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Community Spotlight

The Deerfield Inn

The Deerfield Inn was built in 1884 and is still in use.

This year, the town of Deerfield, though incorporated in 1677, will mark its 350th anniversary since the first English settlers called the upper Pioneer Valley their home in 1673. Since the beginning, a lot has changed, but the town has tried to keep some aspects the same.

“It was a farming community,” Town Administrator Kayce Warren said. “If you’re going to Historic Deerfield, you’re going to see a lot of agricultural land. Most of it is preserved; most of it is still used for agricultural purposes. That was an element for many, many years that probably goes back to incorporating the town because of where we are; we had a great ability to grow things.”

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said the town, while maintaining that agricultural focus, has also become a true tourist destination. In fact, tourism contributes about $79 million to Franklin County’s economy, and Deerfield is one of the driving forces behind those numbers.

“We’re seeing just about 27,000 visitors to Yankee Candle each year, and Historic Deerfield has just under 14,000,” Deane told BusinessWest. “These are people that are driving more than 50 miles to reach these destinations. In a lot of cases, these people are staying over at Champney’s and the Deerfield Inn. They’re taking in the sights, and they’re hopefully enjoying all of what Franklin County has to offer.”

 

Celebrating the Old

Historic Deerfield — an open-air destination that boasts a history museum, an art museum, and several historic house museums, as well as the Deerfield Inn and its historic restaurant, Champney’s — certainly reflects those roots. As one of the best-preserved collections of original historic houses in New England, Old Main Street, or simply “the Street,” as Historic Deerfield President John Davis called it, is lined with 40 houses that predate the Civil War.

As a frontier settlement, Deerfield regularly suffered from attack. The village was abandoned during King Philip’s War after the 1675 attack at Bloody Brook and resettled in 1682, only to face several more raids in the 1690s and into the early 1700s.

Today, the 18th- and 19th-century houses of the village center, many on their original sites and filled with antique furnishings, reveal the lifestyles of Deerfielders from the time of the first English settlement to the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. The village has been on the National Register of Historic Landmarks since 1962.

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into,” Davis said.

Over the past year, Historic Deerfield has “really emerged from the pandemic” and is close to being back to where it used to be, recording its second-best month in its existing 75 years this past October, he added.

Because it was already engaged in virtual programming, he explained, the museums were able to hit the ground running faster than some of the larger museums when it came to using Zoom for digital content — and they’re continuing to do so. And when restrictions were lifted, the houses reopened for people to come see the 32,000-piece collection and the 12 homes open to tour.

“Being able to bring all of those back has really encouraged folks to visit us again in person, and there are a number of seasonal educational programs that are also big drivers for us,” Davis said. “One of the most popular of those is our open-hearth cooking program where you can actually see a meal being prepared in the old-fashioned way, over an open fire, and it’s not an experience that you can get in many other places.”

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into.”

John Davis

John Davis

Another program that brings locals and visitors as far as Boston and New York City to ‘the Street’ is the Sheep on the Street program in May, which attracts hundreds of people to look at the historic trades associated with wool. Flocks of heritage-breed sheep walk the streets like they would have in the 18th and 19th centuries, and visitors enjoy sheepdog and shearing demonstrations as well.

Davis said that the town and Historic Deerfield have a close relationship and like to function as “the town’s museum,” with Deerfield residents getting into the sites for free. But he wants to rekindle the museum’s relationships with schools, not only in the surrounding areas, but as far south as Springfield and Holyoke. Schools stopped having field trips because of COVID, and now that they’ve returned, he wants to make welcoming students a bigger priority in 2023.

Historic Deerfield

Historic Deerfield features 12 historic homes that visitors are able to tour.

“Western Massachusetts is a fascinating region, both for its history and its contemporary beauty,” he noted. “And this is one of the most magical places — this mile street that you can turn off of Route 5, and it’s like you’re going into a different century. I think that that is a part of the story of our region here in Western Mass. that is really interesting to folks who may not otherwise think of this as a destination area.”

 

Embracing the New

One of the more recent and frequently visited attractions is Tree House Brewing Company. Originally established in Brimfield, the brewing company now occupies the old Channing Bete headquarters on Route 5 and is celebrating its one-year anniversary in town.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $14.97
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.97
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

The craft-beverage scene in Franklin County was “alive and well” before Tree House Brewing Company joined the long list of local breweries, Deane said, but Tree House certainly helped introduce Deerfield and Franklin County to a larger craft fanbase.

Warren added that the taproom at Tree House Brewing Company is “really fun,” and several of her colleagues meet there to socialize and catch up after work.

“Tree House has really good beer, and they have really good pizza. You can bring your own food in, but once again, it’s nice to have options, so it’s not just Yankee Candle,” said Denise Mason, chair of the town’s Connecting Community Initiative. “We have Tree House, which is an anchor, and we have everything else — we want to connect all of it to give people choices.”

She went on to say that Yankee Candle offers pizza, but if someone wants another food option, they don’t always know what’s available in Deerfield. To create opportunities for diners and restaurant owners alike means making the town more accessible.

Warren added that the piece that really leads to economic development is getting people off the highway into the town center so they can shop, eat, get their hair done, and engage with the many wellness-focused enterprises. “We want to be able to get people back and get people into the center of town.”

Moving forward, Deerfield officials hope to improve the municipal parking lot, known as the Leary Lot, to create a more direct pathway to the main streets in the center of town. Berkshire Brewing Company wants to expand, “and that’s a good place for them to do it because there is parking and accessibility right next to the lot,” Warren noted. “But there’s also this concept of creating small spaces for people to eat, to gather, that are pretty and accessible and inviting.”

Fixing up the Leary Lot helps businesses around the center because it gives them some parking access and resources to other parts of town. With four other restaurants on Elm Street and another restaurant, Wolfie’s, on South Main Street, parking in the center of town is a massive need.

“If there’s no parking, people won’t shop or stop, especially older individuals,” Mason said. “If they don’t have easy parking, they just go somewhere else.”

The goal, of course, is to keep them in Deerfield, a town that has seen plenty of change over the course of 350 years and is looking toward a positive future while celebrating its rich past.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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Bill Sapelli

Bill Sapelli says Agawam has seen consistent growth in his five years as mayor.

The town of Agawam sits on the banks of the Connecticut River, a prime location for its original inhabitants, the Agawam native tribe, and later William Pynchon and other settlers who bought the land in 1636.

Centuries later, the town that sits by the river retains a rural character, at least outside its main business arteries, surrounded by larger cities like Westfield, West Springfield, Chicopee, and Springfield.

Now that the Morgan Bridge construction is finally complete, new businesses and developments are making their way into town to call it home.

“The bridge slowed development because no one was going to try to develop on the land across from it and try to get people to come if they couldn’t get over the bridge. So we’re looking forward to a lot of the development that’s planned,” Agawam Mayor Bill Sapelli said.

Unlike other cities, Agawam doesn’t have many big-box stores or chain establishments. Yes, Wendy’s, McDonalds, Stop & Shop, and Rocky’s Ace Hardware have a presence here — as does one of the country’s top theme parks, Six Flags New England — but the town is mostly made up of small, local businesses and some manufacturing.

Many of the businesses in town have been thriving in Agawam for a long time, surviving through challenges ranging from the Great Recession to COVID, Planning Director Pam Kerr said.

“The bridge slowed development because no one was going to try to develop on the land across from it and try to get people to come if they couldn’t get over the bridge. So we’re looking forward to a lot of the development that’s planned.”

One of those businesses that has thrived and is now expanding is Hood Milk, originally founded in Charlestown in 1846 and later opening its largest plant in Agawam in 1960.

“Hood purchased the old Southworth Paper Company adjacent to them. That’s a big, big building, and they just did a complete renovation of their existing building, a facelift that really looks good,” Sapelli said. “So they’re a very good neighbor to Agawam. They’ve been here for a very long time, and they’re expanding, which is great news.”

He and Robin Wozniak, director of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce, agreed that renovations and redevelopment spur growth in the town’s overall economy, helping Agawam businesses prosper and stay in town.

Another local staple in Agawam is Cooper’s Commons, located on the “most traveled road in town,” Route 159. It is a marketplace with a variety of specialty shops, services, and offices where locals and travelers can eat, drink, shop, work, and more.

Sapelli explained that the Commons are important to Agawam for many reasons, including the ones mentioned above, but most importantly to bring new businesses and residents into town.

“When you talk about Cooper’s Commons and places like that, anytime we have a specific destination for somebody to come, like Cooper’s, especially this time of year, it brings people into town, and it benefits the town in many ways,” he said. “Businesses like that just foster more businesses and more residents by attracting people to come into town to begin with.”

 

Harvest of Success

In the coming year, both Kerr and the mayor said they were excited for the businesses coming into the area.

Even though a few businesses were lost during the pandemic, Sapelli told BusinessWest, small business in the town is growing; for example, two new realty companies set up shop in the past year, along with multiple restaurants.

In October, Autumn Mist Farm and its farm-to-table restaurant opened its doors, replacing the old 911 Burgers and Dogs restaurant. Derrick Turnbull has been raising beef cattle since he was 11 years old on his parents’ farm. With the family business having played a vital role in his life, he’s now teaching it to his daughters.

“All of this shows that Agawam is really taking steps necessary to help the small businesses grow, flourish, prosper, and stay in Agawam.”

Robin Wozniak

Robin Wozniak

On his website, Turnbull says he is “blessed to walk out the door and go to work with all active family members in the business.” And locals feel the same way.

“The Autumn Mist farm-to-table restaurant is on the same street that the farm is on, where the animals are raised. And people really like the idea of that, knowing that they’re getting fresh and local meat,” Kerr said.

Keeping the environment in mind, selling locally reduces the carbon footprint that the beef industry creates, he noted. The farm’s customers are restaurants and college dining facilities interested in serving fresh and local food. The Turnbull family also has a beef contract with Big Y, a chain that has focused on buying local for many years.

Wozniak explained that the mission of the chamber is to help support these small businesses through the challenging times and get their faces out there, working closely with the mayor and municipal leaders.

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,692
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $15.78
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.19
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

“Bringing in businesses into those empty storefronts, those little mini-plazas that do have some empty storefronts, keeping those filled and keeping people coming within Agawam and from outside of Agawam to purchase their goods and services. that’s obviously just going to help Agawam in the long run,” she said. “So ensuring that the businesses stay in business is the chamber’s mission, and also helping the new businesses come in with ease and helping them showcase who they are.”

She explained that bigger, more well-established businesses can roll with the challenges created by the pandemic, the changing economy, and the workforce crunch. But the town’s job is to be “that middleman” to ensure its part of Western Mass. grows with a focus on helping small businesses become bigger ones.

 

Culture of Support

Not only are town officials helping small businesses thrive, businesses are helping each other, like Six Flags aiding the Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

On Dec. 17, the amusement park donated its parking lots and staff to assist with parking almost 4,000 cars for Wreaths Across America, the annual event to remember and honor veterans through the laying of remembrance wreaths on graves and saying the name of every veteran aloud. King Gray Coach Lines also donated its bigger buses to shuttle people to and from the Six Flags lots to the cemetery.

“All of this shows that Agawam is really taking steps necessary to help the small businesses grow, flourish, prosper, and stay in Agawam,” Wozniak said. “The mayor and the council being transparent and helping the businesses get anything they need to enhance their business, and the ease of that, makes it very enticing for new businesses to come to Agawam.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Enfield officials have been running surveys

Town officials have been running surveys to determine how to improve business and quality of life.

Even though the worst of the pandemic is over, businesses are still struggling to get their footing. But now, through Connecticut’s Community Development Block Grant Program, Enfield business owners can take a leap of faith into a new future.

“We’re trying to piece things together, but meanwhile we just try to work with the applicants as best we can,” said Laurie Whitten, director of Development Services for the town just over the Massachusetts border from Longmeadow. “We’ll work with everybody and anybody to make sure that we get the things that the community needs.”

She went on to say the Planning and Zoning board has “actually modified regulations because some of the setbacks were a little onerous.” And in order to bring in more businesses, changes had to be made.

Meanwhile, development is moving forward on numerous projects, from an almost-completed assisted-living and memory-care facility on Hazard Avenue to the transformation of the former Community Health Center facility into a mixed-use space, including TrackStar Nutrition of Springfield and Magic Salon & Barber Shop.

Town officials have been working with businesses owners on initiatives that will make Enfield more inviting.

“We’ll work with everybody and anybody to make sure that we get the things that the community needs.”

“The Town Council approved $450,000 of our ARPA federal funding assistance for a small-business program and a nonprofit grant program in early October,” said Nelson Tereso, director of Economic & Community Development. His department, with the help of the Economic Development Commission — made up of local business owners, community members, and people involved in other commissions who have an understanding of what the community needs — are currently reviewing and scoring the applications.

“I know that a lot of other communities throughout the United States used a lot of the ARPA money to provide recovery assistance, either with utilities or payrolls, things of that nature,” he added. “We are doing something completely outside of the box.”

Meanwhile, through a transit-oriented development initiative, there has been talk to expand and build on the current Thompsonville center, with the goal of making it the town center again.

In short, Enfield is not only looking to weather the post-pandemic era, but thrive and grow.

 

Connecting Points

Tereso explained that Enfield is on the Hartford transit line that connects to Springfield Union Station and New Haven Union Station, with a total of 13 stops between those cities. But Enfield isn’t one of them — yet.

“Enfield is on the Hartford transit line, the last stop in Connecticut heading north. We currently do not have a stop here in Enfield,” he said. “There was once a train station here in Enfield. We are proposing to build a new station through the Connecticut Department of Transportation.”

The town announced a $13.8 million federal grant for the funding of the construction of the station in June, with a ribbon cutting by Gov. Ned Lamont, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney. State Bond Commission grant dollars are also being appropriated for the project. The town is currently working outside the parameters of the site to infill the development around the station.

Asnuntuck’s behavioral-health center.

Michelle Coach (third from left) cuts the ribbon on Asnuntuck’s behavioral-health center.

One of the areas needing the most redevelopment is Enfield Square, where the Target and largely vacant mall sits. The site’s current owner, Namdar Realty Group of New York, and the town are doing what they can to bring in new businesses.

“It’s the home of the former Macy’s, JCPenney, and Sears. Unfortunately, those three businesses are no longer in the Enfield Square mall. The town realizes the importance of trying to redevelop that mall area,” Tereso said. “In order to assist Namdar with potential tenants down the road, we have engaged our Capitol Region Council of Governments to work with the town and are sponsoring an Enfield Square mall area traffic-impact study.”

The purpose of the study is to improve operating conditions and maximize the capacity along the Route 190 (Hazard Avenue) and Route 220 (Elm Street) corridors and assess development scenarios for the underutilized mall and the potential impact on the roadway system — not just on the roadway itself for traffic, but also improving other means of infrastructure, in terms of bike, pedestrian, and transit stops in and around the mall.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 42,141
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $27.89
Commercial Tax Rate: $27.89
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

To those ends, Namdar and town officials have listening to the needs of the community. A market study was also conducted in town to understand what people want to see and do with the underdeveloped or vacant plots of land in the Enfield Square area.

Tereso told BusinessWest there have been a lot of suggestions for entertainment uses, mixed spaces for retail and housing, and even a walkable outlet setting similar to Evergreen Walk in South Windsor. One thing the study made clear is that business owners no longer want to lease their spaces, but prefer to own them.

“Ultimately, the town was able to subdivide the mall parcels from eight or nine to 16 parcels, and they have already implemented the sale of two or three of them,” Tereso said, adding that Namdar is trying to break off some of the parcels and sell them off individually. “They also sold the Target to Target, so they’re trying to break up the mall to not only help with the redevelopment, but also bring in smaller businesses, especially along the Route 190 and 220 corridors.”

 

Town and Gown

Considering the push for new businesses and attendant workforce-training needs, Asnuntuck Community College has been holding training sessions and using its facility to help local businesses, Whitten said.

“Enfield Social Services and other departments will work with Asnuntuck on programs for training on machinery or car repair, or anything like that. They try to work with them to promote the trades,” she explained. “Having a school in town is a great asset, and we try to work with them as best we can. They’re very willing to work with the town to come up with programs for local businesses to train people.”

Asnuntuck CEO Michelle Coach said many local businesses serve in an advisory capacity to the college. For example, through a Business in Industry program, Asnuntuck allows companies to come in and deliver training resources.

“A lot of the time, and more recently, it’s soft skills because people have been online for so long. So they don’t know how to talk to someone and look at them,” Coach said. “They’re afraid and used to the screen. We’re trying to talk about body language and interactions, and that’s something that’s been brought to the forefront a lot.”

After learning remotely during the pandemic, students are hungry for interaction. In the past year, enrollment has increased 7.8%, and students are asking for more opportunities to engage with one another.

Starting in the fall of 2023, through the Pledge to Advance CT (PACT) program, Connecticut residents and high-school graduates can receive a free community-college education if they are registering and attending college for the first time. Funding covers the gap between federal and state grants received and the college’s tuition and mandatory fees. Entry into the program will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Having a school in town is a great asset, and we try to work with them as best we can. They’re very willing to work with the town to come up with programs for local businesses to train people.”

“A high-school graduate can come and get a free education and then transfer to their four-year school if they need to transfer. It’s a great opportunity,” Coach said. “Our average age has gone down to 26 years old because of that program; it was at 27.5 to 28 depending on the semester.”

One program that has also taken off since its start seven years ago is the Second Chance Pell program in local prisons. When COVID hit, visitors were restricted from entering prisons, but within the last semester, Asnuntuck has been able to reach 145 students in that setting.

“We’re looking at expanding next semester,” Coach said. “We have a new project that’s coming with them, and it’s focusing on some manufacturing classes … looking at blueprint readings, looking at some manufacturing math. And then there’s money that’s been dedicated to a project called Vocational Village. That will potentially bring some opportunities into the prisons to do some hands-on work.”

Asnuntuck has been part of Enfield for the past 50 years and is looking forward to celebrating that milestone during the 2023 graduation. Reminiscing on the past, Coach told BusinessWest a story of how the then-president received the memo that the college was moving to its current location on 170 Elm St.

“He said, ‘if you hear me running and shouting down the hallways, it’s because we got the approval.’” And the rest is history — literally. The school is looking forward to the vignettes and memories that will be shared among alumni and faculty emeriti.

“Things like that are what we want to embrace and enjoy with our campus community,” she added. “We’re small; we all know each other. We don’t live in silos. We really have a good, close community here — a close family feel.”

 

Bottom Line

With a population just over 42,000, Enfield might be a large town, but the community is close and tight-knit, Whitten said. And officials are looking forward to a new year of growth and community.

“We just work the best we can with all developments,” she said, “whether it be the small mom-and-pop or the developer of Enfield Square.” u

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at
[email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza

Armata’s rebuilt plaza (rendering).

Armata’s plaza

After being ravaged by a fire, Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza (rendering above).

Longmeadow is a quintessential small town, veined by Route 5 and a few other arteries and lined with historical homes dating back to before the Revolutionary War. But with a much higher percentage of residential properties than businesses, townspeople have long rallied around the town’s small commercial sectors.

“Our economic development is not so much what you would see in some of the larger cities around us, but Longmeadow has held pretty strong, certainly, over the past three or four years now,” said Lyn Simmons, town manager. “We did not have as much of an impact from COVID as some of those other larger communities that have large retail sectors … but this past year has been pretty good. I think a lot of them are trying to get back to whatever this new normal looks like for us.”

Coming out of the pandemic, the small clusters of business in town have kept residents engaged, said Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, adding that the Longmeadow Shops have “done a wonderful job” with their ‘Stroll the Shops’ initiative and creating activities to keep town residents involved.

“It brings business in, they’ve got shops, they’ve got dining there, and then, across the street, you have more shopping. Wonderful things are happening there.”

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go. From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

Residents and folks from out of town can stop at Alex’s Bagel Shop as they get off the I-91 exit onto Longmeadow Street or stop at the Shops for retail therapy and a bite to eat.

The Maple Center shopping plaza, which was ravaged by a fire a little over a year ago, has long been an attraction as well. Students and their families from Bay Path University frequent the stores, adding to the impact of the economic development.

Bay Path, in fact, is closely identified with Longmeadow, drawing faculty, staff, and students into town from the surrounding areas of Northern Conn. and Western Mass. Barone explained that, even though the college has been in business for 150 years, its “bones and integrity” are still very present.

“What you loved about it 30 years ago is still what you love about it; it still has those great bones, and that’s so important because sometimes, as communities or businesses grow, they grow so much that they lose sight of who they are and what their mission is. I feel [Bay Path] managed to hold onto that really well in Longmeadow.”

 

Out with the Old

Despite the tragic loss of Armata’s Market and a few other shops in Maple Center, store owner Alexis Vallides is looking forward to a fresh start.

Armata’s Market was founded in 1963 by the Armata family and purchased by the Vallides family in the early 2000s. Vallides told BusinessWest that she knew running a business was something she always wanted to do.

“It’s in my blood. I’m fourth generation in my family business,” she said, noting that her great-grandfather immigrated from Greece and launched a career in the food industry. “After I graduated from college, I took a bigger role, and there’s just an opportunity to kind of slide in there.”

The small grocery store had expanded over the decade she had run it; it wasn’t just known for its meats anymore, but also deli foods, prepared hot and cold meals, and a from-scratch bakery.

“We were in a pretty good groove at that point, and people had caught on,” Vallides said. “And we had become pretty well-known. Anytime you would pull into our parking lot, you’d see half Connecticut plates and half Massachusetts plates. So I know we had a good following, and I feel like we definitely did impact the town of Longmeadow economically.”

The fire that tore through the plaza the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2021 completely decimated Armata’s, the Bottle Shop, and Iron Chef. A hair and nail salon were also displaced after the tragedy. The fire’s origin is still listed as undetermined, and no report has been released by the state fire marshal’s office. The lead investigator has retired, and the town is still looking for a replacement.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.64
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

“It had a massive impact on those neighborhoods there,” Simmons said. “Those people that just ran out to grab some milk or order dinner and pick it up quickly … we saw a big impact just from people’s day-to-day lives, with the convenience of having those offerings there. And certainly there’s the impact to the people that worked in all of those businesses, especially at that time of year. It was really hard.”

However, through tragedy came resiliency and determination. Vallides and her team continued to provide turkey dinners, deliveries, and from-scratch baked goods that holiday season. The people of Longmeadow rallied around them and are excited for their eventual return.

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go,” she said. “From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

 

In with the New

As the town gears up for 2023, there is plenty of anticipation about when Maple Center will be rebuilt. The town is currently working with the owners of the property on their rebuilding plans and are going through the hearing process soon, hopefully starting construction within the next few months.

Vallides told BusinessWest she has signed an intent to return with the landlord, but not an official lease yet. At the moment, the new floor plan for Armata’s is expected to be 3,000 feet larger than it was previously.

Right now, she is hard at work with her team as they move into Village Food Mart in Hampden. A second location was always a possibility, but the opportunity had to be right before jumping in.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns.”

“The fire isn’t the only reason we went to Hampden. I would like to believe that, if we still had Armata’s standing today, we still would have taken up the opportunity,” she said. “I think Hampden Village Food Mart resonates a lot with me because it is very similar to Armata’s in many ways, so that’s the kind of opportunity that I was looking for — I didn’t want to just take the first opportunity that came to me. It had to be something that was going to align with what we had built for the brand of Armata’s.”

Barone agreed. If it wasn’t for the support of locals and outside shoppers, there wouldn’t be such a push for the small market to come back.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns. It speaks volumes for Armata’s, and it speaks volumes for the people in the town of Longmeadow,” Barone said. “Everybody longs for them to come back. So instead of going to that little corner, we have to go up the street to the Longmeadow Shops, and there’s some great restaurants there. It’s a change in routine. We just have to wait and see what’s to come in the new phase.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The late Gregory Krupczak’s family say he played a significant role at Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

The late Gregory Krupczak’s family say he played a significant role at Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

In many ways, Monson is a sleepy New England town with a small Main Street lined with shops, as well as small and medium-sized businesses located throughout the town, in many different industries.

But years ago, Monson was a big mill town known for its granite quarries. As mill owners sought employees, the population grew. And it’s been a resilient community through decades of change, from the decline of the quarries to a tornado that cut through the center of town 2011, causing almost $12 million in property damage.

So, even though the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out plenty of businesses worldwide, Monson was “more resilient than other places that are more dependent on business,” said Andrew Surprise, CEO of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce.

“They have a captive audience. Monson isn’t really close to a lot of businesses; I think the closest and primary shopping area would be Palmer and maybe Wilbraham, or Springfield on Boston Road. Other than that, if you need something specific … there’s an optical business. So if you need eyeglasses, you’re gonna go to the eyeglass place downtown; it makes sense. If you need to run to the pharmacy, there’s one downtown. The supermarket? Downtown. So the businesses there really serve the members that are there in the community.”

Because of the size of Monson, with just over 8,000 residents, Surprise told BusinessWest that it’s all about making the region as a whole more marketable, modeling a tourism guide off of the Newport, R.I. guide.

It includes maps and “more touristy things … like a lot of businesses and organizations that have joined the chamber, wineries, breweries,” and others that will attract tourists, he explained. And because the surrounding region is made up of smaller towns like Belchertown, Spencer, Palmer, Brimfield, and Ware, Surprise said most people don’t come to the area just for one event.

“If we market as a region, there’s more reason to come to the region because you’re not just going for one thing in one town.”

“What we find is, if we market as a region, there’s more reason to come to the region because you’re not just going for one thing in one town. You’re going, ‘OK, I can go to the Keep Homestead Museum in Monson, but I can also stop at the Brimfield Antique Fair, or I can go over here to this brewery for lunch,” Surprise said.

The thrice-yearly antique fair is an example of one attraction that raises the profile of the entire region, including Monson. “We like to draw them out into the Quaboag region because there are a lot of people that go to those shows. It’s estimated to be about 250,000 people per year.”

With the help of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Monson was given $75,000 in grant funding for a variety of projects, including wayfinding signage for the downtown area to point out points of interest and historical sites, as well as $15,000 for events, which primarily run through the chamber in coordination with the town.

On top of the grants provided by state funding, Surprise is working with groups of businesses as well as chamber members and the town of Monson to revamp and create a Monson Business and Civic Assoc., which is essentially part of the chamber, but focused solely on Monson businesses and their marketing.

He went on to explain that this helps businesses with marketing and to create events that will attract people to their location and the downtown business corridor. The grants also allow businesses to incorporate more outdoor seating, places where people can congregate in the downtown area.

 

Family Fun

State Sen. Ryan Fattman worked closely with the chamber to put funding into the state budget, as well as into the economic-development package that just passed, providing $130,000 for agri-tourism businesses. One of the businesses that has received grant money is Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

“We were planning on building a pavilion with it; it should actually be starting this month. And since we’re seasonal, we don’t have a whole lot of covered outdoor space, so the pavilion will allow us to have more room for people to sit outside so we don’t run out of space,” said Ashley Krupczak, manager of the winery/distillery and the second-oldest of the business’ second generation.

Echo Hill Orchards and Winery was just an apple orchard and fruit farm when the Krupczak family purchased it 25 years ago. Over the years, especially in the past decade, they’ve grown the farm into “more of a destination for families.”

They make wines, spirits, whiskeys, and moonshines out of their apples, as well as a pick-your-own orchard for families with kids of all ages. Visitors can pick pumpkins, pears, sunflowers, and peaches during their respective seasons.

But being part of Monson means working with other vendors throughout the town. During the busy harvest seasons, food-truck vendors from Monson have been invited to the orchards the past couple of years.

“It’s just such a comforting and fun thing to do to be involved with your community and have something to offer the town and have something to offer friends and family to come do at our own place,” Krupczak told BusinessWest. “Having one of the agricultural businesses in Monson means that we are taking a step in sustaining agriculture in a small town. And what means a real lot to us, but other people, too, is protecting the land that the orchards give us.”

Despite their apple crop depleting sooner than they’d hoped this year, the winery/distillery has brought more traffic to the orchards. Krupczak said pleasant weather was a driving factor in how well the business did. “We had great customers this year; a lot of memories were made.”

Echo Hill Orchards and Winery is completely family-owned and managed, she added. “My mom is down in the store, my sister and I work in the bar, and in the offseason, we have to prune all of the apple trees. So there’s a lot of work to be done. That’s also when we make all of our wine and our moonshine because we don’t have time in the fall season. It’s a lot of off time, but we’re still working hard, just on other things.”

Just like the Krupczak family, Monson Savings Bank President Dan Moriarty and his team like to stay involved with his community. He said many of his employees are involved with outside organizations and charities. For example, Moriarty and Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Rouette coached youth sports for many years in town.

“Having one of the agricultural businesses in Monson means that we are taking a step in sustaining agriculture in a small town.”

“Whether it’s the arts or sports and recreation, whether it’s seniors, whether it’s education, we just try, and it’s been like that for 150 years,” Moriarty said, noting this year’s anniversary celebration of the bank’s history. “I think the bank has always wanted to be a good civic partner with the organizations in town.”

The bank currently services 429 businesses that call Monson home, from mom-and-pop shops to larger companies that employ quite a few people from in town and outside it.

“I think, and I hope, the perception of MSB is that we’re trying to work with every business in town. The one thing that we pride ourselves on is trying to give honest, prudent business advice, whether we can do a loan for a business or not,” he said. “We always try to help a customer get to a place where we can put them in a position to expand their business.”

Moriarty went on to explain that 2021 and 2022 were the bank’s historic best years from a growth perspective, and he’s confident that, despite an economy that may be heading into a recession, both consumers and businesses have been resilient coming out of the pandemic. “I would describe 2023 as an environment of uncertainty, but with the potential to have some optimism.”

 

Honoring Tradition

Krupczak agreed. Even though this year was solid, business-wise, the family is hoping for a better year in 2023, even after the loss of their oldest brother, Gregory.

“He was great at woodworking and built benches for the orchard; he’d help us make and bottle the wine and whiskeys,” she recalled. “Chris, Gregory, Mia, and I would all bottle wine together each summer. That was a big part of spending time together and making the wines; we will miss that time spent together greatly this coming year.”

She added that the family appreciates the support of everyone in Monson, especially through the hard time they’re facing. “It just showed us so much. It keeps us going.”

But, in some ways, that support isn’t surprising, Krupczak added.

“It has something to do with keeping the town small and keeping traditions alive, like the families that lived in Monson and grown up here way before we owned this.” u

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at
[email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says the city has made great strides when it comes to growing and diversifying an economy once dominated by GE.

It’s called ‘Site 9.’

This is a 16-acre parcel within the William Stanley Business Park, created at the site of the massive General Electric transformer manufacturing complex in Pittsfield, which closed nearly 30 years ago.

The site has been available for development for more than two decades now, said Linda Tyer, Pittsfield’s mayor for the past seven years, but there have been no takers because, in a word, this site is ‘intimidating.’

“Every time we host a business and we identify this as a potential location, they look at it, and they’re instantly intimidated because of the condition that’s in,” she explained. “It’s a big scar in the heart of our community that’s a remnant of our past. People have looked at it, and they’ve just said, ‘I can’t envision my business here.’”

Gov. Charlie Baker was in the city a few weeks ago to hand-deliver a $3 million check that might change this equation. The money will go toward infrastructure work, putting new roads in, greening the space, and other measures that will make this parcel more shovel-ready and, ultimately, a part of this city’s future, not merely its past.

“If we don’t get any interest for the next 10 years, at least it’s not this giant wound in the heart of our city,” Tyer went on, adding she is expecting plenty of interest in the years to come.

Site 9 is where we begin our look at Pittsfield, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series. This is a city that has been trying to move beyond its past, and the dominating influence of GE on just about every facet of everyday life, since the company left. And in many ways, it has been making great progress.

Its economy is far more diverse and far less dependent on one company or one sector, said Tyer, adding that this was quite necessary given the devastation and outmigration that occurred when GE pulled up stakes. Today, the city boasts a few large employers — such as Berkshire Health Systems and General Dynamics — but the economy is dominated by small businesses across several sectors including manufacturing, IT, healthcare, and especially tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Those latter categories now provide a good number of jobs and have contributed to a rebirth of North Street, the main thoroughfare in the city, after it was decimated by GE’s departure, said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, a county-wide organization focused on economic development and promotion of the region.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago,” he said, adding that a strong focus on the arts and hospitality has changed the narrative in this community.

The pandemic obviously took a heavy toll on these businesses and the overall vibrancy of Pittsfield, said Butler, but it has managed to come almost all the way back this year, with the arts venues rebounding and hospitality venues back to something approaching normal.

James Galli, general manager of the Hotel on North, so named because it is on North Street, agreed. He said the hotel is on pace to have its best year since opening in 2015, and the mix of guests that it attracts provides some good insight into Pittsfield and what now drives its economy.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago.”

“We get a lot of travelers coming in from Boston and New York to go to Barrington Stage and the Colonial Theatre,” he said, citing two of the main cultural draws in the city. “We get a lot of millennials coming in for hiking and the beauty of the area, some business travelers coming in for General Dynamics and some of the area businesses in town — and it’s a good mix. We are the center of the Berkshires, so we get people staying with us for two, three, four days at a time; they’ll go down to South County or up to North County or into the Pioneer Valley, but they’ll stay with us because we’re very central and they can do a lot more if they stay with us.”

In some ways, the pandemic has actually benefited the Berkshires and especially its largest city, said those we spoke with, noting that the remote-work phenomenon has made it possible for those working for businesses in New York, Boston, and other expensive metropolitan areas to do so from virtually anywhere.

And with its high quality of life and (comparatively) low real-estate prices and overall cost of living, Pittsfield has become an attractive alternative, said Tyer, noting that the city is in the midst of a housing boom that has slowed only slightly even in the wake of rising interest rates and persistently high prices.

 

The Next Chapter

It’s called the ‘Library Suite.’

This is the largest suite among the 45 guest rooms at Hotel on North, and easily the most talked about. That’s because, as that name suggests, it’s decorated with books — some 5,000 of them by Galli’s count.

“There’s a moveable ladder, and … it looks like a library,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s everything from full sets of encyclopedias to children’s books, the Harry Potter collection; we’ve found them at tag sales over the years and made it into a unique, different type of room. It speaks for itself.”

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years.”

The library suite, which boasts about 850 square feet and goes for as much as $700 a night, depending on the season, has been occupied most every night over the past several months, said Galli, noting, again, that visitors of all kinds are coming back to Pittsfield, and to this hotel, which was created out of two historic buildings on North Street.

Business started to pick back up in June 2021 as the state essentially reopened, he said, and momentum continued to build into this year, which has yielded better numbers than the years just prior to the pandemic.

He attributes this to many factors, including some pent-up demand for travel and vacations as well as the unique nature of the hotel, which has several different kinds of rooms, each of them is unique.

“A lot of people are looking for a hotel that’s a little different — a boutique or independent hotel,” he said. “There’s a clientele that goes for the branded properties, but the people who stay with us are looking for that unique experience when they walk in the door.”

But Galli also credits Pittsfield’s resurgence in recent years, especially its cultural attractions and other quality-of-life attributes, making the city a destination for people of all ages.

Hotel on North is part of a new look and feel on North Street, said Butler, noting that the well-documented vibrancy of the GE chapter in the city’s history was followed by the dark and dismal time that he grew up in: “North Street was not a place to be in the ’90s.” The vibrancy has returned in the form of cultural attractions and new restaurants and bars.

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years,” he told BusinessWest. “You have investments like Berkshire Theatre Group with their theater in downtown Pittsfield, and Barrington Stage Company, which has become a major anchor, as well as a number of smaller cultural offerings and pop-ups and galleries in downtown Pittsfield.

“And this has been further bolstered by the emergence, over the past eight to 10 years, of a vibrant food scene — an exciting, trending type of food environment,” he went on, citing establishments, new and old, like Methuselah Bar and Lounge, Berkshire Palate (located in Hotel on North), Pancho’s Mexican Resaurant, Trattoria Rustica, Flat Burger Society, Patrick’s Pub, and Otto’s Kitchen & Comfort.

“There’s some finer dining options — downtown Pittsfield’s a great place to go host some clients if you’re a business or to have a good date night as a couple or a fancy night out with friends,” Butler explained. “But there’s also a lot of great casual offerings in downtown Pittsfield; there’s some great pubs, some great cocktail lounges. There’s also a lot of immigrant-owned businesses in downtown Pittsfield, which adds to the diversity and provides a more rich experience.”

 

At Home with the Idea

This diversification and strengthening of the city’s economy has become the main economic-development strategy for Tyer since she became mayor.

“I have some family history with General Electric — my great-grandparents were part of the GE economy,” she told BusinessWest. “And when I became mayor, I felt strongly that the economy cannot be dependent on one sector; my priority has been that we have diversity in the economy, and that includes everything from the travel, tourism, and hospitality sector to the cultural economy, and it also includes manufacturing and science and technology.”

To attract businesses across all these sectors, and to help existing companies expand, the city has created what Tyer calls its ‘red-carpet team,’ a name that hints strongly at its mission.

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 43,927
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.56
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.90
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

“We want to make sure that businesses that are here now, that are homegrown and might want to expand into a new market, expand their facilities, or grow their employment base, have the same level of support from the city of Pittsfield as we would give to a new business that wanted to start up in the city,” she explained. “We’ve been successful at balancing that approach.”

The red-carpet team consists of a number of city department leaders who work collectively to help counsel and guide a new or existing business toward fulfillment of whatever goal they might have. This integrated process enables a CEO to have one meeting, rather than several, said Tyer, adding that having everyone seated around one table enables the city to be more responsive and move more quickly.

And, overall, there have been a number of interested parties, she said, noting that the Berkshires, and Pittsfield, has a lot to offer employers, including quality of life and lower cost of living, as well as a population that is stabilizing, rather than declining, as it had been for decades.

“We have great neighborhoods, we’re still affordable, and we have beautiful outdoor recreation,” she said. “The combination of all of that is the magic that Pittsfield has going into the future.”

Much of this magic became even more forceful during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that, while most hospitality-related businesses had to shut down for an extended period, the Pittsfield area’s outdoor recreation and quality of life came more into focus for many looking to escape what COVID brought with it.

The hiking trails became even more popular, and the Berkshires — and its largest city — became an attractive alternative for those looking to escape larger cities, their congestion, and their higher costs.

“Our housing market has been on fire,” said Tyer, noting that many professionals from Boston, New York, and other major cities have moved to the Berkshires. “And I think it speaks to this phenomenon that people can be employed by a Boston firm but work from home here in Pittsfield and have all the amenities and quality of life of a small city in a beautiful region of the state.”

The housing market shows no signs of slowing, said those we spoke with, despite rising prices and, more recently, soaring interest rates as a result of Fed action to stem the tide of inflation.

“There’s still this competition, these bidding wars, for homes,” Tyer said. “And the seller is still selling; the market hasn’t really slowed down.”

This phenomenon has led to an increase in the value of homes across the city, she went on, adding that this brings benefits on many levels — everything from the city’s bond rating to its tax rate. It also creates some problems for first-time homebuyers and those looking to trade up, and rising prices within the rental market as well, creating shortages of what would be considered affordable housing.

But in the larger scheme of things, these would be considered some of those proverbial good problems to have, said the mayor, especially in a city that had seen so much hardship over the previous 30 years.

 

The General Idea

The sports teams at Pittsfield High School are still nicknamed the Generals, said Tyer, adding that this just one of the myriad ways to measure the influence that GE had in this city for the better part of a century.

But while the city can still pay homage to its past in this and other ways, it has managed to move past it in almost all others.

Yes, Site 9 and many other parcels that were part of the massive complex remain undeveloped, but overall, Pittsfield and its economy have moved on. It took some time, as it does when a city loses an employer of such magnitude, but the city’s economy, like North Street itself, has been reinvented, and vibrancy has returned.

“We’ve overcome that group depression that we all suffered, and I think there’s a lot of excitement around the art and culture economy; the small-business, science, and technology economy; and some long-standing businesses that have grown since my time in public service,” she told BusinessWest. “I think we’ve overcome the ‘we’re a dying community because we lost GE’ sentiment, and I think we’re a growing, emerging community.”

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Children’s Chime Tower has been in use since 1785.

The Children’s Chime Tower has been in use since 1785.

 

In a small town where art and culture have long been powerful economic and tourism drivers, the pandemic has been a hurdle — but one many Stockbridge institutions have weathered with aplomb.

Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG), said the town and its surrounding communities understand the importance of keeping live shows going and continuing on with normal life.

“There is no accounting how much the arts do for the community, both economically and sort of socially and spiritually, if you will,” she told BusinessWest.

The Berkshire Theatre Group was created in 2010 by the merger of two of Berkshire County’s oldest cultural organizations, Berkshire Theatre Festival, founded in 1928 in Stockbridge, and the Colonial Theatre, built in 1903 in Pittsfield.

BTG encompasses two stages in Stockbridge: the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse. The Playhouse was established in 1928 when the Stockbridge Casino was sold to Walter Clark; he called a few friends, and together, they formed the Three Arts Society.

The Three Arts Society remodeled the casino’s interior by adding a stage and seating for 450 people and christened the new theater the Berkshire Playhouse. And the rest was history — literally.

“If you go through the history of the Playhouse, it mirrors the history of the American theater. We have an incredible collection of archives and stars as luminous as James Cagney, Al Pacino, Katherine Hepburn, Holly Hunter, Cynthia Nixon — they’ve all performed on that stage,” Maguire said. “And often, when folks walk onto that stage at the Playhouse, they’ll say, ‘I have to be here at least once in my life or my career is not complete.’”

By the 1980s, the Unicorn Theatre became a home for new and experimental work, and in 1992, it hosted cabaret acts from New York City and a workshop-style production. In 1996, the Unicorn was reopened after a lengthy renovation and became Berkshire Theatre Festival’s official second stage. The now-U-shaped performance center, located in the barn, boasts 122 seats.

Today, the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse hold performances of both classics and new works for locals and tourists. BTG even made it possible for those to still gather during the height of the pandemic in 2020. BTG hosted outdoor productions of Godspell during the summer and Truman Capote’s Holiday Memories in December; the former was the only Actors’ Equity Assoc. live production being staged in the U.S. at the time.

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 2,018
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $9.38
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

As for the latter, “in 13- to 20-degree weather, the audiences came,” Maguire said. “They were so hungry for theater and to be together again. Everybody was spaced, everyone was masked. But we kept going, and I think, because we have been able to keep our audiences safe, people have trusted us through the pandemic.”

 

Things to Do and Places to See

When thinking of a small town that relies on tourism to support its economy, one might assume it turns into a ghost town during the winter months. But this is not the case for Stockbridge. In fact, this close-knit town provides plenty of museums, historic sites, and other activities for those who live there and visitors alike, and most don’t close down during the offseason. While summer and spring typically see the most tourism, Stockbridge still has plenty to offer year-round.

Along Main Street alone, one can find the Stockbridge Library, the Red Lion Inn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Austen Riggs Center, the Mission House Museum, and many more.

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work. The museum houses more than 100,000 original items from Rockwell’s life, including working photographs, letters, personal calendars, fan mail, and business documents.

Of the 20 studios that he worked in, Rockwell said the one he owned in Stockbridge was his “best studio yet.” The museum has turned back the clock to an earlier, active period in his career: October 1960, when he was hard at work on his painting, “Golden Rule,” which would later appear on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Another popular cultural destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which straddles the Stockbridge-Lenox line. The summer 2023 season featured offerings ranging from Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert with BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons leading a program of Bernstein’s “Opening Prayer,” Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 2 the Age of Anxiety,” and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Kate Maguire

“The first few moments of all of those shows that we did, I would watch the audience drop their heads and lift them, and you could see tears coming down their eyes. They were not only together again, even though the audience members were all socially distanced, but they were reminded of what it means to be human again.”

Among the museums and shops downtown is the historical Children’s Chimes Tower, which recently underwent some renovations. The bell tower was built on the site of the original church in Stockbridge, which stood there from 1739 until 1785. The church was established by John Sergeant, a missionary who moved to Stockbridge to convert the Mahican people, a local indigenous tribe, to Christianity. He served there until his death in 1749 and was replaced by Jonathan Edwards, the former Northampton pastor and prominent theologian who helped influence the First Great Awakening. Edwards remained in Stockbridge until 1758.

The Children’s Chimes bell tower in front of the current church was built in 1878 by David Dudley Field II in honor of his grandchildren, with the intention that “it will be a memorial of those who are enshrined in my heart, while the ringing of the chimes at sunset I trust will give pleasure to all whose good fortune is to live in this peaceful valley.” Today, almost 140 years later, it is still rung, according to his wishes, every evening between Memorial Day and Labor Day at 5:30 p.m.

 

Culture and Community

The creative economy keeps Stockbridge running. Whether it is the local museums, shops, restaurants, or shows at the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse, there are plenty of ways to experience culture.

“Doing Holiday Memories that winter of 2020 was a remarkable experience. I mean, the first few moments of all of those shows that we did, I would watch the audience drop their heads and lift them, and you could see tears coming down their eyes,” Maguire recalled. “They were not only together again, even though the audience members were all socially distanced, but they were reminded of what it means to be human again — because that’s what we do in a theater, right? So the culturals in the Berkshires are the driving force of the economy here.”

If someone sees a show, she explained, they will likely have a bite to eat at a local restaurant. Meanwhile, programs run by BTG bring in school-aged children who may later work in the box offices or house management, or take a summer job with the theater group. Annually, BTG hires about 700 people.

The group also makes almost 2,000 tickets available to community members who wouldn’t otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford coming to the theater. Sensory-friendly performances are also an option, Maguire said, “so for those members of our community that may have autism or may not be able to be in a room with loud noise, we make sure that one of our performances is specifically dedicated to making everyone feel comfortable at the theater.”

The arts and culture sector has always been a driving force in Stockbridge, and its resilience during — and recovery from — the pandemic has certainly been a performance worth hailing.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Anna Farrington says First Fridays are bringing out lots of locals, as she had hoped.
Photo by Ben Lamb

In a small city like North Adams, Ben Lamb says, economic growth is easy to see.

“Historically speaking, there’s always been a smattering of small businesses downtown, and we’ve seen that number grow; I believe there were at least six or seven small businesses that opened downtown over the last year,” said Lamb, director of Economic Development at 1Berkshire. “Some of those are growing even at this point; they’re expanding.”

In the past two years, small niche businesses have been moving into a downtown area where Lamb thinks people are looking for more than just a transaction; they’re looking for an experience.

The Plant Connector is a good great example of a shop that started very small on Eagle Street and, within the period of the pandemic, “scaled up fivefold from one footprint to another” because business was so strong, he noted.

However, while business has been strong, Nico Dery, Business Development director for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce, noted that there seems to have been less tourism this summer than in recent summers, with the possible exception of festival weekends.

“Historically speaking, there’s always been a smattering of small businesses downtown, and we’ve seen that number grow.”

“It’s all kind of speculation why that could be, but I do think that a part of it is the lift on COVID restrictions,” she explained. “People aren’t traveling as close to home as they would be. So we’re losing some of those tourists from Boston or New York who might be going abroad or somewhere else within the country rather than making the short trip over to the Berkshires.”

Lamb agreed. “That’s where the downtown small-business community can rise to the occasion,” he said, adding that business that can identify opportunities can make a workable business model out of a fairly niche opportunity.

 

Creative Businesses Surging

In 2015, Lamb founded the NAMAZING Initiative, a community-based organization focused on increasing the lovability of North Adams through creative placemaking in an effort to drive organic economic development. Through the effort, he and his team created points of excitement and attraction to get people to invest and look at what they could do in downtown North Adams.

“Now it’s the businesses themselves that are self-propelling,” he said. “If you see a cool business and then you see a vacant storefront next door, you want to be in that space next door to them.”

Jenny Wright says the vending machine at MASS MoCA has brought joy to not only the artists, but visitors too.

Jenny Wright says the vending machine at MASS MoCA has brought joy to not only the artists, but visitors too.

With the help of 1Berkshire, NAMAZING was able to directly invest and help set up pop-up shops to help small, niche businesses have a space on their own until they could hit the ground running.

For example, Walla-Sauce and Conscientious Cloth, two young businesses, are co-sharing a common space. Lamb explained that, with the resources provided to start up an operation for a three-month stint, they were able to extend their lease past the three months because they’re seeing enough business and revenue to do that.

“The First Fridays program that’s been going on over the summer — that’s spearheaded by two downtown property and business owners that wanted to see that sort of activity on a monthly business — really catalyzed something exciting over the past year,” he added. “And when you look at all of those opportunities, it also draws more attention to downtown.”

Anna Farrington, creator of First Friday events, owner and primary curator of Installation Space, and owner and principal designer at Anna Farrington Arts & Design, teamed up with Andrew Fitch to work on closing Eagle Street in downtown North Adams to specifically draw people to the local businesses.

Last spring, Farrington thought there was something missing downtown after the end of Down Street Art, hosted by MCLA; street art was starting to draw crowds at this time. Other communities like Pittsfield, Brattleboro, and Boston had a First Friday events program in place and had a lot of positive feedback. She then went business to business downtown and asked if and how they might participate in the First Friday events. Unanimously, the response was “yes, let’s do it.”

“First Fridays is a grassroots initiative; that means businesses participate at a level in which they’re comfortable,” Farrington told BusinessWest. “And the gallery [Installation Space] has been instrumental in helping to organize some of the First Friday events.”

Installation Space was opened five years ago to provide a space for installation artists where they could show their work without the pressures of a typical art gallery, where artists are expected to make sales and the gallery would then make commissions.

“It’s one thing to just point a global audience in the general direction of Main Street and send them on their way; it’s another thing altogether to be a full partner and develop a shared vision for what they encounter once they get there.”

There are typically up to four or five shows over the course of the year. Each show will have an opening reception that also takes place on First Fridays; “it’s a way to sort of maximize that appeal to people to come down to First Fridays,” Farrington said.

The gallery has been instrumental in helping to organize some of the First Friday events, drawing in artists, artisans, and locals. The inaugural First Friday event was held in August; a block party on the street featuring live music and games drew a successful turnout.

In September, Farrington and her team held a community picnic where a 100-foot-long dinner table was set up, thanks to the American Legion. Locals were asked to bring their takeout or picnics and come down and have dinner on the street together.

“It was very successful. I’m looking forward to doing that again next year,” said Farrington, who, at the time she spoke with BusinessWest, was planning the October First Friday event on Oct. 7, an Eagle Street night market. “We’ll be having 20 vendors on the street, including the Berkshire Cider Project.”

With the creative-economy surge in downtown North Adams, the First Friday events aren’t the only place local artists and artisans are able to share their work in more creative ways. Jenny Wright, director of Strategic Communications & Advancement at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), emphasized that they’re not just artists; “they are savvy entrepreneurs who understand the risk of starting a business during a pandemic” — and the risk is paying off.

 

Modern Ideas

For example, an artists’ collective repurposed a vending machine to sell art on MASS MoCA’s campus, which also promotes the local businesses that created the art. But that isn’t the only thing the museum is doing to help stimulate the new creative economy surge.

“It’s interesting because, in every strategic plan I think MASS MoCA has ever been involved with, there’s been a priority of making sure that patrons that visit MASS MoCA also visit downtown,” Wright said. “It’s one thing to just point a global audience in the general direction of Main Street and send them on their way; it’s another thing altogether to be a full partner and develop a shared vision for what they encounter once they get there.”

Historically, the city of North Adams has struggled physically and psychologically because of the overpass dividing MASS MoCA and the creative downtown. Even though the environment is improving, it is still an ongoing struggle to get people off the gallery’s campus.

In 2018, the North Adams Exchange was a research study, a collaboration between the city of North Adams, the downtown business community, the NAMAZING Initiative, and MASS MoCA to go into the city and determine how to create tactical and tangible ways of pulling people from the museum into downtown.

Because of the pandemic, Ben Lamb says, more dollars are being spent locally. Photo by Tricia McCormack

Because of the pandemic, Ben Lamb says, more dollars are being spent locally.
Photo by Tricia McCormack

The organizations created a pop-up space that was like an indoor park, with yard games, activities for kids, and a stage for music events. There was also a pop-up business that sold an array of North Adams-made items from artists and others. The initial pop-up park is where MASS MoCA then invested “a not-so-insignificant amount of money and resources” to make Big Bling Park, Wright said.

“That was like a great litmus test to see what can be done to actually pull those people in,” Lamb said. “MASS MoCA is really trying things, novel approaches, and seeing what sticks. I think having them there as a creative partner is really important because they’re used to that process that happens in the arts. And when you can apply that to planning and movement through a city, you can get some really interesting results.”

The museum’s new director, Kristy Edmunds, has made it her priority to really get to know the community, its people, and individual businesses, Wright added.

One event she hopes will spark more momentum is the museum’s annual gala, historically held in New York, which is moving back to North Adams. The museum is hosting the gala to coincide with the opening of E.J. Hill’s exhibition, Break Run Helix, in Building 5.

“I really think MASS MoCA has an opportunity to help as a catalyst for these creative businesses and in the creative economy of North Adams by partnering with the city, bringing in artists and creative producers from other parts of the country or other parts of the world, to partner with some of these local business that are starting,” Wright said. “That’s where I see our value moving forward.”

North Adams is ready to take this momentum and run with it. MASS MoCA will continue to hold live events throughout the year, from performances by national touring bands like Soccer Mommy to a roundtable with mixed-media artist Rose B. Simpson.

Dery added that retail shops and restaurants in town will congregate to see how the city can drum up business. One idea to reactivate the storefronts downtown is to decorate them with Christmas lights so people can enjoy dressed-up windows for the holiday season.

“I’m also excited, if the businesses are on board with this, to continue our Plaid Friday initiative and Plaid-urday, which is a grassroots initiative,” she said. “Instead of shopping in big-box stores or online for Black Friday, you spend your money in your community, so it stays local.”

Lamb explained that, because of the pandemic and locals working remotely, those dollars were brought back to the community and stayed there versus going to the city where the person was working. Even though people have built habits around the small businesses close to home, there is still a balancing act that every business needs to figure out for themselves in terms of what their customer base is.

 

Taking Stock of the Future

Businesses are prepared for things to slow down for the winter, but they still need to have a critical customer base, so they try to connect with the local community in whatever ways they can to garner support.

“Maybe that’s around pricing, maybe that’s around what they’re offering, doing special gift-card options. It’s really figuring out what is the thing that you can offer to the local market that is going to keep your doors open during the slow times,” Lamb said. “The businesses that take the time to do an analysis on sales and where their customers are coming from, and what those customers are buying, are the most informed and, therefore, the most able to pivot seasonally to fit the market. We’re seeing more businesses that are conscientious of that; they track metrics very intentionally and are planning that before even opening their doors.”

Meanwhile, he and other business leaders are pleased that North Adams is growing — and its creative economy booming — with the help of local partners taking the initiative to make the city a more attractive location for locals and tourists alike.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The new Pafumi’s Pizza and Scantic River Brewery

The new Pafumi’s Pizza and Scantic River Brewery building creates a family-friendly hangout spot on Main Street.

As he talked about the new home for Scantic River Brewery in Wilbraham, Dave Avery stressed repeatedly that this will be much more than a facility to make beer — although that will happen, too.

“This is a place where people can come and hang out,” said Avery, co-owner of Scantic River with Dave Buel, as he discussed the new setting on Main Street and the taproom planned for it. “The location is extra special for us because it’s right in the community, and we’re looking at this as much more than just a beer-making place.”

It will be a destination, he noted, adding that Scantic River will share the facility, now under construction, with Pafumi’s Pizzeria, long a staple in the community, in an intriguing business development that will bring more visitors, and vibrancy, to an already-busy business corridor in this mostly residential community that also has a diverse, and growing, collection of businesses both large and small.

Overall, maintaining a critical balance — between welcoming new businesses and the many benefits they bring and maintaining the small-town vibe and high quality of life this town is known for — has been the mission of town officials for decades now, said Michelle Buck, Wilbraham’s Planning & Community Development director.

Michelle Buck

Michelle Buck

“There hasn’t been explosive growth; it’s just been steady increase after steady increase.”

She told BusinessWest that the town has long seen steady growth in its economy and business community, and it is the goal of town officials to continue that pattern.

“There hasn’t been explosive growth; it’s just been steady increase after steady increase,” she noted.

Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce (ERC5), agreed. The growth she is seeing comes from people who have taken time to explore their passions; that little business that they thought would be a side hustle is really taking off and being produced on a larger scale. She added that Boston Road and Main Street are the central hubs for activity.

“There’s a lot of great places on Boston Road; it is very well-traveled, and there’s so many wonderful shops and restaurants and businesses there,” she said. “The Gratti Shop just opened; Sandy from the Scented Garden has been there for so many years. If you’re traveling to and from, you can pull into Delaney’s Market and pick up a meal. We’ve got Fieldcrest Brewery on that strip as well. The roller-skating rink is there … we’ve got a lot of stuff to do, and there’s a lot of businesses to visit.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest explores this ‘stuff,’ and how it has come together — with more on the way — to make this town a great place to live, work, and start a business.

 

Draught Choice

Those sentiments describe the thought process that compelled Avery and Buel to make Wilbraham their new mailing address.

And the location on Main Street essentially sealed the deal, said Buel, because it allows this venture to get to the critical next level in its growth and development.

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,613
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.49
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.49
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

“We kept hearing about people wanting to come to our brewery, and a lot of people were asking about hosting events, birthday parties, and stuff like that,” he explained. “So there were opportunities there, and we decided we needed to build a taproom. We realized we’re really missing an opportunity there. We decided to look around, and this place on Main Street in Wilbraham just looked like the ideal location for us.”

Avery and Buel have been brewing for more than a decade; they are from the area, and their daughters went to school together and played on the same sports teams.

Because they were both interested in exploring their passion, Buel started formulating recipes, and the partners started brewing beers in the back of Buel’s garage. They quickly outgrew the small system when their brand began to grow momentum. They then opened a brewing and distribution warehouse in Hampden.

Scantic River Brewery has been able to expand its distribution to Long Island, Upstate New York, Cape Cod, and the area east of Worcester; their labels are sold in 150 Market Basket locations around Massachusetts. But with a growing popularity comes increasing demand.

“The industry changes quite readily in every aspect that you can imagine between ingredient changes and style changes. And as part of those changes, the bottling turned to 16-ounce cans, or cans in general, like overnight,” Avery said. “Within a year, we had to quickly change that. So it became a little harder to do the canning in the garage — the bottling wasn’t terribly hard, but that kind of forced us to switch. Plus the volumes were picking up, so that’s where we had to get better capability.”

Buel added that, if not for the location and people in Wilbraham, the two might well have given up on the constantly changing industry. Instead, they are taking their venture in a new and intriguing direction.

Avery and Buel originally approached Mark Pafumi, co-owner of Pafumi’s Pizza, about leasing space in the proposed building, but then decided to buy into the property along with another investor. “We felt that owning and renting to ourselves made a lot of sense, as opposed to renting from someone else,” Avery said.

Three historical buildings, including the Landry, Lyons, and Whyte Real Estate office, were demolished to allow space for a new joint facility. The new location will be about 8,000 square feet, featuring two outdoor dining areas — one for each business — a taproom in the rear, Pafumi’s Pizza restaurant in the front facing Main Street, a small rental area for outdoor performers, and a second story of apartments.

Scantic River Brewery owners

Scantic River Brewery owners Dave Avery, left, and Dave Buel, with Catherine Avery, who designs logos for their beers

“We wanted to make it bigger and better to suit our needs, the needs of Scantic River, and the needs of the community,” said Pafumi, noting, as Buel and Avery did, that the new facility will be a true destination.

“The restaurant and the brewery will bring some life — there will be a lot of added foot traffic,” he said. “The center is the most heavily foot-trafficked area in the whole town; we’re a restaurant for the community, a place to bring your family.”

 

School of Thought

Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) is looking at taking a couple of spots in the apartments as well, according to Barone. Because the school serves a diverse population of international students from 34 countries, families will need space to come and visit.

WMA was created in 1971, a time when the prep schools of New England began to merge, often with a school for girls merging with a school for school for boys, creating a coed institution.

“It was a good business strategy for the time; times were tight during the 1970s,” said Brian Easler, head of school at WMA. “It was a way for schools to tighten their budgets and eliminate a lot of their debt all at the same time. But Wilbraham Academy & Monson Academy were both all-boy schools, so the merger didn’t go quite as smoothly — they were archrivals for sports. It was kind of a tricky situation.”

Since then, the school has grown exponentially, a pattern that continued even during the pandemic.

“In a lot of ways, the academy is a smaller version of a college. We don’t have the amount of students that colleges do, but we do have a strong amount of students that do impact the economy in a positive way.”

Indeed, Easler told BusinessWest that the school was able to stay open during the pandemic when many public institutions had to close their doors and resort to remote learning. Through rapid antigen testing and taking precautions as early as the summer of 2020, WMA was able to keep its positivity and transmissions rates relatively low throughout its community. Astoundingly, only 50 international students were not able to travel to the U.S. due to travel restrictions.

Surveing the current landscape at WMA, Easler said it is very close to business — or school — as usual, only with even better recruiting of top students.

“I had a senior faculty member, someone who’s been here longer than me, tell me the other day that the incoming class this year is the strongest group of students she’s seen in his 30 years at the academy,” Easler told BusinessWest. “We had one of our best college-admission lists in recent memory, and I’ve been here for about 25 years; I think it was our strongest college-admissions list yet.”

Students are excited to return to a normal school year, he continued. Classes are filling up, and families are having to be turned down. WMA is a nonprofit — all of the money that comes into the school goes to support the school, finding a way to “flood back out” to the community through consultants, service providers, contractors, and employees that live in the area — not to mention the 400 customers every year for the businesses in the center of town.

In short, WMA is an economic driver in the community, Easler said.

Brian Easler

Brian Easler said WMA’s 400 students add to the economic vibrancy in town.

Barone agreed. When school is back in session, Wilbraham’s economy grows, she said, adding that the Village Store and Rice’s Fruit Farm are in walking distance from the academy, along the side of historical Main Street.

“They’re engaged in shopping in the area — they’re visiting that Boston Road sector, they’ll go out and shop for the holidays, and they’re buying gifts to bring home to mom, dad, siblings, and so forth,” Barone said. “When their parents come to visit, they’re going out to dinner, and they’re doing all that Wilbraham has to offer. In a lot of ways, the academy is a smaller version of a college. We don’t have the amount of students that colleges do, but we do have a strong amount of students that do impact the economy in a positive way.”

 

What’s on Tap?

As noted earlier, Avery and Buel are looking at their new home as more than just a beer-making place; it’s a place to hang out and unwind. With local breweries like Iron Duke, Fieldcrest, and Vanishing Valley all within 30 minutes of each other, opportunities for collaboration abound.

“I’m sure we’ll collaborate on some things with them, maybe get a beer-trail type of thing going. We can get together as a group and somehow figure something out,” Avery said. “Rice’s is right down at the other end of Main Street, and there’s a sidewalk that runs the full-length between us; we could possibly do things there, like road races.”

Overall, it’s an exciting new development in a community that has put a premium on balancing business with quality of life, and only one of many stories to watch in the months and years to come.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Great Barrington came to life with the help of weekend performances by Berkshire Busk!

Great Barrington came to life with the help of weekend performances by Berkshire Busk!

Like most communities that rely on tourism and hospitality to anchor their economies, Great Barrington was hit hard by COVID-19, with its lively downtown coming to a virtual standstill in the early months of the pandemic and recovery coming slowly amid different surges in 2021 and even early this year.

But in recent months, this community, the hub of the Southern Berkshires, is starting to look like its old self — with some wrinkles and some businesses in new places, as we’ll see. Which means its restaurants, clubs, and cultural attractions are thriving, and people from near and somewhat far are once again finding Great Barrington.

“Everything kind of filled in accordingly,” said Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, referring to both the calendar of events and downtown real estate. “The normal things that have happened, even if they had their hiatus during COVID, are back and seem to be back in full swing.”

This past summer has been a good one for the community as higher gas prices prompted more day tripping, said Andrus, adding that there was considerable pent-up demand for all that Great Barrington has to offer — from brewpubs to a wide range of dining options to an eclectic mix of shops — and business owners took full advantage of the opportunities afforded them.

Town Manager Mark Pruhenski agreed.

“This past summer has been incredible for Great Barrington,” he said. “There were a number of events taking place, such as the popular summer concert series every Wednesday and Friday, the Fire Department’s annual car show, and the farmer’s market that is held every Saturday.”

One of the most popular events this summer made a return after its COVID hiatus. Berkshire Busk! took advantage of the close-knit nature of the town’s businesses and offered many different types of entertainment in different locations. For its third year, weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day were packed with magic, performing arts, music, and more.

“It’s difficult to say if inflation has impacted tourism because it didn’t seem to impact the number of visitors. But inflation is certainly impacting purchasing and project costs for the town, and housing challenges remain a high priority.”

“I’ve lost count of how many weekends they had multiple performers at different venues,” Andrus told BusinessWest. “It exposed the public to so many different local artisans and it was very popular with visitors and locals.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Great Barrington, which hasn’t put COVID in its rear-view mirror, but is definitely looking to even better times down the road.

 

Picking Up the Pace

Andrus noted that, as businesses started to get back into their groove, there was what she called “a great rotation” throughout Great Barrington’s downtown area — businesses moving from one location to another as spaces become available.

This phenomenon changed the landscape in a minor way, but it added a new element to a central business district that has always been a popular destination.

“Everything is about 10 minutes apart at least; it wasn’t very far apart, but they moved,” Andrus said. “I think the choices people made were great.”

She went on to explain that some of the popular restaurants and stores had to change their hours or close certain days mostly because of a persistent workforce crisis, but also “for their own sanity,” as business returned to downtown venues and in a big way, even amid the higher gas prices and skyrocketing inflation.

Pruhenski concurred. “It’s difficult to say if inflation has impacted tourism because it didn’t seem to impact the number of visitors,” he said. “But inflation is certainly impacting purchasing and project costs for the town, and housing challenges remain a high priority.”

Andrus agreed, noting that, with the inflating value of land and housing, people are struggling to find good, reasonably priced housing. Great Barrington and other outlying towns are hoping to find a solution because “people deserve clean, affordable housing in a good location.”

As summer draws to a close, another important and traditionally vibrant time begins for Great Barrington and the Southern Berkshires. The community has a number of events on tap to keep tourists and locals busy and intrigued. Cultural venues will go on with their events until the end of the fall foliage or until it gets too cold to hold events outdoors.

Betsy Andrus says events like Berkshire Busk! exposed the public to many different local artisans and performers.

Betsy Andrus says events like Berkshire Busk! exposed the public to many different local artisans and performers.

“Outdoor dining will continue until it gets too cold,” Andrus said. “I think the fall will not be as busy as the summer, but it will still be very busy.”

Coming up at the end of September is the Festival Latino, which is always very popular among tourists and locals. It features Latin American folkloric dance and music performances, language and cultural activities, artisans, and Latin cuisine vendors.

Meanwhile, the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce is introducing its new video series. Great Barrington has a full menu of dining options, said Andrus, and if people want to see what the town has to offer, they can visit the “Chefs of the Berkshires” series and purchase one video for $10 or $60 for the entire series of 13 restaurants, a savings of more than 50%.

“It’s a way to show people that this is what’s going on in this area; some of it highlights the location, too,” Andrus said. “This whole series is to get people more acquainted with the area. And if they live here, we want to show them there is more than just the restaurant they’re used to going to — we want them to branch out.”

She noted that 50% of revenues generated by the program are given back to the restaurants to help them meet the considerable challenges of these times, including workforce issues, rising prices, and other lingering effects of COVID. “And I want to be able to hand them a big check.”

Another video series the chamber has introduced is “Tour the Berkshires,” a tour package that introduces people to recreation in the Berkshires. Visitors are able to book a weekend of activities if they live in the area or if they’re from out of town and need lodging.

“They’ll go through a whole weekend schedule: there’s yoga and stretching classes, Reiki, dinner at the breweries, renting bikes for a self-guided 20 mile ride, and hiking,” Andrus explained. “There’s a ton of stuff to do here. It’s a whole weekend of activities and food.”

 

Bottom Line

Andrus told BusinessWest that Great Barrington has long been a destination — for people from this state, neighboring New York, and even beyond. Visitors have been drawn to the different kinds of attractions and came knowing they could find old favorites as well as something new.

And that remains true today. Different venues, such as the Chesterwood museum, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, St. James Place, and Barrington Public Theater all have their own schedules, and they’ll keep producing plays, musicals, and events through the end of the fall season.

It’s taken a while, and COVID has changed the landscape in some ways, but Great Barrington has its groove back.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

When Westmass Area Development Corp. and its board of directors went all in and acquired the massive and environmentally challenged Ludlow Mills complex in 2011, Jeff Daley said, they did so with the understanding that they were embarking on a long and difficult journey.

But they probably didn’t know how long and just how difficult.

Indeed, the process of transforming the former jute-making complex into a mixed-used property and destination has come complete with a number of challenges, many of them related to simply making various parts of the complex ready for redevelopment, said Daley, the executive director of Westmass since 2019.

But, in many respects, the Ludlow Mills redevelopment initiative has turned a critical corner, he noted, adding that much of the work to ready specific buildings and the property as a whole for development has now been completed, and the focus, increasingly, is on development.

“We’re certainly at a turning point, where we’re focusing our efforts on redevelopment as opposed to staying afloat and cleaning the site — it was a very dirty site back when they first bought it,” he told BusinessWest, referring to asbestos and ground contamination. “And there’s still a lot of cleanup left to do, but the focus is shifting from preserving and investing in the cleaning of the site to continuing that cleaning, which we need to do, but also looking now toward projects that we can invest good dollars in and get good returns from.”

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge. And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

That is certainly the plan, and the hope, with Building 8, or what many refer to as the ‘clocktower building,’ because it is home to the town’s most recognizable landmark.

With some imaginative financing assistance — Westmass will actually be taking an equity stake in the project — Winn Development will soon proceed with an initiative to transform the property into a 96-unit housing complex with retail on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, a $1 million project to put a new roof on Building 11, the largest structure on the campus, is underway, with the goal of facilitating development of that 480,000-square-foot property into another mix of housing and commercial businesses, and perhaps a parking garage as well.

Also, work is nearly complete on Riverside Drive, a new road that winds along the Chicopee River, which will connect the front of the property to the undeveloped acreage at its eastern end. Another road, hopefully to be funded with a MassWorks grant (word on the application should be received in the fall), will be built into that property, greatly facilitating its development, said Daley, noting there has been a good deal of interest expressed in that property due to a shortage of developable land in the region.

While the Ludlow Mills complex is certainly the dominant business story in Ludlow, there are other developments of note, starting in Town Hall. There, discussions continue about whether and how to change the community’s form of government, said Marc Strange, the recently hired town administrator.

“Officials are considering a mayoral form of government or a town manager/town council format similar to what exists in East Longmeadow,” said Strange, who served previously as director of Planning and Economic Development in Agawam and also as a selectman in Longmeadow, noting that the town has certainly outgrown its current format with five selectmen, a town administrator, and town meeting.

Karen Randall

Karen Randall says the business started by her father 60 years ago, has grown and evolved, just as Ludlow has.

“That’s a pretty big lift, and the town needs to be on board with it,” he explained. “For now, we’re chipping away toward that goal and making small, incremental changes to get everyone working in the same direction.”

Meanwhile, the community is looking to fund improvements to the downtown area that greets those as they come over the bridge that links the city to Indian Orchard, said Strange, adding that, while Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, it is always looking to build on this base.

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge,” he said. “And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Ludlow, a community that is a developing story in every sense of that phrase.

 

Growth Patterns

As she talked with BusinessWest outside the main entrance to Randall’s Farm, the business that her father started with what amounted to a vegetable stand, Karen Randall reflected on how much this enterprise — and the town of Ludlow itself — have changed over the past 60 years.

“None of this was here,” she said as she swept her hand in front of her and pointed out the many businesses now located along Center Street. “Ludlow has grown, and we’ve grown with Ludlow.”

Elaborating, she said the town benefits from its location — off turnpike exit 7 and near a number of growing residential communities, including Wilbraham, Granby, Belchertown, and others — and from its own growth; it has seen a number of new residential developments in recent years that have brought many young people to what was an industrial town that grew from the Ludlow Mills complex.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful, in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

Randall’s Farm has certainly benefited from the growth in and around Ludlow, she said, adding that it draws regular, daily traffic from those living in the community, but also steady traffic from those an exit or two down the pike.

“We have customers from within a 20-mile radius,” Randall said, adding that business has been solid this year, and she is expecting the fall, the busiest time for this enterprise, to be very busy as the region continues the two-year-long process of returning to normal from the pandemic and its many side effects.

The pandemic and its aftermath have brought changes at Randall’s — it has discontinued many of its entertainment-related endeavors, including a corn maze and workshops on various subjects — and challenges, including the workforce issues that have impacted businesses in every sector.

Overall, the pandemic has been for Randall’s what it has been for many business ventures, she said — a valuable learning experience.

“COVID taught us a lot of lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and it’s taught us that we can adapt quickly to whatever was coming down the pike,” she explained. “We didn’t miss a beat; we had the same issues that everyone else did — some people may have retired sooner, while others stopped working sooner during the first months of the pandemic, but we persevered, and I think we become stronger because of what we learned.”

Heading into the busy fall season, Randall’s, like other businesses, continues to face workforce challenges — there are some days when it does not have a donut maker, for example — but Randall believes it will be ready. The biggest challenge may be climate, specifically a lack of rain and its still-unknown impact on pumpkins, apples, and other crops grown locally.

“We’re hiring front-line people — we think we have the donut-making issue squared away — and we’re getting ready,” she told BusinessWest. “And we’ll see how this drought effects the season.”

planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills

Crews work to create a parking lot for the planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills, one of many new developments at the complex.

Overall, Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, said Strange, adding that one of the town’s goals is to improve infrastructure and make the Center Street corridor more attractive and even more of an asset.

Which brings him back to that area, technically the community’s downtown, that greets people coming over the bridge from Indian Orchard. The town will apply for a Community Compact grant to develop a broad economic-development plan that will encompass that area and others in the community.

“There’s some successful businesses in there, but we also have some empty storefronts,” he explained. “Our Memorial Park is there, and that’s where we’ll have Celebrate Ludlow. I think there’s a foundation for something special by way of economic development in that corridor.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful,” he went on, “in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

 

Run of the Mills

There should be some shovels hitting the ground soon at at Ludlow Mills, which has certainly been the focal point of development in Ludlow over the past decade. Indeed, continued progress is being made in what will be at least a 20-year effort to put the various spaces — as well as 40 acres of developable green space — to new and productive use.

Running through recent and upcoming developments, Daley started with Building 8, a long-awaited project that will bring another residential complex to the site after the highly successful renovation of Building 10 into apartments; there is now a lengthy waiting list for units in that property.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,002
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.99
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of Government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

The plan calls for apartments on the upper floors and a mix of retail on the first floor, Daley explained, adding that a coffee shop or sandwich shop would be an ideal use given the growing numbers of people living and working in the complex or within a few blocks of it. That growing population could inspire other types of retain as well, he added.

“We can’t overlook the fact that, once those apartments are done, there will be 160 units right in that vicinity, with an average of two people per unit. That’s a captured audience of more than 300 people to support small businesses; there might be a doctor’s office or lawyer’s offices, for example.”

To make the project happen in these times of inflation and soaring construction costs — an overall 28% increase in the projected price tag for this initiative — Westmass needed to get creative and take a “sizable equity investment” in the project, Daley said. He didn’t say how sizeable, but he did note that this step was needed to keep this project on track.

“It made the project go, and we really want to see the project go — for the town of Ludlow, for the mills, and, selfishly, we want to see that first floor activated so we can generate some revenues from retail and commercial businesses,” he explained.

As for Building 11, the next major target for redevelopment, a mix of housing and commercial retail would be ideal, he said, adding there will be options when it comes to what type of housing might be seen.

“There’s certainly a need for independent living, there’s a need for care living, dementia living, those types of facilities,” he said. “But also for more market-rate housing.”

Overall, the Ludlow Mills property is well-positioned for development, Daley said, adding that everything in its inventory, from commercial and industrial space to raw land, are in demand.

“We have a lot of interest in not only the land, but everything,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s not a lot of inventory out there — for commercial properties or green space. Our property is flat and mostly dry, so it becomes pretty attractive for development.”

As Daley said, Ludlow Mills has been a longer and more difficult journey than anyone could have anticipated when the property was acquired in 2011, but an important turning point has been reached, and a new chapter in this story is set to unfold.

 

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

Community Spotlight Cover Story

Community Spotlight

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage soon to take shape in the city’s downtown.

‘Good traffic.’

That’s the phrase used by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — who acknowledged that it is somewhat of an oxymoron — to describe traffic that is, well, positive in nature.

This would be traffic generated by vibrancy, by people coming into a city from somewhere else; traffic indicative of progress, as opposed to insufficient infrastructure, poor planning, or both.

Springfield saw quite a bit of this ‘good traffic’ prior to the pandemic, said Sarno, noting that it was generated by concerts at MGM Springfield’s venues, Thunderbirds games, conventions and college graduations at the MassMutual Center, special gatherings like the Winter Weekend staged by the Red Sox in early 2020, or any combination of the above. Sometimes, a random Friday night would be enough to generate such traffic.

And after two years of relative quiet in the wake of the pandemic, the ‘good traffic’ is starting to make a comeback, as is the city as a whole, said Sarno, Springfield’s longest-serving mayor, with 14 years in the corner office, adding that there is promise for a whole lot more in the months and years to come, as pieces to a puzzle come together — or back together, as the case may be.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

These pieces include everything from a resurgent Thunderbirds squad, which made it all the way the AHL finals after taking a full year off due to COVID, to new housing, including the long-delayed renovation of the former Court Square hotel; from a casino in comeback mode, buoyed by the promise of sports gambling, to the return of the Marriott brand downtown after more than $40 million in renovations to the property in Tower Square; from new restaurants and clubs on Worthington Street to a new parking garage soon to rise where an existing structure is being razed.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods. I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

The “state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly parking garage,” as Sarno described it, will be part of a larger development in the area around the MassMutual Center, an initiative aimed at bringing people to that site before, during, and perhaps after events (more on that later).

The city still faces a number of stern challenges, many of them COVID-related, said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, citing such matters as the impact of remote work and hybrid schedules on downtown office buildings, an ongoing workforce crisis that has impacted in businesses in all sectors, and the pressing need to redevelop vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

But he, like the mayor, sees progress on many fronts and, overall, a pronounced recovery from a pandemic that hit the city very hard.

“We’re seeing many positive signs that Springfield is making its way back from the pandemic and the many challenges it created,” said Sheehan, who cited, among many yardsticks of momentum, a long line to get a table at Wahlburgers during a recent visit. “And we’re seeing these signs not only in the downtown, but the neighborhoods as well.”

Sarno agreed. He said that, over his lengthy tenure as mayor, the city has coped with a number of challenges and crises, from the June 2011 tornado to the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. But COVID has been different, and it has tested the city and its business community in many different ways.

“It’s been a difficult two years; the pandemic threw everyone a huge curveball,” he explained, adding that city leaders were trying to respond to an unprecedented health crisis while also making good use of state and especially federal money to help small businesses keep the lights on.

“My team has been tested, and, true, it’s been through a lot of disasters before,” he went on. “But this was like shadowboxing — it was surreal.”

COVID isn’t over, and challenges for small businesses remain, but in many respects, the city can get back to business, and it is doing just that.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Springfield, its ongoing bounce-back from COVID, and, yes, the return of that ‘good traffic.’

State of the City

It was affectionately known as the ‘dog and pony show.’

That’s what some called an annual gathering, orchestrated by the city in conjunction with the Springfield Regional Chamber, at which officials gave what amounted to a progress report on the city, with a large dollar amount attached to all the various economic-development and infrastructure projects — from MGM Springfield to the renovation of Union Station to the reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct — that were in progress or on the drawing board.

The city hasn’t staged one of these sessions in several years, mostly due to COVID, said Sarno, but one is being planned, probably for early next year. And there will be quite a bit to talk about, he went on, hinting at new developments at sites ranging from Union Station to the former Municipal Hospital on State Street, while offering what amounts to a preview of that gathering.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

And he started with the new, 1,000-space parking garage, which he and Sheehan anticipate will be much more than that.

Indeed, plans for the site include ‘activation’ — that’s a word you hear often when it comes to properties in the downtown — of a surface parking lot next to the present (and future) garage, and, overall, creation of an atmosphere similar, said the mayor, to what is seen at Fenway Park in Boston on game nights.

“Bruce Landon Way will be activated, and many times, it will be shut down,” said Sheehan, adding that the current surface lot, and Bruce Landon Way itself, will become extensions of the MassMutual Center.

“They can have their events literally flowing out to Bruce Landon Way, creating much more activation within the downtown,” he explained. “And it will be utilized for pre- and post-event programming.”

Elaborating, he said the current surface lot will be public space that the Convention Center Authority will lease out for various kinds of functions, bringing more people downtown.

Meanwhile, a new entrance to the MassMutual Center will be added at the corner of State and Main streets, providing the facility with two points of entry and, with this new addition, what the mayor likened to a “Broadway marquee,” a much stronger bridge to MGM Springfield and other businesses south of the arena.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself,” said Sheehan. “And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

That new entrance may help spur development of several vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the MGM casino, said Sarno, adding that requests for proposals to redevelop these properties, now under city control, will be issued soon.

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield, says the facility was designed to reflect the history and culture of the city.

These developments, coupled with the ongoing renovation of 31 Elm St., the former Court Square Hotel, into market-rate apartments due to be ready for occupancy in roughly a year, are expected to create more interest in Springfield and its downtown within the development community, said the mayor, noting, again, that needed pieces are coming together.

These pieces include housing, which will create a larger population of people living in the downtown; restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, a broad category that includes MGM Springfield, restaurants, and the Thunderbirds; and a vibrant business community.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself. And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

Individual pieces coming into place include not only 31 Elm, but the recently opened housing in the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street; some new restaurants and clubs on and around Worthington Street, including Dewey’s Lounge, the Del Raye, and Jackalope; and the planned new Big Y supermarket, which will address a recognized need in what has long been recognized as a food desert.

Staying Power

Then, there’s Tower Square and the Marriott flag that has been returned to the hotel several years after it was lost.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the two years worth of renovations to that hotel and planned reopening of the facility, Dinesh Patel showed off finishing-touch work in several areas, including the lobby, the fitness center, the pool room, and some of the meeting rooms.

He also opened the door the large ballroom, revealing a training session for dozens of the more than 180 people expected to be hired before the facility opens its doors. Like most of the renovation work itself, conducted at the height of the pandemic and its aftermath amid supply-chain issues and soaring prices for many products and materials, the hiring process has been a stern challenge as qualified help remains in short supply.

But for Patel and partner Mid Vitta, whose work to reclaim the Marriott flag — and reinvent Tower Square — earned them BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2022, it has been what amounts to a labor of love. The two saw an opportunity in the once-thriving but then-challenged retail and office complex in the heart of downtown, and have made the most of it, finding some imaginative reuse of many spaces. These include the recruitment of the YMCA, which has brought its childcare and fitness-center operations, as well as its administrative offices, to Tower Square. It also includes that new and decidedly different kind of Big Y store in space formerly occupied by CVS.

As for the hotel, which will open in time for the induction ceremonies for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, Patel said the timing is good for the property to come back online.

“Gas prices are coming down, and people are traveling again,” he said. “They want to get out and go places; we see a lot of pent-up demand.”

As he offered a tour of the nearly-ready facility, Patel noted the many nods to Springfield, its history, and its culture, from the basketball-themed art in the fitness center to the wall coverings depicting blueprints of noted inventions that happened in Springfield (from the monkey wrench to rail cars) to the many photographs of ‘old Springfield’ found on the walls of the stairs leading to the meeting facilities on the sixth floor.

“We wanted to tell the story of Springfield,” Patel said. “And we tell that story all through the hotel.”

Increasingly, that story is one of progress and recovery from COVID, not only in the downtown, where much of the interest is focused, but in many other neighborhoods as well, said both Sarno and Sheehan, noting that neighborhood plans have been developed for many different sections of the city that address everything from sidewalks to lighting to beautification, with gathered suggestions then forwarded to an ARPA advisory committee.

Overall, new schools and libraries are being built, infrastructure improvements are being undertaken, and businesses continue to be supported as they face the lingering effects of COVID through initiatives such as the Prime the Pump program, which provided grants of various sizes to businesses in need.

The city has received nearly $124 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to date, and it has distributed more than $50 million, including $4 million dispensed in the seventh round to date, earlier this month. Those funds went to small businesses, new businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, housing, capital projects, and direct financial assistance to households and seniors, said Sarno, adding that that the basic strategy has been put that money to use in ways where the impact can be dramatic and immediate.

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area is one of the highlights of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield.

“The majority of the monies that have been distributed have really helped a lot of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” he explained. “It’s a very eclectic mix, from mom-and-pop businesses to larger ventures to direct assistance.”

There have been efforts in the broad category of workforce development as well, he went on, adding that businesses of all kinds continue to be impacted by an ultra-tight labor market, just as many are starting to see business pick up again.

Overall, there have been more than 30 meetings conducted with residents and business owners in attendance, said the mayor, adding that these listening sessions were staged to gain direct feedback on how federal COVID relief money can best be spent in Springfield.

Identified needs and challenges range from workforce issues to childcare to transportation, said Sheehan, adding that what has come from these sessions is dialogue, which has often led to action, on how the city can collaborate with other groups and agencies to address these matters. And it has been a very fruitful learning experience.

“It created an opportunity to look at things differently,” he noted. “And I do think it has caused people to look at how we can work collaboratively to solve some pretty significant problems.”

Bottom Line

To motorists who are stuck in it, there is really no such thing as ‘good traffic.’

But while drivers don’t use that phrase, elected officials and economic-development leaders certainly do. As Sarno told BusinessWest, good traffic is a barometer of a city’s vibrancy, a measure of whether, and to what degree, a community has become a destination.

For a long while, Springfield didn’t have much, if any, of this ‘good traffic,’ and then, in the 18 months or so before COVID, it did. The pandemic and its many side effects took much of that traffic away, but there are many signs that it’s back and here to stay.

As the mayor said, the city is starting to get its mojo back. 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s priorities have included housing, business development, infrastructure, schools, and the emerging cannabis sector.

 

 

When people ask Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle to list her priorities for the city, her answer is always, “housing, housing, housing, and housing.”

And there’s a reason for that — actually, several of them, which LaChapelle summed up in this poignant way: “Easthampton is the cool-kid city.”

By that, she meant that this former mill town has become a destination for businesses, but also a very desirable place to live because of its arts, culture, attractive neighborhoods, and recreational spaces. That mix has created a need for housing — a major need.

“If we don’t put a huge focus on housing, and if we don’t get housing units done by 2025, our city will be in trouble,” said the mayor, adding that her administration has, indeed, focused significantly on this issue, and it has yielded results, such as the One Ferry project, an initiative that is creating not only new housing but retail and office space as well.

Several old mill buildings on Ferry Street are undergoing a massive effort converting the former factories there to condominiums and rental housing, as well as some retail and office space.

So far, the renovation work has focused on three buildings: 3 Ferry St. was finished in 2020, and it is now fully occupied with residents and several businesses. Meanwhile, 5 Ferry St. consists mainly of apartments with condominiums on the top floor; it is expected to open later this year.

“All but two condos are sold at 5 Ferry St., and the developer reported a 65% lease rate,” LaChapelle said, adding that “70% occupancy is usually the goal for a new development, so they are right there.”

Work has also begun on Building 7, scheduled to open in 2024. When complete, the three buildings will add nearly 150 units of housing to Easthampton.

“The Ferry Street project is what we hoped it would be, a spark for community development and neighborhood pride,” the mayor said. “Watching the progress at the site has been a real confidence booster for the city.”

While housing is indeed a priority, it is just one of many priorities in a community that has seen a great deal of change, evolution, and growth over the past quarter-century, and is poised for more of all the above.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses. This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

Other focal points for LaChapelle and her administration include new business development, business-sector recovery from COVID, infrastructure, schools, growth of the city’s emerging cannabis sector, and more, and the mayor reports progress on all these fronts, especially those involving assistance and mentoring to small businesses.

Many are included in a broad initiative called Blueprint Easthampton. Designed to promote entrepreneurial innovation, the initiative also emphasizes partnerships with key constituents in the community such as nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

Keith Woodruff

Keith Woodruff was one of the first local business owners to open an online store on the Shop Where I Live site.

LaChapelle said Blueprint Easthampton is like an octopus in the way it keeps reaching out to different areas. One notable partnership is with the Coalition for Community Empowerment, a collaboration with the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Lawyers for Civil Rights. They have embarked on a statewide program to provide small-business technical assistance and open paths to entrepreneurs from at-risk populations. LaChapelle said at least a dozen businesses in Easthampton have benefited in some way from this effort.

“At a deeper level, three businesses have received grants, and two others have signed up for extensive business coaching,” LaChapelle said, explaining that startup businesses often have to realign their ideas to serve the market that exists.

“In one case, a baker had a business plan based on a delivery and storefront model,” she noted. “After coaching from the coalition, she realized her idea would work better without the storefront.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Easthampton, the many forms of progress being seen there, and what’s next for the ‘cool-kid city.’

 

‘Shop Where I Live’

In January, LaChapelle began her third term as mayor. Unlike her previous terms, which each lasted two years, the mayor’s term now runs four years. It’s a change that makes long-term planning easier on many fronts.

“With a four-year term, the mayor isn’t distracted with campaigning after only 18 months,” she said. “The longer term also makes it easier to manage the timing of grant cycles.”

The longer term is beneficial when coping with pressing issues, said LaChapelle, adding, again, that there are many of them, especially in a community that has become home to small businesses across many sectors, from technology to the arts to hospitality, that were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

In partnership with the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, the city secured a grant from the state’s Rapid Recovery Plan, which was set up to address the economic impact COVID-19 had on cities and towns. The grant resulted in an online retail effort run by the chamber known as easthampton.shopwhereilive.com.

Moe Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, explained that the Shop Where I Live program is an Amazon-type experience involving local businesses.

“Many businesses don’t have the resources or the time to set up online shopping, so this site makes that possible,” she said.

Consumers can choose offerings from several local businesses, put them all into an online shopping cart, and make one payment. Because the site is supported by a state grant, it’s open to all Easthampton businesses whether they belong to the chamber or not.

Moe Belliveau

Moe Belliveau said Shop Where I Live will help businesses respond to economic challenges both now and in the future.

“For members, this will be an ongoing benefit,” Belliveau said. “For non-members, the first year is free, then they can choose to join the chamber or pay a service fee to remain on the site.”

Each merchant can offer up to 100 products in their online store, said Belliveau, adding that Shop Where I Live is not restricted to retail operations. Services such as health clubs, web developers, and insurance agents can be found there, too.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses,” Belliveau said. “This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

KW Home, an interior-design firm and retail showroom, was one of the first businesses to open an online store on Shop Where I Live. Owner Keith Woodruff expects the site to benefit his business going forward.

“For the last two years I’ve had to operate by appointment only with limited hours,” he explained. “Many consumers are still concerned about shopping in person, so having the online store will be a big help.”

KW Home is an example of a business that provides a service and sells products. Most of Woodruff’s work is driven by working with clients to present design plans specific to their homes and then providing the furniture, lighting fixtures, and other items to execute the plan.

He said 80% of what he sells are special orders for clients. Most items run the gamut from a specific type of fabric for a chair or couch to custom window treatments. He also carries items in limited fabric offerings that are more easily available and work well with the online store.

“In order to make the launch date of June 30, I put only a few items on the site,” Woodruff said. “As this rolls out, I plan to add smaller accessories on there to give people more choices.”

 

Work in Progress

One of the many disruptions COVID caused was the nature of where people work. Even now, some people have returned to their worksites, some continue to work from home, while others have left their jobs to pursue the business idea they’d always wanted to try.

Amid these changing dynamics, Belliveau conducted research on how best to use the space at the chamber office on Union Street. The result is a new co-work space called Work Hub on Union.

“We’re looking to address folks who still work from home but need a temporary space, as well as entrepreneurs who are just starting out but are not yet ready for a permanent space,” said Belliveau, adding that the chamber will remain on site, so those in Work Hub can benefit from its support.

“We are designing this so the furniture can be moved around to create educational space,” she explained. “We’ll be able to run things like development programs and entrepreneurial support programs. In short, it’s a much more productive use of the space.”

While inclusivity is a big part of Blueprint Easthampton, so is accessibility. Working with two land trusts, the city recently bought 22 acres of land near Mount Tom that connect to state-owned property. The purchase was intended to save the land from development. Instead, that area will soon have an ADA-accessible trailhead that goes up to the summit of the mountain.

“I ran on improving accessibility for everyone, so this project makes me very proud,” LaChapelle said.

Riverside Industries was a partner in the trail project. Located in the center of Easthampton, Riverside’s mission is “empowering people of all abilities to help them achieve their highest potential and live their best lives.” It is best-known for placing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into employment throughout Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin counties.

Lynn Ostrowski Ireland, president and CEO of Riverside, said anyone can use the new trail because it can accommodate manual or electric wheelchairs, and the ascent along the trail is no greater than the inclines in Riverside’s Cottage Street headquarters.

As someone who has previewed the trail, Ostrowski Ireland reported the summit view is “beyond spectacular.”

“There are plenty of places along the trail to pull off and take a break or just to stop and enjoy the view along the way,” she said. “We will definitely bring clients there and let their families know about it, too. It’s really something everyone can enjoy.”

Natural surroundings like Mount Tom are part of the attraction for new students at Williston Northampton School. The private college-prep school approaches the fall with a full enrollment. Ann Hallock, director of communications at Williston, said 495 students will be on campus, hailing from all over the U.S. as well as 30 different countries.

“We consider our location in Easthampton to be a unique selling point of the school,” Hallock said. “Students love the location, especially being able to walk into town for restaurants or visit shops or go for hikes on Mount Tom. Parents like all that too when they come to visit their kids.”

Williston students also get involved with several local organizations, such as the Easthampton Community Center and the Emily Williston Library.

When classes begin in the fall, the new Mountain View School, housing students in grades K-8, will be fully open to all its students. As the finishing touches were added this year, middle-school students moved in during the spring. Now that construction is complete, the elementary students will begin their classes at Mountain View in the fall.

With the new school project done, LaChapelle has shifted her attention to finding a reuse for the Maple Street, Center, and Pepin schools, the three buildings replaced by Mountain View. Later this summer, the mayor will issue a request for proposals that she hopes will attract the attention of developers who are planning their next construction season.

Naturally, the mayor would like to see the buildings turn into housing.

“Depending on how they are developed, the three buildings could add as many as 150 rental housing units,” she said. “Realistically, we’re hoping to see 70 to 80 units get added to the housing rolls, with 20% to 25% of those designated affordable.”

The search for a developer comes after 18 months of residents working with a consultant to determine the needs and wishes of each neighborhood where the schools are located.

“It’s exciting because every step of the way, we have been talking with residents about the buildings,” the mayor said. “The residents have done an amazing job, and after all their input, it’s safe to say the people have spoken.”

When the people spoke and voted to allow cannabis sales in Easthampton, no one knew what the impact might be on the city. In the beginning, there were fears of higher crime, underage use of cannabis, and fire-suppression issues in the shops. Now, with five dispensaries operating in the city, LaChapelle said none of those concerns came to pass.

Instead, the biggest effect was increased wear and tear on their roads.

“The revenue we’ve received from cannabis has largely been spent on our roads because they have been heavily impacted with the additional traffic,” she told BusinessWest.

The mayor added that it’s actually good news that the impact was on roads because many of them weren’t in good shape before cannabis came to town.

“We had to reprioritize which roads get paved because suddenly there are thousands more people driving on these roads,” she said.

 

Bottom Line

Now that the city is in a good place with its budget and has improved its bond rating since COVID, LaChapelle is reflective on how far Easthampton has come.

“I’m super proud of the people in our city departments and their leaders in how they’ve taken all our projects head on,” she said. “I feel we haven’t dropped any of the balls we were juggling before COVID.”

She quickly added that, because Easthampton is such a desirable place to live, there’s plenty of work to be done going forward.

That’s the reality when you’re the ‘cool-kid city.’

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Mayor William Reichelt

Mayor William Reichelt says West Springfield is making significant progress on many of the goals he set when first elected in 2015.

While the country will be celebrating its 250th birthday in 2026, West Springfield will mark that same milestone two years earlier.

And the planning for what will be a huge party is very much underway, said Mayor William Reichelt, noting that a committee has been put together, chairs of that board have been selected, and a dialogue will soon be launched with town residents to determine how, where, and in what ways they want to observe that birthday.

And while two years will go by quickly, especially with all this planning and execution to handle, this community that operates as a city but still calls itself a town could look much different by the time the big party kicks off.

Several of its major roadways, including Memorial Avenue and sections of Route 5, will be redone or in the process of being redone (hopefully the former, said the mayor as he crossed his fingers — figuratively, anyway) by then. There will be some new businesses on those stretches — Amherst Brewing is moving into the former Hofbrauhaus property, for example — and some of them well before 2024. And there may actually be some cannabis-related ventures in this town that has thus far said ‘no’ to this now-booming industry; a critical City Council vote on the matter took place on July 18, just after this issue of BusinessWest went to press, and Reichelt, who backed a measure to permit the licensing of such establishments, was confident that he had the requisite six votes for passage.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast.”

“We’re in a much different place than we were four years ago, when it was 8-1 [against],” he said, adding that the measure would enable businesses to be located on large stretches of Riverdale Street, the preferred location among those in that industry.

And there is a chance, albeit a slight chance at this point, that the massive power-generating plant near the rotary at the Memorial Bridge may disappear from the landscape it has dominated for decades. Indeed, it has been decommissioned, and its owners are deciding what to do with the property.

“We’re in discussions now about what remediation will look like; I would like to see a clean site so another developer can do something with it, but we’re still in the talking stage,” Reichelt said, adding that the community is looking closely at what happened with a similar but larger property in Salem that is being redeveloped.

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons, features an eclectic mix of businesses and will soon add a restaurant.

But enough about what might and might not happen over the next two years. For now, West Springfield and its mayor are making progress on many of the goals he set down when he was first elected in 2015, including infrastructure, new schools and additions to existing schools, attracting new businesses, and creating what he called a “walkable downtown” with plenty of attractions.

Early on, he said he wanted to create ‘another Northampton.’ “But people have this weird dislike of Northampton, for some reason, so now, we say we want it to be like West Hartford,” Reichelt noted, adding that his community is certainly moving in that direction with initiatives ranging from a walking trail and improved infrastructure along the historic town green to the reinvention of 95 Elm St.

Formerly home to United Bank and still known to many as the ‘United Bank building,’ the three-story office complex is now home to a mix of businesses, and a new restaurant will soon be added to that mix.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on West Springfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

 

Party Planning

Returning to the subject of the 250th birthday party, Reichelt said the wheels are in motion for that celebration, and some pieces are starting to fall into place.

That list includes a special commemorative 250th birthday beer to be created by Two Weeks Notice Brewing, which set up shop in West Springfield several years ago and has established a firm presence in the community; no word yet on just what this brew will be or what it will be called.

Meanwhile, old documents and photos are being collected, and a commemorative history — a significant update to one produced for the 200th birthday in 1974 — is being planned, said Reichelt, adding that there is preliminary talk of staging an event similar to the Taste of West Springfield that was put on for many years by the community’s Rotary Club.

“We’re talking about bringing something like that back, maybe with a food truck festival on the common,” he said, reiterating that planning for the 250th is still very much in the early stages.

And while this planning continues, officials are making progress on a number of different fronts in the community, everything from the planning of infrastructure work on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale Street to determining how to spend roughly $8 million in ARPA funds (other infrastructure projects are at the top of that list) to contemplating what might be done if that massive power plant actually comes down.

Reflecting on that list, and his first six and half years in office, Reichelt, now one of the longest-serving mayors in the region, said he’s learned during his tenure that it often (always?) takes a long time to get something done, and, as a result, communities and those who lead them must be patient and perseverant.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast,” he told BusinessWest. “Projects that I started talking about back in 2016 … we’re just starting to get funding for and breaking ground now.”

As an example, he pointed to the last remaining piece, the restaurant at 95 Elm St., something he’s been pursuing for years and an element he believes will be a nice compliment to what already exists on that street — a few restaurants, the Majestic Theatre, and a bagel shop already at 95 Elm — and make the area more of a destination.

Hofbrauhaus

At top, the town common now boasts new walking paths. Above, the former Hofbrauhaus property will become a new site for Amherst Brewing.

It’s also taken some time to make the planned improvements to the green area, which now boasts new traffic lights, improved intersections, and a half-mile loop for walking and other uses, said the mayor, adding that a similar upgrade is planned for Elm Street.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it,” he said. “We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Meanwhile, there are ambitious plans on the table for improving the full length of Memorial Avenue, from the Route 5 rotary to the recently widened Morgan Sullivan Bridge. The $25 million, state-funded project is slated to commence next April, and it will take two years to complete.

Significant work is also planned for Route 5 (Riverdale Street) and specifically the stretch north of I-91, said Reichelt, adding that the broad goal is to redevelop that section of the street, which has always been far less popular with retailers than the stretch south of the highway.

“There’s this perception … businesses have no desire to be north of the I-91 overpass,” he said. “They all want to be between the overpass and East Elm connection, where are no vacancies.”

As for the aforementioned power plant, it is very early in the process of deciding what its fate will be, said Reichelt, adding that, if all goes well, the community could have 10 acres of land right off Route 5 and Memorial Avenue that could be redeveloped for a number of uses. There is a landfill next door, so there are some limitations, he noted, but industrial, commercial, and infrastructure opportunities exist, including a connection to the rotary so that motorists can go both north and south from Agawam Avenue.

 

What’s Down the Road

But much of the attention is now focused on cannabis-related businesses, that July 18 vote, and what will likely happen if that measure passes.

At present, the only business allowed in West Springfield for cannabis-related ventures is to advertise their products and services on billboards along the highways that run through the community. That will change, of course, if the measure passes, as the mayor predicts it will, and he expects West Side to be an attractive mailing address for such companies.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it. We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Indeed, Reichelt said he no longer uses the phrase ‘crossroads of the region’ to describe his community, preferring ‘retail capital of Western Mass.,’ a nod to the many regional and national retail heavyweights — from Costco to Dick’s Sporting Goods to Home Depot — that have located stores in the community.

The traffic that drew those major retailers should also attract cannabis businesses and especially dispensaries, he added.

Reichelt noted that he believes that there is sufficient momentum to get the measure passed, and there may be more with the recent 3% increase in property taxes, the town’s first in several years. Indeed, he said the tax revenue generated from cannabis-related businesses and its potential to help prevent another such increase in rates may help incentivize the council.

“It’s four years later, and the landscape has really changed,” he said. “You hear a lot of the same legalization arguments that you heard back in 2016, but that argument was settled in 2016 — it’s legal in Massachusetts now. To think that it’s not in town is … not based in reality. There are signs on Riverdale and Westfield Street and Memorial Avenue pointing to the different places you can buy marijuana outside of town; look at the tax money that’s leaving here.”

While the July 18 date was one to circle, there’s another key date fast approaching — Sept. 16. That’s the kickoff to the Big E, which will take another big step this year to returning to normal — as in 2019 conditions.

The fair was canceled in 2020, and while it was staged in 2021, it did not have a full lineup of entertainment, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, adding that, for 2022, it will be all systems go.

Much of the entertainment has already been announced, he said, noting that Lynyrd Skynrd will close the fair this year. Meanwhile, there will be a number of new attractions and events — including an opportunity for fair attendees to communicate with those at the International Space Station — and even food items, including noodles, vegan offerings, and full-sized donuts.

Cassidy said advanced ticket sales are running well ahead of the pace for last year, which was a near-record year for the fair, and other strong years. “People don’t even know what what the fair is going to offer, but they’re already supporting it by buying tickets, sometimes nine months in advance of the event,” he told BusinessWest. “And that provides a great deal of emotional support for those of us who run the place because we know that our patrons care about the organization.”

But while projections are certainly good for this year, he will watch closely what happens at several other state and regional fairs set to open in the coming weeks.

Indeed, one wildcard could be gas prices, which, while they’re coming down, remain historically high and could deter some families from driving long distances for entertainment.

 

Bottom Line

Reflecting on why this city still calls itself a town, Reichelt recalled that the vote to change the charter and convert from town government to city government was close — as in very close.

“They decided when they wrote the town charter to maintain the ‘town’ name to maintain that town feel,” he said, adding that many people have approached him and said ‘Will, it doesn’t feel like a town anymore.’

Such sentiments lead him to believe that maybe, just maybe, by the time West Springfield turns 250, it will not only operate a city government, but call itself a city.

If so, that will be only one of many potentially significant changes that will take place between now and then in a community where there is always movement and the landscape is, well, a work in progress.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Karl Stinehart, left, and Russ Fox

Karl Stinehart, left, and Russ Fox say Southwick’s goal is preserve its high quality of life while also creating needed business tax revenue.

 

Southwick residents love the natural beauty and the many recreation choices their town offers but they also like reasonable tax rates.

Russell Fox, chair of the Southwick Select Board, said to accomplish both means business development must be part of the equation to ease the tax burden.

“It’s a balancing act that the Select Board takes very seriously,” said Fox, who has been a selectman off and on (mostly on) for more than 40 years. “I would not want to see families who have lived in town for generations say they can no longer afford to stay here.”

A balancing act indeed, as last year residents made it know that they will support some business development proposals, but not all. After the town’s planning board and select board had approved a $100 million project involving the online used car seller Carvana, residents expressed a number of concerns about the size of the project and its impact on the community.

The site where the Carvana project was proposed is a 90-acre parcel on College Highway near Tannery Road. After residents rejected Carvana, Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer for Southwick said the owner of the property has since come up with a creative solution.

“The parcel will be broken into five lots,” Stinehart said. “We can now look to attract a retail store or a light manufacturer, something that won’t have the negative impact of a large facility.”

That’s the kind of progress that gets the attention of Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a great idea for them to split up that parcel to make it more attractive for smaller businesses,” Oulette said. Currently, 13 Southwick businesses belong to the Greater Westfield Chamber.

Stinehart pointed to the town’s tax rate of $16.98 per thousand for both residential and businesses as another incentive for economic development in Southwick. Oulette agreed.

“Southwick’s tax rate is competitive and should help the town to attract more business there,” Oulette said.

Overall, there are many types of development happening in this recreational town, both commercial and residential.

“It’s a balancing act that the Select Board takes very seriously. would not want to see families who have lived in town for generations say they can no longer afford to stay here.”

That list includes Faded Flowers LLC, which has been cleared to build a cannabis-growing facility. Stinehart said town voters have approved this facility, which will grow and process cannabis for commercial distribution. At the same time, voters have rejected hosting any retail dispensaries in town.

“We are in the early stages of this project,” Stinehart said. “They have done some site work but have not yet built the facility. Once complete there will be a lag time before the business is productive, so we are a long way from seeing any revenue for the town.”

Meanwhile, the Greens of Southwick is a development of custom-built homes on the land that was formerly Southwick Country Club. Located on both sides of College Highway, the west side of the development features 25 lots, with only two still available. More recently work began on the east side of the property where 38 lots are planned. Phase one of the east side has only three lots available.

On the other side of town, a 100-unit condominium project near the intersection of Depot Street and Powder Mill Road has also been approved.

“When those are built, the people who live there will have close access to the Rail Trail and can easily walk to the center of town,” said Stinehart.

While all these new homes will create additional tax revenue, residents who live on Lake Congamond are begrudgingly contributing more to the town’s tax coffers due to improvements to their current homes.

For several years, many of the modest homes on the shores of the lake are getting major renovations by their owners. As a result, these lakefront residences are now assessed at a higher tax rate than before the reno work.

“People are very upset with us about their increased taxes and we tell them how the state sets the tax rate, we have nothing to do with it,” said Fox.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Southwick and the ongoing efforts to create that balance that Fox spoke of.

 

Work and Play

Calling the lake a tremendous asset to Southwick, Fox also noted that part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds the town received were used to install weir gates on Congamond.

“Weir gates help us address flood control and keep contaminated water from flowing into the lake,” Fox said. Every spring the town treats the lake with aluminum sulfate or “alum” to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. Without the weir gates, contaminated water from flash floods would back up into the lake and negate the alum treatment. That affects the health of the lake, and the town budget, as Southwick spent $600,000 for the alum treatment.

Looking longer term, Fox said the town would like to dredge certain areas of the lake to keep it healthy.

“Lakes die naturally from sediment that keeps increasing over the years on the lakebed,” he explained. “Right now, there is an estimated six feet of sediment on the bottom of Lake Congamond.”

Because Congamond acts as a recharger for the aquifer, Fox is also hoping to start a dialogue with Westfield and West Springfield, as both communities get their water from the aquifer.

“It might be beneficial for all three towns to kick in to dredge the lake to make sure it keeps providing clean water,” he said.

Most of the $1.4 million Southwick received in its first allotment of ARPA funds was spent on a water project of a different sort, a new water pump and filtration station.

“This is a benefit to every water ratepayer and helps the town with improved water pressure,” said Fox.

Like nearly every town, Southwick has plenty of paving projects to tackle. Stinehart said town officials plan to use some of the ARPA money to fix roads in town but there’s a hitch. Budgets for road projects are set long before any paving happens.

“Because asphalt is petroleum-based, our paving projects now cost much more than we had planned,” Stinehart said. “The price inflation shortens the length of roads we can cover for that amount of money.”

As Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, big decisions are determined directly by residents.

“Everything we do must ultimately be approved by the voters at the Town Meeting,” said Fox. “I tell people all the time it’s the purest form of government.”

Stinehart explained several areas where voters have decided to make investments in their community.

“We continue to expand our paramedic EMS service which is run by the Fire Department,” he noted. “We’re adding more people so we can deliver that service at the highest level.”

Southwick is the lead community for a shared services grant to fund one full time and one part time nurse. In addition to Southwick, the nurses will cover Granville, Tolland, Blandford, Russell and Montgomery and serve in a visiting nurse-type of role. Stinehart explained that because of COVID, some people are still reluctant to go to medical facilities for routine treatment. With several towns taking part, the need for the service can be addressed at a more reasonable cost for everyone.

“It’s tough for one small community to budget for having a nurse on call, but with several towns paying it becomes more affordable for each town and it’s financially worthwhile for the nurse,” Stinehart said.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.59
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

When entering Southwick drivers are greeted with a welcome sign that brands the town as a “recreational community.” One notable recreation spot in town is The Wick 338, the motocross course that continues to grow in prominence in the sport. On July 9, the course will host the Southwick National Motocross Championship, which will be televised nationally on NBC.

“Based on ticket sales so far, the organizers are anticipating one of the largest events ever,” said Fox. “I hope they have good weather for it.”

The town also hosts two popular golf courses with The Ranch and Edgewood Country Club. Stinehart discussed a new golf game in town that has begun to take off: disc golf.

“The folks at the New England Disc Golf Center have told us people are playing hundreds of rounds of disc golf every week,” Stinehart said. “It’s a relatively new sport that’s gaining in popularity.”

Southwick is still basking in the glow of its 250th anniversary celebration. Though 2020 was the actual year of the anniversary, COVID forced the town to delay scheduled events and create new ones. In a “making lemonade out of lemons” kind of way, Fox remarked that they were able to celebrate the 250th for two years instead of just one.

“In 2020 we had a rolling parade where we drove floats into neighborhoods and then last year we held a traditional parade,” Stinehart said. “We’re still selling souvenirs from the event.”

 

Something to Celebrate

The anniversary celebration was so successful, the organizing committee had a surplus after all the costs were covered. That money will be used to make improvements to the town green and renovate the memorial to veterans who were Southwick residents.

“It’s a good use of the money and it will improve the municipal center of our community,” Stinehart said.

Reflecting on the anniversary, Fox said even with a two-year celebration, COVID prevented them from holding all the activities they would have liked to host.

At that point, Stinehart quipped, “Well, there will be a 275th anniversary.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Right Place, Right Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

McGill Hose and Coupling is another example.

Erin Bissonnette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Barone

Grace Barone

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Buendo

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

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

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

 

The Bottom Line

As for McNally, her next move is well planned.

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jaclyn Stevenson

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Art and Soul

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

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

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

Jennifer Nacht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Setting the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Carolyn Brennan

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

In some ways Hadley is a tale of two communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Pazmany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fruits of Their Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Experts in Their Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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