developers together with some community members who are anti-development, where developers are saying, ‘look, I’m fourth-generation Amherst. I’m not the boogeyman. I’m not looking to build a high-rise,’” she explained. “Let’s stop talking about what we hate, let’s stop talking about what’s already been built, and let’s start working together to make a vibrant and dynamic downtown. And without some redevelopment, that’s not going to happen. We need retail stores. We need restaurants.”

Beyond that, the BID has formed a new Foundation for Downtown Amherst, looking to create a 501(c)(3) with a mission to boost the downtown through arts and culture development and promotion. Goals include building a parking garage and working with architects and engineers to create a permanent performing-arts shell on the common.

“Amherst has slipped a bit — we’ve become a drive-through town, and we’ve lost some retail — and to drive traffic back to our downtown, we need density, but we also need things that people will travel to town for.”

Gould hopes to raise sufficient funds to endow the latter project, maintain it, and program it for two years with free performances, ranging from local high-school plays and concerts to touring musicians and theater and dance companies. Another idea is to commission a piece of sculpture that would become a recognized landmark in Amherst and beyond.

“My take on downtown is, if you bring in more art and culture, the retail and restaurants will follow, because we’re going to drive people to Amherst,” she told BusinessWest.

“This should be a destination. In all four seasons of the year, we have a lot to offer. Amherst has slipped a bit — we’ve become a drive-through town, and we’ve lost some retail — and to drive traffic back to our downtown, we need density, but we also need things that people will travel to town for. Our job is to support the businesses that are here and help in bring new businesses and more visitors.”

Broad Vision

Meanwhile on Jan. 22, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce released its 2020 Vision report, which seeks to activate:

• Fiscal resiliency, by establishing processes and benchmarks to keep the town resilient through challenging times, while creating pricing structures to benefit chamber members and drive further membership;

• Community impact, by developing new and deeper opportunities to create partnerships and increase exposure for the chamber’s 65 nonprofit members;

• Transformative tourism outreach, by creating opportunities to highlight the creative economy and redefine the Amherst area as a destination;

• The entrepreneurial pipeline, by creating a toolkit for startups that offers information and support on startup space, marketing visioning, pitch support, loan support, mentoring connections, and microfinancing;

• Workforce development, by bolstering educational and training programs, supporting other regional educational offerings, and connecting job seekers to jobs and transportation; and, conversely, working to address barriers to employment for chamber members;

• Advocacy, through the creation of a government affairs and policy advocacy committee to create programs and forums vital to members and bring forward key issues that support economic development through direct communication with lawmakers and key stakeholders; and

• Professional development for chamber staff, partly by establishing goals around membership, the entrepreneurial pipeline, tourism, advocacy, professional development, and community impact.

“Everything is driven by conversations with people who walk through the door — maybe an alum from one of the colleges, maybe someone who’s retiring here,” Pazmany said. “They’re here because it’s a destination with huge, untapped potential, and we have to get that word out.”

Take the town’s position as a dining destination, she noted. “Downtown Amherst has everything — you can explore the world through dining downtown, and because it’s a college town, the prices are right.”

The plan to take advantage of that is twofold, both she and Gould said — better marketing of what’s already downtown, especially to those outside the region, and bringing in more of it.

Economic efforts involve regional thinking as well, Pazmany added, noting that Amherst businesses have often felt that Route 9 development in Hadley was a deterrent to their success, while, in fact, an improving regional profile benefits everyone. Amherst, she said, can take advantage of that regional attention while honing its own strengths.

“People really love the community feel here. It’s a walkable downtown, with pretty much everything at your fingertips,” she told BusinessWest, adding that people want to feel like they’re part of something bigger, and that’s something a thriving downtown district can provide.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.32
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.32
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; Delivery Express
* Latest information available

“We have arts and culture and a lot of venues that offer music,” she went on, adding that museums like the Mead, the Carle, and the Yiddish Book Center offer an additional cultural backdrop in town, while the Amherst Cinema drives plenty of programming downtown. That’s why it’s important to take that strength and grow it further, she noted, as a way to both keep residents living here and cultivate a tourism economy.

“More than 30,000 come down Route 9 every day. I have the best of both worlds — I get to focus on the downtown, and I also get to focus on the broader community and bring that to the table when I partner with the BID.”

Creative Thinking

One other advantage for the chamber, Pazmany said, is its connection to UMass Amherst, which has deepened by reaching out to Gregory Thomas, executive director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship to discuss strategies for harnessing the significant entrepreneurial energy being generated on campus and keeping it local.

That takes physical development, and some creativity, she noted, as the town isn’t home to swaths of large, unused buildings like in Holyoke and Easthampton — and, as Gould noted, not everyone in town is high on new development.

But she would like to see an influx of new businesses that cater equally to residents and the 35,000 college students who live in town most of the year, from grocery stores to a men’s clothing shop to a place to buy bedding and furniture.

“We’re looking out there and saying, ‘what is going to benefit all of us?’ In terms of bringing in retailers, we need buildings to put them in. A lot of pieces need to fall into place, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

In her few months on the job, Gould has been asking businesses, ‘what do you need?’

“They all say, ‘we need more businesses,’” she went on, and that’s not always an easy sell to residents, especially long-established ones. “There’s excitement here, but also a lot of fear when you mention development, when you mention building, when you mention ‘new.’ When you start talking to them, it’s very fear-based.

“So how do we take the big, bad boogeyman out of the closet and decide what Amherst really needs?” she asked. “If we don’t, we’re not going to see growth and positive change. We might lose more retail and restaurants. And we don’t want that — we want more people to come in.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project is ahead of schedule, and with a new acceleration agreement in place, it is due to be completed by late summer next year.

Mayor William Sapelli said he received the text late on a Friday afternoon earlier this month, and it was somewhat unexpected; he was anticipating word coming later.

But it was very, very welcome.

It came from state Lt. Gov. Karen Polito, and it said, in essence, that the state had approved what’s known as an acceleration agreement for the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project. What that means is that money has been apportioned that will allow the general contractor, Palmer-based Northern Construction, to pay crews overtime to work on nights and weekends to accelerate (hence the name) the timeline for completing what amounts to a full replacement and widening of the 74-year-old bridge over the Westfield River.

As a result, the anticipated completion date, originally May 21, 2022, is now August 9, 2021.

And what this means is that the 2020 edition of the Big E will be the last that will have to contend with this all-important span, which links Agawam with West Springfield, being under construction.

That’s why that text was so welcome. Even though the two communities, the Big E, tens of thousands of people who visited it, and those who live, work, and do business near the bridge somehow made it through the 2019 exposition without major incident, doing so presented a serious challenge.

It’s not something they’d want to do again, but they’re quite grateful to only do it once more, to be sure.

“This is great news regarding the bridge,” said the mayor. “With this acceleration plan, we’re going to cut almost a year off the completion time.”

The bridge project has been the dominant topic of conversation in this city (remember, it has a mayor) that is still officially called the Town of Agawam since well before construction began. And Sapelli has been part of many of those conversations as he continues a daily ritual of eating breakfast — and often holding court — at different eateries in the community.

“We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”

As was noted in this space last year, this rotation includes Partners, Giovanni’s, and a somewhat new addition, the Pride station on North Westfield Street in the center of Feeding Hills.

“There, it’s a bunch of old-timers — a great bunch of guys; I’m the youngest one there,” Sapelli, the retired school superintendent who just started his second two-year term as mayor, noted. “We used to meet at the McDonald’s, but with the renovation at Pride, they moved over there. That’s on Mondays; I’m there at 7 and then in City Hall by 7:30. We sometimes take up as many five tables, and there’s always a lot to talk about … beyond the bridge.”

Indeed, while that project has complicated things at and for the Big E and also caused some initiatives to hit the ‘pause’ button, including redevelopment of the Games & Lanes building on Walnut Street Extension and the site of a former motel on Suffield Street, there are still things happening.

Indeed, the shopping plaza on Springfield Street once dominated by a FoodMart that saw its roof collapse and has struggled with vacancies in recent years is now essentially full. The latest additions include Still Bar & Grill — now occupying space that was briefly home to a satellite location of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — and a small but intriguing market called Kielbasa and Dairy. It sells more than those items, but they are the headliners. Which explains why they’re on the sign.

Agawam at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
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, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, a new tenant — TW Metals, a subsidiary of O’Neal Industries — has taken over roughly half the sprawling space once occupied by Simmons Mattress in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, a Westmass property located on the site of the former Bowles Airport.

Also, another new business, Vanguard Renewables, an organic recycler, has broken ground on Main Street, said Sapelli, adding that a new over-55 housing development is being planned for a large parcel on South Westfield Street, and a number of vacancies in the myriad strip malls and small shopping centers that populate the city are being filled.

And perhaps the best news for the business community is that the business tax rate has come down slightly, a step that Sapelli believes speaks loudly about this community’s commitment to being business-friendly.

For this, the latest edition of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Sapelli about all these matters and what they mean moving forward for a community that is very much looking forward to life after this bridge project has been completed.

Food for Thought

Getting back to those gatherings over breakfast, Sapelli said the tone has been generally positive lately — and it hasn’t always been so, especially in the ramp-up, if you’ll pardon the expression, to the start of the bridge project.

The improved mood can be attributed in part to the bridge work already being ahead of schedule — thanks to a considerable amount of work on nights and weekends — and the fact that, while there have been inconveniences, they haven’t been as bad as many anticipated.

“What I’m hearing — and believe me, they wouldn’t be afraid to tell me otherwise — is how smoothly they think things are going,” said the mayor. “It’s not as congested as they thought it would be, and things are moving pretty well and they’re on schedule, which never happens with projects like this.”

That held true, generally speaking, for the 17 days of the Big E last September, he went on, adding that a great deal of collaboration and early planning efforts paid off handsomely.

“It wasn’t as bad as many people thought it would be, and I heard that not only from residents but police officers working details,” said Sapelli. “And we attribute this to the fact that we met — with ‘we’ meaning the police, the administration, West Springfield police, and the Big E — and came up with a plan of action.”

Elaborating, he said the Big E printed materials instructing motorists how to get to the fairgrounds without using Routes 75 (Suffield Street) and 159. And visitors — most of them, anyway — heeded that advice. The Big E also used park-ride facilities in Agawam that helped ease traffic on and around the bridge, despite record attendance at the fair.

And for the 2020 edition … well, things will go a little more smoothly because the three lanes to the south of the bridge (now under construction) will be open, as opposed to the two lanes on the north side currently being used.

But enough about the bridge. There are other things happening in the community, starting with that important vote on the commercial tax rate, said Sapelli.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is making progress on many economic-development fronts, from filling vacant storefronts to zoning reform to workforce-development initiatives in its schools.

The town’s split rate now looks like this: $16.83 residential and $31.61 commercial. Last year, the numbers were $16.65 and $31.92. Commercial rates don’t generally go down at the expense of the residential side, Sapelli acknowledged, and the decrease was only 31 cents.

But that’s an important 31 cents, perhaps on the tax bill and certainly from the standpoint of sending a message, said the mayor, adding that some historical perspective is in order.

“Years ago, when the split in the tax rates originally started, the rates were fairly close; now, the commercial rate is almost double,” he explained, adding that he and other city officials decided it was time to move them closer together.

“At my presentation to the City Council, I talked about how we, as public officials, talk about being business-friendly,” he recalled. “It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to do it.”

He believes the unanimous vote in the council is a solid example of ‘doing it,’ and he believes it might help bring more new businesses to consider Agawam moving forward.

In addition to that lower rate, the community boasts good schools, available land, plenty of parks and recreation (three golf courses, for example), and, as noted, ample opportunities for retail operations.

There have already been some intriguing additions, he said, noting that the Still and Kielbasa and Dairy are solid additions to the plaza on Springfield Street, and they’re helping bring more people to that section of Agawam.

Meanwhile, TW Metals helps fill a troubling vacancy in the industrial park, he noted. The company signed a 10-year lease for 65,000 square feet, half the nearly 130,000-square-foot building, now owned by Agawam 320 TGCI LLC, an affiliate of the Grossman Companies.

“I think we’re doing well because of our location and because we’re business-friendly,” said Sapelli. “We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”

Bridging the Gap

As noted earlier, the bridge project has put some initiatives on hold in this community, including efforts to revitalize and modernize the Walnut Street Extension area, which includes the Games & Lanes parcel, and also redevelopment of the parcel off Suffield Street.

But in most other respects, things are moving forward, and the talk over breakfast at the Pride store, Partners, and Giovanni’s has been generally positive. And with that text from the lieutenant governor, there was certainly more good news to discuss around those tables.

In short, this community isn’t waiting until the ribbon is cut on the new bridge to create momentum, more jobs, and new opportunities.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Communty and Economic Development

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. And it certainly is bad news.

Wilson’s department store, an anchor and destination in downtown Greenfield for a century or so, will be closing its doors as its owner moves into retirement, leaving a very large hole to fill in the middle of Main Street.

The store was practically synonymous with the city and its downtown, drawing visitors of all ages who wanted to shop in one of the last old-time department stores in this region and maybe in the state.

“It’s devastating and it’s heartbreaking because it’s part of the fabric of the community,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, headquartered on Main Street in Greenfield. “This will be a serious loss for Greenfield, but…”

That ‘but’ constitutes what amounts to the good news.

Indeed, while unquestionably a loss, the closing of Wilson’s — which was certainly not unexpected by most — isn’t producing anything approaching the hand-wringing such news would have generated a decade or even five years ago.

Redevelopment of this large and highly visible site will certainly pose challenges. But instead of focusing on that aspect of the equation, most are consumed by the other side — the opportunity side, which Szynal referenced as she finished her sentence.

“We are looking at this as an opportunity,” she said. “We know something good will go there, something that reflects a changing landscape in retail.”

Meanwhile, there are enough good things happening and enough positive energy in this city that most are thinking this is something Greenfield can deal with and perhaps even benefit from in the long run as the retail world changes.

Jeremy Goldsher, left, and Jeff Sauser, co-founders of Greenspace co-working space.

As for those good things and positive energy … it’s a fairly long and impressive list that includes:

• New businesses such as the Rise Above coffee shop, and established businesses under new ownership, such as the Greenfield Garden Cinema, another downtown anchor;

• A refocused Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA), now under the leadership of coordinator Rachel Roberts;

• A burgeoning cultural economy headlined by the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in the heart of downtown, but also a growing number of arts-related ventures;

• Co-working spaces — such as Greenspace, located above Hawks and Reed, as well as Another Castle, a facility that has attracted a number of video-game-related businesses — that are attracting young professionals and bringing more vibrancy to the downtown;

GCET, the municipal provider of reliable high-speed internet, a service that that has made those co-work spaces possible;

The Hive, a makers space now under development on Main Street, just a block or so down from Wilson’s;

• Rail service, specifically in the form of the Yankee Flyer, which brings two trains a day to the city, and enables one to travel to New York and back the same day;

• A new town library, which is expected to bring more vibrancy — and another co-working space — to downtown; and

• A noticeable tightening of the housing market, a tell-tale sign of progress.

“I have some employees who are trying to buy homes in Greenfield, and the inventory is moving so fast, they’re having a hard time getting something,” said Paul Hake, president of HitPoint, a video-game maker and anchor tenant in the Another Castle co-working space. “We have someone who’s trying to buy here from Los Angeles; he’s very excited, but he says, ‘every house I look at is gone by the time I can make an offer.’ The market’s hot, and that’s always good.”

The landscape in downtown Greenfield is changing. Long-time anchor Wilson’s is closing, while new businesses, such as the coffee shop Rise Above, have opened their doors.

These pieces to a large puzzle are coming together and complementing one another, thus creating an attractive picture and intriguing landing spot for entrepreneurs looking for quality of life and an affordable alternative to Boston or Northampton. And they’re also creating momentum that, as noted, will hopefully make the closing of Wilson’s a manageable loss.

“We’re sad to see Wilson’s go,” said William Baker, president of Baker Office Supply, another Main Street staple (pun intended) since the 1930s, and also president of the Greenfield Business Assoc. “But we’re all excited to see what comes next.”

Roberts agreed.

“Downtown is at a crossroads, and we’re working together to see what fits and put the pieces together,” she noted, adding that there is a great deal of collaboration going on as the community hits this fork in the road, an important ingredient in its resurgence. “We support each other, and that’s huge. I’ve lived in plenty of other places where you see isolation and people hitting walls. We don’t hit walls here — we just make a new window and figure out how you’re going to reach across that window to your neighbor and say, ‘how are we going to make this work?’”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest opens a window onto Greenfield, or what could be called a new Greenfield.

Banding Together

Jeremy Goldsher was born in Greenfield and grew up in nearby Conway. Like many other young people, he moved on from Franklin County to find opportunity, but unlike most, he returned to his roots — and found it there, in a number of different ways.

Indeed, he’s now at the forefront of a number of the initiatives creating momentum in Greenfield. He and Jeff Sauser co-founded Greenspace, which bills itself as “flexible, on-demand co-working space in the heart of downtown,” and is part of the ownership team at Hawks and Reed, which is drawing people from across the region, and well beyond, with a diverse lineup of shows, ranging from open-mic night on Jan. 7 to Bombtrack, a Rage Against the Machine tribute, on Jan. 10.

He’s also on a host of committees, including the Downtown Greenfield Neighborhood Assoc. and the GBA, and was active in the push for a new library.

He told BusinessWest there is considerable positive energy in the city, generated by a host of factors, but especially a burgeoning cultural economy, a growing number of young entrepreneurs finding their way to the city (thanks to fast, reliable internet service), and a downtown that is becoming ever more attractive to the younger generations.

What’s made it all possible, he noted, is a spirit of collaboration and a number of groups working together.

“It really does a take a village,” he said. “It’s such a blessed time to be a part of this community; there’s a wave of construction and development happening, and it’s just exciting to be part of it.”

MJ Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for Greenfield, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as a new year and a new mayoral administration — Roxann Wedegartner was elected last November — begins, a number of initiatives launched over the past several years are starting to generate progress and vibrancy.

These include everything from the new courthouse, transportation center, and parking garage in the downtown to GCET’s expanding footprint; from Greenfield Community College’s growing presence downtown — and across the city, for that matter — to redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property into a healthcare campus.

“The city conducted a master-planning process about five years ago that really engaged the community in a robust conversation of what we saw as our future,” Adams explained. “As we come up on the five-year anniversary of that initiative, the community is talking about focusing more specifically on the downtown and downtown revitalization.

“We’ve seen a major shift in how our downtown plays itself out,” she went on. “And I think we’re trying to figure out what role the city should be playing and what’s the role of the various partners in the community as we try to continue moving forward and seeing Greenfield become the robust, vibrant arts and cultural hub of Franklin County.”

There are a number of these partners, starting with GCC, the only college in Franklin County. The school has long had a presence in the downtown, and is working to become more impactful in areas ranging from workforce development to entrepreneurship, said Mary Ellen Fydenkevez, chief Academic and Student Affairs officer.

As examples, she said the college, which is in the midst of its own strategic-planning process, has launched a creative-economy initiative in collaboration with retired Congressman John Olver; put together a ‘Take the Floor’ event, a pitch contest with a $10,000 first prize; and blueprinted a new ideation center to be created in the East Building within the school’s main campus.

“There, we hope to bring together all different kinds of entrepreneurs to work together in a working space,” she explained, adding that the college plans to stage workshops on various aspects of entrepreneurship to help fledgling businesses develop.

Meanwhile, it plans to start a new business of its own, a coffee shop to be managed by student interns.

“One of our focal points is experiential learning,” she told BusinessWest. “And this business will provide that — it will give students opportunities to learn while doing; they’ll be running their own business.”

Meanwhile, on the academic side, the college is looking at new programs to support workforce-building initiatives in healthcare precision manufacturing and other sectors, and it is also blazing a trail, if you will, with a new program in adventure education.

Indeed, the school recently received approval from the state Department of Higher Education for an associate-degree program to focus on preparing individuals to lead businesses in the outdoor-adventure sector, which includes ziplining, rafting, and more.

“We feel that Western Mass. is a great place for such a program,” Fydenkevez said. “And we’re optimistic that we’ll get some good response; this is an important part of the economy here.”

Art of the Matter

The same can be said of the broad arts and entertainment sector that has emerged over the past several years, said Rachel Katz, owner of the Greenfield Gallery, billed as the city’s premier (and also its only) art gallery, and president of the Crossroads Cultural District.

“I’m a big believer in the creative economy driving growth, especially after an industrial exodus, as we’ve seen in so many small New England towns — it’s a model we’ve seen repeated all through the country,” said Katz, who converted the former Rooney’s department store in 2015 with the intention of creating a gallery and leading the way in a creative-economy revival.

“I saw when I came here that there were already a lot of creative people here doing some amazing things,” Katz went on. “There just wasn’t a home for them; I created a home.”

Since then, the arts and music sector, if you will, has continued to grow, said Katz, who believes it is leading the revival now taking place. And another major piece to the puzzle with be added with the Hive makers space.

Like other facilities of this type taking shape in other communities, The Hive will be a membership-based community workshop with tools and equipment — from computer-controlled precision machining equipment to 3D printers to traditional sewing machines — made available to these members.

“This space is critical,” Katz said, “because it provides a bridge between the creative economy and the more traditional technological economy. And the one resource we still have — it’s never gone away despite the closing of all the tap-and-die shops — is the people that are here.

Jeremy Goldsher at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, the anchor of a growing cultural economy in Greenfield.

“Those people still have skills and ideas; they just don’t have a place to actualize them,” she went on. “The Hive will give these people an outlet, and when you put tools in the hands of people with ideas, only good things can happen.”

Good things also happen when you can give people with ideas reliable, high-speed internet and attractive spaces in which to work, said Sauser, Goldsher’s partner at Greenspace and an urban-planning consultant by trade.

He told BusinessWest that the Greenspace model is to take obsolete or underutilized space and “make it cool again.” He and Goldsher have done this above Hawks and Reed and across the street at 278 Main Street, and they’re currently scouting other locations in which to expand.

Rachel Roberts, coordinator of a revitalized Greenfield Business Assoc.

Their spaces have become home to a diverse membership base, he said, one that includes an anchor tenant, smaller businesses, and individuals. Above Hawks and Reed, the anchor tenant is Australis Aquaculture, a producer and marketer of farm-raised barramundi — with the farm in Vietnam.

“They wanted to move their executive and sales teams from Montague to downtown Greenfield, in part to retain staff, keep people happy, and have people enjoy coming to work — many of their employees now walk to work,” Sauser explained, adding that the other anchor, Common Media, a digital-marketing company, was based on Route 9 in a building people didn’t enjoy coming to.

Both moves speak volumes about Greenfield’s revitalization, he went on, adding that both companies have lower overhead then they had before, and their employees are happier, both strong selling points.

“My observation, and my personal experience, is that Greenfield is great at attracting people who are looking for a certain quality of life and sense of community — and can work wherever they want,” he noted. “And there’s more and more people like that in this world.”

Creating a Buzz

All those we spoke with said that easily the best thing Greenfield has going for it at present is a spirit of collaboration, a number of parties, public and private, working together to forge a new, stronger, and more diverse economy.

This collaborative spirit is being celebrated — sort of — in another intriguing initiative certain to bring more color to the downtown. It’s the latest in a region-wide series of public art-installation projects, initiatives that brought dozens of painted sneakers to Springfield, bears to Easthampton, terriers to West Springfield, and C5As to Chicopee.

Greenfield will soon be populated with giant bees, said Sarah Kanaby, board president of Progress Partnership Inc.

“These bees are a symbol of the collective energy and the buzz — there have been 5 million bee puns to come out of this project — that we’re seeing in Greenfield,” she explained, noting that artists are painting and decorating the bees now, and they are scheduled to be installed in May or June. “We strongly believe, because of Greenfield’s connection to the modern beehive and all that the beehive represents in terms of collectivism and cooperation, that this is the right image.”

Roberts agreed, noting that a revitalized GBA is one of those groups working with other public and private entities to bring more vibrancy to the downtown and the city as a whole.

“We’re trying to work more collaboratively with the town government to create more things to benefit businesses here in Greenfield as well as the greater community,” she said, adding that one example of this is the addition of new holiday lights on the town common and other holiday-season touches throughout the downtown.

“We’re focusing on taking what we’ve already done and making those programs better, and also finding new ways to support the businesses as well as the community,” she said, adding that, while much attention is directed toward new businesses and attracting still more ventures, her agency doesn’t want to look past long-standing anchors, both small and large, that are still a big part of the picture.

Efforts toward securing not only a new library but also a new fire station are part of this work, she said, adding both facilities are desperately needed, and both with contribute toward quality of life and a greater sense of pride in the community.

Baker, the third-generation owner of the family business, one that has been on Main Street since 1936, agreed, and noted that the GBA has given a voice to a business community that historically hasn’t had one, and at a time when its voice is needed.

“The downtown is re-inventing itself right now; we’re in the midst of trying to figure out what a downtown should be in this new day and age,” he told BusinessWest. “And in talking to people, I think we’re on the right track; there are a lot of great new ideas. We just have to continue with the creative economy, the co-work space, the fantastic internet service that we have, and draw people downtown as we try to figure out the next chapter and what a downtown should look like.”

What’s in Store?

This brings us back to the elephant in the room — the closing of Wilson’s and the huge void it will leave downtown — and where we started this discussion.

Yes, this development is a blow to the city and the end of the area in a number of ways. But this is a new era Greenfield and a different time.

Specifically, it’s a time of collaboration and working together to create new and different kinds of opportunities and new uses for existing spaces.

“Wilson’s was an anchor for this downtown for the longest time, for 137 years,” Adams said. “But it’s exciting to think about what’s next; we’re about to turn the page and see what’s next.”

As Roberts said, those working within this collaborative don’t hit walls, they create new windows. And the view from those windows is very promising.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams has been investing in economic development, public safety, education, and a host of other areas.

Seven priorities, 43 goals, 95 policies, and 355 actions.

This tall list makes up the master plan for the city of North Adams. The Vision 2030 Plan was launched in 2011, and just this year, Mayor Thomas Bernard and cohorts revisited the plan to check up on the progress made to date.

“We had a really good session in October where we got some interesting suggestions for setting priority areas around marketing and promotion to move the needle on some of the economic developments,” he said.

In addition to the information session in October, Bernard says another will be held in early 2020 in which the town will tackle three things: review what has been accomplished so far, identify things that five years ago may have seemed urgent but are not as pressing now, and identify issues that have changed in the last five years.

The plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — are all currently being reviewed, and Bernard says these undertakings make for an exciting time in the city.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Some of the more prominent developments include a project to build a much-needed new elementary school, updating zoning for the town, investing in public safety, and several projects that cater to younger children.

Bernard knows that, in order to be successful with new projects, the city must still take care of the older, foundational matters, and says North Adams has done a great job keeping track of both.

“We want to double down on the things we’ve already done, both this cultural development that’s happening, but also doing the foundational work to ensure that we can be successful so that we’re championing the big developments, we’re celebrating the jobs that are coming in, but we’re also making sure that the quality of life in neighborhoods is strong and solid,” he said.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas. There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Indeed, he says the overall feedback from the community has been extraordinarily positive, and mentioned one feeling in the city in particular: optimism.

Youthful Approach

That optimism, said Bernard, now going into his second term as mayor of North Adams, comes amid an increasing number of investments in economic development, public safety, and other key areas.

But you can’t move forward without looking back, so one big goal is investing in the youth and education sector, which includes the renovation of a very old elementary-school building.

Just a few weeks ago, Bernard and Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas visited the Massachusetts School Building Authority and were invited into eligibility for consideration of the reconstruction of Greylock Elementary School — a building that is 70 years old.

North Adams at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $40.67
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
* Latest information available

“If we’re able to be successful in the feasibility phase, then we’re invited to proceed forward, and we can put the funding plan together,” said Bernard. “It really will set the course for elementary education in the city for the next 50 years.”

Other investments for the youth population in the city include a splash park and a skate park. While Bernard acknowledged North Adams is an aging community and its leaders are always thinking about what it means to be age-friendly, he sees a lot of energy and — here’s that word again — optimism when it comes to investing in the younger population.

“What this splash park and the other main investment, which was a skate park, has done is create community engagement, excitement, energy, vibrancy, and a sense of optimism that comes from things that are youth-focused,” he said.

On the economic-development side, Dave Moresi, a local developer, recently embarked on a mill project that celebrated its grand opening this past June. Bernard said Moresi bought the mill in mid-2017, and it already has more than 50 businesses inside, including a financial-services office, a mental-health clinician, a coffee roaster, a gym, a hair salon, and much more.

“I think this speaks to a couple things,” said Bernard. “It speaks to the quality of work that Dave and his team do, but it also speaks to this moment that we’re in, bringing it back full circle to this energy, excitement, and potential.”

Moresi also purchased a school building the city no longer uses and is turning it into residential apartments.

Adding to that excitement are two enabling projects that have occurred over the past year. Bernard said bringing life into the downtown area continues to be a challenge, so a parking study was done to look at what assets and needs are necessary if the city were to attract additional housing and development. North Adams also updated its zoning map to reflect current conditions — a process that hadn’t been tackled since the late ’50s to early ’60s.

With all this activity going on, the city has also been investing in public safety. Just this year, Lt. Jason Wood was appointed as the new police chief for North Adams. In addition, the city added its first hybrid vehicle to the city fleet and is working on adding a hybrid cruise, which would make it the first city in Western Mass. to do so.

Forward Momentum

While North Adams still faces economic and socioeconomic challenges, like all cities do, the mayor feels optimistic that the community is on the path for success.

“We continue to be in an exciting time for North Adams, and I think more and more people are picking up on it, whether that’s visitors who are coming here or whether it’s longtime residents who are seeing some of these developments and being really excited about it,” Bernard said. “We have a lot of work to do to make sure we stay on an even keel.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

From left, Rebekah DeCourcey, Stuart Beckley, Tracy Opalinski, and Anna Marques.

‘Somewhere worth seeing.’

This is the tagline that’s been attached to a visioning, branding, wayfinding, and business-development plan for the town of Ware, an ambitious document that has elements ranging from a community vision to a branding strategy to new signage that will direct locals and visitors alike to various civic, cultural, and recreational destinations within the community.

As for that vision, it states that this community in eastern Hampden County is “one where we meet at unique shops and businesses in our revitalized downtown, where a growing, diverse economy is being cultivated, where we respect the land and enjoy unrivaled outdoor recreation opportunities, and where our government and its partners work together to provide efficient and up-to-date services for all of our citizens.”

For town officials, said Selectman Tracy Opalinski, the tasks at hand are to make sure that these are not just taglines and words on a page, but instead constitute reality in this community of nearly 10,000 people — and to communicate this to people within and outside the town. And she and others believe some real progress is being made in this regard.

“Ware is really a center of commerce for a large region, and people come to Ware not just to go to Walmart, but also for their banking, their healthcare, their education. We are a regional hub to a rural area.”

She said there are many projects underway to help people realize how much Ware has to offer, and town officials are working hard to set the town up for a bright future.

“Ware is really a center of commerce for a large region, and people come to Ware not just to go to Walmart,” said Opalinski, referencing perhaps the town’s main drawing card, “but also for their banking, their healthcare, their education. We are a regional hub to a rural area.”

Stuart Beckley, town manager; Anna Marques, building inspector and zoning enforcement officer; and Rebekah DeCourcey, director of Planning and Community Development, all sat with BusinessWest recently and shared the many ongoing projects to help Ware accomplish its ambitious goals, and also several that have already been implemented.

Main Street is one area of town in which Ware officials are looking to create more vibrancy.

These activities include everything from restoring outdoor trails to bringing in new businesses to support a still-struggling Main Street — and officials say they are already seeing results, in the form of some new stores, healthcare-related businesses, arts-focused ventures, and the growing presence of Holyoke Community College.

“There has been a lot of growth on Main Street,” said Beckley. “It used to be rare that there was night parking and night traffic, and now, because of the arts and the restaurants, there has been more activity.”

With Ware being a distance — and roughly equidistant — from Worcester and Springfield, Beckley and others say said they recognize the importance of making services available in the town, and they believe Ware is well on its way to becoming more than just a drive-through community.

“I see the passion, and I see the forward momentum,” said DeCourcey. “I used to take Route 9 when I was out in the Amherst area. I feel like, 10 or 15 years ago, Ware wasn’t a place that I was going to stop for anything, I was just going to drive through. And now, all the storefronts that have been empty for 10 years are filling up.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at just how Ware is living up to its new tagline and becoming ‘somewhere worth seeing.’

Building a Brand

The 2015 vision plan for Ware, completed by Arnett Muldrow & Associates with funding from the Edward and Barbara Urban Foundation, recognized growing social issues in town related to low-income housing, lack of transportation, crime, drug use, and an aging population, and noted the general area along Main Street was declining, with continued disinvestment and vacancy.

Town officials recognized the importance of acting quickly and pointedly, and rallied to bring new businesses and projects to town to counter these forces and create a more vibrant community.

There is an ongoing effort to restore Main Street, with new arts-related stores opening, including Clayworks and ArtWorks Gallery by Workshop13, a nonprofit cultural arts and learning center in town. Also on Main Street, E2E, a Holyoke Community College satellite facility for ‘education to employment,’ opened in 2018, and offers services like college enrollment, job training and certificates, jobs lists, and English and math tutoring.

“For HCC to come here was really important to the town, and as it continues to grow, they’ve made a connection with our Ware public schools,” said Beckley. “The town is now offering EMT courses, certified nursing, and is about to start a criminal justice course.”

In addition, expansions have been completed at several businesses, including the Dollar Store and Cluett’s Appliance.

Ware at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 9,872
Area: 40.0 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $20.21
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.21
Median Household Income: $36,875
Median Family Income: $45,505
Type of government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Mary Lane Outpatient Center; Kanzaki Specialty Papers Inc.; Quabbin Wire & Cable Co. Inc.; Walmart
*Latest information available

Within the healthcare sector, to support the growing elder population in Ware, Baystate Mary Lane Outpatient Center expanded its Cancer Care unit, added a new Healogics Wound and Hyperbaric Care unit, and added a new imaging center with 3D breast imaging, all in 2019.

Town officials say one of the main factors that has contributed to this growth and momentum during this time has been the commitment and dedication of business owners and residents alike.

“The business owners here are very committed,” said Marques. “They’re always asking how they can help in a way that goes above and beyond.”

Opalinski added that Ware, for various reasons, doesn’t have a great history of sharing information, and noted that town officials are working hard to open lines of communication both between town residents and department heads and also between the department heads themselves.

“We’ve broken that barrier over the past few years, and we’re really starting to reach out,” she said. “Ware is comprised of really caring people, and I feel that all these different people and entities are talking to each other and collaborating together — regionally, too, and I think that regional outreach is helping other communities grow. It’s connecting us to different entities we’ve never connected to before.”

As for future projects, there is no shortage of activity. Right down the street from Mary Lane, Cedarbrook Village, a $25 million, 119-bed senior center, is being constructed and is set to open in the summer of 2020. In keeping with new medical developments, a $1 million cancer pharmacy is slated to open in 2020.

Also on tap to open in the next year or so is B’Leaf Wellness Center, a local mother-and-daughter-owned cannabis company.

All Hands on Deck

These new developments are all part of an effort to be more business-friendly and attract more people to a community that town officials say has a lot more to offer than people realize. And they are already seeing the benefits of their efforts.

“The housing market in Ware is extraordinarily high right now,” said Beckley. “Single-family houses are selling really well. We’re approaching 100 units sold in a year, which, for Ware, is an amazing amount. The values are going up.”

He and other town officials know that this is the beginning of a long road for Ware and are prepared to continue working toward a brighter future for the tight-knit community.

With a collection of new developments happening, it’s safe to say Ware is a town on the rise, and one to keep on the radar.

“Ware has something good going on,” Marques said. “I think people are recognizing that and looking to move here.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Some of the municipal leaders who spoke with BusinessWest about economic development and progress in Ludlow.

For more than a decade now, the Ludlow Mills project, a 20-year initiative that is changing the face of that historic complex and bringing jobs, new businesses, and new places to live to this community, has been the dominant talking point when it comes to the subject of economic development here.

But municipal officials are quick to point out that it’s just one of many intriguing stories unfolding in this town of around 21,000 people, the sum of which adds up to an intriguing, very positive chapter in the history of this community across the Chicopee River from Indian Orchard.

Indeed, there are a number of both municipal and private-sector commercial projects in various stages of development that are keeping town officials busy, and providing ample evidence that this is a community on the rise — in many different respects.

On the municipal side of the equation, construction of a new elementary school, approved by town voters in the spring of 2018, is underway. The facility, to be called Harris Brook Elementary School, will essentially combine the Chapin Street and Veterans Park elementary schools, two aging structures, under one far more efficient roof. It is being constructed on the playing fields adjacent to the current Chapin school.

“It’s always a balancing act. You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Meanwhile, construction will soon begin on a new senior center that will replace a facility deemed generally unsafe and largely inadequate for the town’s growing senior population.

“We’re in the basement of a 115-year-old building that used to be a high school and junior high school,” said Jodi Zepke, director of the Council on Aging, adding that the long corridors in the structure are difficult for seniors to navigate. “We’ve done a lot with what we have, but it’s time for a new building.”

The town is also implementing a new communication system, a central hub for police, fire, and EMT services, and has embarked on an extensive renovation of Center Street, the main business thoroughfare, a project in the planning stages since 2008 and deemed long-overdue, said Town Administrator Ellie Villano.

“This is a MassDOT state construction,” she said, explaining that the Commonwealth is paying for the changes to the road. “It widens Center Street and adds a center turn, bike lanes, and new sidewalks.”

All this will make Center Street more presentable and easy to navigate for visitors to two new fast-food restaurants that will take shape there in the coming months — a Wendy’s and a KFC.

These various developments present a combination of benefits and challenges — benefits such as tax dollars and additional vibrancy from the new businesses, and challenges when it comes to paying for all those municipal projects. But the former should definitely help with the latter, said Derek DeBarge, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

“One of the challenges is that a number of these big projects have all happened at the same time,” added Todd Gazda, superintendent of Ludlow schools. “We’re having to essentially prioritize all of these things, which are all important projects.”

For the latest in its long-running Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with a number of town officials about the many forms of progress taking place and what they mean for the community moving forward.

From the Ground Up

“Revenue, revenue, revenue.”

That’s the word DeBarge repeated several times when asked about the motivating factors behind all the recent municipal projects.

“My concern is obviously trying to do better with our taxes,” he said, adding that a growing senior population, many of whom are living on a single income, is also at the top of the list. “As this revenue is coming in, with the solar, the KFC … it’s all tax-based revenue for us. And the more revenue that comes in, the better we can do for our departments, and that means the better we can do for our tax base, and that’s better for our constituents and for everyone.”

Elaborating, he said that, while town officials have worked hard to secure grants for these municipal projects — and they have received quite a few — the town must bear a good percentage of the cost of each project, which presents a stern budget challenge.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.82
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

Education, and the need to modernize facilities, is just one example of this.

Gazda said the town has been doing a lot of work on the schools recently to improve the quality of educational services provided to students, and one of the top priorities has been to do it in a cost-effective and fiscally responsible manner.

“It’s always a balancing act,” he said. “You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Gazda noted that maintenance costs on both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, both built around 60 years ago, had become exorbitant. So a decision was made to put forth a proposal to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“We’re currently under budget and ahead of schedule,” he said of the $60 million project, adding that the new facility is slated to open in the fall of 2021 with an estimated student enrollment of 620 to 640 students.

About 10 minutes down the road on the corner of State Street and First Avenue, the new, 18,000-square-foot senior center is under construction and due to open in roughly a year.

Like the new school, its construction has been prompted by the need to replace aging facilities and provide the community with a center that is state-of-the-art.

“It’s no secret that there’s more people over 60 than under 20, and that population of seniors is only going to continue to grow,” said Zepke. “We just took a hard look at the numbers, and we can barely accommodate what we have now.”

As for the new communications system, Ludlow Police Chief Paul Madera says this will make communication between all town entities and the central hub much easier, using radio rather than having to pick up a phone.

“All of our communication systems are in need of refurbishing, so the most prudent and fiscal approach was to combine them all together,” he said, adding that this project, with a price tag of more than $4 million, includes the implementation of a public-safety dispatch which combines police, fire, and EMS services into one center.

While these initiatives proceed, the town is undertaking a host of initiatives aimed at improving quality of life and making this a better community in which to live, work, and conduct business.

Ludlow CARES is one such effort. A community-run organization, it was launched with the goal of educating children and their parents on drug and alcohol abuse in response to the opioid epidemic. Now, DeBarge says it has spread to become much more than that, and has inspired other towns and cities to adopt similar programs.

“It has gotten huge to a point where it has gotten other communities involved with their own towns in a similar way,” he said.

Another organization, the Michael J. Dias Foundation, serves as a resource and a home for recovering addicts.

All these initiatives, DeBarge, Madera, and other town officials agreed, reflect upon the tight-knit community that Ludlow has become.

It Takes a Village

As nine town officials sat around the table informing BusinessWest about everything going on in Ludlow, they spoke with one voice about how, through teamwork at City Hall and other settings, pressing challenges are being undertaken, and economic development — in all its various forms — is taking place.

“Our staffs are doing a tremendous job,” Madera said. “They’re wearing multiple hats doing multiple jobs. There’s always room for improvement, but the fact is, they have to be given credit because they’re the boots on the ground.”

And they are making considerable progress in ensuring that this community with a proud past has a secure future.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith and Sue Bunnell say one of the biggest projects going on in Wilbraham is a renovation of Route 20.

Revival by its very definition suggests an improvement in the condition or strength of something. It means giving new life to what already exists, an upgrade of sorts.

This is what elected officials in Wilbraham plan to do in several places around town, for a number of reasons.

One of the most valuable assets the town of Wilbraham has to offer both residents and visitors is the array of businesses and attractions on Route 20, and Jeff Smith says that artery is getting a serious upgrade.

“We have a lot of real estate that could be developed,” said Smith, chairman of the Planning Board. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities for businesses to locate here.”

And some already have.

What was known as the Wilbraham Light Shop many years ago was closed up until recently, and friends of the previous owner are reopening it as a new and improved light shop, something that came as a bit of a shock to Smith and other town employees, seeing as it was vacant for about 20 years, but good news for the town nonetheless.

Sue Bunnell, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, added that Wilbraham boasts an excellent track record when it comes to bringing businesses into town.

“Wilbraham has a good reputation of being business-friendly and among the easier places to get a business up and running,” she said.

Part of this is due to zoning flexibility, Smith said. “We have boards and committees that are willing to not only work within the existing zoning laws, but present new zoning laws to the town to ratify so that new businesses can locate here.”

This has happened recently, when Iron Duke Brewing was looking to move from Ludlow Mills to Wilbraham. Zoning laws were changed, and Iron Duke is now one of two breweries in town.

Still, there is work to be done. And at this point, the Route 20 renovation plan is at 25% completion, which marks the start of public hearings.

“We’ve seen preliminary drawings,” said Bunnell. “Those will be made available to the public, and they will be going from the Friendly’s corporate location to the Palmer line with that redo of the highway.”

What was once meant to include solely road work has become a much more involved process, and town officials recognize the need for all the work being done to make this project happen.

“It started off as what we thought was a repaving, but it really seems like it’s expanding now to more of a redesign,” said Planning Director John Pearsall.

Wilbraham’s town officials hope this redesign, coupled with a progressing marketing strategy and few other things on the agenda, will continue to make it a place people want to live and spend their money.

Driving Momentum

Like Pearsall said, what was supposed to be a fairly simple project has now turned into a plan to revive Route 20. This includes making adjustments to some of the problematic intersections, widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more.

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
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

Most importantly, town officials hope to capitalize on the space and buildings available along the road, and are already taking some options into consideration, including mixed-use developments.

Actually, while the term ‘mixed use’ has been thrown around a lot for Route 20, Pearsall said, a better phrase would be ‘multiple use.’

Recently, Delaney’s Market opened in a building that was redeveloped into a multiple-use project. In addition, a proposal for a Taylor Rental property that has been vacant for a while is under review. Also in the works for that property, a Connecticut developer recently filed an application to create another multiple-use development on those grounds.

“I think pedestrian access to a lot of these businesses is going to increase because they’re talking about running proper sidewalks up both sides of Route 20,” Smith said. “It will be a huge help to the existing businesses and future ones.”

The bigger picture of Boston Road is that it was, at one time, all exclusively zoned for commercial activity. But over the years, the town has been trying to introduce residential uses there, including the Woodcrest Condominiums and a new active-adult community that’s being developed off Boston Road.

Route 20 isn’t the only part of town that will be utilizing mixed-use communities. Smith noted that they also hope to revive the town center.

“In our town center, there are a few buildings that are slated for demolition, and we’re working on redevelopment of the site,” he said. “We recently decided at a town meeting at the beginning of this year to allow a mixed-use development on this site.”

For this specific development, the term ‘mixed use’ is appropriate. According to Smith, there will be retail and commercial establishments on the first floor and living quarters on the second floor. This, he said, is part of a bigger picture concerning town redevelopment being worked on behind the scenes.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“Our expectation is to identify someone to explore how delivering fiber along the Boston Road corridor could create opportunities for businesses,” said Bunnell.

Using Entry Point, a company that has worked with other municipalities to develop and build out their own fiber networks, Wilbraham hopes to give businesses along the Route 20 corridor this opportunity.

Smith is also a business owner of New England Promotional Marketing alongside his wife, Amy, and has been a guinea pig of sorts for the fiber network.

“It was critical for our business; it’s a great system,” he said. “If you’re choked down by your internet, it just becomes slow and difficult to do, and it can really put a damper on your business. Opening up to that fiber-optic pipeline was huge for us, and we want to provide that opportunity all the way down Route 20.”

Welcome Mat

With quite a few items on the to-do list, it’s safe to assume there will be no shortage of excitement in Wilbraham in the coming months and years.

“There are a lot of older buildings that have been kind of run down for a long time, and they’re being turned around,” said Smith. “There are a lot of properties that have been dormant or underutilized, and there’s a big push to rehabilitate these and find new uses or, in some cases, existing uses.”

As for any new businesses looking to make Wilbraham their new home, they can sleep well knowing this is a top priority in Town Hall, Bunnell said. “I think the goal is to make Wilbraham even more attractive and accessible to businesses that are looking to come into town.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mike Vezzola says the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce’s new headquarters at Enfield Square has given the organization greater visibility.

If a long-discussed tribal casino takes shape in East Windsor, Conn., the town of Enfield would find itself in an intriguing geographic spot between two destination casinos — which could bring benefits in a number of ways, Mike Vezzola says.

“It’s still going through a large permitting process, but if the casino does wind up coming to East Windsor, we’re right smack dab in the middle of MGM Springfield and that proposed East Windsor site, so the hope here is that Enfield can become a little bit more of a destination,” said the executive director of the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce during a recent conversation at the chamber’s office in the mall known as Enfield Square.

“It’ll certainly create a lot of runoff for hotels and restaurants,” he went on. “We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through. We’re excited for what’s on the horizon over the next five to 10 years.”

As a border town that may eventually be flanked by two casinos, Enfield is, in many ways, at a crossroads — one that town officials hope will be bolstered by a new train platform in the Thompsonville neighborhood.

Earlier this month, the Town Council unanimously voted to transfer $670,000 from the general fund into a separate fund for the development of a train platform in Thompsonville, a project that has been 15 years in the making and is expected to attract traffic to town and give residents and businesses more reason to relocate or stay there.

Other financial hurdles need to be cleared, as the total cost of a platform would be around $2.5 million. A full train station could follow down the road, at a cost of tens of millions; Enfield is just one of several train-stop communities in the Nutmeg State waiting for DOT action on such projects. In Enfield, town officials say any upgrade will bring a number of economic benefits, particularly for Thompsonville itself, which has been the focus of a planned revitalization project for some time.

The town implemented a tax increment financing (TIF) plan in Thompsonville and the Enfield Square area earlier this year. TIF is an economic-development tool that allows municipalities to use tax revenues generated from new capital investment to assist in a project’s financing.

“We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through.”

Patrick McMahon, CEO of the nonprofit Connecticut Main Street Center, who was hired by the town as a consultant in January to help revitalize Thompsonville, told legislative and business leaders at a recent economic-development breakfast that Enfield leaders envision significant private investment in new business ventures, redevelopment of historic properties, and new public infrastructure.

“Hopefully, the new TIF project will bring some revitalization to that specific area, especially with the commuter rail between New Haven and Springfield,” Vezzola told BusinessWest. “We’re one of the primary stops on that rail, and they’re hoping to get the platform built in the next couple of years.”

Pipeline to Progress

At the same time, Enfield has seen growth in recent years in its manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing sectors, while Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) — which hosted the recent breakfast — has built a reputation as a manufacturing-education leader through its Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center (AMTC).

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and other guests toured the space, speaking to students and taking in the 11,000-square-foot machining lab with its 90 CNC and manual machines, the state-of-the-art additive manufacturing lab, and other high-tech training areas.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

With programs that get students working at good-paying manufacturing jobs in two years or even one in many cases, ACC — and, by extension, its town — has become a promising answer to workforce needs at area plants, which have long lamented persistent skills gaps.

Asnuntuck has forged partnerships and talent pipelines with area manufacturers and businesses including Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, Eppendorf, and Stanley Black & Decker, among others, contributing to a 98% job-placement rate for AMCT graduates.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state,” said Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian, who participated in the tour.

The rise in Enfield’s manufacturing reputation coincides with retail struggles, particularly in Enfield Square, where the only remaining anchor is Target. However, numerous small stores still call the property home, and Party City made a major investment there two years ago.

“The mall is very open to interpretive ways of using their retail space,” Vezzola said, the chamber’s presence there being just one example. “We get a lot of foot traffic in here, community members looking for referrals to some of our members or just information about who we are and what we do and how that benefits the community. Certainly, we’re here and excited to help facilitate any potential new clientele the mall might see in the future.”

While Enfield hasn’t attracted many new large retail establishments over the past year, the community continues to be a haven for sole proprietors, he noted.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state.”

“These are folks who have their own businesses and work from home, whether it’s social-media development or graphic design, things of that nature,” he said. “A lot of young people are starting these businesses — and we’re excited that they want to put their talents and work skills to use right here.”

So excited, in fact, that the chamber is hoping to launch a young professional networking group next year as a subsidiary of the chamber.

“We want to encourage other younger folks who might not necessarily know how to navigate creating their own business or are looking for a new opportunity to learn and develop, so it’ll be a bit of an educational piece as well as a networking piece,” Vezzola explained. “That’s a big focus of what we do; we’re continuing to encourage our businesses to help each other, utilize each other, and benefit each other the best way they can.

“We peg ourselves on changing with the times, and certainly the scope of what a chamber does is completely different now than it was 20 years ago,” he added. “We’re just trying to stay relevant and active and evolve with the times.”

Life on the Border

Vezzola understands, too, the potential for his chamber and its members to make connections across the state line as well.

“Being a border town, I think it helps us get some exposure over the border in Massachusetts for our businesses and vice versa, and we’re considering some partnerships with chambers in Western Massachusetts to maybe do some cross-border development with each other, with networking groups,” he said. “Again, it’s about always evolving and just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mary McNally says the town’s top public-safety priority right now is taking its ambulance service to the next level.

Balance.

That’s a word you hear quite often in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall these days — and for good reason.

This growing community of roughly 16,000 people on the border with Connecticut has long enjoyed a solid balance of business and industry, attractive residential neighborhoods, and a large amount of agricultural land, although the total acreage has fallen in recent years.

It’s an attractive and fairly unique mix — most towns this size can boast two of those ingredients or only one — and maintaining this balance while also achieving additional growth is the ongoing assignment for town leaders.

Balance and patience are the current watchwords for the community, said Town Council President Kathleen Hill, especially as it takes on several large-scale projects she said will benefit the community in the long run.

These include everything from public-safety initiatives to addressing the need to renovate or perhaps replace the town’s 60-year-old high school, one of many built across the region to accommodate the huge Baby Boom generation; from securing a new use for the large eyesore known to most as the Package Machinery property on Chestnut Street to developing a new master plan (more on these matters later).

At the top of the to-do list for town leaders, though, is hiring a new town manager to replace Denise Menard, who left the position on a separation agreement back in July.

For now, Mary McNally serves as acting town manager for a four-month period. She was appointed by the Town Council on Aug. 22 and will serve through Dec. 21 of this year. Hill is in the first year of her second three-year term.

Hill said finding a permanent town manager is a priority for the council and a crucial step in order to begin moving forward with several projects that are in various stages of progression.

“We hired a consultant about a month ago to conduct a professional search for us,” she said, referring to Community Paradigm Associates, which is also assisting Longmeadow in finding a town manager, and recently completed a search for Palmer.

Hill said the town is still in the early stages of the process, and, at this time, the council is gearing up to advertise the position and proceed in the search for the second manager in the town’s history.

Once this process is concluded and the new town manager is settled into the role, more focus can be put on “progressive projects,” as both Hill and McNally called them. Hill says the goal is to move East Longmeadow toward the future, while also keeping the tight-knit community feel that many residents know and love.

“You have to move with the future,” she said. “The character of the town is something we want to preserve. At the same time, we recognize the necessity of being progressive.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Hill and McNally about the process of maintaining balance while also moving the community forward.

Preservation Acts

‘Progress’ is another word you hear in town offices, and officials are looking to create some on a number of fronts, especially with the hiring of a new town manager.

“Next week, the council will be appointing a screening committee, solely for the purpose of reading the applications that the consultant brings to them,” said Hill, noting that the council will not be involved in any part of the process prior to the final four candidates that come out of the pool.

“We will, for the right reasons, go into the process blind to the candidate pool so that we can be totally unbiased, and we will conduct our own public interviews with the hopes of identifying our next manager by early December,” she said, adding that the worst-case scenario is to have the town manager at a desk in early 2020, depending on the candidate and whether or not the person has to give notice to a previous job.

And there will certainly be a lot on that desk in terms of projects and priorities, said those we spoke with, listing matters ranging from public safety to education; economic development to parks and recreation.

With that first category, the priority is taking the town’s ambulance service to the next level, said McNally.

Currently, the town has one basic life support (BLS) ambulance that can be staffed by an EMT, and she says the Fire Department is pursuing an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance that must be staffed by paramedics.

This request, McNally and Hill said, was prompted predominantly by a growing elder community in town. Indeed, East Longmeadow has a half-dozen senior-living facilities, three nursing homes, and other facilities that care primarily for the elderly.

“Because that need is growing, the Fire Department is ready, willing, and able to meet it,” McNally said. “The firefighters have reached that paramedic level of certification; because of the needs of the community, the fire chief has been quite interested in securing that second ambulance, but it’s a long process.”

A feasibility study is also being contemplated for the renovation or rehabilitation of the East Longmeadow Police Department, which was built in 1974.

About a mile down the road from the police station is the old Package Machine property, which is perhaps the most pressing matter in the economic-development category. The industrial property, which includes a large manufacturing area and huge warehouse, has seen various uses over the past several decades — modular homes were built in the warehouse, for example — but has remained mostly vacant and thus become a topic of controversy and speculation.

Hill said there is an interested party, East Longmeadow Redevelopers, that is working with the Planning Board on conceptual work for a mixed-use district that would include apartment-style living, single-family home-style living, retail, and commercial properties.

Hill and McNally referenced Mashpee Commons, located in the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod and described as “upscale shopping and dining in a charming New England village setting,” as the type of facility that might be built on the property.

“There’s something for everyone,” said McNally. “The idea is to have options for your retail, dining, and housing needs. In terms of economic development, it will bring more tax revenue to the town, and it brings housing options for an aging population.”

Kathleen Hill says the former Package Machine property could eventually see new life as a mixed-use development.

She stressed, however, that the discussions are preliminary, and at present there is no existing mixed-use bylaw to establish the district.

The ultimate goal for town officials, as stated above, is to achieve such growth and add needed commercial tax revenue, while also preserving the town’s rural character. This includes preserving remaining farmland.

“We have some huge tracts of land that the town will protect and keep that way as undeveloped land either for conservation or because you just don’t want to build on every square foot you have for a variety of reasons,” said Hill. “You don’t want the farming areas to go away.”

McNally added that this is often a quality-of-life matter, and a desire to have green areas and oxygenation from the trees.

Speaking of green, a plan currently on the back burner is a vision to “re-image” Heritage Park, Hill said. A rendering shows an amphitheater-type stadium built around the pond where more concerts and local events could be held. In addition, more ballfields would be added, as well as a field house.

“It’s going to be a significant investment, but it will add more value to the town,” she said. “That’s what we want to do — make sure there’s return on investment.”

Adding value to the town also means having a good school system with up-to-date buildings, which means addressing the issue of the aging high school. Hill is a former career educator — she spent 21 years in the East Longmeadow school system — and said she has a hard time not advocating for a better high school.

“The reality is, without a building that is state-of-the-art, it drags your real-estate values down,” she said. “People aren’t going to want to come. My husband and I want to sell our house at some point and maybe get something a little smaller. If we let everything in town fall by the wayside, we’re not going to get the same price point that we would if we keep our town vibrant.”

Slow and Steady

Cultivating an even more vibrant community for the long term will be the underlying goal behind creating a new master plan, work on which began more than a year ago.

“Our planner has convened a master plan committee,” said Hill. “It would be a cross-section of folks in town who want to reimagine the master plan. The last one the town did was in 1976, so it’s time.”

Although this might sound like a long time to go without a plan, she said, this is not unique to East Longmeadow. Many small towns either struggle with their plan or simply don’t have one.

But Hill says the benefits of having one are too great to ignore.

“With an accurate plan, as a community, you are in a better position to attract state and federal grant funding,” she added. “It’s a way to define who you are as a community and understand what your needs are. It’s strategic planning. It’s a vision of the future.”

This vision all comes back to that word mentioned at the very top — balance.

“There’s just so much here in this town, but it still has that small-town, quaint feeling,” said Hill. “The sentiment on the Town Council is to maintain that feeling, spend the tax dollars to not only keep that feeling for folks, but give them as much service as possible with a look toward the future as well.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Russell Fox (left, with Karl Stinehart) says Southwick’s slate of 250th-birthday events will be family-friendly and honor the town’s past while looking to a promising future.

Nov. 7 will be a big day in Southwick — and the start of a big year.

Starting that day, a year-long series of events — including holiday festivals, history tours, parades, concerts, and more — will culminate in the Taste of Southwick Gala on Nov. 7, 2020, the 250th anniversary of the town’s incorporation.

Southwick officials and volunteers have been meeting to plan this broad slate of birthday events for some time, much of the planning guided by the nonprofit Southwick Civic Fund.

“It’s an ambitious plan for a smaller community,” said Russell Fox, who chairs the town’s Select Board. “We’re actively raising money, not just from businesses but residents also. And we have some very generous residents — one resident gave us $1,000. So it’s coming along. We’d like these events to be kid-oriented. We want young people to feel like they’re part of the community and learn something about the history of the community and have a good time.”

And there’s a lot to celebrate, as Southwick continues to grow its business base, housing options, and especially its reputation as a recreation destination, Fox said. That Taste event alone speaks to what he calls a recent “restaurant renaissance” in town, with recent additions like Crepes Tea House and Wok on Water, the conversion of Chuck’s Steak House to Westfield River Brewing (which hosts concerts during the summer), and new Crabby Joe’s Bar and Grill owner Mark O’Neill’s plans to tear down that establishment and rebrand it as a state-of-the-art restaurant and brewery that may use wind turbines for electricity.

A 250th-anniversary celebration is an opportunity for a town like Southwick to show how far it has come in the realms of history, population growth, economic development, and cultural and recreational draws, said Karl Stinehart, the town’s chief administrative officer.

On the latter front, Southwick has become a mecca for recreational offerings, like boating on the Congamond Lakes, motocross events at the Wick 338, town events at the 66-acre Whalley Park, and a well-traveled rail trail frequented by bicyclists, hikers, and dog walkers.

As for its population, Southwick still boasts around 10,000 residents, and work continues at two significant new neighborhoods, a 26-home subdivision off Vining Hill Road called Noble Steed, and Fiore Realty’s project to develop about 65 homes at the former Southwick Country Club site. Meanwhile, the town made zoning changes near that site to expand commercial developments along College Highway, including a possible medical facility.

On the infrastructure front, the town is planning to improve sidewalks on Depot Street to provide easier access to downtown, and is currently improving the roadway and drainage on Congamond Road — a key entry into town from Connecticut — aided by more than $4 million in state funds.

“When that’s done, it’ll have a bike lane and sidewalk, and connect the neighborhood both to Gillette’s Corner and to the rail trail,” Stinehart said. “There are businesses that abut the rail trail, and if you go there on certain days, on the weekend, you’ll see people on the trail using those businesses.”

Stinehart noted that the town’s single tax rate of $17.48 continues to be a draw for new businesses, which is good considering the potential development opportunities along College Highway and at the Southwick Industrial Park on Hudson Drive.

“We try to balance residential growth and the business sector, which is an important thing because it keeps our tax rate competitive,” he said. “When you’re a businessman looking to site in a community and you see you’re going to be treated equally as every other taxpayer, you take notice of that.”

Fox agreed. “We try to keep that balance. We’ve got a graying population, with more people on fixed incomes. So the tax rate is a big deal to us. We don’t want to tax people out of the community they grew up in or want to retire in.”

He recalled a business owner looking to move into town from a neighboring community a couple decades ago. He was offered some tax incentives but was angling for more, but instead Fox reminded him of the town’s quality schools, low traffic, reasonable tax rate, and recreational opportunities, and that sold him. “He’s been in Southwick 20-plus years, doing very well.”

Those selling points have only expanded since then, Fox said, and that’s reason enough to celebrate 250 years.

Fun in the Sun

There’s plenty for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy in Southwick, including three golf courses (Edgewood, the Ranch, and a par-3 track at Longhi’s) and the aforementioned 6.5-mile-long rail trail that runs through town from the Westfield border to the Suffield border.

“People in town love the bike trail — it’s just a beautiful area,” Fox told BusinessWest. “When that first started, there were some naysayers, but I think most of those people have gone away.”

“Or they’re on the trail using it,” Stinehart quickly added.

Meanwhile, the lakes on the south side of town — featuring two boat ramps, a fishing pier, and a town beach — provide plenty of activity for residents. A $275,000 project renovated the south boat ramp on Berkshire Avenue last year, making it more modern and handicap-accessible, and the beachfront was recently renovated as well.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.47
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.47
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

Stinehart said the lakes and their environs are an important aspect of Southwick’s outdoor culture and worthy of investment, being, among other things, a major destination for freshwater fishing tournaments.

Then there’s the Wick 338, the motocross track behind the American Legion, which abuts the Southwick Recreation Center and Whalley Park. The complex hosts the annual Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship — which is broadcast live on NBC and draws some 15,000 to 18,000 people to town — as well about 25 other races throughout the year and a host of other events, including Rugged Maniac New England, a challenging, mud-splattered 5K obstacle course. That continual flow of visitors to town benefits a host of other businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, Stinehart noted.

As for Whalley Park itself — which was donated to the town by the prominent Whalley family and developed using municipal and Community Preservation Act funds — it includes a full-size soccer field, baseball field, and softball field, lighting for the fields, a huge kids’ play area, and a pavilion.

The town also recently acquired a 144-acre parcel on North Pond at Congamond Lakes. The Mass. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife awarded Southwick money to help purchase it, and the Franklin Land Trust conducted a fund-raising effort to make up the difference in price. The parcel is abutted by two areas owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of Connecticut.

Even before that, Stinehart said, Southwick had preserved more than 1,000 acres of open space, not including the lakes themselves, and has been active in buying up development rights to farmland, ensuring that they can’t be developed, but must remain agricultural land.

“We’re proud of our agricultural roots, and we still have a lot of farms,” Fox said. “Now we have farms protected in perpetuity.”

Also in the realm of preservation, the town’s Cemetery Commission continues its work to restore the Old Cemetery, which dates to 1770, and the town recently sold its old library, built in 1891, to an investor who intends to partner with the Southwick Historical Commission to preserve it while putting it back on the tax rolls.

Change Is Good

The town’s modern schools — the complex on Feeding Hills Road that houses Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and Southwick Regional School underwent significant additions and renovations in recent years — have also been a draw for new residents, and they have the capacity to house a growing student population, Fox said.

All this has contributed to Southwick being honored this year by the Republican’s Reader Raves program as the best area town to live in.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to that point,” Fox said of the award. “Some people don’t like change at all, but not all change is bad. This is a community we can be proud of. I think we doing a good job of keeping things in balance — commercial, industry, and residential.

“We’re not sitting back; we’re growing,” he went on. “We know people want to move here, and we’re proud of that. We’re going to make sure Southwick remains the town it always has been.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

When Margaret Kerswill talks about her favorite part of the town of Stockbridge, she doesn’t mention a restaurant or the relatively low property-tax rate — she talks about the positive vibe and sense of community in town.

Although Kerswill’s favorite local shop is undoubtably Mutability in Motion, a store she owns with wife Laureen Vizza that sells crafts from more than 50 artisans in the U.S., the first thing she mentioned was the culture of the town.

“That’s the absolute joy of Stockbridge itself,” she said. “You see it in every aspect of Stockbridge, whether you’re just out and about for your daily activities like going to the post office. Doing those normal, daily things, you bump into people all over the place.”

And Kerswill experiences this sense of community in more ways than one. As president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, she regularly attends meetings and finds that several town residents show up consistently, contradicting the typical stereotype for chambers of commerce.

“It’s a great force in the town,” she said. “The more members we have, the more feedback we get, and the more people who can take part in town meetings. It gives us a bigger voice, and it helps us when we come at this as a collective rather than trying to do all the same things, but as individuals.”

She joined the chamber soon after opening her business in town as an opportunity to be a part of a broader marketing reach, hoping to create relationships with other local businesses in town.

“The chamber has a much broader marketing reach than I might as an individual business,” Kerswill told BusinessWest. “Because of that much broader marketing reach, when the businesses come together and support the chamber, it can reach even further because those member dollars increase our marketing budget and increase our ability to interact with the town.”

When thinking of a small town that relies on tourism to support its economy, one might assume it turns into a ghost town during the winter months. But this is not the case for Stockbridge. In fact, this close-knit town provides plenty of museums, historic sites, and other activities for those who live there and visitors alike, and most don’t close down during the offseason. While summer and spring typically see the most tourism, Stockbridge still has plenty to offer during the other months of the year.

“We are a town that’s open all year long; nobody closes seasonally,” said Kerswill. “All of our shops are independently operated, and they’re all mom-and-pop shops. Everybody carries something you need; we try not to overlap what we sell. We all have different missions.”

Year-round Fun

And these missions all provide different forms of entertainment, 365 days a year.

Barbara Zanetti, executive director of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, noted that, while Stockbridge currently relies on tourism, the chamber is constantly looking for ways to grow the town and slowly move away from that necessity.

“We are a small community with just under 2,000 residents, but we have so much to offer as far as culture,” she said.

Along Main Street alone, one can find the Stockbridge Library, banks and real-estate offices, the Red Lion Inn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Austen Riggs Center, the Mission House Museum, and many more.

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $10.13
Commercial Tax Rate: $10.13
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which celebrates 50 years of exhibits this year. The museum holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art, and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work.

Another popular destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s most beloved music festivals. The 2019 Tanglewood season included everything from performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to showcases for up-and-coming artists.

During the warmer months, outdoor activities abound, Kerswill noted, and suggested visitors take a moment to explore nature in and around Stockbridge.

“Bring your kayak up here, get out on the water, and just let your body de-stress for a couple of hours,” she said. “And then take in the surroundings.”

The natural resources, hiking, and beauty of the countryside are a few things that Zanetti says consistently keep people coming to the area, in addition to the arts and cultural aspects that draw a steady flow of visitors.

And though some activities may slow down during the offseason, Kerswill said few close during the colder months. “There’s just this amazing bit of culture that happens. Whether you live here or whether you’re visiting, you will find something regardless of the time of year.”

Best of Both Worlds

While Stockbridge has the feel of being in the countryside, Kerswill says anything a person could need is only a short drive away.

“We like the small-town New England feel, but you’re also not too far from all the conveniences you need,” she said. “It’s like this illusion of living in the country, but you’re surrounded by everything you need, so nothing is really inconvenient.”

All it takes, she said, is a little bit of research to find a plethora of activities to explore in town.

“I think, unless people really get to know the town, they don’t really realize just how much there is here,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds, for sure.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

As anyone who lives in Hadley, visits the town, or drives through it knows, Route 9, the main commercial thoroughfare in this still largely agricultural community, is in a seemingly constant state of motion.

In this case, motion translates into everything from high traffic counts to a continuous flow of new businesses across a wide spectrum that includes service ventures, retail outlets, and hospitality-related companies, to infrastructure work aimed at improving traffic flow.

And Hadley is seeing all of the above at the moment, as Town Administrator David Nixon noted as he talked with BusinessWest about the state of his community.

There are a number of new additions to the commercial landscape in various stages of development, said Nixon, listing a new Homewoods Hotel that recently debuted — bringing the total number of hotel rooms in town to 612 — as well as a Five Guys, L.L. Bean, Harbor Freight Tools, and 110 Grill that will be unveiled soon.

“There’s a lot of demand, and obviously the infrastructure is in place to support that demand except for the gas moratorium,” said Nixon, referring to an ongoing ban on new or expanded natural-gas service in Hampshire and Franklin counties due to a lack of capacity, a source of considerable controversy and consternation within the community. “The University of Massachusetts and the other colleges in the area, as well as 25 other campuses within an hour’s drive of this spot, make the area recession-proof.”

“Route 9 is a big economy booster for the town of Hadley and is continuously being renovated to provide services to both residents and visitors.”

And they make Hadley, population 5,000 or so, a much more populated place during what would be called business hours, with between 35,000 and 80,000 visiting the community each day.

But Hadley has always been much more than a place to visit or travel through on the way to somewhere else, especially the college towns that border it, Amherst and Northampton. Indeed, a mix of culture, recreation, and bucolic countryside makes it an attractive place to live.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned infrastructure work and a mix of municipal projects designed to make it even more attractive.

That latter category includes a new, $3.9 million library that can be seen from the top of Hadley’s Town Hall building. Molly Keegan, general government liaison for the Hadley Select Board, said the state’s Library Building Assoc. is matching 50% of the project costs.

“Like many communities, we were suffering from deferred maintenance on some of our older town properties,” she noted, “and we were able to move forward with a funding strategy that allowed us to build a new library and take advantage of the state grant program.”

Right next door to the library, a new, $7.1 million senior center is under way, and a new, $3.5 million fire substation is being constructed on River Drive.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure work includes a number of road and bridge projects, all aimed at improving traffic flow along Route 9.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how the word ‘Hadley’ remains seemingly synonymous with both ‘change’ and ‘progress.’

Routes and Roots

As is the case with most infrastructure projects, progress usually comes after a lengthy period of inconvenience. And that will certainly be the case in Hadley.

Three major road projects will be taking place simultaneously over the next few years, said Nixon, adding that all are needed for the community to better accommodate those tens of thousands of visitors every day.

Currently underway is work on the roundabout at the west side of the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in Northampton.

“The current configuration is not efficient — it doesn’t allow cars to go through quickly,” he explained. “They’re going to put an exchange with the ramps, the bridge, and the surface streets, so that will get traffic moving a lot quicker.”

In addition, the Bay Road Bridge over Fort River is being completely replaced. The bridge will be reconstructed with wider shoulders and new sidewalks, with construction set to begin in the spring of 2021.

Finally, a four-year project is set to widen Route 9 from Town Hall to 2.5 miles east by the malls. This project will add another lane to the popular route in hopes of significantly reducing traffic tie-ups.

“Traffic congestion has been a real problem in some areas, but is now becoming a real problem all over the East Coast,” Nixon said. “Taking care of the infrastructure is of regional importance.”

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250 (2010)
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.36
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

Equally important is maintaining what has been a diverse business community, he noted, adding that, while the retail and hospitality sectors have exploded along Route 9 in recent decades, agriculture remains a huge part of the town’s vibrancy — and its identity.

“Agriculture is a part of our heritage,” he said. “This is still very much an agricultural town.”

He’s talking about the six dairy farms and endless acres of preserved farmland on town property that accompany the booming business on Route 9.

The town has the most protected farmland in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he said, adding that the strong commercial and industrial base helps the community to not only preserve its agricultural base, but keep its residential tax rates comparatively low.

But while small in size (population-wise) and mostly rural in character, Hadley is facing some big-city challenges.

“We are, at our core, a small town,” Nixon said. “We have the resources of a small town, and yet we’re dealing with much larger issues.”

Chief among them is traffic, he said, adding that this is a seasonal concern for the Berkshires and Cape Cod, in Hadley, it’s a year-round problem, although conditions are somewhat better when the colleges are not in session.

The town will have some help as it goes about taking on these various challenges in the form of a higher bond rating.

On June 21, Hadley was informed that its bond rating was upgraded from AA+ to AAA, an achievement only three other towns in Massachusetts — Northampton, Great Barrington, and Lenox — can currently boast.

“That’s quite an achievement for a small town,” said Nixon. “We’re insufferably pleased with ourselves. It’s an accomplishment not only of the town government and the million things that we do, but it’s also an accomplishment for the entire business, residential, and agricultural community. It’s something that everyone can take pride in and feel good about and take credit for.”

Keegan added that a financial team has been working hard alongside elected officials to make the higher bond rating possible.

“Having that bond rating … not only is it public recognition of all the good work being done by the municipal employees and volunteers, but it also puts us in the best position we can be in in terms of borrowing,” she said. “The timing on that could not have been any better.”

Planting Seeds

As for the future, Nixon hopes Hadley continues to build upon its recent successes and especially that higher bond rating.

What is distinctly clear is that the town is in a period of ongoing growth and evolution, all while maintaining the rural quality and agricultural character that makes Hadley, well, Hadley.

And like that AAA rating, this is something to celebrate.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]