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MIDDLETOWN, CT — Liberty Bank is again teaming up with Save-A-Suit, a Connecticut-based nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans transition back to civilian life and achieve job security. The initiative supports local military men and women as they go through the job interview process and seek long-term employment.

Through July 15, the bank is collecting professional clothing for men and women, basically anything veterans can wear to a job interview and at work. Following the drive, Save-A-Suit staff and volunteers will sort the donations and distribute clothing at a quarterly event where veterans are also provided with wellness resources.

Liberty Bank has worked with Save-A-Suit since 2016. All Liberty Bank branches are currently accepting donations as drop-off sites for Save-A-Suit. Since inception in 2010, the nonprofit has helped ‘suit up’ and support over 5,000 veterans.

“Partnering with Save-a-Suit is one of the most rewarding experiences and sound investments we can make in a community organization that does so much year after year to help our veterans succeed after service,” said David Glidden, Liberty Bank president and CEO. “Our continued partnership with Save-A-Suit and other organizations allows us to show our deepest gratitude for the selfless service and sacrifice of our veterans who deserve only the best. Collectively, by giving back and spreading kindness, we are helping to ensure our veterans are fully prepared for the next chapter in their lives.”

Anyone can support local veterans through Save-A-Suit by dropping off new and gently used suits, blazers, dress shirts, dress pants, tops, shoes, and other business attire for men and women at the nearest Liberty Bank branch. Dirty, damaged or ripped items will not be distributed to veterans. Monetary donations for Save-A-Suit are also being accepted. For locations and branch hours, refer to www.liberty-bank.com and learn more about Save-A-Suit at: www.saveasuit.org

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Alex McGill says his company considered other options, but decided it wanted to be in East Longmeadow

Roughly 60 years ago, McGill Hose and Coupling opened on Benton Drive in East Longmeadow. About six months ago, it moved into a new building around the corner on Industrial Drive that is more than double the size of its old location.

McGill is a custom fabricator of hoses and tubes for a wide variety of industries, everything from fuel delivery to food and beverage to pharmaceuticals. In short, any industry that requires hoses and tubing can be served by the company. Alex McGill, vice president at McGill, said the pandemic and supply chain challenges have caused some hiccups, but at the same time brought more business from pharmaceutical companies, especially in the Northeast.

“The opportunity came about because of the level of service we offer and because we are accessible to our customers,” McGill noted. “Our willingness to work around the clock to make sure customers get what they need has won us quite a lot of business over the years.”

While the company could be located anywhere, and could have moved anywhere when expansion became necessary, McGill has chosen to remain in East Longmeadow.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors,” he said adding, “we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

Secure Energy Systems has a story that is similar in many ways. The company was located on Somers Road until 2016 when a fire destroyed the company’s building. Nearby Cartamundi provided temporary space for Secure Energy while it sought out a new location.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors, we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

“The owners of the company had purchased a property in Enfield, but it just didn’t feel right to them,” said Erin Bissonnette, senior energy sales representative for Secure Energy. “They wanted to stay in East Longmeadow because they felt this was their home and they didn’t want to leave.”

So, in 2018 Secure Energy found the right space a few doors down from the manufacturer Cartamundi on Shaker Road and bought the building that formerly housed the laser company Biolitec.

These stories are among many others that relate how East Longmeadow has become an increasingly popular home for families and businesses alike. As for the ‘why’ this is happening — there are many reasons for that, including quality of life, a still-favorable commercial tax rate, available land and property, and, overall, a pro-business approach that is prompting new businesses to settle there, existing businesses to stay, and entrepreneurs to find space there to get started, as we’ll see.

And while businesses owners are choosing to invest in the community, East Longmeadow is making investments in itself.

The East Longmeadow Town Council recently passed the Fiscal 2023 budget, which includes funding for 19 capital projects in town. One prominent project involves a major redevelopment of Heritage Park. According to Town Manager Mary McNally, the initial design and permitting phase of the redevelopment will come from Community Preservation monies. Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will cover the other 18 projects.

“They range from investing in the town’s IT needs to police cruisers, a fire engine and DPW trucks,” McNally said. “There are enough projects to stimulate lots of economic activity in town, providing we can get the contractors and the materials to get it all done.” 

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how all these many kinds of investments are paying off for East Longmeadow.

 

Right Place, Right Time

After a renovation that Bissonnette described as “down to the steel beams” Secure Energy, which specializes in the procurement of natural gas and electricity for its commercial and industrial clients, now has a modern, airy office with amenities for employees such as a kitchen, large gym, and an outdoor gathering space. And there is plenty of room for growth.

“We negotiate with the same suppliers the utilities use and lock in the price and a term for the energy commodity, whether it’s for 6 months or 60 months,” Bissonnette said.

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out. They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

As a result, a business can know what their energy will cost for the length of the term, a service more valuable these days than ever before.

“Some clients will forget they extended their term beyond 2022 and will call us in a panic,” Bissonnette said. “Then we reassure them that our energy advisors grabbed the lowest prices months ago and locked in that rate. As a result, customers who were concerned are now very happy.” 

Secure Energy is part of a growing, very diverse business community in East Longmeadow, one that takes full advantage of many amenities, including a favorable location near population centers and the border with Connecticut, as well as land on which to build and grow.

McGill Hose and Coupling is another example.

Erin Bissonnette

Erin Bissonnette says Secure Energy wanted to stay in East Longmeadow, because it “felt like home.”

As McGill employees settle into its new location, Alex McGill said the company’s next goal involves growing the business and the team working in East Longmeadow.

“We’re putting more of an emphasis on our employees,” McGill said. “We’re building a team atmosphere that has become a real catalyst for our recent growth.”

Using the strategy “if you treat your employees right, they will treat your customers right” is already paying off.

“We are poised for a nice shot of growth,” McGill continued. “We are paying attention to the future and investing in our employee culture serves as the guiding light for our growth.”

The same sentiments apply to the town and many of the investments it is making.

Indeed, as part of the budget, the town council also approved hiring for 13 positions in various town departments. McNally said Town Hall is scheduled to get 5 full time and one part time position out of the total.

“The staff at Town Hall work very hard to get things done,” McNally said. “Life would be easier if we had more staff, so I’m very pleased the council saw fit to fund these positions.” The extra staff presents a challenge of finding room where the new hires can work. The town is currently trying to find a balance between locating a department or two to another building without spreading municipal offices all over the town.

Meanwhwhile, a new high school represents a longer-term investment that is moving through town and state approval processes. The town will host three visioning sessions to show residents what a new school could look like and to solicit ideas from the public on what they would like to see for a new high school.

“These will be hybrid meetings so the public can take part in person or virtually,” McNally said. “I hope we get a good turnout and that people will participate.”

One of those 18 ARPA projects includes roof repairs to the current high school.

“This is a fix that can’t wait for the years-long process of building a new school,” said McNally.

Another investment trend in East Longmeadow involves people investing in themselves.

Grace Barone, executive director of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, said recent networking events she has held are attracting many young entrepreneurs. Barone said new pop-up shops are beginning to appear and most of them are women-owned businesses.

Grace Barone

Grace Barone

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out,” said Barone. “They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

One of those entrepreneurs recently leased space in the Reminder Building, where the Chamber office is also located. Chris Buendo, owner of the building, said he has welcomed startups to the Reminder Building and now has an eclectic mix of tenants. In fact, he allows tenants to provide a 60-day notice to break their lease instead of holding them to a typical one year or longer term.

“The shorter notice takes a little pressure off a start-up company,” said Buendo. “Rather than signing a long-term lease that they may later regret, I have faith that what they are doing is going to work so I want to relieve some of that pressure so they can succeed.”

The height of the pandemic was a scary time for commercial real estate, and Buendo said he lost many tenants who abandoned their office space to work from home. As the world slowly emerges from COVID concerns, he said business has come back.

“The good news is I’m getting calls again,” Buendo said. “Working from home is nice but it’s not a perfect scenario, so people are calling me to say it’s time to return to the office.” And return they have, as Buendo noted he has only one available space in the Reminder building.

Chris Buendo

Chris Buendo says growing interest in office space in the town is a sign of progress.

At the town level, in addition to the new jobs approved by the council, several key positions have turned over because of retirements and career changes. McNally explained that over the last year the town has brought on a new planning director and a new library director. McNally herself plans to retire when her contract ends on June 30.

At press time the town had chosen a new town manager and was in the process of negotiating the final contract before announcing the new person.

 

The Bottom Line

As for McNally, her next move is well planned.

“I’ll be on the golf course, at the ocean, or with my family, not necessarily in that order,” McNally said. “I’m a lawyer by training so I could re-new my license if I get bored, but for now I’m ready to call it a day.”

As she prepares for retirement, McNally is pleased that thanks to investments from the private sector and the town, East Longmeadow is in solid financial shape going forward and in a position to continue the remarkable pattern of growth it has seen in recent years. u

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jaclyn Stevenson

Jaclyn Stevenson says Shakespeare & Company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer.

 

Jennifer Nacht describes the beginning of the summer season in Lenox as a light switch that clicks on to a time of “happy mayhem.”

Unofficially, the season begins after Memorial Day weekend, but Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, noted that the weekends leading up to the holiday were plenty busy, as well. In fact, as early as January she first began to see a vibrant summer on the horizon for Lenox.

Back then, Nacht had begun planning the Lenox Art Walk event scheduled for this month. Her attempt to reserve hotel rooms for artists who planned to travel to the event was more difficult than anticipated.

“I was able to find only three rooms after calling several different hotels back in January,” Nacht said. “They were all so apologetic and said that because of weddings and other events, every place was booked full.” 

This difficulty with finding rooms is just one indication of what promises to be a sizzling summer for Lenox, which, because of its tourism-based economy, faced innumerable challenges during the past two summers of COVID, and is poised for a breakout year.

Indeed, ‘healthy’ and ‘robust’ are terms that Marybeth Mitts, chair of the Lenox Select Board, uses to describe tourism in her community as high season, the three months of summer, commence.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019,” Mitts said, adding that, with a full summer of Boston Symphony Orchestra performances as well as a Popular Artists series, Tanglewood’s economic impact on Lenox and the Berkshires is considerable.

As one small snapshot, Nacht pointed out that James Taylor’s annual shows on July 3 and 4 will bring more than 36,000 people to town over just those two days.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019.”

Shakespeare and Company is another Lenox-based arts institution projecting not just a solid summer, but a solid year.

Indeed the theater company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer. Jaclyn Stevenson, director of marketing and communications, said the longer season is experimental, and will incorporate performances both indoors and outdoors.

Last year when COVID numbers stubbornly stayed high enough to threaten Shakespeare and Company’s ability to stage indoor plays, plans for an outdoor theatre that was a “someday” project, moved on to the fast track.

“The Spruce Theatre was constructed in 90 days in the summer of 2021,” Stevenson said. Modeled after the amphitheaters of ancient Greece, the stage rests in front of several tall spruce trees that are incorporated into the design.

“When the idea for it was presented in the context of COVID, it was much easier for everyone to understand the vision Artistic Director Allyn Burrows had for the theater,” added Stevenson.

While the company already had its outdoor Roman Garden Theatre that seats 280, the Spruce Theatre is a 500-seat facility with room to stage larger productions. In fact, the opening play for the Spruce Theatre was a production of King Lear featuring actor Christopher Lloyd in the title role.

“Having Christopher Lloyd here to christen the stage was a real coup,” Stevenson remembered. “It was the kind of fanfare we would not have been able to create otherwise in a COVID world.”

For this, the latest installment of its Ciommunity Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how Lenox is well-positioned to further rebound from COVID and take full advantage of what is expected to be a big year for the tourism sector — and communities that rely on such businesses to fuel their economy.

 

Art and Soul

The Art Walk is a good example of an event that was created at the height of the pandemic after the town was forced to cancel its annual Apple Squeeze event. As an alternative to the town-wide festival, Nacht and others developed the Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when Apple Squeeze would have taken place.

The first Art Walk consisted of 40 artists set up in different areas of town known as “artist villages.” These villages were arranged to accommodate only small groups of people with an emphasis on foot-traffic flow to keep everyone moving through the exhibits.

The event received great feedback and has quickly become a tradition in Lenox. Now in its third year, Art Walk features spring and fall editions. Meanwhile, the Apple Squeeze has returned, and will take place on Sept. 24.

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says the summer is looking very promising for Lenox and its many tourism-related businesses.

“It’s very validating to see these events that we put together on the fly are now becoming established,” said Nacht, noting that Lenox Loves Music is another event created during the pandemic that has had staying power.

In Lenox, music and entertainment are an important part of the town’s identity. When Tanglewood, Shakespeare and Company and the other entertainment venues shut down at the height of COVID, the chamber began working with the Berkshire Music School on a series of Sunday afternoon concerts, and Lenox Loves Music was born.

“The new events really help the merchants,” Nacht said. “Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

Like the Art Walk, the popularity of Lenox Loves Music has made it a keeper, with concerts every Friday in June and September.

“We run all these events in the shoulder months of May and June then September and October,” Nacht said. “Once our high season hits, beginning the weekend of July 4, we’re packed with visitors so we don’t need to entice tourists because they are already here.”

Shakespeare and Company is another organization that has extended its season to the shoulder months. In years past, the company would stage three plays by the Bard and three contemporary works. With the expanded season, it is staging two Shakespeare plays along with five or six modern plays.

“The mission of our company is based on the work of Shakespeare,” Stevenson said. “We choose our plays thoughtfully to reflect the spirit of the Bard and to show people new things.”

In addition to staging plays, the company also has a robust actor-training program and a nationally recognized theatre-in-education program.

Stevenson noted that a high-school-age theater group had recently performed Romeo and Juliet on the Spruce Theatre stage.

“The new events really help the merchants. Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

“It was so cool to see students on the same stage where actors from all over the world will be performing Much Ado About Nothing in July,” Stevenson said. “You could see the joy of them being in that space.”

 

Setting the Stage

To accommodate all the tourists visiting these attractions, and locals as well, Lenox has a number of projects in the works to refurbish some of its municipal buildings while plans are in the works to build several new structures for town departments.

Beginning with Town Hall, Mitts said improvements are underway to replace the carpet and curtains in the auditorium as well as install a new roof and gold leaf on the Town Hall cupola.

“The town has capital plans within the next five years to begin construction on a new wastewater treatment plant, and a new public safety structure to include the Lenox police and fire departments,” Mitts said.

In addition to roof and chimney repairs to the library, Mitts said a key project involves updating the HVAC system.

“We’re installing a new interstitial system to manage ventilation in the building,” Mitts said. “This is to ensure proper storage of the library’s collections including rare books and ephemera of the region.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of refurbishing project is taking place at Mass Audubon Society’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, a popular destination for hikers at all levels. Last July a wind and rainstorm felled thousands of trees and severely damaged a boardwalk at Pike’s Pond. With $200, 000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the state and private donations, cleanup and renovations are in progress.

“Many of the trails and structures have been restored, however, there is on-going work to bring the facility back up to the full capacity it enjoyed in June 2021,” Mitts said.

As for the chamber of commerce, Nacht said that while the pandemic really challenged the agency in many different ways, it also presented an opportunity for the chamber to show what it could do to support efforts in town.

“People are now confident in the chamber and look to us for help with their events,” Nacht said offering the example of a proverbial ‘good problem to have’ at a recent farmers’ market.

“The farmers’ market brought so many people to town there weren’t enough lunch places for people,” Nacht said. The chamber arranged for a food truck run by someone who had worked in Lenox restaurants for 20 years. “He was excited to be back in Lenox and tells people he’s living his dream with his food truck.”

“It’s nice to feel that kind of energy coming back to Lenox,” she went on, adding that energy levels are expected to soar even higher during what is shaping up to be a very memorable summer.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Carolyn Brennan

Carolyn Brennan says that while Hadley is a small town, the traffic and visitation it sees every day create some big-city challenges.

In some ways Hadley is a tale of two communities.

One is a small farming town, known locally — and even beyond — for its asparagus. The other Hadley exists on Route 9, the main artery running through town that can see up to 100,000 vehicles a day bringing people to shopping centers, universities, hotels — and neighboring towns.

This dual nature brings obvious opportunities and challenges — and many of both — to this Hampshire County community.

The opportunities are clearly evident all along Route 9 — retail outlets of every kind that bring people, and vital tax revenue, to the town. The challenges … they are clearly evident as well.

And one of the biggest is meeting the demands of those 100,000 vehicles using the town’s infrastructure with the staff and budget of a small town.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day,” said Carolyn Brennan, town administrator.

In the first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, Hadley received $1.5 million, which was used to address repairs to two culverts as well as repairs to the dike that runs next to the Connecticut River. The town sought separate funding for its largest infrastructure project, a 2¼-mile reconstruction of Route 9. When complete the road will be widened for additional traffic lanes and bus shelters, and storm drains will be upgraded.

Brennan said that because Route 9 is a state road, the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is splitting costs with the town. Brennan explained that the town will open the road to fix the infrastructure below, and MassDOT will handle the widening and new pavement.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day.”

“The initial phase of the work has begun, like clearing brush and marking utility poles that will be moved,” Brennan said. “There will be much more activity in the next few months as the town begins to replace storm water and sewer lines.” The project is expected to be completed by 2026.

According to Brennan, communication is essential to keep traffic flowing while construction is occurring. Baltazar Contractors stays in close contact with the town when road work is planned. This approach is already paying dividends, as Baltazar had initially planned road work for May 13, the day of the UMass commencement ceremony at McGuirk Stadium.

“We quickly notified them to not do any road work that day to avoid a traffic tie-up,” Brennan said. “It would have been insane.”

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says businesses and events in Hadley are returning to their pre-pandemic levels.

Brennan also shares the weekly construction schedule with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Hadley has been incredible with communicating when road work will be taking place,” Pazmany said. “It allows us to let businesses know what the traffic patterns will be.”

And lately, traffic has been heavier as the region returns to something approaching normalcy after two years of pandemic.

Indeed, business in Hadley is definitely picking up, with Pazmany reporting that more businesses are returning to pre-pandemic hours of operation and events like the Asparagus Festival (June 11) are back on the schedule.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer,” Pazmany said. “The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a town that is much more than a bridge between Amherst and Northampton.

 

Fruits of Their Labor

Echoing Pazmany, Drew Perron, co-owner of Arizona Pizza at the Hampshire Mall said his business is vibrant, with numbers approaching those of 2019. He gave credit to his staff to help get through the worst of the pandemic.

“Many of our employees are long-termers and have been with us from seven to 12 years,” Perron said. “We made it through this entire ordeal thanks to their dedication.”

Once part of a chain, Arizona Pizza is now locally owned by Perron and his business partner. While its location is tucked around the back of the mall, customers have no problem finding it.

“I’m very thankful we have a number of regulars who kept us going through COVID and they continue to support us,” Perron said.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer. The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

With Cinemark theaters located next to Arizona Pizza, blockbuster movies help keep the restaurant busy.

“Doctor Strange came out last weekend, and that was a good weekend for us,” Perron noted. “I communicate with the general manager at Cinemark, because the more successful they are, the more successful we’re going to be.”

Perron and Cinemark working together is an example of the cooperative spirit that motivated Andrea Bordenca to locate two businesses in Hadley.

Bordenca is CEO for both Diversified Equipment Services & Consulting Organization (DESCO) and Venture Way Collaborative.

DESCO is a service company where technicians maintain and repair technology such as EKG machines, operating room tables, and similar equipment found in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Founded by her father in 1970, Bordenca worked through the ranks of DESCO with positions in quality assurance and sales. While her dad taught her some basics of business, Bordenca realized she had no leadership skills and was motivated to enroll in the Institute for Generative Learning (IGL) an international leadership training and coaching organization.

“I wanted to create a higher leadership role for myself to carry on the legacy of my father and of DESCO,” she explained, adding that she credits IGL for teaching her how to be a leader and how to grow the company by centering DESCO’s focus on building and aligning teams.

“Over the past 15 years, we have more than doubled in size, doubled in revenue, and quadrupled in profitability,” Bordenca said.

Her training at IGL so inspired Bordenca that she now owns the U.S. affiliate for the training organization. Other affiliates are in Latin America, the United Kingdom and Asia, making her one of four owners and operators of IGL.

That brings us to her second business, Venture Way Cooperative in Hadley, where IGL is located. While DESCO had been in Eastern Mass since its founding, Bordenca moved the company’s headquarters to the Venture Way location in May 2020.

“When I came to Western Mass I saw lots of collaboration and a sense of commitment for each other to succeed,” said Bordenca. “I just didn’t see that kind of collaboration in Eastern Mass.”

The two organizations currently have 61 employees, with Bordenca serving as CEO for both entities. DESCO has a national presence with an office in Miami and field technicians who work from home in various states. She was able to coordinate the company’s move to Hadley without losing any employees.

“We’re looking to triple in size over the next five years,” Bordenca said. “We want to share our culture and our ability to build teams and create engagements to other states.”

When BusinessWest spoke with Bordenca she was planning a ribbon cutting and open house to introduce more people to IGL and DESCO. To illustrate what happens at DESCO, a service technician will hold a demonstration at the open house of how they service a sterilizing machine. The technician will also work with something more familiar to most people, an ice machine — DESCO also services ice machines for restaurants, hotels and surgery centers.

“On the training side of Venture Way, I’ve invited local speakers to talk about the work they’re involved in to begin a dialog about the ways community members can help affect change together,” Bordenca said. “This is the first of many events like this and we’ve begun lining up great local leaders to present in the coming months.”

One way Bordenca sees Venture Way helping DESCO is by training a more diverse workforce to step in as older workers retire. She admitted that technicians in the industry have traditionally been mostly white and male.

“We want to make sure our industry is visible to all genders and races,” she said. “At Venture Way we can expose people to what we do and even offer mini courses so more people can get a taste of this as a career.”

Large numbers of workers reaching retirement age is happening in all professions. Brennan said it’s an ongoing challenge for Hadley.

“In the next few years, we will see a significant number of highly skilled, intelligent workers retiring and leaving with lots of historical knowledge about the town,” Brennan said. “The real challenge is encouraging younger people to work in municipal government.”

Brennan is working on a more robust internship program between UMass and the town to introduce public policy majors to the workings of a municipality.

“Once people start working with a municipality, they’re hooked for life,” Brennan said, relating to her own experience where, after working in municipal government, she took a job in the private sector for a short time but could not wait to get back into municipal work. “I was hooked, and we just have to get new people hooked.”

Pazmany, who recently took part in a workforce-strategies panel, said a trend is emerging where modern workers want to be part of something bigger than just having a job and are more concerned about a community focus in their work.

In her role at the chamber, Pazmany makes many direct connections among area businesses and has found new ways to help employers fill positions.

“Members are allowed to upload job listings, which we then upload to our social media sites,” Pazmany said. “We’ve posted hundreds of jobs in the past several months.”

 

Experts in Their Fields

Bordenca said she’s excited about moving DESCO to Hadley, calling it the perfect location for what the company does.

“Hadley is more centrally located to serve customers throughout the Northeast in places like New York and Vermont,” Bordenca said. “This location makes us feel closer to our employees and our customers in lots of ways.”

Perron concurred, noting that Hadley is a town that works well for his restaurant. He also gave credit to the current Hampshire Mall management as the best he’s seen in well over a decade.

“I like being a tenant here because the mall managers are very good about working with us and caring about us,” Perron said.

He’s also encouraged by the continued growth of the Route 9 corridor and the number of people it brings to the town.

“I see an uptrend happening here,” said Perron, who is clearly not alone in that assessment.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Mike McCabe

Mayor Mike McCabe says he’s gained needed feedback from his visits with business owners and monthly coffee hours.

Four months into his new job, Westfield Mayor Michael McCabe says he loves his work.

“I’m able to make an impact in areas that I wouldn’t have thought I could; the job requires a lot of problem-solving, something I’m used to doing,”said McCabe, who, after serving for 36 years in various capacities with the Westfield Police Department, unseated incumbent Donald Humason in last November’s election.

The same two men squared off in 2019, to a different result, obviously. McCabe ran then, and tried again last year because he thought he could use his leadership skills and ability to build relationships to move the city forward in several key areas. Early in his first year in office, he can already point to some progress and the potential for much more.

He starts downtown, where he’s made a point of visiting every business from Park Square to the Great River Bridge. And as he did so, he visited some that opened just months and even weeks ago, a sign of resilience and growth in a central business district that has struggled for many years.

“I’ve spoken with all the store owners, and I take part in a coffee hour with the chamber every month,” said McCabe, adding that these listening tours are educational in many respects; they let him know what businesses are concerned about, a list topped by traffic.

That’s one topic in McCabe’s wheelhouse, as his last few years with the police department were as traffic commission chairman.

One major traffic issue involves entering and exiting the Mass Turnpike in Westfield. McCabe is working with the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to create a new eastbound entrance to the turnpike known as a slip ramp. This would greatly benefit truck traffic while at the same time, relieve much of the backup at the turnpike entrance.

“I’m able to make an impact in areas that I wouldn’t have thought I could; the job requires a lot of problem-solving, something I’m used to doing.”

“The idea is that once you get to the top of North Elm Street, you take a right and you don’t have to stop until you get to Boston,” McCabe said adding that the ramp would reduce wait times for north bound traffic by 66%. “That’s a big number.”

It would also cut in half the wait times for vehicles trying to exit the turnpike from the west during rush periods, where vehicles are often lined up for a half mile trying to access the exit ramp.

While the slip ramp has not yet received formal approval, McCabe said feedback from the state so far has been good. “Fundamentally, there were no issues with what we are proposing,” he said.

Beyond downtown and the turnpike proposal, McCabe and other municipal and business leaders can point to progress on several other fronts, including plans to create a hyper-scale data center in the northwest corner of the city.

According to McCabe, the data center is still only in the planning stage, but if it comes to fruition, this campus of buildings could be the largest development ever undertaken in this region.

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty, general Manager of the Westfield G&E says his internal goal is to see 99% of the city with fiber optic access by 2024.

The plan is for the data center to occupy some 155 acres in the northwest corner of the city and cost $2.7 billion when complete.It would serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for big data companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Overall, McCabe and other city leaders say Westfield’s bevy of assets — from its location off the turnpike to its abundance of developable land center; from its municipal airport to its municipal utility, which offers a potent mix of attractively priced energy and high-speed internet — are paying dividends for the community and making projects such as the data center feasible.

That much is made clear in this, the latest installment ofBusinessWest’sCommunity Spotlight series.

 

Things are Looking Up

Westfield Barnes Municipal Airport is one area of town where things are literally taking off.

According to Chris Willenborg, airport manager, nearly 50,000 takeoffs and landings occur at Barnes every year. A $4.7 million taxiway apron that was completed late in the fall allows the airport to accommodate larger aircraft and improves operations on both the civilian and military side of the airport.

“Neary 3,700 student athletes fly through Barnes on sports team charter planes,” Willenborg noted. “These flights are typically larger aircraft, which we can now accommodate.”

Three new hangars are currently under construction that will allow Barnes to have 12 to 15 more aircraft based there.

“Right now, there is a waiting list to store aircraft at Barnes,” Willenborg said. “The leases, fuel fees and other associated costs will all generate revenue for Westfield.”

With the Mass Turnpike and I-91 close by, Barnes has become an appealing airport for business aviation, which has Willenborg looking for even more hangar development. Work has also begun for what Willenborg called a “major project in the pipeline.”

“We have a $15 million to $20 million taxiway project going out to bid next year,” he said. “It’s in the design phase now and will involve relocating and widening one of our taxiways.”

On the military side of the airport, Westfield currently houses a fleet of F-15 fighter jets. Last year the Department of Defense invited air bases to make their case for hosting F-35 jets and Barnes made its bid. The DOD is expected to decide by May or June.

“The most important thing about this process is that Barnes will be getting a new fighter jet,” Willenborg said. “We will either bring the F-35 here or we will get the brand-new F-15 EX fighter. Either way, we are anxiously awaiting their decision.”

Developments at Barnes are just some of the newsworthy projects in the northern, industrial end of the city.

Indeed, another growth area for Westfield involves James Hardie Building Products, which will soon move into the former Old Colony Envelope building. Hardie manufactures construction siding products such as backer board, a drywall-type sheet used in wet areas such as bathrooms.

Meanwhile, off Route 202, both Home Depot and Lowe’s maintain distribution centers for the region. Another major retailer will soon join them as Target is planning a warehouse in the same area.

The city has been able to attract these large distribution centers — and become the preferred site for the hyper-scale data center — because of its location, inventory of land and available properties, and the abundance of cheap power and high-speed internet.

Those last two selling points come courtesy of the Westfield Gas & Electric and Whip City Fiber, a division of the G&E continues to install its fiber optic high-speed internet infrastructure in Westfield and many small towns. Tom Flaherty, general manager for the G&E, said Whip City is on track to have 85% of Westfield covered by this time next year.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette says nearly 20 new businesses have opened in Westfield during the pandemic, a sign of entrepreneurial energy in the city.

At the same time, the company is bringing high-speed internet to 19 towns in Western Mass where no internet infrastructure previously existed. For towns like Cummington, Windsor, Heath, and others, it’s an economic boom.

“Real estate agents are using access to Whip City Fiber as a selling point to sell homes,” Flaherty said. “Because they now have internet access, one town official told us they are building five new houses, where before they were lucky to build one house every other year.”

Critics of Whip City Fiber have complained about resources going to other towns while sections of Westfield are still without fiber optic internet. Flaherty said revenues from Whip City Fiber customers in Westfield and the hill towns will help pay for finishing the job in town.

“We have most of Westfield covered and we are tackling some of the more complex and costly areas now,” Flaherty said. Installing the fiber optic cables in apartment complexes and in areas with underground wiring is more complicated and expensive.

“Officially, we hope to see 99% of Westfield with fiber optic access by 2025,” Flaherty said. “My internal goal is 2024.”

 

What’s in Store

Meanwhile, back in downtown Westfield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette reported that small businesses continue to open in Westfield.

“During the pandemic, nearly 20 new businesses opened; that blew my mind,” he said. “These folks had made the decision to pursue their vision and were undaunted by the pandemic.”

As COVID numbers get under control and the weather warms up, the chamber has returned to hosting in-person events.

“We thought that was important because it’s tough to network from behind a screen,” Oulette said. “When people can be present with each other it leads to more clients and more job opportunities. It even opens the door for us to meet businesses who might want to join the chamber.”

While membership dropped off during the pandemic, Oulette is hoping to grow from the current 230 members to 300 by the end of the year.

Several efforts are in place to encourage small business activity, such as a vacant-storefront initiative, where the city will subsidize a new business by covering half their rent payments for up to two years. There’s also a façade initiative that involves repairing and restoring building fronts for businesses in the city.

McCabe has a vision for downtown that emphasizes retailers who sell consumables.

“That means taking a chance on offering places with eclectic food and more diversity than what’s currently available downtown,” he said.

The mayor also made a promise to himself regarding the hole in downtown where the former Newbury’s store stood before it was destroyed by fire more than 30 years ago. McCabe has plans to turn that lot into a public green space.

“I’d like to see it used for farmers markets or tag sales, or just to have a nice place to eat lunch outside,” he said. “We could do a lot of different things with that space.”

He hopes the green space will be completed by the end of the summer.

“I want to bring the idea forward,” he said. “If it works — great, if it doesn’t, a green space is still better than what’s there now.”

Another goal for McCabe involves creating a sustained partnership with Westfield State University. Linda Thompson joined WSU as its new president just a few months before McCabe became mayor. Because they both began their respective jobs around the same time, McCabe is hopeful they can work together for their mutual benefit.

“President Thompson is a great person to work with and I’m looking forward to what we can do,” McCabe said. “My goal is to have Westfield State graduates consider staying here when they finish college.”

As Westfield pursues all its potential, there may be many new traffic issues in the future. That’s one challenge McCabe would gladly invite.

“I’m all about transportation,”said the man wearing a classic car pattern on his tie.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany have presided over many grand openings in downtown Amherst in recent months, testimony to the community’s comeback from the pandemic.

 

If business openings are any indication, Amherst is poised for a strong rebound from a pandemic that has been very rough on its mostly tourism-and-hospitality-based economy.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) said that, by the end of August by her estimation, at least 13 new businesses will have opened in downtown Amherst.

“We’re watching a lift that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Gould, who shares office space with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and its executive director, Claudia Pazmany.

The two women and their organizations are working together along with town officials to drive economic empowerment and development for Amherst, and, as recent events demonstrate, it’s working.

Pazmany has presided over 10 ribbon cuttings over the past few months and her calendar has plenty more of these celebrations scheduled in the coming weeks and months.

“Many of these businesses opened during the pandemic and now want to celebrate because they have lasted and even grown their businesses,” Pazmany told BusinessWest.

All this activity in Amherst represents a strong comeback of sorts from the many side-effects of the pandemic. As the community where UMass Amherst and Amherst College are located, it has been described as the quintessential college town. When the pandemic hit and colleges were shut down, the economic impact was abrupt and severe.

“Overnight, nearly 50,000 people left the area,” Gould recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

One way to get an idea of the economic impact colleges have on the town is to look at the number of undergraduate students there. But Gould pointed out that the real impact of students on a town must include all the people who support them, like faculty, staff, and even all the friends and parents who visit the students. When the pandemic hit and campuses were abandoned, Amherst experienced what life would look like without its colleges.

Paul Bockelman

Paul Bockelman says housing is just one of many priorities that have emerged in discussions about how to best spend ARPA funds.

“Once everyone left, our businesses ran at 20% to 30% capacity— and that’s not sustainable,” Gould said. To put it another way, business was off 70% to 80%. “Having the colleges open and the students back fills my heart with joy.”

As noted, these students — and all those who support them or might come to visit them — will see a number of new businesses, especially in the downtown area. That list includes the much-anticipated Drake performance venue, which opened its doors late last month. The Drake meets a long-recognized need for a live-performance venue and it is expected to bring people to Amherst from across this region and well beyond, said Gould, adding that it will likely be a catalyst for more new businesses.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses. In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

But the Drake is far from the only addition to the landscape, she noted, adding that there are new restaurants, retail shops, and more, bringing an ever-more-eclectic mix of businesses to downtown that will make that area more of a destination.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on Amherst, which was hit very hard by the pandemic, but is moving on from that two-year nightmare is every way imaginable.

 

On the Town

As part of the effort to bring Amherst out of the COVID era, the Chamber and BID began a campaign to promote Amherst as a destination titled “What’s Next? Amherst Area.”

Pazmany explained that this campaign promotes the quality of life in Amherst and surrounding areas.

“We focus on three things: the outdoor adventures available here, our iconic cultural institutions — think colleges and the Emily Dickenson Museum — and the ability to have a global dining experience among our restaurants,” she said.

Global dining is more than hyperbole, as downtown Amherst lists 43 restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world. Each one has an intriguing story.

Indeed, Antonio Marquez moved from Guadalajara, Mexico to Amherst because his wife’s family lives there. As he researched where to open his restaurant, Mexcalito Taco Bar, Marquez considered several towns in the Pioneer Valley and credits destiny for making Amherst his choice.

“This is the best spot for us because we have a family connection here and we like the fact that Amherst is a university community,” Marquez said.

While Mexcalito was ready for business prior to the pandemic, Marquez held off when the world shut down and decided instead to open in July 2021. Now 10 months in business, Marquez said his goal with Mexcalito is for customers to learn something new about Mexican culture through the eatery’s food and drinks.

“When people come in, they feel a different ambience, hear different music,” Marquez said. “We’re looking to do more with sophisticated Mexican cuisine and we will be adding 20 new drinks to our cocktail menu.”

He added that Amherst is the right place for Mexcalito and appreciates his relationship with the town. “We’re feeling like we fit here, it’s pretty cool.”

The broad goal moving forward is create more of these ‘fits,’ said Gould and Pazmany, noting that the Drake is another intriguing example.

That facility fills the need for a music venue for downtown, said Gould, adding that her mindset as she tries to help bring other new businesses to the town is to meet other identified needs.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses,” Gould said. “In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

That strategy is reflected in the 13 businesses that are opening in the next few months. Among the businesses Gould hopes to see are a fish market, a brewery, and a breakfast/lunch café.

“I have a list of businesses Amherst needs,” Gould said. “We don’t have them yet, but we’re working on it.”

 

House Money

While the business community is rebounding from COVID, the real estate boom that began during the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down in Amherst.

An outdated perception of Amherst is that only college students and retirees lived there, said Pazmany, adding that these days, when a house goes up for sale real estate agents are bombarded with at least a dozen cash offers, all above the asking price.

“Because the pandemic has allowed a number of people to work from anywhere, many are choosing Amherst for the quality of life it offers,” Pazmany said. “One realtor told me most of her clients are people who grew up here and are returning.”

In a good news/bad news twist, UMass and Amherst College are contributing to the housing shortage as both keep moving up academic ranking lists.

“We’re seeing people from literally all over the world who want to do their post-graduate work at UMass,” Gould said. “That means they need somewhere to live.”

And the town intends to use some the $9.8 million it has received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to help such people find a place. Indeed, $2 million has been earmarked to begin to address some of the affordable housing concerns in the community.

Housing was just one of many priorities identified by the town as it went about gathering information and soliciting opinions on how to spend ARPA monies, said Paul Bockelman, town administrator, adding that the public and key stakeholders identified 17 different areas to address.

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

With the projects finalized this past November, Bockelman reported progress in using the ARPA funds in areas such as filling firefighter and paramedic positions, as well as adding a position in public health. The ARPA funds also included a $750,000 allocation for economic development, specifically to support the creation of the Drake.

As for other developments in town, a $36 million project is underway to renovate and expand the historic Jones Library. Plans call for maintaining the stone exterior while adding space and making it one of the most environmentally efficient buildings in town.

Not far from Jones Library, the Emily Dickenson Museum has a $6 million renovation underway. When the museum re-opens later this year, it will display a collection of period furniture and costumes used in the Apple TV series Dickenson. The show’s producers bought actual period pieces for the show and offered them to the museum at the end of the series shooting.

“The TV show has brought Emily Dickenson to a whole new generation who are now obsessed with her,” Gould said.

For all the good things happening, both Gould and Pazmany admit that Amherst’s business community faces the same challenges every municipality faces, from supply chain issues to inflation to the ongoing workforce crisis.

“As restaurants are still staffing up, they are doing what they can, even if it means reduced hours instead of being open all the time,” Pazmany said. “As they are working through it, we’re asking everyone be patient during these times.”

While outdoor dining saved many restaurants from going under, Gould pointed out that most outdoor set-ups were thrown together with a few jersey barriers and no budget. The BID has received a grant to run a pilot program with several restaurants to show what outdoor dining looks like when it’s done right.

“If we can show the community how this looks when it’s done properly, we can encourage more permanent outdoor dining destinations,” said Gould.

One more challenge, she noted, involves encouraging people to set aside the “add to cart” option of having everything delivered. Instead, she suggested that consumers go out and meet a shopkeeper.

“You can walk into a store and make a human connection,” Gould said. “Amazon was a safety net when we needed it but we can now go down the street to browse.”

 

The Bottom Line

Pazmany added that a new breed of entrepreneurs is opening shops in Amherst.

“There’s a revival of people who want to be business owners,” she said. “They are proud to be here and eager to help.”

Both women look forward to the positive changes that are taking shape in the next couple of years.

“When I think of Amherst in 2023 and 2024, I see a new way of life that is refreshed and yet remains historic,” Gould said. “We do everything we can to keep the town beautiful, but it needs a face lift, and we’re excited because it’s about to happen.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise says Palmer has looked into several family-friendly attractions to draw more people to town.

Three years ago, when Ryan McNutt took the job as Palmer’s town manager, he observed that, when people entered town from Mass Pike exit 8 (now exit 63), they encountered a Big Y World Class Market, a McDonald’s, a couple of other businesses, and lots of empty parcels all around them on Thorndike Street.

“You don’t typically see this near a turnpike exit; it’s usually built out with commercial real estate,” he said, adding that town residents — and those passing through — may soon see the landscape change in a meaningful way.

Indeed, McNutt has been working with other town officials and with landowners to take advantage of the considerable opportunities these empty lots present.

“The landowners have met with several national chains, and I can now share that one of the projects will be a Starbucks coffee shop,” he said.

Linda Leduc, the town planner and Economic Development director, is working on finding a retail tenant and a sit-down restaurant to join the planned Starbucks. She said turning these chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses gives a big boost to Palmer residents.

“Just seeing the cleanup happen on two of the lots we’re developing is getting people excited,” she added.

Far from a scattershot approach, these commercial developments are part of a master plan the town compiled and published at the end of 2020. McNutt said this is the first master plan for Palmer since 1975.

“We had an amazing amount of public input on the plan,” he noted. “When you put the meetings on Zoom, more people show up.”

The plan addresses commercial, residential, and protected open space in Palmer. McNutt said it helps prioritize the “low-hanging fruit” where the town should put its energy now, as well as projects that can be done later. The master plan lists 20 underdeveloped sites in Palmer, 12 of which are in the process of being developed or close to that point.

“Instead of getting off the pike and just driving through, there are going to be lots of opportunities for people to stop and spend money in Palmer,” Leduc said.

 

Right Place, Right Time?

One significant potential development area is known as ‘the hill.’

As drivers exit from the turnpike, they are immediately confronted by a large hill at the end of the exit ramp. On top of the hill are nearly 100 acres of land available for development. The hill was once the proposed site for a casino until voters in Palmer rejected those plans. Recently, the Town Council approved a zone change that made an adjacent 78-acre parcel available for business use and further incentivize a large-scale project for the land.

“We’ve always seen interest in development of the hill,” said McNutt, adding that there is optimism that interest may soon turn into progress and some recognized needs met.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer. The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

One priority residents have shared with him involves bringing another supermarket to Palmer. Big Y has been a stalwart in town for many years and has contributed to various community efforts.

“Big Y is a great company, and they are a great partner, but residents would like to have some other options,” McNutt said. “It’s what I’m hearing the most from people in Palmer.”

Closer to downtown, a recent zone change to the former Converse Middle School has drawn both interest and concern. Andrew Surprise, CEO of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce, said the more business-friendly zone change has drawn interest from a company that would convert the school to an Esports Arena, where video-game players of all levels could compete against others.

“In the New England area, there’s really nothing like this,” said Surprise. “There are some at colleges like UMass Amherst, but those are geared to students on campus rather than the general public.”

The Esports Arena is one of several ideas to bring family-friendly attractions to Palmer. According to Surprise, the town has looked into a water park, a trampoline park, and other attractions.

Linda Leduc

Linda Leduc says turning chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses is a development priority.

“I believe the town will do a feasibility study at some point for the Esports idea as there’s still much to do to make sure the residents approve of it or any other proposed use,” he said.

Through a MassDevelopment program know as the Transformative Development Initiative, Surprise is working on other ways to attract businesses to Palmer. The Vacant Downtown Storefront Program is one that may have some promise for the downtown area. “It provides grant funding for a business to renovate a storefront if they plan to open there,” he explained.

Meanwhile, as interest in more retail grows, another aspect of the town’s economy, tourism and hospitality, is poised for a resurgence after two long years of the pandemic.

Indeed, for the past two years, Surprise has held off publishing the chamber’s tourism guide and visitors directory. The pandemic led to frequent changes and cancellations to event schedules, making publishing the guide seem futile.

Businesses are now contacting Surprise because they want to get their names and events out to the public once again. The new guide is scheduled to be complete by early May and available to the crowds attending the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in mid-May.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer,” he said. “The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

Speaking of breweries, Surprise said Palmer and other towns in the chamber are looking to host a brewery in their community.

“Even though there are lots of breweries in the general area, we have our eyes open for anyone who wants to open a brewery to see if we can help them with any incentives,” he noted.

 

Bridges to the Future

To make Palmer more economically viable, the master plan suggests ensuring proper infrastructure is in place. Two main bridges in town, located on Church Street and Main Street, are both in need of replacing. MassDOT closed the Church Street Bridge in 2019 while the Main Street bridge had minor repairs which will keep it safe for vehicular traffic. The town will soon erect a truss bridge to use while a new Church Street bridge is built.

“The state said it will use some of their infrastructure funding to fully replace the Church Street bridge, but that could take up to five years,” McNutt said. “The truss bridge allows us to keep the bridge open to traffic.”

In MassDOT terms, the Main Street bridge is not in imminent danger, but the town does need to replace it in the future. McNutt said the plan right now is to use the truss bridge on Church Street, then move it to Main Street once the permanent Church Street bridge is complete.

With passage of the federal infrastructure bill, McNutt remains optimistic about the proposed east-west rail proposal across Massachusetts. Currently, the state has three alternative configurations for the rail project, with a stop in Palmer included in all three. McNutt said he’s hopeful that remains the case and looks forward to talking with the state once it is ready to proceed.

“Obviously, this would be transformative for Palmer,” he said, adding that a rail stop will serve to make the town an even more attractive option for new retail and hospitality-related businesses.

Nearly two-thirds of housing in Palmer consists of single-family homes, higher than the state and county averages of just below 60%. McNutt said town leaders are working to attract more permanent housing development for the community.

To that end, work will soon begin on a 200-cottage development at Forest Lake. The plan calls for seasonal cottages that will have water and sewer services. McNutt estimates that, when complete, the cottages will add nearly $800,000 to the tax base in Palmer.

On the other side of Forest Lake, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game plans to build a new boat launch, parking lot, and ADA-accessible fishing pier so people of all abilities can enjoy the water. McNutt estimates the state project and the cottages are about two years away from completion.

“I feel like we’re finally getting to the point where Palmer is going to see lots of great things happening that residents and visitors will be able to enjoy,” Leduc said.

 

 

Bottom Line

Everywhere he goes in town, McNutt carries a copy of the economic-development chapter of the master plan.

“This way, when someone has a question about what we’re doing, I can show them in the plan how we want to create destination locations for them and for folks who have never been here,” he said.

With the proposed east-west rail and a lower cost of living compared to Eastern Mass., McNutt believes Palmer has the right location at the right time, and can take a meaningful step forward in terms of growth and prosperity.

“We’re going to position Palmer as an attractive place to live,” he said, adding that it can, and hopefully will, also become an attractive place for businesses of all kinds to plant roots.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says Main Street will undergo much change over the next five years.

When it comes to her city, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner takes the long view.

“In five years or less,” she said, “you will not recognize Main Street in Greenfield because so many good things will be happening.”

Two notable projects in the works involve the building of a new, $20 million library on the east end of Main Street and a new, $18 million fire station on the west end.

“These two big investments at each end of Main Street show the city’s commitment to making Greenfield a desirable place to do business,” Wedegartner said.

That commitment also includes a $5 million project to address parking on Main Street. Right now, the street has a mix of angled as well as parallel parking. When complete, Main Street will have all parallel parking and a bike lane.

“Businesses are rightly concerned about the disruption from the work, but we have lots of parking downtown, so their shops will still be accessible,” the mayor said.

Danielle Letourneau, Wedegartner’s chief of staff, said the plan is to modernize more than the parking.

“During the redesign of Main Street, we want to replace the old pipes and infrastructure under the pavement,” Letourneau said. “That way, the redesign will get a couple things done with only one disruption.”

The street project is expected to begin in the fall, Wedegartner said. “By making investments above ground and on the infrastructure below ground, we are showing that we believe in the future of Greenfield and of our downtown.”

In 2021, Greenfield was one of 125 communities in Massachusetts that took part in the state-sponsored Rapid Recovery Plan (RRP), a program designed to help local economies recover from the impact of COVID-19. Based on input from city officials and businesses, the state put together a formal plan for Greenfield titled “The Deliberate Downtown.”

While noting the downtown area is “very walkable” and has solid entertainment anchors, the report also pointed out that Greenfield took a bigger economic hit from COVID than other communities. According to the plan document, more than 70% of downtown businesses said they lost money in 2020 and in 2021, and two-thirds said they were still far behind their pre-COVID levels of business.

“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to. Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”

Foot traffic also suffered as 97% of the local merchants said fewer people visited their businesses. MJ Adams, the city’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the community is in many ways a place of necessity because it serves as a hub for Franklin County and attracts people in from surrounding towns for the YMCA, the John W. Olver Transit Center, and other regional assets.

“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to,” Adams said. “Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”

One idea to bring more people downtown involved blocking Court Square in front of City Hall to create a pedestrian-friendly area with the adjacent town common. Tried for the first time last year, the effort was framed by Wedegartner as a pilot project that received positive reviews from people who enjoyed the weekly farmer’s market as well as the opportunity to relax at bistro tables and Adirondack chairs with eats from nearby food trucks. The only negative feedback came from some residents who couldn’t find parking near City Hall.

“We learned that people who have lived here for years did not know we have an accessible parking lot behind City Hall,” Wedegartner said. “This year, we’ll adjust the plan to make sure people know about all our parking.”

City staff spent so much energy to establish the space last year, they couldn’t give much thought to what programs could be offered there, Adams noted. “This year, we’re doing it the other way around. Now that people have seen the space, they are asking us when they can use it this year.”

 

Out and About

Indeed, a public open space was among the recommendations from the “Deliberate Downtown” report, which suggested this would be a good way to encourage more foot traffic downtown. According to Letourneau, this is not the first time the open-space idea has been suggested.

“We found plans from previous administrations that discussed closing off the Court Square area dating as far back as 1985,” she said.

The Court Square space now operates from May to November, and once she can find the budget for it, Wedegartner wants to redesign the area, incorporating the town common into a permanent pedestrian space.

Steve Capshaw says VSS Inc. may look to hire 50 more workers soon

Steve Capshaw says VSS Inc. may look to hire 50 more workers soon, and has found a solid pool of talent in the Greenfield area.

Outdoor dining will also return as the weather gets warmer. When the governor relaxed outdoor-dining restrictions at the height of the pandemic, the idea was to help restaurants generate some business during warm-weather months. That special order ended this week, on April 1, but cities and towns across the state have sought variances to continue the program through 2022.

While not all restaurants took advantage of outdoor seating, Wedegartner said, it was a popular option with many people. “We will be doing some version of outdoor dining again this year.”

An ongoing challenge for the mayor and her staff involves two prominent vacancies in Greenfield. The First National Bank building overlooks the town common and has been empty for several years. Efforts to reconfigure the space as a cultural venue were abandoned recently because several entertainment and cultural venues, such as Hawks & Reed, the Shea Theatre, and other spots no longer make the bank building feasible.

“We are putting together an RFP to see if a private developer might have an idea for that space,” Adams said. “It’s an important project for the city to get something in the former bank building.”

Wilson’s Department Store once dominated Main Street but now stands as a prominent downtown vacancy. The nearby Green Fields Market has been considering an expansion into Wilson’s, but it hasn’t yet happened. Wedegartner called the situation an ongoing conversation that’s still in progress.

“Their move into Wilson’s will be wonderful if it can happen,” she said.

 

Manufacturing Progress

Advanced manufacturing is one area where Greenfield has seen steady growth. Wedegartner pointed to Bete Fog Nozzle and especially VSS Inc. as significant companies to the city and surrounding communities.

Once known as Valley Steel Stamp, VSS has transitioned into high-tolerance machine services for the aerospace and defense industries. Steve Capshaw, president of VSS, said the company has grown over the last 10 years from $2 million in annual sales to $40 million.

MJ Adams in front of Court Square

MJ Adams in front of Court Square, which will be a pedestrian area again this summer.

“We’re looking to increase sales another 50% next year,” Capshaw said, adding that the three- to five-year plan is to become a premier advanced manufacturer and assembler for the aerospace industry. VSS customers include Pratt and Whitney and Raytheon Missiles, as well as manufacturing key parts for F-15 and F-35 fighter jets.

Demand for his company’s services remains strong as many of his customers are “re-shoring” or having components made here in the U.S. once again. As Capshaw pointed out, COVID exposed supply-chain issues and unrealized cost savings companies thought they were going to get when they moved production overseas.

“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained. With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”

“Our customers are making this shift for cost and strategic purposes,” he said. “Looking ahead, we see very strong demand for U..S-made precision machine services.”

With 135 employees currently at VSS, Capshaw would like to hire at least 50 more people this year just based on current business. Because his company uses computer numerical control (CNC) machining — pre-programmed software dictates the movement of the factory tools — Capshaw understands that he must build his workforce through training.

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.32
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.32
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained,” he said. “With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”

With a predicted need of several hundred more employees in the coming years, he said the search for new workers will encompass a 20-mile radius around Greenfield to “build on what has already made us successful.”

Despite the tight labor market, Capshaw welcomes the challenge. “We like competing for labor. It makes all companies do better, and I don’t see it going away.”

Back in 2010, VSS moved into a 22,000-square-foot facility in Greenfield Industrial Park. After several additions to the site, VSS now occupies 45,000 square feet and is looking to expand.

“Right now, we’re working with the city to find a local place we can buy or a site where we can build an additional facility,” Capshaw said. “We will keep what we have and look to add more space for manufacturing.” He also credited Greenfield officials for all their help in the company’s expansion.

With a new library taking shape, a new Fire Department about to break ground this spring, and a growing advanced-technology manufacturing sector, Greenfield is well on its way to realizing Wedegartner’s vision of transforming the city for the near and distant future.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal says the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce’s move to Deerfield will include a visitor center.

 

By Mark Morris

 

Deerfield is one busy town these days.

Residents there are engaged in 22 different boards and committees planning several ambitious projects to better the town. Still, while all that activity is admirable, it also invites confusion if anyone feels out of the loop.

A group of 15 residents who serve on several boards and committees in Deerfield were aware of the potential pitfalls and formed the Connecting Community Initiative (CCI) to improve communication among the various committees and with municipal officials. Denise Mason, chair of the CCI, said the initiative came about after increasing frustration among members of several boards and committees.

“Because we are all volunteers, people often don’t have the time to stay on top of activities that fall outside of their committee work,” Mason said. “We created the CCI to eliminate the silos in town so we can keep all our projects moving forward.”

The initiative started in November, with the group meeting eight times since then. Mason said they’ve been successful so far with keeping people informed and projects on track.

One big project involves renovating and repurposing the former Deerfield Grammar School to house the municipal offices. Part of the plan also calls for building an addition on the back of the building, where the town’s senior center would be located.

“These projects are part of a bigger objective, which is to create a walkable town campus in Deerfield,” Mason said, explaining that 45% of residents are over age 45.

Kayce Warren, Deerfield town administrator, strongly supports these plans and intends to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to develop a municipal parking lot centrally located in town.

“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community. With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”

“If there’s parking, people will come,” she said. “We’re looking to create a campus that provides walking access to the municipal offices, the senior center, and other resources, such as a small market and a bank.”

The walkable community idea doesn’t stop at the center of town. Work has begun on a municipal park on North Main Street, located past Frontier Regional School. Warren would like to see sidewalks extend from the center of town to the park, nearly two miles up the road.

“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community,” she said. “With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”

 

Location, Location, Location

Deerfield’s location along the Interstate 91 corridor makes it easily accessible from all directions. Many in town are hopeful the new Treehouse Brewery that opened in the former Channing Bete building will be a catalyst for drawing people to town. In her meetings with the brewery, Mason said Treehouse is cautiously developing its Deerfield location in three phases.

“Right now, they are working on the second phase, which calls for construction of a pavilion to stage outdoor concerts,” Mason said. “Once that’s up and running, hopefully this year, there is a big potential for other businesses to benefit as well.”

Among those businesses, Yankee Candle will likely benefit, as it has always been a big tourism draw for Deerfield. As Yankee and Treehouse are located close to each other on Route 10, Warren is hopeful they will create a working relationship to bring even more people to Deerfield.

It would surprise no one if the two entities were brought together by Diana Szynal. The executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce recently moved the organization from downtown Greenfield to Historic Deerfield. She said the move makes perfect sense because, prior to COVID-19, Historic Deerfield traditionally drew nearly 20,000 visitors a year.

“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources.”

“We will be opening a visitor center, which will allow us to promote all the attractions in Deerfield and surrounding towns,” Szynal said. The chamber’s former visitor center was located in a corner of the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Greenfield, a location she said was never worthy of Franklin County. “With the visitor center in Historic Deerfield, thousands more people will be able to learn about all the fun things to do in Franklin County.”

While Szynal and her staff are still settling in from the move, which occurred in mid-January, their focus is on having the visitor center ready to go when Historic Deerfield begins its season on April 16.

Jesse Vanek, vice president of Development and Communications for Historic Deerfield, said 2022 is a tremendous opportunity to welcome back large crowds to the outdoor museum that depicts life in 18th-century New England. “Historic Deerfield is such a special place, and we’re hoping to see our in-person visits get back to pre-COVID levels.”

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $15.17
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.17
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

Every year, the museum runs a full schedule of programs for visitors. Beginning in the spring, programs will range from Sheep on the Street, which explores heritage breed sheep and the role of wool processing in New England’s history, to a Summer Evening Stroll held on July 3 and themed on Deerfield during the American Revolution.

 

COVID and the winter season inspired Historic Deerfield to expand its program offerings online through virtual sessions. As a result, the museum now reaches audiences around the world. The winter lecture series included relevant topics such as understanding climate change from a historical perspective.

“We are fascinated with the response to our virtual programming,” Vanek said. “I believe it helps entice people to come visit us, which is good for our organization, the town, and the region.”

 

Out in the Open

Szynal has learned that people will travel long distances to take part many of the outdoor activities in Deerfield and Franklin County.

“We were shocked to learn how robust fly fishing is here,” she said. Indeed, whether casting a line into the Deerfield River or rafting in Charlemont, outdoor activities are a true resource for the area and bring in people who often stay for several days.

“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources,” she said.

Warren is thrilled that Szynal and the chamber are now part of Deerfield.

“Diana has great ideas, and I think she can help us keep Historic Deerfield connected to the rest of the community,” Warren said, adding that, in a perfect world, Deerfield would provide more incentives for tourism, but ongoing infrastructure projects have stretched budgets to their limits.

Located between the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, the town faces constant challenges with stormwater runoff and flooding issues. Bloody Brook, which also runs through town, maintains a higher-than-normal water table.

“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the tow. They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”

Deerfield was one of the first communities to qualify for the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program. MVP grants are awarded to cities and towns that build climate-change resilience into all their infrastructure plans. Warren explained that type of thinking applies to every project in town, from simple tree boxes designed for better stormwater management to larger projects like the school repurposing and sidewalk additions.

“We are linking everything together in terms of managing water issues, and we’ve set our sights on staying on top of this for the next 50 to 100 years,” Mason said.

As Deerfield’s many projects move forward with Mason and the CCI keeping them on track, Warren took a minute to appreciate the situation.

“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the town,” she said. “They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Holyoke Looks to Build on the Momentum from Cannabis, Entrepreneurship

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says there are many cannabis-related businesses now operating in Holyoke, and many more in the pipeline.

Joshua Garcia, Holyoke’s first Puerto Rican mayor and a lifelong resident of this historic community, says that, in many respects, history is repeating itself in the city.

Elaborating, he said that for the better part of a century, the paper and textile mills on the canals were a symbol of strength, a source of jobs, and, in many ways, the city’s identity (see Sidebar here)

It wasn’t that way through the latter half of the 20th century as most of the mills went south, and into the 21st century, he went on, but it’s becoming that way again, largely because of the booming cannabis industry that is breathing new life into those long-vacant mills.

“Those mills were the economic anchor,” he said. “And it’s interesting to see history repeat itself; but instead of the Paper City, there’s now this ‘Rolling Paper City’ interest. Although it’s a different industry … the impact is the same.”

Indeed, cannabis is changing the landscape in Holyoke, figuratively if not literally, although that, too. Aaron Vega, director of Planning & Economic Development in Holyoke and a former state representative, said there are now eight cannabis operations doing business in Holyoke, and several dozen more in various stages of development.

Just as important as the number of ventures is the broad diversity on display, he said, noting that the city boasts several cultivating operations, dispensaries, a testing lab, and more.

“We continue to see cannabis interest and cannabis companies opening,” said Vega. “There’s a lot in the pipeline.”

But while the emergence of a cannabis cluster in Holyoke — similar to what is happening with biotech in Worcester in many respects — has been impressive, there is much more to what most would call a resurgence in this city than one industry. There has been a surge in entrepreneurship that has brought many new businesses to High Street and other streets. There have been several new restaurants, for example, despite the toll the pandemic has taken on that sector, but many other kinds of ventures as well, said Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses.”

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses,” she said, noting that her ceremonial scissors have been given a workout. She credits the pandemic and the manner in which it has prompted introspection and, for many, a desire for something different and hopefully more fulfilling than their 9-5 job, as being a catalyst for some of this activity.

Tessa Murphy Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke and now also at-large City Councilor — she was elected last November — agreed.

She said the pandemic has helped fuel interest in entrepreneurship across the board, meaning people of all ages and demographic groups. EforAll has been expanding and evolving in ongoing efforts to meet the needs of such individuals, she said, adding that it is now staging its 12th and 13th cohorts of aspiring entrepreneurs, one for English-speaking candidates, and one for Spanish. It is also adding a new program, called E-Forever, a resource for those who are already in business rather than trying to get off the ground.

But beyond COVID, this surge in entrepreneurship is also being fueled by Holyoke’s emergence as a landing spot for those looking for affordability, diversity, a growing cultural economy, and a chance to do something they may not be able to do in a larger, far more expensive municipality.

People like Jay Candelario, who grew up in the city, moved to New York, but eventually returned. Battling heavy doubts and some long odds, he took an historic home on Dwight Street that had been damaged in a lightning strike, and converted it into Jay’s Bed & Breakfast.

Opened in 2016, the facility has certainly been challenged by the pandemic, but it has hung on, through diversification into catering and events, and Candelario’s persistence and belief in not only himself and his concept, but Holyoke itself (more on that, later).

Jay Candelario

Jay Candelario, seen here at the grand staircase at his B&B on Dwight Street, says Holyoke is staging a resurgence and attracting many new residents and businesses.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke and the many forces that are shaping progress in the city and, as the mayor noted, enabling history to repeat itself.

 

On a Roll

While there are many developments in Holyoke from a business perspective, cannabis continues to be the story.

And as Vega said, it’s one that involves a large number of businesses, diversity of ventures, and large supply of potential new initiatives in the pipeline.

Providing a quick snapshot of the cannabis cluster in Holyoke, which has a popular destination because of its cheap electricity, location near major interstates, and large supply of old mill buildings, Vega said there are now more than 500 people working within the industry in Holyoke, many of whom have graduated from cannabis programs at area colleges (see related story, page 35), and many different kinds of facilities, from cultivation and manufacturing operations., to dispensaries, to a testing facility, Analytics Labs, which opened last year, on Appleton Street. It’s the first operation of its kind in Western Mass., and provides a vital service to businesses that are required to submit the cannabis to independent labs that run a number of tests, for potency, solvents, pesticides, pathogenic microbes, and more.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year,” said Vega.

But there are still many challenges facing those looking to enter this industry, especially the smaller ventures, he went on.

“I think there’s still a lot of challenges for these companies to get their financing,” said Vega. “The MSOs — the multi-state operators — are able to set up shop more easily than the locally owned companies, but they are starting to come to fruition.”

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke, took her involvement in the city to a higher plane with election to the City Council last fall.

One development that may help some of these businesses get over the hump — and help Holyoke as well — is the creation of what Vega called an “incubator” for cannabis businesses in the old National Blank Book property on Cabot Street. There, many smaller businesses are getting support to break into the business and overcome the many hurdles — from financing to licensing to building a workforce — to opening the doors to a new cannabis business.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Vega, adding that there are a number of smaller enterprises occupying spaces in the facility and trying to move ventures forward.

Looking ahead, both Vega and Garcia said that one challenge — and opportunity — for the city is to promote the development of support businesses for the cannabis sector.

Elaborating, Vega said that these businesses must now order lighting, raw materials, and other products from companies on the other side of the country, and would certainly prefer to be able to source them locally.

“They all agree; there could be substantial savings if they didn’t have to order their products from Texas and Florida,” he told BusinessWest. “And we also like to think about the bigger picture — if we get those kinds of companies to land here in Western Mass., not just Holyoke, but Western Mass., there could be tremendous opportunities for the region.”

Elaborating, he said several neighboring states have either already legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so, and having support businesses that can provide lighting and products in Massachusetts, as opposed to Texas, could facilitate efforts to make this area a hub, not just for Massachusetts, but for all of New England.

 

Getting Down to Business

Murphy-Romboletti said she first started thinking about running for City Council two years ago. A former city employee — she worked in the mayor’s office and, later, the Office of Planning & Economic Development — she said she has always wanted to be involved with the community and knew that the Council was where one could make an impact — on the city, but also its business community.

After consulting with her bosses with EforAll, a national organization with several locations in the Bay State, including two in Western Mass., and getting their blessing, she threw her hat into the ring. She’s only been on the job a few months now, and has spent most of that time reaching out to department heads and talking with them about what they need for their offices to run better and more effectively.

From an economic development perspective, she said she has long understood the Council’s impact on business. “It has the ability to slow down process or speed up process on things,” she said. “And I think permitting, in and of itself, within our local government, is confusing and not always as necessary as it needs to be, and that’s one of the reasons why I ran.”

Elaborating, and without actually using the phrase, she said one of her goals is to help make the city more business-friendly, and especially at a time when there is so much interest in entrepreneurship — both within the cannabis sector but also well beyond it.

Which … brings her back to her day job. EforAll is seeing growing numbers of applications for its cohorts, she said, adding there are 22 participants in the current sessions. The pandemic has brought a regrettable halt to most in-person learning opportunities (although she’s hoping that might change soon), but the agency is carrying on through Zoom.

A number of graduates have gone on to open businesses, many in the downtown area, she said, adding that the ongoing needs of these ventures prompted the creation of E-Forever.

Undertaken in conjunction with Entrepreneurs Forever, the new group is a “resource for those who have gone through the program and are currently in business, rather than those who are just getting started,” she explained.

“These businesses are generating revenue, and they have unique challenges,” she went on, adding that this group of perhaps 8-10 entrepreneurs will meet once a month, share information, and troubleshoot. “The entrepreneurs pick what they want to work on; it’s like having an accountability group that meets each month to support whatever challenges you’re having as an existing business owner.”

The broad goal, she said, is to enable more businesses to weather the many storms they will face as they mature and grow and stay in business, preferably in Holyoke.

A good deal of resilience has already been on display, said Jordan, adding that she couldn’t think of a single business in the city that closed during the pandemic, and, meanwhile, as she noted, many new ones have been opening.

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber, says the pandemic has helped create a surge of entrepreneurship in the city and a number of new businesses.

“It’s been remarkable to see the perseverance the community has to see Holyoke thrive,” she said, adding that while existing businesses, often with help in the form of local, state, and federal grants, have found what it takes to survive the pandemic, COVID has inspired many others to join their ranks in the business community.

“People began to prioritize not only their personal life and their personal interests, but also their mental health and well-being,” she explained. “And many found that what they wanted was more work-life balance and flexible schedules. And that’s where entrepreneurship came into play … with people finding their true selves, what their purpose is, and what they want their purpose to be; the pandemic really shook things up in that sense.”

She said the roster of new businesses includes restaurants, like Crave, El Paradiso Colombiano, and the Avalon Café, and several cannabis-related businesses, but also a few boutiques. And, as noted, most are in the heart of downtown, bringing many formerly dormant spaces to life.

 

Rooms with a View

That historic home on Dwight Street that Jay Candelario found was more than dormant.

It needed considerable work inside and out, he told BusinessWest, adding that while most were more than willing to consider the property known to most as the Moriarty mansion and ultimately pass, he decided to take a chance.

“I’m a risk taker,” said Candelario, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Holyoke and then Amherst, and moved to New York City as an adult. “And you would have to be a risk taker to take this on.”

Those sentiments reflected more than the condition of the Queen Anne Victorian; they also referenced the time of this acquisition (2009, the height of the Great Recession) and the seemingly long odds against creating a successful B&B in downtown Holyoke.

But Candelario was able to look past the challenges and the doubters and see opportunity. It’s taken a while for the vision to become reality, and the pandemic has certainly put more hurdles in front of him — he admits to coming close to packing it in and moving on to something else — but Candelario, like many business owners in Holyoke, has persevered.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year.”

As he gave BusinessWest a tour and pointed out rooms bearing the names of places he’s visited in and lived in — ‘Brazil,’ ‘New York,’ ‘Puerto Rico,’ and ‘Holyoke,’ among others — Candelario said business has been steady if unspectacular, with guests ranging from traveling nurses, to executives for Coca Cola, to “emergencies” in the form of needed beds for those being helped by the nonprofits Roca Holyoke and Women’s Shelter Companeras, now Alianza. Over the years, though, he’s been able to draw guests visiting area colleges, individuals in town on business, and those attending the St. Patrick’s Day parade and road race. His audience is those who want something different than the run-of-the-mill hotel room.

Shut down for the better part of a year by the pandemic starting in March, 2020, he said he’s been able to keep his dream alive by diversifying and expanding his operation into catering and the hosting of events ranging from baby showers to family reunions to nonprofit retreats.

While reflecting on his business and where he can take it, Candelario also ruminated on Holyoke, its present and its future. And he drew many comparisons to the Bronx, another diverse community he believes is also misunderstood and underappreciated. He lived there for some time, and was originally planning to open a B&B near Yankee Stadium until the economic downturn in 2008 scuttled those plans.

“The Bronx and Holyoke have a lot in common,” he said. “It’s the inner city, working class, different cultures; they’re melting pots that many people just don’t appreciate for all that they are.”

Beyond these qualities, the city boasts location and affordability, two important factors in these changing times.

“Holyoke is very affordable for those people who are starting off,” he explained. “They can get better housing for the buck. And if you want to work in Northampton, it’s 10 to 15 minutes away; Springfield is 10 to 15 minutes away; Agawam is 10-15 minutes away.

“I see Holyoke as a very progressive, very upwardly mobile city,” he went on. “You have people from many different areas coming here, not just locally, but from around the country. I run into people from Chicago who moved here, and Florida, California, New York City, and Boston. They come here because they see opportunities. People see the same thing that I see.”

 

View to the Future

Candelario said he assigned the name ‘Holyoke’ to one particular room at his B&B because, if one looks closely, he or she can see City Hall from one of the windows.

As he surveys the scene, though, he sees more than that iconic structure. Much more.

He sees a city that is putting its recent, not so glorious, past, behind it, and becoming something else: a destination of sorts, for travelers, but especially residents seeking affordability and quality of life, and businesses looking for a solid spot to land.

This is what Mayor Garcia had in mind when he said that history is repeating itself in Holyoke, and not just when it comes to the mills as a symbol of jobs and economic might.

Indeed, Holyoke’s past, as an ethnically diverse center of business and culture, is also its future.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Robin Wozniak says the chamber’s grant program is part of a broader effort

Robin Wozniak says the chamber’s grant program is part of a broader effort to expand and diversify its support programs for businesses.

Like most area communities, Agawam continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, while also making plans for the day when it is history.

That sentiment applies to the business community, the school system, infrastructure projects, and the local chamber.

“As we find our way back to a normal life, we are also trying to help people find new opportunities for success going forward,” said Robin Wozniak, executive director of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce (WRC), as she talked about the present and the matter of preparing for the future. “These are times when we are all learning and growing together.”

With that statement, she summed up the sentiments of many in this community of roughly 29,000, which, like most area cities and towns, has suffered greatly through the pandemic, but has also seen COVID yield some opportunities, which have come in many forms.

These include American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, which the city plans to use mostly on infrastructure projects (more on that later), some new businesses, and even an acceleration of the timetable for reconstructing the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam with West Springfield. The bridge work was to be completed later this year, but wrapped up more than six months ago, due in large part to a $1.5 million bonus from the state to incentivize the general contractor, Northern Builders, to get the work done sooner.

But gaining the roughly four weeks on what would have been shutdown time if the 2020 Big E had not been canceled certainly helped in those efforts.

The bridge project was undertaken to improve traffic flow in and out of the city and, ultimately, spawn new business opportunities in that section of the community, Mayor William Sapelli said. Time will tell what ultimately transpires, but already there are plans to develop a large vacant lot just over the bridge and a block from City Hall.

Colvest Group purchased the property several years ago, used it to park cars during the Big E, and leased it to the contractors as a staging area for the bridge-reconstruction work. Soon, it will advance plans to develop the property into three business parcels, including an office building and a Starbucks location.

“We could get a new roof and a good boiler and better windows, but the facility will still not be appropriate to meet our education needs for the 21st century.”

As for the chamber, it plans to step up its support of small businesses impacted by the pandemic through a grant program, Wozniak noted, adding that the WRC plans to begin awarding business grants starting in June and extend them through the end of the year.

“We’re planning to announce five $1,000 grants at our annual meeting in June and continue awarding grants into the summer and fall,” she said. “We’re excited to start the application process.”

 

Getting Down to Business

Before he became mayor in 2018, Sapelli was the long-time school superintendent in Agawam. And while his list of responsibilities is now much broader, the schools remain a primary focus.

And among the many issues to be addressed is the city’s high school.

A recent assessment of Agawam High School recommended $26 million in repairs to the building. Since 2002, the town has applied to the Massachuetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for consideration of a new high school. The MSBA looks at building conditions, as well as demographics and population trends, as part of its approval process.

While Sapelli has seen West Springfield, Chicopee, and Longmeadow all build new high schools, he’s encouraged because those projects actually help move Agawam up the list.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is putting federal money to good use on everything from infrastructure to small-business support.

“One reason we’ve been overlooked was all the investments we’ve made over the years to maintain the building,” he said. Rather than continue to spend on the current high school — built in 1955 — he favors new construction.

“We could get a new roof and a good boiler and better windows, but the facility will still not be appropriate to meet our education needs for the 21st century,” he went on. If approved, the new school would be built on the practice fields adjacent to the current building.

A few years back, a new high-school building was proposed for the former Tuckahoe Turf Farm located near Route 187 and South Westfield Street. Now owned by the city, the 300-acre parcel will be developed into a passive recreation park for Agawam. Construction will begin in the spring to provide roads, parking areas, and access to a pond that will accommodate fishing, kayaks, and canoes.

A solar-energy installation is part of the parcel and will occupy nearly 50 acres of the land near South Westfield Street.

“The city will receive income from the solar array, which will help mitigate the costs to develop and maintain the property,” said Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development for Agawam. “The solar panels will occupy one small area of the parcel, leaving more than 200 acres for recreation and trails.”

While developing this long-vacant site, city leaders will continue to take steps to make the community more attractive for new business development.

As part of these efforts, infrastructure work is planned at the intersection of Springfield Street, North Street, and Maple Street, an area known as O’Brien’s Corner. This project, scheduled to start in the spring, will involve paving, adding curbs, and upgrading the traffic signals in the area.

Agawam received just over $8 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which Sapelli plans to use on several stormwater infrastructure projects in town. Culverts on North Street and North Westfield Street have been temporarily repaired, but the state has made it clear both areas need a permanent solution. In addition, heavy rains are causing flooding problems on Meadow Street and Leland Avenue.

“Some of the puddles are so bad, people sent us photos of their neighbors going out in kayaks,” Sapelli said, adding that the photos helped emphasize the need for fixing these storm drains. “We are using the ARPA funds for what they are intended. These are projects that need to be addressed where we did not have the funding to do so.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,692
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.11
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.58
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

Beyond infrastructure, the city is using funds from various COVID-relief efforts to help the business community. Indeed, it secured a $200,000 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) grant designed to help micro-enterprises — five or fewer employees — in Agawam.

“These grants are designed to help these small-business owners with some relief until they can open their doors again,” Strange explained. “The grants help businesses that didn’t have access to other funds to help them.”

Meanwhile, the community is looking to support its beleaguered restaurants with an ordinance that will allow outdoor dining on a permanent basis.

“In the early days of the pandemic, outdoor dining was a lifesaver,” Sapelli said. “Now, going into the third year, it’s so popular, we are proposing an ordinance to make it permanent in Agawam.”

 

Giving Back

As for the chamber, its grant program is part of a broader effort to expand and diversify its support programs for businesses. For the past two years, the chamber has put its focus on keeping members up to date on health regulations, helping them identify grants they might qualify for, and any other information to keep them going.

“The last couple years have been all uphill for many of our members,” Wozniak said. “The chamber board feels the need to start giving back to our small businesses.”

Staying connected through events has been a long-time business model for chambers of commerce. Wozniak said she has reintroduced networking events with a hybrid twist where people can attend in person or take part remotely.

“We welcome those who feel comfortable going in person, and for those not yet ready, we offer a remote option so they can log on and enjoy the whole event from the safety of their home, remote office, or wherever.”

Wozniak reported the hybrid meetings have been successful because they help bring people face-to-face.

As she mentioned earlier, these have been times when business owners have been “learning and growing together.”

These efforts will hopefully yield dividends for the day when ‘normal’ is not a goal, but a reality.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Chris Brittain

Chris Brittain says several projects in Lee, both town-funded and using ARPA aid, are moving forward.

As the pandemic enters its third year of disrupting life as we knew it, the business community in Lee continues to manage the disruptions of COVID-19 and its variants with a good degree of success. Colleen Henry attributes that to one reason.

“The local people here in Lee are strong supporters of our businesses,” said Henry, executive director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce.

Along with Lenox and Stockbridge, Lee is part of the Tri Town Health Department, which has maintained a mask mandate for all indoor spaces. One upside of the mask requirement is that it enables businesses, as well as town offices, to remain open without interruption.

That’s important, said interim Town Administrator Christopher Brittain, who has been on the job for only four months, yet has a full list of projects in the queue for this year and beyond.

Lee received an allocation of $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, which will be spread out among several projects in town. Among them are replacing water lines in a couple of areas and upgrading the municipal website to make it easier for people to conduct town business online.

“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value. We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”

All three towns in the Tri Town Health Department will contribute some of their ARPA money to fund the creation of a new food-inspector position in the department, a position certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of a national standards program.

“Obviously, we have inspectors now,” Brittain said. “The new position gives us someone to provide guidance with federal programs and reduce issues with food service and retail food vendors.”

Outside of ARPA funds, Brittain discussed several projects in the works, including paving on Main Street, with $1 million in funding approved at the last town meeting to continue that project into the summer.

Lee at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1777
Population: 5,788
Area: 27 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $13.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.65
Median Household Income: $41,566
Median Family Income: $49,630
Type of Government: Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Lee Premium Outlets; Onyx Specialty Papers; the Landing at Laurel Lake; Oak n’ Spruce Resort; Big Y
* Latest information available

One significant project Brittain hopes to see make progress this year involves the former Eagle Mill paper company. Plans to redevelop the site feature 80 units of affordable and market-rate housing, as well as several restaurant and retail stores. The $55 million project has been in the works for several years, though the official groundbreaking was held only three months ago.

“Because of COVID, the Eagle Mill project is moving slower than everyone wants it to,” Brittain said, noting that a significant next step involves six dilapidated houses near the site, which were recently purchased to be torn down. Construction on the mill complex is scheduled to roll out in two phases. “This is a big project that will take up the entire north end of Main Street.”

Additional housing in Lee would certainly be welcome, said Henry, who noted the current supply of available houses is low because sales have been so brisk. “As a result, we have a lot of new residents, and that’s kind of exciting.”

In terms of real-estate taxes, the past year brought both good news and bad news, as the town lowered the tax rate, but selling prices for homes kept boosting valuations, resulting in higher taxes anyway.

“Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”

“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value,” Brittain said. “We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”

For this year, the tax rate is $13.65 per thousand, down from $14.68 the year before. Because of higher valuations, he explained, the average tax increased by $193.

 

High Times Ahead

One industry relatively new to the tax rolls in Lee is cannabis. Right now, Canna Provisions is the only cannabis facility that’s up and running, but Brittain said the town has 14 permits for various cannabis facilities, with interested parties claiming 13 of them. Activity for future cannabis businesses includes a facility for growing on Route 102 under construction and a dispensary proposed for the former Cork and Hearth restaurant on the Lee/Lenox line.

The revenue from Canna Provisions has begun making a difference for the town. Brittain said the impact on tax revenue has made it possible for the town to consider hiring a full-time school resource officer, add streetlights in town, and begin a study on public-safety facilities.

Right now, Lee’s public-safety departments are in several buildings. The police operate out of two floors in Town Hall, the Fire Department is in an historic firehouse, and the town ambulance is located in a separate building.

“We are doing a study to see if we can consolidate public safety in one new building,” Brittain said. “Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”

An artist’s rendering of the Eagle Mill redevelopment project in Lee.

An artist’s rendering of the Eagle Mill redevelopment project in Lee.

While the study won’t happen for a while, he noted, thanks to the cannabis revenue, the town can explore its options for whether to invest in what it has or move forward with a new facility.

Before the Omicron variant of COVID hit, businesses in Lee were having a strong fall season. Henry said business was brisk. “We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”

Despite new variants of COVID and other disruptions to business, Henry noted that, because restaurants have developed strong takeout systems, they can quickly adapt and keep serving their customers.

“I’ve heard from people in Lee how grateful they were to still be able to get good food and how the restaurants worked to accommodate everyone,” she said, adding that the quick adaptation to takeout kept people employed “even though everyone still needs more workers.”

Looking ahead to other projects in town, plans are moving forward for a bike path that would run along the Housatonic River. The mile-long path would extend approximately from Big Y to Lee Bank. Brittain said it’s not certain if construction will begin this year, but the town is working with MassDOT to keep the project moving.

“We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”

Lee has also applied to become an Appalachian Trail Community. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website, when a town along the trail receives designated community status, it is considered a support asset for all who use the trail, and the conservancy encourages people to explore these communities. If accepted, Lee looks to join Western Mass. communities of Cheshire, Dalton, Great Barrington, and North Adams with the designation.

“We’ve been working with the Appalachian Trail folks, and we’re hoping Lee receives its designation by the end of the year,” Brittain said.

 

 

Seeking a Return to Normalcy

For the past two years, Lee had to cancel its annual Founders Weekend celebration — which recognizes the founding of the town back in 1777 — due to COVID concerns. Henry said people in town treat it as a fun birthday celebration, and in 2022, the town will be 245 years old.

Held on the third weekend in September, the community-wide event takes place on Main Street, which is closed to traffic to allow restaurants and other vendors to set up in the middle of the street.

“Founders Weekend always draws a huge crowd, and that’s why we were not able to hold it the last two years. It was too difficult to keep such a large gathering safe,” Henry said.

While there is no guarantee Founders Weekend will happen this year, she has it listed in her event calendar, and both she and Brittain are hopeful the event will take place in September.

“I think people are ready for a fun blowout weekend,” Henry said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

New Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra

New Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra says a redesign of Main Street is one of the city’s key issues moving forward.

 

As 2022 begins, Gina-Louise Sciarra starts the new year as Northampton’s new mayor. As she settles into the job, the city faces big opportunities and challenges, especially the constant challenge of managing COVID-19 and its variants. Even as the pandemic adapts, Sciarra said she’s confident the workers and businesses in Northampton will also adapt and keep moving forward.

“We have to help our businesses through this really difficult time and figure out what the next stage of our economy is going to look like,” Sciarra said. “We have a special downtown that we want to stay vibrant and keep it the popular destination it’s always been.”

One of the largest projects on the mayor’s agenda involves a redesign of Main Street. Northampton has a uniquely wide main artery, which Sciarra said is lovely in some ways, but it also presents safety issues.

“We’re going to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as create more green space,” she said. “The redesign will help us meet the next era of retail and commerce while keeping it a place people want to come and experience.”

Not surprisingly, the Main Street redesign has been a huge topic of conversation among downtown businesses, according to Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA). Cahillane said some of her members favor keeping the wide Main Street and making crosswalks safer, while others would like to see the street narrowed, allowing for wider sidewalks.

“I don’t think there will be a design that makes everyone happy,” Cahillane said. “At the same time, it’s important for all to understand the magnitude of impact that construction will have on downtown businesses.”

She added that she’s eager to find out if the city will support businesses during the redesign because, after two years of reduced income due to COVID, they will soon face a construction process that also hurts the bottom line.

“We’re going to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as create more green space. The redesign will help us meet the next era of retail and commerce while keeping it a place people want to come and experience.”

“I don’t think it can be publicized enough what the construction will look like and how to navigate downtown while businesses are open,” Cahillane said. “I would also like to see financial support for businesses after all they’ve had to endure.”

After years of community input on the project, Sciarra said Northampton is in line to receive nearly 25% from the state for the Main Street redesign project, and that’s enough to keep it moving toward a construction start in 2025.

“Because of the size of this project, we will also modernize the underground infrastructure during the construction period,” she said.

 

Rescue and Recovery

A more immediate task for the new mayor involves $22 million earmarked for Northampton under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Sciarra said one of her first actions will be appointing an advisory committee to determine how to best allocate the ARPA funds. She appreciates that not everyone starts a term in office with these resources.

Vince Jackson

Vince Jackson says businesses have been opening and closing in Northampton at about the same rate during the pandemic.

“It’s spectacular to have these funds, but it’s also a huge responsibility,” she said. “This money comes out of a tragic time, so I want to make sure we steward it well and get the most out of it to benefit Northampton.”

This year will also see a new municipal office with the introduction of the Department of Community Care. This new area of public safety resulted from the efforts of the Northampton Police and Review Committee appointed by previous Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and Sciarra while she was City Council president. The review committee was charged with looking at what changes should be made to improve public safety.

“Their top recommendation was to create a city department to provide an unarmed response to non-criminal calls,” Sciarra explained.

After hiring Sean Donavan as implementation director for the department in November, the next step is to set up meetings with fire and police dispatchers to figure out how calls from the public will be allocated. Sciarra noted that, because the police have been the default 24/7 responders, they have handled many calls out of their realm.

“Weary because we’re just tired of COVID and the sense that we start to make progress only to see another setback. And wary because of all the uncertainty when you try to plan ahead in this environment.”

“My goal is to bring everyone together so we can figure out how to transfer some of these calls to our new service. We have a lot to do, but it’s exciting to set up a new department,” she said, noting that the goal is to have Community Care up and running by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

From late summer through the fall, many Northampton businesses reported robust sales, some approaching 2019 numbers. In December, the rapid ascension of the Omicron variant of COVID caused the mood to change. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, explained it as people feeling “weary and wary.”

“Weary because we’re just tired of COVID and the sense that we start to make progress only to see another setback,” Jackson said. “And wary because of all the uncertainty when you try to plan ahead in this environment.”

For Jeffrey Hoess-Brooks, September and October felt like old times. Hoess-Brooks, regional managing director for the Hotel Northampton and Fairfield Suites, noted that, even when business was up, staffing levels were down — which remains an issue. On some days, the housekeeping crew could not finish their work until evening hours because they were so short-staffed.

“Everyone was pitching in to help,” Hoess-Brooks said. “I cleaned more guest rooms this summer than I have in my entire 32 years in the industry.” Still, while January and February are traditionally slow months, he remains optimistic that business and staffing will improve by spring.

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 29.571
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.89
Commercial tax rate: $17.89
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

To find ways to keep going, Cahillane said many business owners are upgrading their online shopping and ordering capabilities, while others are renovating their locations.

Despite all the challenges, Jackson remains hopeful about the coming year. He pointed out that, since the beginning of the pandemic, Northampton has seen 20 businesses close, but 20 new businesses opened during the same time. “It speaks to the resilience of the community and the example that it sets for the entrepreneurial spirit in Northampton.”

 

Raising All Boats

Meanwhile, Cahillane is busy planning her first community event for 2022, the Northampton Ice Arts Festival, scheduled for Feb. 11, featuring various ice sculptures throughout downtown.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed that we will be able to have the event, especially because it’s outside,” she said, acknowledging the uncertainty while continuing to move forward.

Outdoor dining, which Cahillane has called a lifesaver for many restaurants, remains very popular. Amit Kanoujia, general manager of India House (see story on page 25), is looking to start his outdoor seating earlier and expand it later this year because so many people have asked him to consider it. “In the early spring, our guests bring jackets, and by the fall, they are willing to wear parkas to soak in as much of the outdoor experience as they can.”

Kanoujia remarked on the spirit of cooperation he’s seen among businesses and city leaders to keep moving forward. Jackson echoed that sentiment and added that collaboration is more important now than ever before.

“At the chamber, we try to remind everyone that we are all investors in our community and in our economy,” he said. “When one succeeds, we all succeed.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says public safety and public health have been priorities of his first term.

 

Fresh off his re-election, Chicopee Mayor John Vieau said the main goal for his second term is the same when he first campaigned for the office two years ago: a focus on public safety.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important,” Vieau said.

In the mid-1980s, Chicopee bolstered its police force by hiring a large number of officers. Nearly 40 years later, the city has seen many of those officers retire from the force, while others have left due to COVID-19 concerns to pursue other careers. For Vieau, this created multiple challenges.

“Based on civil-service exams, we hired 10 replacements for our retiring officers,” he said. “Then we ran into a quagmire because at first we couldn’t send them to the police academy because it was closed during the worst of the pandemic.”

As the academy eased its mandates, those officers completed training, and Vieau has hired an additional 15 officers with the intent of bringing the police force back to full strength.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important.”

In addition to new officers, Chicopee is encouraging a new style of policing by introducing community policing at a substation on Center Street. With officers on walking beats, they are better able to make connections with people.

“This has been very successful because people are seeing the same officers who are building relationships and rapport with folks in the neighborhood,” the mayor said, adding that he’s looking to eventually bring a substation to Willimansett as well as other parts of the city.

The concern for public safety also extends to the Fire Department, which staffs two ambulances 24/7. Recently the fire chief suggested a pilot program to add a third ambulance for overnight coverage. The suggestion came about due to demand for more coverage during those hours as well as the closing of the private ambulance company that lent assistance when Chicopee ambulances were busy. The success of the pilot program will result in Chicopee adding a new ambulance along with the new fire pumper trucks that had been ordered.

“Just like with the police, we want to make sure our Fire Department has the tools they need to keep themselves and our city safe,” Vieau said.

Part of public safety includes fighting the spread of COVID-19. Chicopee received 15,000 rapid test kits from the state and has been distributing them to residents in low-income areas and at the senior center.

“Our message remains the same — we believe everyone should get vaccinated,” Vieau said.

 

Supporting Businesses

Keeping Chicopee businesses healthy also remains a priority. Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, more than 70 businesses received support. Julie Copoulos, executive director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, said her organization helped small-business owners receive more than a half-million dollars in grant money during the pandemic.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate,” Copoulos said. “Many of the small-business grants went to minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Julie Copoulos is enthusiastic about progress on development at the former Uniroyal and Facemate sites, among others.

The city will also receive $38 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Vieau has formed a committee to determine how to use that money in a way that will have a long-term impact for taxpayers in Chicopee.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate.”

“I have a smart group of people who are looking into the best way to use the ARPA funds,” he said. “We’ve also surveyed residents for their ideas on how to spend the money.”

Vieau wants to proceed with caution on how to use these one-time funds because it would be easy to spend it all in one place.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,560
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.39
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

“I could target one infrastructure project and use all that money and more,” he said. “For example, the wastewater treatment plant needs upgrades to keep up with current pollution standards, and that project alone will cost around $50 million.”

For bigger projects like this, Vieau is hopeful about Chicopee’s prospects for funding through the recently passed federal infrastructure deal. “I’m going to fight for as much of that infrastructure money as we can get,” he said.

In the meantime, the mayor shared with BusinessWest an important development regarding the former Uniroyal site. After more than a decade of investing millions of dollars in hazardous-waste cleanup at the site, by this spring, the city will begin looking for potential new owners of both the headquarters and an adjacent building on the site.

“We are all looking forward to getting the Uniroyal property back on the tax rolls,” Vieau said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we are super excited about it.”

Right now Michelin, which owns the Uniroyal brand, is completing $1.5 million in cleanup efforts at the site. Once that’s done, the mayor explained, the city will launch a request for proposals in search of prospective buyers of the property.

Because Chicopee represents a good number of manufacturers, Copoulos believes this gives the city an advantage in the years ahead. She noted that economists have pointed out that manufacturing industries have come back to pre-COVID levels while more customer-facing industries continue to have challenges.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time.”

“As a community with so many manufacturers, this can potentially give us a leg up,” she said. “Supply-chain issues will make domestic manufacturing more of a priority, and that makes me hopeful about prospects for Chicopee.”

The spring will also mark the beginning of construction for the new headquarters of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. After many years in Hatfield, the Food Bank purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park in order to expand its warehouse in a more environmentally friendly building. Selecting Chicopee was a strategic decision on a couple of fronts. The location on Carew and East Main streets gives the Food Bank easy access to major highways, and because the city is in Hampden County, where the issue of hunger and food insecurity are more severe, the organization is in a better position to address the problem.

“The Food Bank location in Chicopee will be at the hub of addressing food insecurity in Western Mass.,” Vieau said.

Dino Facente

Dino Facente says his bakery’s move from Springfield to Chicopee has been a positive one.

Anticipation is also growing for the former Facemate property in Chicopee Center. Final plans and permits are being approved for a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the former Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing will locate.

Both Vieau and Copoulos praised Singing Bridge LLC, a local developer, for leading the project because it shows a commitment to the success of Chicopee. For Copoulos, completion of the project can’t arrive soon enough.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time,” she said.

Vieau noted in particular the 102 units of housing that will be added to Chicopee Center.

“Many people want to stay in Chicopee but are looking for empty-nest housing,” he said. “Realtors have told me if more condominiums were on the market, they could immediately sell them.”

 

Stops and Starts

The city had a setback recently when the Silverbrook Group said it may not be able to develop 600 apartments in the former Cabotville Mill in the center of town, citing rising construction costs as the main culprit. Vieau remains optimistic that both the Cabotville and Lyman mills will eventually be developed for housing and other uses.

While the next step for the mills is uncertain, that hasn’t stopped Vieau from moving forward with what he called a renaissance of Chicopee’s downtown. The city received a grant to convert the old library building, adjacent to City Hall, into an incubator space for budding entrepreneurs. The first steps involve bringing the building up to compliance with current ADA regulations. Vieau would like to eventually see the cultural council or the chamber take office space there, too.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in.”

“Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, so why not start at our old library?” he wondered.

Next door to the old library, the former Rivoli Theatre has just gone up for sale. The mayor called this another space with great potential for the city.

In addition to new entrepreneurs, Chicopee still manages to attract established businesses to locate there. After decades at the Springfield Plaza, Dino Facente had been looking to move the Koffee Kup Bakery. In his words, he “stumbled on” Mickey’s Bike Shop, which had recently closed. The East Street location turned out to be the right spot to move the bakery.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in,” Facente said. He also credited Chicopee officials at all levels for making the move easy and successful.

“I’ve picked up a lot of business since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ll be staying here until I retire.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

While two major construction projects reached completion in 2021, it’s no time to slow down for Longmeadow officials, who are planning several more projects for 2022 and beyond.

In June, Department of Public Works staff moved into their new $24 million facility on Dwight Road. Town Manager Lyn Simmons said the new location provides a cleaner, safer work environment with amenities that save money for the town over time.

“The DPW now has vehicle wash bays to clean dirt and salt off their equipment as well as lifts that are appropriate for the vehicles we have,” Simmons said. “We also have covered storage for everything, which, in New England, is critical for maintaining all this expensive equipment.”

Marybeth Bergeron, who chairs the Permanent Town Building Committee, said the DPW facility has come a long way from its old location on Pondside Road. After operating out of a couple buildings constructed in the early 1930s that she described as “incredibly poor condition,” the new location improves efficiency and morale.

“Our new DPW director, Geoff McAlmond, is working to unify all the entities in Public Works, and it’s much easier to do that with all the staff and department heads in one place,” Bergeron said.

Simmons said the new facility will have a positive impact on town business beyond the DPW. “Police, fire, and other departments that have town vehicles now have a fueling facility they can use as well.”

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want.”

In early November, Simmons cut the ribbon for the new Longmeadow Adult Community Center on Maple Road. The $14 million building features plenty of space for seniors looking to take part in exercise, activities, or one of the many other programs available.

Bergeron pointed out that older residents use fewer town resources, such as the school system and even trash pickup, because their households are smaller. At the same time, their numbers are growing as more people retire every day, and they are looking to stay active and social. For all those reasons, she said many communities are investing in their elders.

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want,” she added.

Thanks to a $250,000 donation from S. Prestley Blake toward the end of his life, the center has something few such facilities have: a dedicated gymnasium at one end of the building, featuring a full court that can be used for basketball or volleyball and an elevated walking track around the perimeter. On the day BusinessWest toured, three pickleball courts were set up, with games in progress.

The new facility is located less than 100 yards away from the old adult center, which was a former elementary school at Greenwood Park. In the immediate short term, the commercial kitchen in the old center will be used by staff from Armata’s Market to prepare holiday meals for their customers after a fire in November destroyed the market, a longtime fixture in Longmeadow (see story on page 15).

Looking ahead, the former adult center may be the future home for the town municipal offices. Currently, municipal staff are located in Town Hall and the adjacent Community Hall. Town Hall offers limited space, and Simmons said bringing it into compliance with current standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be cost-prohibitive. A recent feasibility study looked at reusing the Greenwood site as combined office space for the town.

“We would move municipal employees from Town Hall and Community Hall to one location and consolidate under one roof,” Simmons said. If the plan is approved, Simmons said the town can pay for renovations to the Greenwood site out of the $4.6 million allocated to Longmeadow under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Before the town can consider re-using the former DPW site, Simmons said the first goal is to demolish the old buildings which are deemed unsafe.

“We’ve done a feasibility study to see if ground mounted solar panels would make sense for us financially,” she said. “It looks like that would be a good use, but we have a ton of work to do before it can go out to bid.” Right now, it looks like the town will tackle this project in the spring or summer of 2022.

 

Doing Their Homework

Though mask measures are still in place and students are still adjusting to daily in-person learning, Longmeadow Schools Superintendent Martin O’Shea said having students back in class full-time makes it feel more like a typical school year.

In addition to what he termed as “the ebbs and flows of the school day,” he also recognizes the town is at a crossroads when it comes to deciding the future of its two middle schools.

Glenbrook Middle School, built in 1967, and Williams Middle School, built in 1959, are two well-maintained buildings, neither of which has had any significant renovation work since they were completed. Despite all the care and maintenance, time has a way of catching up with many of core systems, and the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical infrastructure in both buildings have reached the end of their useful life. A study by Colliers Project Leaders identified more than $30 million of essential maintenance and repair issues at the two schools.

O’Shea said the Longmeadow School Committee has petitioned the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help answer the question: should Longmeadow repair the two schools or bring all the middle-school students into one new building?

“If we commit to the repairs Colliers identified, we would make critical improvements to the two schools, but we’re left with the old footprint and the old design,” he explained. “We still wouldn’t have the types of learning spaces we think would be best for students for the next 50 years.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.74
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.74
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

Working with the MSBA can be a six- or seven-year process. That’s why O’Shea believes Longmeadow is at a crossroads right now. He and others in town support building new rather than investing in the old.

“Our sense is that it would be more cost-effective and more educationally effective to build a new school,” he said, adding that modern schools are built to be fully accessible, with rich digital-learning spaces, as well as spaces for small-group support and intervention.

O’Shea recognizes many residents value having two neighborhood-based middle schools in town, but both need extensive repairs and modernization to continue to serve today’s students. One new middle school can easily accommodate the 648 students currently attending Glenbrook and Williams.

“If we combined our two middle schools under one roof, we could potentially create educational economies of scale, and the new building would reflect a more typically sized middle school,” he said. “The average middle school in Massachusetts accommodates right around 600 students.”

Unlike many communities, Longmeadow does not experience significant school-enrollment swings, but instead stays fairly steady over many years. O’Shea said that’s an important consideration when going through the MSBA process.

“The whole building project begins when MSBA engages the community in demographic studies to better understand enrollment and population trends,” he noted. “That way, they can make sure the school that is eventually built is positioned for future enrollment.”

The middle-school project represents another chapter in Longmeadow’s continued commitment to academic excellence. O’Shea said education is an important part of the town’s economic engine.

“Longmeadow places a premium on education,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s the reason people move here and why it’s a great place to raise a family.”

 

Great Outdoors

Longmeadow also prides itself on its many recreation areas. Simmons is looking to bring in a consultant to assess all swimming pools, basketball courts, playgrounds, and other sites to assess their condition. Once the town has a baseline on the needs for each area, Simmons’ goal is to have a community conversation with town departments and committees as well as with residents to identify the most pressing projects.

“We want a roadmap so we can get strategic on how we eventually fund that work and complete those projects,” she said.

With these projects and others on the horizon for Longmeadow, Bergeron acknowledged she and the Building Committee will have plenty of work ahead. “I’m looking forward to the next five to 10 years as we get some of these projects off the ground and up and running.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Bob Cressotti

Mayor Bob Cressotti says soaring real-estate activity may lead to the tough decision to re-evaluate Enfield homes and businesses.

There is no shortage of activity in development projects for Enfield.

The most significant project involves the town, with the support of state and federal officials, constructing a train-station platform in the Thompsonville section of town. The planned station will be a stop for Amtrak trains coming from Hartford and Springfield. Mayor Bob Cressotti called it a key to Enfield’s future growth.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield,” Cressotti said, noting that funding for the station will come from the infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden. In the final legislation, Connecticut is scheduled to receive $1.2 billion for roads and transit over the next five years.

When built, the station will be located just beyond Bigelow Commons, a 700-unit apartment complex that was once the Bigelow Carpet Mill. Nelson Tereso, the town’s deputy director of Economic & Community Development, said plans by the Connecticut Department of Transportation call for a covered 220-foot platform that would accommodate entrances to four train cars. As a high-level platform, passengers would be able to walk directly into the cars.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield.”

Tereso is working on a number of details for the project, among them securing a right-of-way agreement with Bigelow Commons for parking at the station. Northland, the company that owns the Commons, has indicated it supports the train-station project in Enfield.

“They’ve been very good to work with,” he noted. “In fact, many of their apartment complexes around the country are located near transportation hubs.” 

In anticipation of the train station, Tereso said the town has identified several properties within walking distance that would be ideal candidates for redevelopment. With the success of Bigelow Commons, he sees more potential for housing in that area.

On North Main Street, the Strand Theater has been closed for nearly 30 years and is slated for demolition by next summer. Next door sits the Angelo Lamanga Community Center. Tereso said the town has appropriated money for its demolition, too, but he is talking with developers to see if it’s possible to find a new use for the 27,000-square-foot building.

“We want to sell the Lamanga Center to a developer who is forward-thinking and looking ahead at the train station our town will have in a few years,” he explained. “While not as large as Bigelow, these parcels represent an opportunity to build additional market-rate apartments, especially for young professionals who are working in Hartford and Springfield.”

 

On the Home Front

According to Cressotti, demand for housing is certainly up Enfield. Since the pandemic began, nearly 2,200 property transfers have been recorded in Enfield. The rising real-estate market is leading to what he called the tough decision of re-evaluating houses and businesses in town.

“Residential property values have increased by 25% to 30% on average,” he said. “We’re going to adjust the mill rate to prevent a huge spike in the tax bills.”

With such large increases in home prices, getting families to locate to Enfield can be a challenge. Tereso talked about a first-time homebuyer program the town offers to increase purchasing power for eligible buyers. The program provides a deferred loan up to $10,000 at a 0% interest rate for first-time buyers who purchase a home in Enfield. For those who choose a home in the Thompsonville or North Thompsonville section of town, the loan is forgivable.

“This program provides the gap funding that many folks need in order to afford a mortgage,” he said, noting that starter homes in Enfield typically cost between $150,000 and $250,000. “It has especially helped younger families to buy their first home.”

With families in mind, the town is currently transforming Higgins Park from a softball field into a multi-faceted park. Plans call for expanding Higgins, as the town plans to purchase the gymnasium building that belonged to the former St. Adalbert parish that abuts the park. Cressotti said the final layout will feature walking trails, a new basketball court, a swimming pool, a splash pad, and a band shell for outdoor concerts.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now. Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

“When it’s complete, the park will have appeal to all ages, and we will be able to hold sponsored events there on a consistent basis,” he noted.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, officials tried to figure out how to keep town business operating. It so happened that a Santander Bank branch two doors down from Town Hall had recently closed and was on the market. The idea was floated to lease the former bank and use its drive-up window as a convenient and contact-free way to conduct town business during the pandemic.

“The drive-up window worked great for residents looking to apply for building permits, pick up a dog license, or pay their taxes,” Tereso said.

The town moved the entire Tax Department into the former bank and renamed it Enfield Express. The site also had enough room to locate a police substation in the rear of the building. Tereso said the town just finalized the purchase of the building, making it official that Enfield Express is here to stay.

“People love it,” he added. “We will absolutely continue the drive-up service after the pandemic is over.”

Purchasing the former bank branch also expands the amount of municipal parking and provides another entry point for the newly configured Higgins Park.

“When the Tax Department moved out of Town Hall, we turned their old space into a new conference room,” Tereso said, noting yet another benefit of creating Enfield Express.

Finding new uses for existing structures is all part of the plan in Enfield. For example, the Social Services Department recently moved from 110 High St. to the former Alcorn School, where the town’s IT Department is located, while 110 High St. is one of seven town properties Enfield has sold while it strives to efficiently use municipal space.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,626
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

As Tereso explained, “110 High Street was once a day-care center. We sold it to a day-care provider who will now be able to expand their presence in Enfield.”

Enfield Square, purchased by Namdar Realty in 2018, could be another candidate for redevelopment. The new owners were granted a zone change to reconfigure the mall and subdivide the parcels.

While malls all over the country are being redeveloped, Tereso believes Enfield Square’s close proximity to two I-91 exits is a big selling point for future use. He plans to survey residents on possible redevelopment options to get a read on what people would like to see at the mall.

“Whether it’s entertainment, market-rate housing, or outlet shops, all those things could be a successful way to develop the mall for new use,” he said.

 

Life in the Fast Lane

For Cressotti, life these past months has been moving fast.

In October, he won the election to be Enfield’s new mayor. On Nov. 6, he took over the position, and on Nov. 15, longtime Town Manager Christopher Bromson abruptly resigned after a heated exchange with several Town Council members.

After serving in different positions with the town since 1989, Bromson decided to retire and was recently quoted saying he is grateful to see many of the projects started during his time are now going forward. Enfield Police Chief Alaric Fox has added interim Town Manager to his job title until a new manager is hired.

Even with all that happening, Cressotti likes the direction Enfield is headed.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now,” he said. “Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

William Rosenblum

William Rosenblum says Ludlow needs to use available funds to benefit the most people and invest in the future, not just immediate needs.

This fall, two long-anticipated projects in Ludlow opened to the public, and officials say there’s more to come.

In September, the Harris Brook Elementary School on Fuller Street opened for full classes for students in grades 2-5. And in early November, the new Ludlow Senior Center officially opened on State Street. Board of Selectmen Chairman William Rosenblum said that, while Ludlow is already a desirable community, the new school and senior center make it even more so.

“We’ve addressed the bookends of our lives by investing in our children and our seniors,” Rosenblum told BusinessWest, adding that next up for this community is determining the best ways to spend $6.3 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Rosenblum said the Board of Selectmen is asking for input from town department heads and Ludlow citizens on how to spend the funds in a way that will benefit the most people in the community and act as investments for the future.

“It’s like the quote from Star Trek — ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’” he said, citing a line credited to Mr. Spock.

Rosenblum added that using the funds to make improvements and updates to existing facilities will take priority over embarking on new projects.

“For example, we’ll be upgrading the HVAC system at the safety complex,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be done, and we will most likely use ARPA funds for it.”

Ludlow Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the guidelines in spending ARPA money focus on helping public health departments and businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic. They also allow towns to address recreational areas such as community centers and parks.

“This might be an opportunity to upgrade some of the existing facilities in our parks,” he added.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town. It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Another type of project allowed by ARPA involves investments in broadband. Rosenblum said he’d like the town to explore a fiber-optic installation in Ludlow, an idea that was inspired by his work-from-home experience. During the pandemic, while he stayed connected to work through the internet, his two children also attended school online, which severely taxed his home internet capabilities.

“I learned the 19 IP addresses that were in my house, so I could shut down different devices in order to get better internet reception,” he said.

Rosenblum acknowledges that, while fiber optics certainly fits the Star Trek criteria in benefiting many people, such a move requires considerable research to see if it’s even remotely affordable for the town.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at ARPA options and other pressing matters in Ludlow, a community that has seen considerable residential growth in recent years and is now seeing business growth as well.

 

At a Crossroads

According to Rosenblum, home sales remain brisk, largely because interest rates have stayed low. Meanwhile, over the past two years, home prices in Ludlow have increased 30%, with the average list price topping out at $376,000.

While some residents are concerned about the tax rate, he pointed out that increasing home values are what leads to higher tax bills.

“When you look at tax rates in communities across Massachusetts, Ludlow is right in the middle,” he noted.

Stefancik added that some of the larger McMansion-type homes in town bring in more than $10,000 a year in taxes.

“While that may seem high, taxpayers are getting a new school and a new senior center, which are both good things for the community,” he said. “The new school might even convince a family to move here.”

As Stefancik reviewed the many activities happening through his department with BusinessWest, one interesting trend stood out. Last year, 17 homeowners applied for special permits for home-based businesses, a high-water mark for the community.

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard. The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

While it would be easy to assume the pandemic sparked this increase in home-based business permits, Stefancik said it’s a trend that actually started before COVID arrived.

“The permits range from electricians and carpenters to artists and consultants,” he noted. “Back when I started in the job, these requests might occasionally trickle in, but now it’s our most common special permit.”

This trend was certainly in evidence back in October when the Ludlow Cultural Commission held a Community Market event at Memorial Park. Grace Barone, executive director for the East of the River Chamber, an event sponsor, was impressed with the community support and the number of home-based businesses represented at the market.

Doug Stefancik

Doug Stefancik says home values have soared in Ludlow, and so has the prevalence of home-based businesses.

“I saw some wonderful business ideas, and the community market provided a great showcase for them,” Barone said. “It would not be a surprise to see some of these vendors become future storefronts in town.”

The original idea for a community market was to bring together small businesses, artists, and community organizations, according to Michelle Goncalves, chair of the Ludlow Cultural Commission. Because the pandemic’s impact hurt many small businesses, especially those in arts and culture, the event’s focus shifted to become an occasion to support these entities.

For a first-year event, Goncalves was surprised to see nearly 40 vendors reserve space. She speculated that most of the smaller vendors were home-based businesses.

“In addition to businesses that have storefronts, I would guess that many of our vendors were based at home,” she said. “For example, we had a person who makes wreaths, a photographer who uses his home for a studio, one person who sells essential oils, and another who makes charcuterie boards.”

Planning has begun to bring the community market back next fall. “We definitely want to do this again,” Goncalves said.

While the population of Ludlow has remained fairly steady over the last several years, Rosenblum noted the town is seemingly growing based on the increased activity that happens there.

“Folks in Chicopee like to say they are the crossroads of New England,” Rosenblum said. “Well, Ludlow is the crossroads of about four or five towns, too.” Indeed, from the Ludlow exit on the Mass Pike, travelers head to Granby, South Hadley, Belchertown, Palmer, Indian Orchard, Wilbraham, and other communities.

The busy Ludlow exit from the turnpike feeds into Center Street, which is part of Route 21. Even after the state completed a comprehensive upgrade of the roadway last year, traffic has never been busier.

“I think we got used to traffic during the pandemic, which was very light because people weren’t commuting to work,” Stefancik said. “Now there’s traffic all week, and it’s still busy on the weekends.”

Don’t expect traffic to lessen anytime soon because Ludlow continues to invest in its future. In 2017, town officials working with Westmass Area Development Corp. and Winn Development transformed one of the old mill buildings in the sprawling Ludlow Mills complex into Residences at Mill 10, providing 75 units of age-55-plus, mixed-income housing. In 2022, construction begins on Mill 8, the mill building with its iconic clock tower. Once complete, that project will bring an additional 95 units of senior housing to Ludlow. Town officials offered high praise both for what’s been done so far and the potential for the entire area.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town,” Stefancik said. “It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Rosenblum concurred, adding that “the mills are a long-term investment for Ludlow, and we enjoy a great partnership with the developers.”

Like Mill 10, Mill 8 will also offer mixed-income housing. Considering the mills, the new single-family houses being built, and the condominiums that exist and are under construction, Stefancik said, Ludlow gives potential residents many options on where to live.

“Looking forward,” he added, “we’re a community that can offer a wide range of housing and provide a great place to live and do business.”

 

 

Right Place, Right Time

As a selectman, Rosenblum enjoys his involvement in projects that make a positive impact on Ludlow, and he believes local politics is “where it’s at.”

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard,” he said. “The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

Mr. Spock couldn’t have said it better.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

It’s a classic small-town balancing act. As Monson leaders look forward to new infrastructure and energy projects, many residents also want to maintain a small-town feel.

But progress is important, Town Administrator Jennifer Wolowicz says. With the town about to receive $1.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and a team at Town Hall looking at ways to use those funds, she favors infrastructure projects because she believes they offer the best return on investment.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers,” Wolowicz said, adding that she is grateful the town has until 2026 to spend the ARPA funds. “That timetable allows us to be thoughtful in how we use the money.”

In April, Wolowicz was appointed full-time Town Administrator after working in the position since February in an interim capacity. When she first came on board, Town Hall was closed to the public due to COVID-19 mandates while the staff inside were busy trying to figure out how to provide the services residents needed. Some town business moved online, but many residents prefer to pay their bills in person, so Wolowicz and her staff installed drop boxes and even offered some outdoor service.

“With a little education and reassurance, we helped people figure out different ways to get business done,” she said.

These days, Town Hall is fully open. The Monson Select Board has relaxed mask mandates in general, but they are still required in schools. Wolowicz pointed out that COVID numbers have been trending lower than in the past, and currently, 56% of residents have been vaccinated.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers.”

Meanwhile, back in January, Andrew Surprise became the new CEO of the Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, which covers 15 towns in the region, including Monson. Surprise admits that, in the past, the chamber had been losing touch with local communities. To address that, he has begun reaching out to Monson businesses to establish a business civic association (BCA).

“The idea is to form a business community in Monson,” Surprise said. “With local people concentrating on the issues that are important to their business and community, it helps the chamber to better focus on ways they can help.”

Upon joining Quabaog Hills, Surprise noticed the chamber did not have strong contacts with local officials at the town or state level.

“As a former city councilor [in Westfield], I’ve seen how important it is for the chamber to have these relationships,” he said. “By connecting businesses and local officials, we can offer better value to everyone involved.”

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, is on a mission to introduce himself to businesses in Monson.

Coordinating efforts is already paying off. Surprise began working with Wolowicz on the idea of a BCA while the town was in the process of seeking a Rapid Recovery grant from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Knowing that Monson was looking to have a business organization focused on its needs, the PVPC advised Surprise and Wolowicz to make it a joint request. Surprise said the BCA will be formed no matter what, but a grant makes a more robust effort possible.

“The grant would allow a much more expansive implementation and enable us to speed up the building of the BCA,” Surprise said. “Also, the grant makes it possible for the chamber to hire a person dedicated to establishing and recruiting for BCAs in both Monson and Belchertown.”

 

Main Concerns

Much of Monson’s business community can be found right in the heart of town, so BusinessWest asked three Main Street business owners about the idea of a business civic association.

Nissa Lempart, owner of Monson Optical, said the BCA is a good idea if the goal is to reach more people outside of town. “My customers already know where we are, and they tend to keep their business in Monson.”

Richard Green, who owns Richard R. Green Insurance Agency, said that, in his experience, many people tend not to do business in town, so he believes a BCA would be a big plus for Monson.

“It would be a way for local businesses to interact more with the community while benefiting each business and the community at large,” he noted. “I think it would be fantastic.”

Bill Belanger, who has owned Belanger Jewelers for more than 30 years, called Monson a wonderful community, and he’s open to the town taking a different approach to business.

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking.”

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking,” he explained.

Part of that new thinking would allow larger franchises to do business in Monson. In 2020, residents staged a vocal rejection when Dollar General proposed a location in town.

“Dollar General might not have been the right fit for our town,” Belanger said. “But there are many other types of national businesses that would work well here.”

One example of Monson welcoming new thinking involves a 26,000-square-foot building on Route 32 where Holistic Industries runs a cannabis growing facility.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,560
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.12
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.12
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Wolowicz noted that Holistic represents a large tax base for Monson, as the town received $500,000 in tax revenues from the company in June. Holistic-grown products are sold by Liberty Cannabis retail stores in Springfield, Somerville, and Easthampton. “COVID was good for cannabis sales,” she noted.

In terms of seeking other growth for the town, Wolowicz said discussions are taking place with developers about reusing some of the older mills in town. There is also activity at the former site of the state-owned Monson Developmental Center, where several buildings are being taken down. She said some residents have questioned why the town isn’t involved in redevelopment of this parcel.

“These folks don’t understand this is state property and the cleanup is their project,” she noted. “Their plan is to bring it back to green space and hopefully give the land back to the town at some point.”

For the last year and a half Monson, has been making energy-saving improvements to schools and municipal buildings. Part of the project involves converting the current street lights to LED fixtures.

“Even Town Hall, which was built in 2014, will be getting new lighting because that’s how fast technology has changed,” Wolowicz said.

The town also works with neighboring communities on wider-ranging projects. For example, Monson has signed an agreement with Palmer and Ware to convert the town dog pound into a regional animal-control facility for use by the three communities. That project is expected to take place next year.

 

Steady On

That’s a fair amount of activity for a town whose Main Street has no traffic signals.

“There are many folks in town who are passionate about keeping it that way,” Wolowicz said, adding that she favors controlled development to keep Monson a vital community.

Belanger expressed a similar sentiment. “Encouraging more business is a way for the community to advance without losing what makes it special.”

While Monson keeps its small-town feel, there is no shortage of new business proposals landing on Wolowicz’s desk.

“We many not be a booming metropolis,” she said, “but we still have opportunities to pursue controlled development.”

Community Spotlight

Stockbridge Looks Forward, Honors Its Heritage

By Mark Morris

Town Administrator Michael Canales

Town Administrator Michael Canales says a number of municipal projects speak to Stockbridge’s progress during the pandemic.

One of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings depicts a snow-covered Main Street in Stockbridge. The painting “Home for Christmas” was intended to celebrate small towns all over America, but these days, it’s nearly impossible for modern-day photographers to recreate the artist’s vision without including a constant stream of traffic.

While that might frustrate photographers, Margaret Kerswill is encouraged by all the activity she has seen this summer and into the fall.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge,” the board president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce told BusinessWest. “It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Kerswill said the pandemic encouraged business owners to find creative ways to keep people safe while maintaining their operations — and revenues. Despite the many challenges last year, they’ve largely come back strong.

“As rules and mandates kept changing, our business owners rolled with it,” she said. “It was wonderful to see everyone rise to the top of their game.”

Tri Town Health acts as a regional health department for the towns of Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 began spreading, Tri Town Health imposed mask mandates for indoor common spaces.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge. It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Stockbridge Town Administrator Michael Canales appreciates the agency’s work to keep the community as safe as possible. As of Oct. 15, 68% of Berkshire residents are fully vaccinated, while 78% have received at least one dose.

On the job for just over a year, Canales has not yet had the chance to lead the community in the absence of a pandemic. “It will be a little difficult for me to compare what normally happens in town because I have yet to see what normal looks like,” he noted.

Children’s Chime Tower

Repair work will begin next year on the Children’s Chime Tower, a fixture since 1878.

For now, he believes longtime residents who tell him Stockbridge is starting to look normal again. Canales himself has certainly noticed the busy summer and fall seasons, and credits that in part to the return of Tanglewood, which offered a limited schedule for audiences half the size of a normal show.

“Tanglewood is an example of one of the big events that happened as a smaller event for this year,” he said.

Despite the limited schedule, Kerswill said it was important that Tanglewood held events this year. “Tanglewood is integral to the local economy. It provides so many jobs in the area and definitely brings visitors to town for dining and shopping.”

Kerswill also wanted to set the record straight for BusinessWest about “a broad misconception” that Tanglewood is located in Lenox. “The entrance is in Lenox, but nearly 85% of Tanglewood’s land is actually in Stockbridge.”

 

Change and Progress

For several years, Kerswill co-owned Mutability in Motion, a gift shop she ran with her wife, Laureen Vizza. When COVID hit, they made the decision to close the shop.

“We’re working on new endeavors, still keeping our efforts local, but in new areas,” she explained. In addition to starting a personal blog called artmeditationlife.com, Kerswill has become a licensed realtor.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy,” she said, adding that home-improvement services are also coming back strong, as evidenced by long wait times for many home projects.

In terms of municipal projects, Stockbridge added a new highway garage this past spring, though supply-chain issues caused delays in finishing it even sooner.

A current project nearing completion is the Larrywaug Bridge on Route 183. Canales expects this busy connector road will be open by the winter, with finishing touches to be completed in the spring.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy.”

Next year, repair work will begin on the Children’s Chimes Tower, a fixture in Stockbridge built in 1878. Canales said the town has approved funding to refurbish all the internal mechanisms.

“It’s a neat structure, but it needs some tender loving care,” he added. “We’re hoping to make repairs that will keep it playing for the next 50 years.”

Still relatively new in the job, Canales said it’s been exciting to learn about the rich history of Stockbridge. While people all over the world are familiar with Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the town’s mention in James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James,” there are even deeper historical references to be found which Canales said “makes it a fascinating community.”

For example, the town is working on a project to protect old-growth forests, specifically Ice Glen, a ravine in the southeast area of Stockbridge. Its name comes from the many moss-covered rocks with deep crevices that can sustain ice into the summer.

During the time he wrote Moby Dick, Herman Melville lived in Pittsfield and is said to have visited Ice Glen at least once. The Stockbridge ravine is referenced in the novel when narrator Ishmael describes Pupella, a seaside glen, as “a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen.”

These days, the town is exploring several options to protect the old-growth trees from insects that are causing damage in Ice Glen.

The Chamber of Commerce has joined the effort to help tourists find both famous and lesser-known sites in Stockbridge. As an ongoing project, it has developed and begun installing new signs to help direct people to the many attractions in town. Right now, they’ve been installed downtown, but the plan is to expand the green-and-white signs to more areas of the community.

“We want to help people get around outside the downtown area because there is a lot to see,” Kerswill said. “If someone is here only for a weekend, we want to make sure they can find all the attractions that interest them.”

 

Better Days

While the town navigates the various stages of the pandemic, Canales said he and many others are looking ahead.

“We are staying on top of things and keeping an eye on trends so that when we come out of this, Stockbridge will be in the best possible shape to return to normal, or as close as we can get to normal,” he noted.

Kerswill added that Stockbridge is a place that continues to amaze her.

“Whether we’re going through good times or difficult times, it’s a community that comes together to get things done. I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Thomas Bernard

Mayor Thomas Bernard is gratified to see events like the FreshGrass Festival and the Fall Foliage Parade return to North Adams.

While North Adams tries to return to familiar norms, many are prepared to adjust if new pandemic concerns arise.

That’s the perspective of Mayor Thomas Bernard, anyway, who said his community has slowly and cautiously taken steps to bring back the positive routines of daily life.

“The moment that stands out for me is our first concert at Windsor Lake in early to mid-June,” Bernard said. “There were people who hadn’t seen neighbors and friends for more than a year. The sound of kids laughing and playing, great music, the spirit was unbelievable.”

More recently, he pointed to MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass Festival in September as an example of holding a popular event and exercising caution, as attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entering.

“Returning to these events is the fulfillment of the promise we made to each other when things were shutting down — that we would be back,” Bernard said.

Though no one can predict what the future holds, Nico Dery said North Adams businesses are prepared to make a quick pivot if necessary.

“Businesses now have COVID plans in place that were developed from an entire season of figuring out what worked and what didn’t,” said Dery, business development coordinator for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce.

The city was the site for a robust vaccination effort that began in January and ran through June, during which time volunteers at the Northern Berkshire regional vaccination center held 40 clinics and administered nearly 25,000 vaccines to residents.

Right now, the vaccination rate in North Adams is around 65%, but that percentage does not reflect a fair number of residents who received their vaccine in Vermont or New York, the mayor pointed out. With North Adams located in the northwest corner of the state, the borders to both adjacent states are easily accessible.

“However you figure it, I’m not going to be happy until the numbers get above 80%,” he added.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season. Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

Members of the regional emergency-planning committee who ran the COVID-19 operations center were honored at the 65th annual Fall Foliage Parade on Oct. 3.

“Everyone who was involved in the public-health response and the vaccination efforts are the folks who will be celebrated and honored as a sign of how far we have come,” Bernard said the week before the event — and a year after the parade was cancelled due to the coronavirus.

“The theme of this year’s parade was “Games, Movies, Takeout” — “everything that kept many of us going during the darkest times of the pandemic,” the mayor added.

 

No Summertime Blues

Businesses in North Adams experienced what Dery called a “great summer,” with lots of visitors exploring the Berkshires.

“In the past, we had seen many people come here from New York City, but because of COVID, we’ve seen a big increase of people from the Boston metro area,” she noted, crediting the increased visitor traffic to people choosing to forgo a European or cross-country vacation and instead stay closer to home.

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector, recently shared this photo on social media depicting their opening day last fall.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season,” she added. “Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

North Adams has also seen a number of businesses open during the pandemic. Bernard pointed to the Clear Sky Cannabis dispensary, which opened in March, and the Bear and Bee Bookshop in June.

The Plant Connector opened in September 2020 before vaccines were available. Emilee Yawn, a co-owner of the shop, heard from naysayers who said North Adams was a tourist destination and, since there were no tourists during the pandemic, no one would come in.

However, “from the moment we opened, we’ve been bustling,” she said. “I had been growing plants in my one-bedroom apartment, and in no time, we had sold 120 plants. We had to quickly find a wholesaler and become a real business.”

Yawn and co-owner Bonnie Marks met at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where Yawn was office manager and Marks was a bookkeeper. When Yawn was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, the idea of a store to promote their mutual passion for plants became more real.

Recently celebrating the first anniversary of the Plant Connector, Yawn noted that, since the opening, more than 6,700 people have walked through the door, and they’ve been averaging around 800 people a month — not bad for a 400-square-foot space.

While they have a website and have recently sold plants to customers in New Jersey, nearly 90% of their sales are from local people in the Berkshires.

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

“We feel very supported by the community,” Yawn said. “North Adams is a special place; I’ve never felt connected to so many awesome people.”

As the weather starts getting cooler, business is picking up, and Yawn is looking forward to leaf peepers drawn to the Mohawk Trail and surrounding areas. “We’re excited for them to come peep around our shop,” she added.

Businesses in North Adams are also gearing up for the holiday season and what’s known as Plaid Friday. The North Adams Chamber promotes this annual effort with posters and through social media to businesses throughout the Northern Berkshires.

“We started this initiative to encourage people to spend money in their communities on the day after Thanksgiving instead of going to the big-box stores,” Dery said. “Many retailers will run Plaid Friday all that weekend.”

Similar to most communities, hiring in North Adams, particularly in restaurants, remains a challenge. So far, many restaurants are operating at reduced hours to retain staff and prevent burnout.

“This upcoming winter will be interesting because many people are thinking outside the box on how to best manage this,” Dery said.

 

The Next Phase

Bernard will also have an interesting winter after deciding not to run again for mayor. On the job since 2018, he called his time in office a “privilege of a lifetime, to serve North Adams, the community where I grew up.”

He looks forward to an historic election as voters will choose the first woman mayor in the city’s history. The two candidates who emerged from the runoff election, Jennifer Macksey and Lynette Bond, will face each other in the mayor’s race in November.

Bernard said he is still exploring the next move in his career. “I’m asked so often about my future plans, I feel like a senior in college,” he said with a laugh.

As she reflected on the success of the Plant Connector, Yawn admitted she thought the store would flop and she would have to sell plants on eBay and Etsy to survive. Shortly after opening, however, she saw they had something special there.

“I always say this about North Adams,” Yawn said. “This city chooses its people, and people don’t choose it. That’s why there’s a high concentration of awesome people here.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, but staffing remains a problem for businesses.

As Northampton works through the various stages of the pandemic, one term best describes any discussion about looking ahead.

“I’ve used the phrase ‘cautiously optimistic’ hundreds of times in the last several weeks, never mind the last year and a half,” said Amy Cahillane, executive director of Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) — cautious because the city reimposed mask mandates before many other communities did, and optimistic because, despite all the challenges, Northampton can point to many successes.

Janet Egelston, owner of Northampton Brewery, said the last 18 months have been an ongoing process of pivoting, adapting, and learning, adding that “we call what we’re going through ‘pandemic university.’”

Northampton enjoys a long tradition as a dining destination. With more than 100 places to eat in the city, restaurants are a key sector to Northampton’s economy. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said economic studies have shown that, when restaurants are thriving, other business sectors do, too.

“Every job a restaurant creates results in another job in the community,” he explained. “Think about a typical date night — go out for dinner, go see a show, and then maybe a drink at the end of the evening.”

That’s why the pandemic, and the business restrictions that have accompanied it, have been so disruptive to the city’s economy. And the disruptions have come in waves; earlier this spring, when vaccines became widely available and COVID-19 infection numbers began to decrease, Northampton, like many communities, was able to relax masking requirements. Once vaccination levels began to plateau and the Delta variant of the virus kicked in, infections began to trend back up.

And when the city’s Health Department found several breakthrough cases that forced a couple restaurants to close for testing and quarantine, Mayor David Narkewicz made the decision to bring back indoor mask mandates.

“We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors.”

“It’s never easy to be out front and be the first, but since we brought back masking, the communities around us have followed suit,” he said, adding that the city’s priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. “We need businesses open for customers. Otherwise, the engine that drives Northampton isn’t going to run.”

The return to wearing masks was an easy change for Egelston’s staff at Northampton Brewery.

“In the restaurant business, we often make quick adjustments,” she said. “We also have a box of masks at our entrance for customers who arrive without one.”

In 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic closed all kinds of businesses for several months, Egelston delayed her reopening until Aug. 10, the 33rd anniversary of the brewery. Even though outdoor dining has always been a part of the restaurant, with two levels of rooftop decks, she still had to retrofit the space for the times.

“We installed plexiglass barriers and socially distanced our tables outside as if we were inside. We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors,” she said, adding that all employees are vaccinated. “It’s our policy.”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic” despite 18 months of pivoting and persistent staffing challenges.

Since reopening last August, the brewery has operated at a lower capacity, not due to mandates, but because of trouble finding enough staff.

“The core staff who work here are great,” Egelston said, adding that, while there is always some amount of turnover, she hasn’t received many applications in the last several months. “That’s starting to improve, but we’re not yet ready to go to full capacity.”

 

Workforce Crunch

While the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, Cahillane said, staffing remains a challenge for most businesses.

“When everyone is hiring, it perpetuates the issue further because employers are all looking for the same people,” she noted. “They are also filling positions at every conceivable level, from dishwasher to front of house to store manager.”

Despite the staffing challenges, Jackson said most businesses in Northampton had a great summer. In talking with business owners in the restaurant, retail, and construction sectors, he said many reported success at pre-pandemic levels.

“A caterer I spoke with has 200 events booked through the end of the year,” he said. “One restaurant owner said her numbers are better than they’ve been in a long time.”

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.37
Commercial tax rate: $17.37
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

‘Summer on Strong’ was a successful effort to close an entire section of Strong Avenue to traffic and turn it into an outdoor dining pavilion shared by a few different eateries. Narkewicz credited local restaurants for suggesting and leading the effort. When ideas like this were proposed, the mayor said the city would “move mountains” to streamline the permitting process to make them happen.

“Northampton is a regional magnet for people who want to come here for entertainment, arts, dining, and the vibe of a walkable city where people like to hang out,” he noted.

The city lost businesses during the pandemic, including Silverscape Designs, which closed at the end of 2020. Despite the optics of that vacancy in the middle of downtown, Cahillane said a mix of new businesses have been opening at an encouraging pace.

“Between Northampton and Florence, we had roughly 18 businesses that left,” she noted. “And nearly 17 new places opened.”

The return of students to Smith College and campuses in the surrounding towns marked a sign of life before the pandemic. Cahillane said the students brought a needed emotional lift. “There has been a noticeable lightening and brightening downtown since the students have come back. Their return is what Northampton usually feels like in the fall.”

The return of events this summer has also provided a boost to Northampton. Cahillane said it’s satisfying to look at a calendar and see events scheduled once again. “The Arts Council held several concerts this summer, we recently started Arts Night Out, and the Jazz Festival is coming back the first weekend in October.”

Jackson is “cautiously optimistic” that momentum from the summer will continue into fall leaf-peeping season. In this area, Indigenous Peoples Weekend marks prime time for leaf peepers.

“One hotelier told me if you don’t book early for that weekend, you won’t find a place to stay,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful activities in November and December will also bring people to the city and surrounding towns.

This fall will be different for Narkewicz, as he will not seek re-election as Northampton’s mayor. Looking back on his 10 years in office, he discussed several areas in which he’s proud of his administration’s achievements, such as improving the fiscal health of the city and being one of the first communities to stand up for the important role immigration plays in the U.S.

“We stand up for equality for all our residents,” he said. “We’ve received high marks for our commitment to LGBTQ folks and have been doing more work around racial equality.”

For the next few months, he hopes to develop a blueprint for the next mayor. “My goal is to provide a map of the immediate needs and available resources, so the next administration can work with stakeholders in the community to make sure we see a strong, equitable recovery to COVID.”

 

Keep Moving Forward

Among many in Northampton, the consensus is to keep moving forward, but also stay safe.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I am eternally optimistic,” Egelston said. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to be in the restaurant business for so many years.”

Jackson said having events return to the city, sometimes in different forms, went a long way to giving people reasons to come to Northampton. “I won’t say this is a new normal, but it feels right for this moment.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities, but needs commercial and industrial development as well.

When they talk about managing their town into the future, officials in Southwick emphasize the word “balance.”

In order for the town to remain a desirable place to live, said Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer, there needs to be a combination of housing and recreation areas as well as commercial and industrial development.

“We like to point out that Southwick is a recreational community,” he noted. “We also want to make sure our zoning allows for commercial and industrial developments because the taxes they contribute will keep our town an affordable place to live.”

Russell Fox, vice chair of the Southwick Select Board, reinforced the recreational community description by pointing to the Congamond Lakes, which make up nearly 500 acres of recreational space in town. “Also, the Southwick Rail Trail has become a gem in our community, running 6.5 miles through town.”

Another big recreation activity happens at the Wick 338, the popular motocross track that hosted a national event in July and drew more than 30,000 people to Southwick.

In recent years, living at the lakes has become more desirable, and, as a result, prices for houses and lots are skyrocketing. As lake property increases in value, it also drives up the tax bill for residents there.

“I’m concerned about the retirees who have lived on the lake for years who may now have trouble staying in their homes because of the tax increases,” Fox said. “If we can attract more business to Southwick, we can help offset that tax burden.”

One company, Carvana, proposed to build a 200,000-square-foot facility off Route 10 and 202 in Southwick. Carvana is a website that allows consumers to buy used cars completely online and have them delivered to their home. The $100 million facility would have stored, repaired, and cleaned cars for delivery across the Northeast. Carvana projected the Southwick site would have employed 400 people and paid $900,000 each year in property taxes to the town.

The project was initially approved by the town’s Planning Board and Select Board, but hit a snag when a local group called Save Southwick strongly opposed the facility. In a series of public meetings, the group cited concerns about safety, traffic, and burdens on the town’s infrastructure. As the project became more controversial, Carvana withdrew its proposal this summer.

To kill the project that late in the process was frustrating for some, but Fox looks at the Carvana situation as a learning experience for everyone involved.

“It became clear from a vocal group that if a project is too big, they won’t support it,” Fox said. “Even those opposed to Carvana learned how government works, so if that encourages more civic engagement, then we’re all for it.”

Stinehart said the town is currently developing a new master plan that includes a process to allow earlier citizen input on zoning decisions to avoid episodes like Carvana in the future.

“The idea is to have these discussions sooner rather than later when we are considering a project,” he explained. “This also gives citizens an opportunity to learn more about the laws and the process of getting things done.”

 

Responding to a Crisis

When the pandemic struck last year, Southwick was still able to keep the town’s services running.

“All our departments in town continued to provide services and got us through the height of the pandemic by being flexible and adaptive,” Stinehart said.

The Town Hall building where many municipal functions are located remained open for most of the pandemic. Like towns everywhere, Southwick relied on remote online platforms like Zoom for meetings when necessary.

In March 2020, Southwick was one of the first communities to hold a town meeting outside. Because Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, Fox explained, a town meeting was held in the Southwick High School parking lot.

The west side of the Greens of Southwick

The west side of the Greens of Southwick is almost full, while homes on the east side have yet to be constructed.

“It was a special meeting with one agenda item, the decision to treat the lakes with alum,” he noted. Alum — or aluminum sulfate — is commonly used to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. “The timing was important because we had to treat the lakes by the first week of April, otherwise the alum would not be effective.”

In 2020, Stinehart noted, it was especially important to make the lakes usable. “People couldn’t wait to get outside and do something recreational, so we made sure the lakes were ready for the summer.”

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.59
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

People also spent more time in their yards, which benefited Southwick farmers. Fox said area farms sold more plants for flower beds than ever before in 2020. “Most plants sold out early because people were stuck at home and wanted to get outside to do things in their yard.”

The pandemic also delayed the full celebration of Southwick’s 250th anniversary from happening in 2020. After a kickoff event on New Year’s Eve in 2019 that brought out hundreds of residents and featured fireworks, an outdoor event in February 2020 followed, featuring ice sculptures. Then the pandemic kicked in and put further events on hold.

On Nov. 7, the actual 250th anniversary of the town’s founding, officials in Southwick arranged a call with officials in Southwick, England. That was followed by a parade that traveled through all the neighborhoods in town.

“It was a rolling parade that was well-received because people could go out their door or to the end of their street to see it,” Stinehart said. “The people in town really appreciated it.”

The 250th celebration still has one event remaining, a full parade for people to attend on Oct. 16 with fireworks later that evening at Whalley Park. Fox called the October events a “belated birthday celebration.”

Both Stinehart and Fox have been impressed with the interest in the anniversary, as more than 50 residents joined the organizing committee for the 250th celebration.

“We had a good mix of people on the committee, some who had just moved to town and others who have lived here their entire lives,” Fox said.

Stinehart quickly added, “no other committee in town has that kind of turnout.”

As the town gradually makes its way out of the pandemic, Stinehart mentioned a regional grant program undertaken with the town of Agawam to provide microlending for small businesses.

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020 to improve water quality for people clamoring to enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.

“We are encouraging small businesses that need help to apply for these grants,” he said, adding that Agawam is the lead community on the grant.

Looking forward, Stinehart hopes to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address water and sewer projects in Southwick. Fox spoke in particular about a water-pressure situation town leaders are hoping to address with the ARPA funds. He said projects like this sound like mundane details but can have real and lasting impacts on the town.

“If we address the water-pressure problem, it improves our fire-protection ability and ultimately affects homeowners’ insurance rates for residents,” Fox added.

 

Places to Call Home

The town has more new homes in the works, most notably the Greens of Southwick, where new, homes are being custom-built on each side of College Highway on the property of the former Southwick Country Club. The west side of the Greens development is nearly full, while construction on the east side has not yet begun.

Stinehart said he would like to leverage ARPA funding to increase broadband infrastructure in Southwick. In a separate effort, the town has met with Westfield Gas + Electric’s Whip City Fiber division to explore the feasibility of fiber-optic internet service for Southwick.

To address future energy savings for the town, Southwick has applied for a Massachusetts Green Community designation which would make it eligible for grant funding on a number of energy-efficient projects.

The tax rate for Southwick is scheduled to be released in the fall, and Stinehart said the goal is for a single uniform rate that will be competitive with other communities “because that’s good for business.”

Despite the issues around Carvana, Fox added, Southwick has welcomed plenty of new businesses and has seen expansion for some already there.

“By letting everyone know Southwick is open for business, we can keep this beautiful place where people want to live,” he said. “It’s all about that balance.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Bob Boilard says infrastructure improvements, including a broadband plan for the town, have moved forward during the pandemic.

Bob Boilard says infrastructure improvements, including a broadband plan for the town, have moved forward during the pandemic.

 

Robert Boilard credits people in town working together as the reason Wilbraham has come through the pandemic so far with minimal impact on the community.

“We incorporated our protocols early and have been very fortunate that most people have remained safe from COVID,” said Boilard, who chairs the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen.

Officials from the Police and Fire departments, as well as the town’s public-health nurse, provide weekly updates to the selectmen of the number of positive cases, illnesses, and hospitalizations so they can continue to closely monitor the community’s health.

Boilard pointed to a new DPW garage and a storage facility for the Parks and Recreation department as two projects the town was able to complete during the pandemic. As a community that has received funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the board is hoping to use the money on water-infrastructure projects and expanding broadband internet.

“We have a master plan to install broadband throughout Wilbraham,” Boilard said. “This is a project that will be ongoing for the next few years.”

Another big project on the horizon involves a new senior center. On Oct. 18, Wilbraham will hold a special town meeting to discuss building the facility behind Town Hall. Paula Dubord, the town’s director of Elder Affairs, said she and others have led a 10-year effort for a senior center that can better accommodate the community’s growing senior population.

“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet,” Dubord said. “With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”

The drive for a new senior center began in 2012 with a study committee, which concluded the existing senior center did not meet the town’s needs, even at that time. Next, a feasibility committee was formed and brought in an architect to do a deep dive on what made sense for a new facility. After seven years and consideration of nearly 40 different sites in Wilbraham, the feasibility study recommended building a new structure on municipally owned land behind Town Hall. October’s town meeting will give residents a chance to vote on that recommendation.

“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet. With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”

There were some in town who pushed for locating the new senior center in an available former school. Dubord said the senior center has been located in old schools twice before, and it’s an approach that just doesn’t work.

“The experts who took part in the feasibility study told us a new building was a more practical way to meet the current and future needs for Wilbraham residents,” he said.

 

Booming Population

When the study committee began its work in 2012, members looked at the potential growth in the over-60 population in Wilbraham.

“We projected that, by 2025, nearly 40% of our town — with a population of nearly 15,000 — will be considered a senior,” Dubord said. “We are very close to that projection right now.”

As Wilbraham residents age, she added, many of them say they prefer to stay in their own home or move to one of the 55+ communities in town.

In its current location, more than 100 residents visit the senior center every day. Dubord emphasized that the real goal of the center is to keep people socially connected. Last March, when the pandemic forced the center to shut down, she and her staff quickly found new ways to stay connected with local seniors.

“We immediately started grocery shopping for people and picking up essential items like masks and toilet paper — both of which were hard to get in the beginning — as well as their prescription medicines,” she said.

The staff at the center put their full focus on meeting the needs of Wilbraham seniors, she added. “Because everyone was isolated, we did lots of phone check-ins with people to keep them engaged.”

In the spring, when vaccines first became available for people 65 and older, Dubord and her staff helped seniors sign up online to receive their shots when the state made them available at the nearby Eastfield Mall in Springfield.

“The registration process was not easy for seniors to complete, so we became like vaccination headquarters,” she said. “Because we had done a number of them, our staff was able to quickly get people registered for their shot.”

Dubord estimates they helped nearly 400 residents sign up for the initial vaccine offering. Later, the senior center hosted its own vaccine clinic run by staff from the Public Health and Fire departments.

Grace Barone says Wilbraham businesses are looking forward

Grace Barone says Wilbraham businesses are looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.

“Through all those efforts, we are confident that everyone who wanted to get a shot was able to get one,” she said.

Like many senior centers in the area, Wilbraham also offed a grab-and-go lunch program when it could not open the center for meals. “The real plus to the grab-and-go was it introduced us to people we’ve never seen before at the senior center,” Dubord said.

Happy to open the doors at the senior center almost three months ago, she said having someplace to go gives people a purpose and plays a key role in our health as we age.

“Many of our seniors live alone, so the center is important because it gives them access to vital community services and for the social connections they make,” she noted. Indeed, according to a Harvard Health study, the negative health risks of social isolation are comparable to smoking and obesity, increasing mortality risk by up to 30%.

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.96
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.96
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

While a new senior center can address the needs of Wilbraham’s growing elder population, Dubord said the plan is for the new building to also house services for veterans in town.

“There are benefits for the new center beyond seniors,” she explained. “The larger space can be used by Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as women’s groups or other organizations in town.”

 

Moving Forward

Gradual easing of COVID-19 mandates is also good news for Wilbraham businesses. Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, noted that, like everyone else, Wilbraham businesses are looking forward to something resembling business as usual once again.

She pointed to a recent annual meeting of the chamber which more than 130 members attended in person while others joined remotely as an example of gradually getting back to attending events while still staying safe.

“The chamber’s golf tournament at the end of September is another way to get back to networking and taking advantage of the outdoors while we can,” she added.

New to her role at the chamber, Barone has been in the job since late June after working with the Keystone Commons retirement community in Ludlow for the last five years.

“I’m hoping to take what we’ve learned from the past 18 months to help our businesses succeed going forward,” she said. “It’s going to take some time, but we can get there together.”

Boilard shares Barone’s optimism about the future.

“It’s awesome to see how well everyone works together,” he said. “From boards to community groups, they are all focused on making Wilbraham a better place to live.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington has seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic.

 

On a summer Friday night in Great Barrington, Mark Pruhenski simply enjoyed the sight of dozens of diners eating outside and the sound of musicians playing from various spots around downtown.

Town manager since 2019, Pruhenski said Great Barrington is fortunate to have weathered the pandemic well. He gave much of the credit to a task force formed early on that included town staff and a strong network of partners, including Fairview Hospital, local food banks, and others who lent support.

With its location in the Berkshires, Great Barrington has long been a popular spot for second homes. During the pandemic, many people relocated to their second homes to get away from populated metro areas and work remotely. As time went on, many decided to make Great Barrington their permanent home.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area,” Pruhenski said. “Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, noted that, even at the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and cultural venues were closed, people were still looking for a place to rent or buy. She believes the consistently low COVID-19 infection rates were a strong part of the town’s appeal.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area. Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

“People from larger metro areas came to Great Barrington in droves,” Andrus said. “You could not keep a house on the market, with some sales happening in only a few hours. Others took a virtual tour and bought sight unseen.”

While admitting it’s difficult to find positives from a worldwide pandemic, Andrus said one benefit was forcing businesses in town to change the way they had been operating.

“I think we were kind of stagnant before,” she said. “Then, suddenly, our businesses had to put a lot of energy into how they could reinvent themselves.”

In addition to sit-down restaurants figuring out how to become takeout places, Andrus pointed to Robin’s Candy Shop, which could no longer allow customers to serve themselves in the shop.

“They moved the store around overnight, so now the staff gets you everything you want,” she said. “Then Robin’s quickly switched over to online sales, which is no small feat, either.”

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street.

While Great Barrington saw some stores permanently shutter their businesses during the pandemic, Andrus said COVID was not usually the main reason for closing. In some cases, the businesses that did not survive the pandemic were struggling before COVID hit. For others, the pandemic provided the opportunity for owners to change professions or retire.

“We had a huge movement of stores that was similar to musical chairs,” she said. “When a business would close and make their space available, multiple people were trying to sign up for it.”

 

Filling the Gaps

Like musical chairs, there are no empty spaces now in downtown Great Barrington. As a lifelong resident, Andrus said she’s never seen so much activity.

“In some ways, this big shift is the best thing that could have happened,” she noted. “The stores have all settled in to the right locations for what they are selling, and it has really changed the atmosphere in town.”

With retail storefronts full, the second- and third-story office spaces are also reaching full occupancy. Pruhenski hopes the current boom can address a long-term concern in town.

“We’ve always anticipated that Great Barrington would see a population decline over the next decade and beyond,” he said. “It would be great to see the influx of new residents flatten or even reverse that decline.”

While many town halls closed during the pandemic and conducted business remotely, Pruhenski said Great Barrington Town Hall closed only twice, for a month each time. Otherwise, he and his staff came in every day to keep several town projects moving forward.

In 2019, the state Department of Transportation had closed the Division Street bridge. Right now, the project is in the permitting and design phase for a new bridge, which is scheduled to open next summer.

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it.”

“Division Street is an important bridge because it links the east side of town to the west,” Pruhenski said. “It’s a shortcut everyone in town likes to use.”

In the northern part of Great Barrington, a private water company serves the village of Housatonic that has been struggling with insufficient water pressure. While Great Barrington doesn’t regulate or own the system, the town is involved to make sure residents there receive clean water and to make sure there is plenty of pressure for firefighters when they need it. Pruhenski said he and the Select Board are looking at several options, including a merger with the town’s water system.

“We were working on this during the pandemic because it has an impact on so many residents,” he noted.

After a transportation service for seniors abruptly closed, town officials took the lead to quickly revive the regional van service that now provides transportation to elderly and disabled residents in Great Barrington and five neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2020, the town launched a project to paint the downtown crosswalks as a way to recognize diversity in town. Pruhenski said the reaction by residents was more encouraging than he could have expected.

“We just did our little project, and the timing happened to be perfect that the rainbow was being used as a symbol of hope at the height of the pandemic,” he recalled. “After we painted our first crosswalks, people were encouraged to come outside to see them and take pictures with them. It’s been a fun project that’s made everyone happy.”

For 2021, the town added more rainbow crosswalks, and now the entire downtown corridor has replaced its white crosswalks with rainbows.

“People from other communities are calling us because they want rainbow crosswalks in their town,” Pruhenski said. “They are asking us how we did it and where we bought the paint. This project has been so rewarding during such a challenging time.”

For several years, Great Barrington has been pursuing projects to encourage environmental sustainability. One big step was to ban plastic water bottles in town. In return, the town has built three public water stations to make up for the bottle ban.

Another sustainability effort involves the Housatonic Community Center, a popular gym built shortly after World War II. Pruhenski said the center is used a great deal in the winter, so the town has bulked up on insulation and added LED lighting. He hopes to see big savings in energy use and operating costs for the facility.

Great Barrington also has the distinction of hosting the first retail cannabis store in Berkshire County. Theory Wellness opened January 2019 and is now one of four cannabis establishments in town. Pruhenski said sales at all four stores have been strong, and they have returned some welcome revenue to the town.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.99
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“For fiscal year 2022, we were able to use $3.5 million in cannabis revenue to offset taxes,” he noted. “Capital budget items, like new police cruisers that we normally have to borrow for, were paid for in cash thanks to the cannabis revenues.”

The town also collects 3% from cannabis stores to mitigate the negative effects of cannabis on the community. After awarding $185,000 in fiscal 2021, Pruhenski said the town will be awarding $350,000 in fiscal 2022 to five social agencies in the form of community-impact grants.

Andrus agreed that cannabis has had an overall positive impact on Great Barrington.

“Despite all the traffic cannabis brings to town, I’m surprised at how unintrusive it has been,” she said. “For people with health issues, cannabis allows them to live with much less pain.”

 

Hit the Road

When Massachusetts launched the Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program in June 2020, it was immediately popular across the state. Pruhenski called the program a “silver lining” resulting from the dark cloud of COVID. Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street to support several restaurants located there. Every Friday and Saturday night in the summer, two-thirds of the street is dedicated to outdoor dining. Pruhenski enjoys seeing Railroad Street turn into a café each weekend.

“When we started this in 2020, vaccines were not yet available, and the only way to dine out was to eat outside,” he said. “Restaurants nearby also use their outdoor space, so it creates a lively downtown experience.”

Andrus said outdoor dining on Railroad Street was a huge effort that was well worth it. “It works great, and people love it. The restaurants want to see this keep going, so they are all taking part.” The town also participates in an effort called Berkshire Busk, in which a dozen entertainers perform at different spots around downtown Great Barrington during the outdoor dining season.

Andrus said the town’s response the to pandemic reminds her of the expression, “don’t waste a good crisis.”

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it,” she added. “Because we were all kind of stagnant before the pandemic, it made us try something different.”

Pruhenski would be the first to say that Great Barrington is moving in a positive direction as more people move in, and many are locating their businesses here, too.

“School enrollments are increasing, and Main Street is busier than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time for the town.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle says she is concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, and is thus stressing the importance of public health.

 

While grateful that Easthampton is reaching the other side of COVID-19, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle understands there is still plenty of work ahead.

Even though her city came through the pandemic in better shape than many communities, she has prioritized building up the Public Health department to help the city move forward.

“We’re looking at public health as a part of public safety,” LaChapelle said. To that end, the mayor hopes to add more clinical staff to the department as well as encourage other city departments to collaborate with Public Health.

“I’m concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, from people who had COVID and survived to the mental-health aspects of it on so many people,” she went on. “In Easthampton, we need to support those with medical needs as well as mental-health needs.”

There may be some help on the way. Recently, the Center for Human Development (CHD) purchased the former Manchester Hardware store on Union Street. While CHD currently has a small presence in Easthampton, moving to the nearly 18,000-square-foot building will allow it to expand its services.

Right now, plans include outpatient mental-health counseling services for all ages and primary medical care at the site. LaChapelle said CHD could go a long way to filling the gaps in behavioral-health services in the city.

“CHD has been a good partner, and they are listening to the needs of our community members,” she said. “I feel good about what they will bring to Easthampton.”

After 125 years in business, Manchester Hardware closed its doors late last year. Owner Carol Perman had tried to sell the business to a regional hardware chain, but when that and several other possible suitors didn’t pan out, she decided to retire and just sell the building.

Some in Easthampton were critical of LaChapelle for not trying harder to locate a for-profit business at the Manchester property. Yet, “Easthampton has historically had community-based services downtown. This is not a new placement of services,” she said, noting that Manchester Hardware’s location on a public bus route helps it fit in with City Hall, the Council on Aging, and Veterans’ Services, which are all located downtown.

“As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

While there have been calls to model Northampton by pursuing a robust Main Street business district, LaChapelle said she would be negligent as mayor to try to imitate other communities and ignore her own city’s strengths. “Having centrally located services for our residents is a real strength of Easthampton, and we need to pursue those things we do well.”

The mayor’s emphasis on public health is about bringing the entire community back, she noted, especially businesses in Easthampton. “As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

 

Back on Track

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce has also worked closely with businesses to get them back on track.

“Even as COVID nears its end, business owners are trying to get their sea legs back,” said Moe Belliveau, the chamber’s executive director.

For the past 15 months, the chamber has shifted its role to become a central information resource in helping local businesses identify and apply for financial assistance during COVID.

“We sifted through all the extraneous information that comes with forms that apply to many situations,” Belliveau said. “Our members knew they could rely on us to get the right information and avoid the firehose effect of too many forms.”

In addition to securing federal grants, the chamber partnered with the city on a state economic-development project that enabled 31 businesses in Easthampton to each receive $1,500 grants.

Belliveau is currently working with the city planner on a COVID-recovery strategic plan. “There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary,” she said. “The chamber’s mission in this becomes to remain agile so we can provide help where needed and respond to opportunities when we see them.”

Like many communities, Easthampton businesses are having trouble filling open jobs. LaChapelle hopes to address this by possibly using state and federal money to subsidize local businesses so they can pay higher wages to get people back to work.

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket, is one of many intriguing developments in Easthampton.

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket with an emphasis on local and organically grown foods, is bringing lots of excitement to Easthampton. With its grand opening in July, River Valley will offer a 22,000-square-foot market to Easthampton employing 83 unionized workers with hopes of growing that number. By installing solar canopies in the parking lot and solar collectors on the roof, it produces enough power to offset the energy required to run the market, making it a net-zero building.

LaChapelle said River Valley is already inspiring the city to pursue its own energy-saving projects. “We’ll be putting solar canopies in the parking lot and on the roof of City Hall, as well as behind the Public Safety department. It won’t bring us to net zero, but it’s a good start.”

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Mountain View School, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, is nearing completion and expects to welcome middle-schoolers in January 2022, after the holiday break. LaChapelle said the plan is to move some of the younger grades into the new school next spring, and by fall 2022, all grades will be attending Mountain View.

“A couple years ago, we discussed the fear of moving young children during the school year and how disorienting that might be,” the mayor noted. “Since COVID and all the adjustments students have had to make, we no longer see that as an issue.”

Once all the students move to the new school, Easthampton will try to sell the Maple, Center, and Pepin school buildings, all of which are more than 100 years old. LaChapelle hopes to see those buildings developed into affordable housing, and the city is marketing all three schools as one project to make it more attractive to developers.

“There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary.”

“If we converted just one of these schools for affordable housing, it would be tough because it may result in only 12 units,” LaChapelle said, adding that several developers are considering the three schools as one package, and she remains optimistic that a deal might soon be in the works.

At one time, Easthampton was known for its mills. Long after they were shut down and no longer viable, the mill buildings are now a way to address economic development and to make more housing available. One Ferry Street is a project that is renovating old mill buildings into mixed-use properties featuring condominium and rental housing, as well as office space. One building, 3 Ferry, is already open, and several businesses are currently leasing space there. The next two buildings slated for renovation sit behind it and present a sort of before-and-after contrast to illustrate the potential at the site. Once complete, those two buildings, both much larger than 3 Ferry, will add more than 100 new housing units to Easthampton.

While many businesses either slowed down or shut down during the pandemic, the four cannabis dispensaries located in Easthampton continued to generate income for the city. LaChapelle is hoping to use some of that revenue for a clean-buildings initiative. With several buildings in need of new HVAC systems and some state money available, she sees this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that will benefit the city well into the future.

“It’s a big step, and, where appropriate, we could offset some of the one-time expenses with our cannabis revenues,” she added.

 

Change Agents

Belliveau said one of the strengths of Easthampton is an eclectic entrepreneurial base. Last year, the National League of Cities selected Easthampton as part of its City Innovation Ecosystem program designed to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. The city’s effort, titled Blueprint Easthampton, currently features an online resource navigator to connect entrepreneurs with everyone from suppliers to counselors to help advance their enterprises.

The Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals are also working with Blueprint Easthampton, which puts a focus on informal entrepreneurs who might not qualify for traditional grants, LaChapelle said, adding that she’s most excited about the coaching aspect of the program.

“[JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon has executive coaches — why not someone who’s making a product for sale on Etsy?” she said. Through coaching, entrepreneurs can learn how to take advantage of the many resources that are available.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people, including single parents and people of color, who are all trying to figure out how to grow,” the mayor said. “We’re giving them technical support, executive coaching, and, at the end of the program, a gift of capital to help them get ready for the next step in their venture. We just ask they register as a business in Easthampton.”

Through all its challenges, LaChapelle remains optimistic about Easthampton because she feels there is a real dialogue between the city and its residents.

“In Easthampton, you can get involved in your government and make a difference,” she said, crediting, as an example, efforts by volunteer groups who worked with the city to create open public spaces.

“Easthampton has really embraced change and the ability to evolve and grow,” Belliveau added. “In general, I’ve found people are excited about the positivity and potential that comes with change, even when it’s scary.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

For Donald Humason, the phones ringing at Westfield City Hall is a sure sign the pandemic is nearing its end.

While recognizing that some people suffered devastating personal and economic loss, Humason remains grateful that, on the whole, Westfield came through the last 14 months better than expected. He credits the team at City Hall for working tirelessly with state officials to secure grants for Westfield agencies and businesses.

“At our weekly department meetings, I would always ask if we were prepared for the eventual end of the pandemic, so we would be ready when the phones start ringing again,” the mayor said. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, I feel we are ready.”

Because construction crews continued working through the pandemic, Westfield saw progress on several infrastructure projects. In April, the main structure was installed for the Greenway Rail Trail bridge that crosses Main Street. As the trail continues through Westfield, it will be an elevated path with exit ramps that drop down to local neighborhoods and businesses. Humason expects the final phase of the trail to be complete this fall.

“This last section of the trail is taking longer because there are several overpass bridges which are more complicated to build than the pathway itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport recently broke ground for a $4.7 million taxiway project that will benefit both military and civilian air traffic. Another improvement at Barnes involves a private company looking to build three new aircraft hangars, Humason noted.

“These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Massachusetts state and federal legislators are currently on a campaign to bring the next generation F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes.

Humason said he appreciates having a fleet of F-15 fighter jets based at Barnes, but it’s worth pursuing the newer jets, too. “We are competing with several states in the Northeast to get the F-35s. We’ve modernized the base, and we’re ready to accommodate them if we are chosen.”

On the other side of the city, work has begun to replace Cowles Bridge on Route 202 that connects Westfield to Southwick. This state project marks one of the last bridges in Westfield that hasn’t yet been updated. Because the city is situated between several rivers, Humason said, Westfield is like an island in some ways because many entries into town involve crossing a bridge. He predicts Cowles Bridge will be completed in about two years.

“While it’s not a big bridge, it carries every important infrastructure in the city, so that makes it a more complex project because several utilities have to be involved in moving the structures under the bridge,” he explained.

Other projects, such as pump stations and sewer replacements, are also in the works. While these projects are not as high-profile as bridges and bike paths, they are essential, the mayor said. “These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Meanwhile, infrastructure work of a different kind — expansion of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric — continues to build momentum and become an increasingly powerful force in efforts to attract and retain businesses (and residents) in Westfield and several surrounding communities.

Tom Flaherty, general manager of the G&E, told BusinessWest there are now just under 11,000 subscribers in Westfield and 19 surrounding hilltowns, with the goal, one he considers very attainable, of reaching 15,000 within the next three years.

The high-speed internet, as well as low-cost, reliable electric service from the municipal utility, have become strong selling points for the city, said Flaherty, noting that businesses looking to relocate or expand put such services at or near the top of their list of considerations for such initiatives.

“The reliability of our electric and natural-gas infrastructures and the lower cost in comparison with other utilities — we’re more than 40% cheaper — are a huge consideration when people are coming out this way looking for houses,” he explained. “Whip City Fiber is a significant selling point when people are relocating and when businesses are relocating.”

As an example, he cited Myers Infosystems, which recently relocated from Northampton into the site of the former Piccolo’s restaurant on Elm Street, and cited energy costs and high-speed internet as key considerations in that decision.

 

Survive and Thrive

Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the businesses in Westfield were able to stay open last year because they quickly adapted once the pandemic hit. In particular, he pointed to the adjustment restaurants made last June when they were able to offer outdoor dining.

“They figured it out and made outdoor dining another feature they could offer,” Oulette said. “It was successful and allowed them to keep their doors open.”

With only a few chain restaurants in the city, Oulette said local restaurants are able to promote their individual personalities and offer many different experiences. That environment also encourages other types of small businesses to locate in Westfield.

Mayor Donald Humason

Mayor Donald Humason said the city was successful meeting the needs of residents, students, and seniors during the pandemic, and will now put more focus on business needs.

Humason told the story of three new businesses that opened in April on School Street. Hilltown Chic (small gifts, candles, etc.), Be Bella Boutique (clothing), and Boho Hair Studio are all women-owned businesses. The owners got together and decided to hold their grand openings on the same day.

“We went right down the street and cut the ribbon in front of each shop,” Humason said. “It felt like a street carnival, and the businesses all received extra publicity for it.”

Speaking of new businesses, Westfield has granted four licenses for cannabis dispensaries. Only one, Cannabis Connection, is currently open, with the others at various stages of getting ready to open.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket,” Humason said.

As businesses pick up their activity, he added, they will need more workers — and, like everywhere else, Westfield has far more job openings than candidates.

In May, Mestek joined with the chamber and about a dozen other businesses and held a job fair in the field across from Mestek, with each exhibitor setting up a tent to speak with interested job seekers.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket.”

The idea for the job fair started with Peter Letendre, plant manager at Mestek, which manufactures HVAC equipment and performs metal fabrication for other industries. The company had recently acquired its main competitor and was relocating the operation from Long Island to Westfield, bringing 60 to 70 new manufacturing positions along with the move. Traditional recruiting wasn’t working to fill those jobs, so Letendre had to look at other ways to find people.

“I’m on the board at the chamber and began talking with other members about holding a job fair,” he said. “That way, we could all help each other by attracting candidates for our respective companies.”

In addition to Mestek, exhibitors included Six Flags of New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Northwestern Mutual, and several others. A few weeks after the job fair, Letendre reported that Mestek had hired about 15 employees, with another 10 in the process of coming on board.

Many of the positions offered by the job-fair exhibitors offered starting pay that was higher than minimum wage. For instance, Letendre said, the entry-level starting rate at Mestek is $15.50 an hour, and after 90 days, if the employee performs well and demonstrates good attendance, the pay increases to $16. As they acquire more skills, their wage can rapidly increase from there.

From working with sheet metal to assembling HVAC units and warehouse work, Letendre said Mestek offers lots of opportunity for growth. “You can start off in manufacturing, then keep improving your skills and build a solid career here.”

Plans are underway for a second job fair at the end of the summer. While many would-be job seekers are currently receiving supplemental unemployment benefits, that program ends in September, Oulette noted. “Right now, there are lots of companies looking to hire above minimum wage, so my one message to job seekers is, don’t wait until the fall when the unemployment benefits end, because there will be much more competition.”

While he is the new executive director of the chamber, Oulette is no stranger to Westfield. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America Western Massachusetts Council for five years and was president of the Rotary Club of Westfield in 2019 and 2020. He accepted a director of Development position for the Boy Scouts in 2020 that had him spending several days a week in New Hampshire. When the pandemic kept him at home, he wanted to stay in Western Mass. and accepted the chamber position in April.

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette is no stranger to civic life in Westfield, including service with the Boy Scouts and the Rotary.

Oulette is the first to admit he had to “fill some big shoes” following Kate Phelon, who retired in September after 12 years leading the chamber. He appreciates how welcoming everyone has been as he transitions into the new post.

“It’s just like starting any new job where information is coming at you like you’re drinking from a firehose,” he said with a laugh.

 

Back to Business

Flaherty, like Oulette, is optimistic about the city’s prospects for continued residential and commercial growth, noting that it has a number of strong selling points, including location, strong schools and neighborhoods, and, as mentioned earlier, lower-cost energy and an expanding fiber-optic network.

And this expansion may soon take Whip City Fiber well beyond the city’s borders, he said, adding that the utility is in discussions with West Springfield about a pilot program to bring high-speed internet service to areas of that city as it advances plans to build a town-owned internet utility in partnership with Westfield G&E.

“We’re looking at four potential pilot areas that would be installed over the next year while the city goes through the process for the community to become a municipal light plant, or MLP,” he explained, adding that expansion into the neighboring city could eventually bring another 13,000 subscribers to the service.

Meanwhile, there are preliminary talks about taking the service to other communities as well, Flaherty said.

“There’s a good level of trust concerning our product and our capabilities — we have all the infrastructure, we have the billing system, we have the customer in place, we have the utility capabilities, the bucket trucks, and the line personnel,” he noted, adding that the company is well-positioned for continued growth.

As is Westfield itself. Oulette and Humason are grateful the city was not forced to confront big job losses or high numbers of business closings. Despite the pandemic, the mayor noted, Westfield kept moving forward.

“While our schools faced issues of whether they were going to hold classes remotely or in-person, we still continued with education,” he said. “We were still able to serve our senior citizens even though we couldn’t meet at the Council on Aging. We were also able to keep our infrastructure projects moving despite the pandemic.”

Humason added that, because Westfield has taken care of residents, schools, and seniors, he now looks forward to giving more attention to expanding businesses in the city. “I’ve said this since the day I was sworn into office: Westfield is open for business.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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.

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