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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith and Sue Bunnell say one of the biggest projects going on in Wilbraham is a renovation of Route 20.

Revival by its very definition suggests an improvement in the condition or strength of something. It means giving new life to what already exists, an upgrade of sorts.

This is what elected officials in Wilbraham plan to do in several places around town, for a number of reasons.

One of the most valuable assets the town of Wilbraham has to offer both residents and visitors is the array of businesses and attractions on Route 20, and Jeff Smith says that artery is getting a serious upgrade.

“We have a lot of real estate that could be developed,” said Smith, chairman of the Planning Board. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities for businesses to locate here.”

And some already have.

What was known as the Wilbraham Light Shop many years ago was closed up until recently, and friends of the previous owner are reopening it as a new and improved light shop, something that came as a bit of a shock to Smith and other town employees, seeing as it was vacant for about 20 years, but good news for the town nonetheless.

Sue Bunnell, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, added that Wilbraham boasts an excellent track record when it comes to bringing businesses into town.

“Wilbraham has a good reputation of being business-friendly and among the easier places to get a business up and running,” she said.

Part of this is due to zoning flexibility, Smith said. “We have boards and committees that are willing to not only work within the existing zoning laws, but present new zoning laws to the town to ratify so that new businesses can locate here.”

This has happened recently, when Iron Duke Brewing was looking to move from Ludlow Mills to Wilbraham. Zoning laws were changed, and Iron Duke is now one of two breweries in town.

Still, there is work to be done. And at this point, the Route 20 renovation plan is at 25% completion, which marks the start of public hearings.

“We’ve seen preliminary drawings,” said Bunnell. “Those will be made available to the public, and they will be going from the Friendly’s corporate location to the Palmer line with that redo of the highway.”

What was once meant to include solely road work has become a much more involved process, and town officials recognize the need for all the work being done to make this project happen.

“It started off as what we thought was a repaving, but it really seems like it’s expanding now to more of a redesign,” said Planning Director John Pearsall.

Wilbraham’s town officials hope this redesign, coupled with a progressing marketing strategy and few other things on the agenda, will continue to make it a place people want to live and spend their money.

Driving Momentum

Like Pearsall said, what was supposed to be a fairly simple project has now turned into a plan to revive Route 20. This includes making adjustments to some of the problematic intersections, widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more.

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

Most importantly, town officials hope to capitalize on the space and buildings available along the road, and are already taking some options into consideration, including mixed-use developments.

Actually, while the term ‘mixed use’ has been thrown around a lot for Route 20, Pearsall said, a better phrase would be ‘multiple use.’

Recently, Delaney’s Market opened in a building that was redeveloped into a multiple-use project. In addition, a proposal for a Taylor Rental property that has been vacant for a while is under review. Also in the works for that property, a Connecticut developer recently filed an application to create another multiple-use development on those grounds.

“I think pedestrian access to a lot of these businesses is going to increase because they’re talking about running proper sidewalks up both sides of Route 20,” Smith said. “It will be a huge help to the existing businesses and future ones.”

The bigger picture of Boston Road is that it was, at one time, all exclusively zoned for commercial activity. But over the years, the town has been trying to introduce residential uses there, including the Woodcrest Condominiums and a new active-adult community that’s being developed off Boston Road.

Route 20 isn’t the only part of town that will be utilizing mixed-use communities. Smith noted that they also hope to revive the town center.

“In our town center, there are a few buildings that are slated for demolition, and we’re working on redevelopment of the site,” he said. “We recently decided at a town meeting at the beginning of this year to allow a mixed-use development on this site.”

For this specific development, the term ‘mixed use’ is appropriate. According to Smith, there will be retail and commercial establishments on the first floor and living quarters on the second floor. This, he said, is part of a bigger picture concerning town redevelopment being worked on behind the scenes.

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

“Our expectation is to identify someone to explore how delivering fiber along the Boston Road corridor could create opportunities for businesses,” said Bunnell.

Using Entry Point, a company that has worked with other municipalities to develop and build out their own fiber networks, Wilbraham hopes to give businesses along the Route 20 corridor this opportunity.

Smith is also a business owner of New England Promotional Marketing alongside his wife, Amy, and has been a guinea pig of sorts for the fiber network.

“It was critical for our business; it’s a great system,” he said. “If you’re choked down by your internet, it just becomes slow and difficult to do, and it can really put a damper on your business. Opening up to that fiber-optic pipeline was huge for us, and we want to provide that opportunity all the way down Route 20.”

Welcome Mat

With quite a few items on the to-do list, it’s safe to assume there will be no shortage of excitement in Wilbraham in the coming months and years.

“There are a lot of older buildings that have been kind of run down for a long time, and they’re being turned around,” said Smith. “There are a lot of properties that have been dormant or underutilized, and there’s a big push to rehabilitate these and find new uses or, in some cases, existing uses.”

As for any new businesses looking to make Wilbraham their new home, they can sleep well knowing this is a top priority in Town Hall, Bunnell said. “I think the goal is to make Wilbraham even more attractive and accessible to businesses that are looking to come into town.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mike Vezzola says the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce’s new headquarters at Enfield Square has given the organization greater visibility.

If a long-discussed tribal casino takes shape in East Windsor, Conn., the town of Enfield would find itself in an intriguing geographic spot between two destination casinos — which could bring benefits in a number of ways, Mike Vezzola says.

“It’s still going through a large permitting process, but if the casino does wind up coming to East Windsor, we’re right smack dab in the middle of MGM Springfield and that proposed East Windsor site, so the hope here is that Enfield can become a little bit more of a destination,” said the executive director of the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce during a recent conversation at the chamber’s office in the mall known as Enfield Square.

“It’ll certainly create a lot of runoff for hotels and restaurants,” he went on. “We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through. We’re excited for what’s on the horizon over the next five to 10 years.”

As a border town that may eventually be flanked by two casinos, Enfield is, in many ways, at a crossroads — one that town officials hope will be bolstered by a new train platform in the Thompsonville neighborhood.

Earlier this month, the Town Council unanimously voted to transfer $670,000 from the general fund into a separate fund for the development of a train platform in Thompsonville, a project that has been 15 years in the making and is expected to attract traffic to town and give residents and businesses more reason to relocate or stay there.

Other financial hurdles need to be cleared, as the total cost of a platform would be around $2.5 million. A full train station could follow down the road, at a cost of tens of millions; Enfield is just one of several train-stop communities in the Nutmeg State waiting for DOT action on such projects. In Enfield, town officials say any upgrade will bring a number of economic benefits, particularly for Thompsonville itself, which has been the focus of a planned revitalization project for some time.

The town implemented a tax increment financing (TIF) plan in Thompsonville and the Enfield Square area earlier this year. TIF is an economic-development tool that allows municipalities to use tax revenues generated from new capital investment to assist in a project’s financing.

“We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through.”

Patrick McMahon, CEO of the nonprofit Connecticut Main Street Center, who was hired by the town as a consultant in January to help revitalize Thompsonville, told legislative and business leaders at a recent economic-development breakfast that Enfield leaders envision significant private investment in new business ventures, redevelopment of historic properties, and new public infrastructure.

“Hopefully, the new TIF project will bring some revitalization to that specific area, especially with the commuter rail between New Haven and Springfield,” Vezzola told BusinessWest. “We’re one of the primary stops on that rail, and they’re hoping to get the platform built in the next couple of years.”

Pipeline to Progress

At the same time, Enfield has seen growth in recent years in its manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing sectors, while Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) — which hosted the recent breakfast — has built a reputation as a manufacturing-education leader through its Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center (AMTC).

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and other guests toured the space, speaking to students and taking in the 11,000-square-foot machining lab with its 90 CNC and manual machines, the state-of-the-art additive manufacturing lab, and other high-tech training areas.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

With programs that get students working at good-paying manufacturing jobs in two years or even one in many cases, ACC — and, by extension, its town — has become a promising answer to workforce needs at area plants, which have long lamented persistent skills gaps.

Asnuntuck has forged partnerships and talent pipelines with area manufacturers and businesses including Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, Eppendorf, and Stanley Black & Decker, among others, contributing to a 98% job-placement rate for AMCT graduates.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state,” said Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian, who participated in the tour.

The rise in Enfield’s manufacturing reputation coincides with retail struggles, particularly in Enfield Square, where the only remaining anchor is Target. However, numerous small stores still call the property home, and Party City made a major investment there two years ago.

“The mall is very open to interpretive ways of using their retail space,” Vezzola said, the chamber’s presence there being just one example. “We get a lot of foot traffic in here, community members looking for referrals to some of our members or just information about who we are and what we do and how that benefits the community. Certainly, we’re here and excited to help facilitate any potential new clientele the mall might see in the future.”

While Enfield hasn’t attracted many new large retail establishments over the past year, the community continues to be a haven for sole proprietors, he noted.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state.”

“These are folks who have their own businesses and work from home, whether it’s social-media development or graphic design, things of that nature,” he said. “A lot of young people are starting these businesses — and we’re excited that they want to put their talents and work skills to use right here.”

So excited, in fact, that the chamber is hoping to launch a young professional networking group next year as a subsidiary of the chamber.

“We want to encourage other younger folks who might not necessarily know how to navigate creating their own business or are looking for a new opportunity to learn and develop, so it’ll be a bit of an educational piece as well as a networking piece,” Vezzola explained. “That’s a big focus of what we do; we’re continuing to encourage our businesses to help each other, utilize each other, and benefit each other the best way they can.

“We peg ourselves on changing with the times, and certainly the scope of what a chamber does is completely different now than it was 20 years ago,” he added. “We’re just trying to stay relevant and active and evolve with the times.”

Life on the Border

Vezzola understands, too, the potential for his chamber and its members to make connections across the state line as well.

“Being a border town, I think it helps us get some exposure over the border in Massachusetts for our businesses and vice versa, and we’re considering some partnerships with chambers in Western Massachusetts to maybe do some cross-border development with each other, with networking groups,” he said. “Again, it’s about always evolving and just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mary McNally says the town’s top public-safety priority right now is taking its ambulance service to the next level.

Balance.

That’s a word you hear quite often in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall these days — and for good reason.

This growing community of roughly 16,000 people on the border with Connecticut has long enjoyed a solid balance of business and industry, attractive residential neighborhoods, and a large amount of agricultural land, although the total acreage has fallen in recent years.

It’s an attractive and fairly unique mix — most towns this size can boast two of those ingredients or only one — and maintaining this balance while also achieving additional growth is the ongoing assignment for town leaders.

Balance and patience are the current watchwords for the community, said Town Council President Kathleen Hill, especially as it takes on several large-scale projects she said will benefit the community in the long run.

These include everything from public-safety initiatives to addressing the need to renovate or perhaps replace the town’s 60-year-old high school, one of many built across the region to accommodate the huge Baby Boom generation; from securing a new use for the large eyesore known to most as the Package Machinery property on Chestnut Street to developing a new master plan (more on these matters later).

At the top of the to-do list for town leaders, though, is hiring a new town manager to replace Denise Menard, who left the position on a separation agreement back in July.

For now, Mary McNally serves as acting town manager for a four-month period. She was appointed by the Town Council on Aug. 22 and will serve through Dec. 21 of this year. Hill is in the first year of her second three-year term.

Hill said finding a permanent town manager is a priority for the council and a crucial step in order to begin moving forward with several projects that are in various stages of progression.

“We hired a consultant about a month ago to conduct a professional search for us,” she said, referring to Community Paradigm Associates, which is also assisting Longmeadow in finding a town manager, and recently completed a search for Palmer.

Hill said the town is still in the early stages of the process, and, at this time, the council is gearing up to advertise the position and proceed in the search for the second manager in the town’s history.

Once this process is concluded and the new town manager is settled into the role, more focus can be put on “progressive projects,” as both Hill and McNally called them. Hill says the goal is to move East Longmeadow toward the future, while also keeping the tight-knit community feel that many residents know and love.

“You have to move with the future,” she said. “The character of the town is something we want to preserve. At the same time, we recognize the necessity of being progressive.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Hill and McNally about the process of maintaining balance while also moving the community forward.

Preservation Acts

‘Progress’ is another word you hear in town offices, and officials are looking to create some on a number of fronts, especially with the hiring of a new town manager.

“Next week, the council will be appointing a screening committee, solely for the purpose of reading the applications that the consultant brings to them,” said Hill, noting that the council will not be involved in any part of the process prior to the final four candidates that come out of the pool.

“We will, for the right reasons, go into the process blind to the candidate pool so that we can be totally unbiased, and we will conduct our own public interviews with the hopes of identifying our next manager by early December,” she said, adding that the worst-case scenario is to have the town manager at a desk in early 2020, depending on the candidate and whether or not the person has to give notice to a previous job.

And there will certainly be a lot on that desk in terms of projects and priorities, said those we spoke with, listing matters ranging from public safety to education; economic development to parks and recreation.

With that first category, the priority is taking the town’s ambulance service to the next level, said McNally.

Currently, the town has one basic life support (BLS) ambulance that can be staffed by an EMT, and she says the Fire Department is pursuing an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance that must be staffed by paramedics.

This request, McNally and Hill said, was prompted predominantly by a growing elder community in town. Indeed, East Longmeadow has a half-dozen senior-living facilities, three nursing homes, and other facilities that care primarily for the elderly.

“Because that need is growing, the Fire Department is ready, willing, and able to meet it,” McNally said. “The firefighters have reached that paramedic level of certification; because of the needs of the community, the fire chief has been quite interested in securing that second ambulance, but it’s a long process.”

A feasibility study is also being contemplated for the renovation or rehabilitation of the East Longmeadow Police Department, which was built in 1974.

About a mile down the road from the police station is the old Package Machine property, which is perhaps the most pressing matter in the economic-development category. The industrial property, which includes a large manufacturing area and huge warehouse, has seen various uses over the past several decades — modular homes were built in the warehouse, for example — but has remained mostly vacant and thus become a topic of controversy and speculation.

Hill said there is an interested party, East Longmeadow Redevelopers, that is working with the Planning Board on conceptual work for a mixed-use district that would include apartment-style living, single-family home-style living, retail, and commercial properties.

Hill and McNally referenced Mashpee Commons, located in the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod and described as “upscale shopping and dining in a charming New England village setting,” as the type of facility that might be built on the property.

“There’s something for everyone,” said McNally. “The idea is to have options for your retail, dining, and housing needs. In terms of economic development, it will bring more tax revenue to the town, and it brings housing options for an aging population.”

Kathleen Hill says the former Package Machine property could eventually see new life as a mixed-use development.

She stressed, however, that the discussions are preliminary, and at present there is no existing mixed-use bylaw to establish the district.

The ultimate goal for town officials, as stated above, is to achieve such growth and add needed commercial tax revenue, while also preserving the town’s rural character. This includes preserving remaining farmland.

“We have some huge tracts of land that the town will protect and keep that way as undeveloped land either for conservation or because you just don’t want to build on every square foot you have for a variety of reasons,” said Hill. “You don’t want the farming areas to go away.”

McNally added that this is often a quality-of-life matter, and a desire to have green areas and oxygenation from the trees.

Speaking of green, a plan currently on the back burner is a vision to “re-image” Heritage Park, Hill said. A rendering shows an amphitheater-type stadium built around the pond where more concerts and local events could be held. In addition, more ballfields would be added, as well as a field house.

“It’s going to be a significant investment, but it will add more value to the town,” she said. “That’s what we want to do — make sure there’s return on investment.”

Adding value to the town also means having a good school system with up-to-date buildings, which means addressing the issue of the aging high school. Hill is a former career educator — she spent 21 years in the East Longmeadow school system — and said she has a hard time not advocating for a better high school.

“The reality is, without a building that is state-of-the-art, it drags your real-estate values down,” she said. “People aren’t going to want to come. My husband and I want to sell our house at some point and maybe get something a little smaller. If we let everything in town fall by the wayside, we’re not going to get the same price point that we would if we keep our town vibrant.”

Slow and Steady

Cultivating an even more vibrant community for the long term will be the underlying goal behind creating a new master plan, work on which began more than a year ago.

“Our planner has convened a master plan committee,” said Hill. “It would be a cross-section of folks in town who want to reimagine the master plan. The last one the town did was in 1976, so it’s time.”

Although this might sound like a long time to go without a plan, she said, this is not unique to East Longmeadow. Many small towns either struggle with their plan or simply don’t have one.

But Hill says the benefits of having one are too great to ignore.

“With an accurate plan, as a community, you are in a better position to attract state and federal grant funding,” she added. “It’s a way to define who you are as a community and understand what your needs are. It’s strategic planning. It’s a vision of the future.”

This vision all comes back to that word mentioned at the very top — balance.

“There’s just so much here in this town, but it still has that small-town, quaint feeling,” said Hill. “The sentiment on the Town Council is to maintain that feeling, spend the tax dollars to not only keep that feeling for folks, but give them as much service as possible with a look toward the future as well.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Russell Fox (left, with Karl Stinehart) says Southwick’s slate of 250th-birthday events will be family-friendly and honor the town’s past while looking to a promising future.

Nov. 7 will be a big day in Southwick — and the start of a big year.

Starting that day, a year-long series of events — including holiday festivals, history tours, parades, concerts, and more — will culminate in the Taste of Southwick Gala on Nov. 7, 2020, the 250th anniversary of the town’s incorporation.

Southwick officials and volunteers have been meeting to plan this broad slate of birthday events for some time, much of the planning guided by the nonprofit Southwick Civic Fund.

“It’s an ambitious plan for a smaller community,” said Russell Fox, who chairs the town’s Select Board. “We’re actively raising money, not just from businesses but residents also. And we have some very generous residents — one resident gave us $1,000. So it’s coming along. We’d like these events to be kid-oriented. We want young people to feel like they’re part of the community and learn something about the history of the community and have a good time.”

And there’s a lot to celebrate, as Southwick continues to grow its business base, housing options, and especially its reputation as a recreation destination, Fox said. That Taste event alone speaks to what he calls a recent “restaurant renaissance” in town, with recent additions like Crepes Tea House and Wok on Water, the conversion of Chuck’s Steak House to Westfield River Brewing (which hosts concerts during the summer), and new Crabby Joe’s Bar and Grill owner Mark O’Neill’s plans to tear down that establishment and rebrand it as a state-of-the-art restaurant and brewery that may use wind turbines for electricity.

A 250th-anniversary celebration is an opportunity for a town like Southwick to show how far it has come in the realms of history, population growth, economic development, and cultural and recreational draws, said Karl Stinehart, the town’s chief administrative officer.

On the latter front, Southwick has become a mecca for recreational offerings, like boating on the Congamond Lakes, motocross events at the Wick 338, town events at the 66-acre Whalley Park, and a well-traveled rail trail frequented by bicyclists, hikers, and dog walkers.

As for its population, Southwick still boasts around 10,000 residents, and work continues at two significant new neighborhoods, a 26-home subdivision off Vining Hill Road called Noble Steed, and Fiore Realty’s project to develop about 65 homes at the former Southwick Country Club site. Meanwhile, the town made zoning changes near that site to expand commercial developments along College Highway, including a possible medical facility.

On the infrastructure front, the town is planning to improve sidewalks on Depot Street to provide easier access to downtown, and is currently improving the roadway and drainage on Congamond Road — a key entry into town from Connecticut — aided by more than $4 million in state funds.

“When that’s done, it’ll have a bike lane and sidewalk, and connect the neighborhood both to Gillette’s Corner and to the rail trail,” Stinehart said. “There are businesses that abut the rail trail, and if you go there on certain days, on the weekend, you’ll see people on the trail using those businesses.”

Stinehart noted that the town’s single tax rate of $17.48 continues to be a draw for new businesses, which is good considering the potential development opportunities along College Highway and at the Southwick Industrial Park on Hudson Drive.

“We try to balance residential growth and the business sector, which is an important thing because it keeps our tax rate competitive,” he said. “When you’re a businessman looking to site in a community and you see you’re going to be treated equally as every other taxpayer, you take notice of that.”

Fox agreed. “We try to keep that balance. We’ve got a graying population, with more people on fixed incomes. So the tax rate is a big deal to us. We don’t want to tax people out of the community they grew up in or want to retire in.”

He recalled a business owner looking to move into town from a neighboring community a couple decades ago. He was offered some tax incentives but was angling for more, but instead Fox reminded him of the town’s quality schools, low traffic, reasonable tax rate, and recreational opportunities, and that sold him. “He’s been in Southwick 20-plus years, doing very well.”

Those selling points have only expanded since then, Fox said, and that’s reason enough to celebrate 250 years.

Fun in the Sun

There’s plenty for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy in Southwick, including three golf courses (Edgewood, the Ranch, and a par-3 track at Longhi’s) and the aforementioned 6.5-mile-long rail trail that runs through town from the Westfield border to the Suffield border.

“People in town love the bike trail — it’s just a beautiful area,” Fox told BusinessWest. “When that first started, there were some naysayers, but I think most of those people have gone away.”

“Or they’re on the trail using it,” Stinehart quickly added.

Meanwhile, the lakes on the south side of town — featuring two boat ramps, a fishing pier, and a town beach — provide plenty of activity for residents. A $275,000 project renovated the south boat ramp on Berkshire Avenue last year, making it more modern and handicap-accessible, and the beachfront was recently renovated as well.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.47
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.47
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

Stinehart said the lakes and their environs are an important aspect of Southwick’s outdoor culture and worthy of investment, being, among other things, a major destination for freshwater fishing tournaments.

Then there’s the Wick 338, the motocross track behind the American Legion, which abuts the Southwick Recreation Center and Whalley Park. The complex hosts the annual Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship — which is broadcast live on NBC and draws some 15,000 to 18,000 people to town — as well about 25 other races throughout the year and a host of other events, including Rugged Maniac New England, a challenging, mud-splattered 5K obstacle course. That continual flow of visitors to town benefits a host of other businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, Stinehart noted.

As for Whalley Park itself — which was donated to the town by the prominent Whalley family and developed using municipal and Community Preservation Act funds — it includes a full-size soccer field, baseball field, and softball field, lighting for the fields, a huge kids’ play area, and a pavilion.

The town also recently acquired a 144-acre parcel on North Pond at Congamond Lakes. The Mass. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife awarded Southwick money to help purchase it, and the Franklin Land Trust conducted a fund-raising effort to make up the difference in price. The parcel is abutted by two areas owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of Connecticut.

Even before that, Stinehart said, Southwick had preserved more than 1,000 acres of open space, not including the lakes themselves, and has been active in buying up development rights to farmland, ensuring that they can’t be developed, but must remain agricultural land.

“We’re proud of our agricultural roots, and we still have a lot of farms,” Fox said. “Now we have farms protected in perpetuity.”

Also in the realm of preservation, the town’s Cemetery Commission continues its work to restore the Old Cemetery, which dates to 1770, and the town recently sold its old library, built in 1891, to an investor who intends to partner with the Southwick Historical Commission to preserve it while putting it back on the tax rolls.

Change Is Good

The town’s modern schools — the complex on Feeding Hills Road that houses Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and Southwick Regional School underwent significant additions and renovations in recent years — have also been a draw for new residents, and they have the capacity to house a growing student population, Fox said.

All this has contributed to Southwick being honored this year by the Republican’s Reader Raves program as the best area town to live in.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to that point,” Fox said of the award. “Some people don’t like change at all, but not all change is bad. This is a community we can be proud of. I think we doing a good job of keeping things in balance — commercial, industry, and residential.

“We’re not sitting back; we’re growing,” he went on. “We know people want to move here, and we’re proud of that. We’re going to make sure Southwick remains the town it always has been.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

When Margaret Kerswill talks about her favorite part of the town of Stockbridge, she doesn’t mention a restaurant or the relatively low property-tax rate — she talks about the positive vibe and sense of community in town.

Although Kerswill’s favorite local shop is undoubtably Mutability in Motion, a store she owns with wife Laureen Vizza that sells crafts from more than 50 artisans in the U.S., the first thing she mentioned was the culture of the town.

“That’s the absolute joy of Stockbridge itself,” she said. “You see it in every aspect of Stockbridge, whether you’re just out and about for your daily activities like going to the post office. Doing those normal, daily things, you bump into people all over the place.”

And Kerswill experiences this sense of community in more ways than one. As president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, she regularly attends meetings and finds that several town residents show up consistently, contradicting the typical stereotype for chambers of commerce.

“It’s a great force in the town,” she said. “The more members we have, the more feedback we get, and the more people who can take part in town meetings. It gives us a bigger voice, and it helps us when we come at this as a collective rather than trying to do all the same things, but as individuals.”

She joined the chamber soon after opening her business in town as an opportunity to be a part of a broader marketing reach, hoping to create relationships with other local businesses in town.

“The chamber has a much broader marketing reach than I might as an individual business,” Kerswill told BusinessWest. “Because of that much broader marketing reach, when the businesses come together and support the chamber, it can reach even further because those member dollars increase our marketing budget and increase our ability to interact with the town.”

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

“We are a town that’s open all year long; nobody closes seasonally,” said Kerswill. “All of our shops are independently operated, and they’re all mom-and-pop shops. Everybody carries something you need; we try not to overlap what we sell. We all have different missions.”

Year-round Fun

And these missions all provide different forms of entertainment, 365 days a year.

Barbara Zanetti, executive director of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, noted that, while Stockbridge currently relies on tourism, the chamber is constantly looking for ways to grow the town and slowly move away from that necessity.

“We are a small community with just under 2,000 residents, but we have so much to offer as far as culture,” she said.

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

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $10.13
Commercial Tax Rate: $10.13
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which celebrates 50 years of exhibits this year. The museum holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art, and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work.

Another popular destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s most beloved music festivals. The 2019 Tanglewood season included everything from performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to showcases for up-and-coming artists.

During the warmer months, outdoor activities abound, Kerswill noted, and suggested visitors take a moment to explore nature in and around Stockbridge.

“Bring your kayak up here, get out on the water, and just let your body de-stress for a couple of hours,” she said. “And then take in the surroundings.”

The natural resources, hiking, and beauty of the countryside are a few things that Zanetti says consistently keep people coming to the area, in addition to the arts and cultural aspects that draw a steady flow of visitors.

And though some activities may slow down during the offseason, Kerswill said few close during the colder months. “There’s just this amazing bit of culture that happens. Whether you live here or whether you’re visiting, you will find something regardless of the time of year.”

Best of Both Worlds

While Stockbridge has the feel of being in the countryside, Kerswill says anything a person could need is only a short drive away.

“We like the small-town New England feel, but you’re also not too far from all the conveniences you need,” she said. “It’s like this illusion of living in the country, but you’re surrounded by everything you need, so nothing is really inconvenient.”

All it takes, she said, is a little bit of research to find a plethora of activities to explore in town.

“I think, unless people really get to know the town, they don’t really realize just how much there is here,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds, for sure.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

As anyone who lives in Hadley, visits the town, or drives through it knows, Route 9, the main commercial thoroughfare in this still largely agricultural community, is in a seemingly constant state of motion.

In this case, motion translates into everything from high traffic counts to a continuous flow of new businesses across a wide spectrum that includes service ventures, retail outlets, and hospitality-related companies, to infrastructure work aimed at improving traffic flow.

And Hadley is seeing all of the above at the moment, as Town Administrator David Nixon noted as he talked with BusinessWest about the state of his community.

There are a number of new additions to the commercial landscape in various stages of development, said Nixon, listing a new Homewoods Hotel that recently debuted — bringing the total number of hotel rooms in town to 612 — as well as a Five Guys, L.L. Bean, Harbor Freight Tools, and 110 Grill that will be unveiled soon.

“There’s a lot of demand, and obviously the infrastructure is in place to support that demand except for the gas moratorium,” said Nixon, referring to an ongoing ban on new or expanded natural-gas service in Hampshire and Franklin counties due to a lack of capacity, a source of considerable controversy and consternation within the community. “The University of Massachusetts and the other colleges in the area, as well as 25 other campuses within an hour’s drive of this spot, make the area recession-proof.”

“Route 9 is a big economy booster for the town of Hadley and is continuously being renovated to provide services to both residents and visitors.”

And they make Hadley, population 5,000 or so, a much more populated place during what would be called business hours, with between 35,000 and 80,000 visiting the community each day.

But Hadley has always been much more than a place to visit or travel through on the way to somewhere else, especially the college towns that border it, Amherst and Northampton. Indeed, a mix of culture, recreation, and bucolic countryside makes it an attractive place to live.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned infrastructure work and a mix of municipal projects designed to make it even more attractive.

That latter category includes a new, $3.9 million library that can be seen from the top of Hadley’s Town Hall building. Molly Keegan, general government liaison for the Hadley Select Board, said the state’s Library Building Assoc. is matching 50% of the project costs.

“Like many communities, we were suffering from deferred maintenance on some of our older town properties,” she noted, “and we were able to move forward with a funding strategy that allowed us to build a new library and take advantage of the state grant program.”

Right next door to the library, a new, $7.1 million senior center is under way, and a new, $3.5 million fire substation is being constructed on River Drive.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure work includes a number of road and bridge projects, all aimed at improving traffic flow along Route 9.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how the word ‘Hadley’ remains seemingly synonymous with both ‘change’ and ‘progress.’

Routes and Roots

As is the case with most infrastructure projects, progress usually comes after a lengthy period of inconvenience. And that will certainly be the case in Hadley.

Three major road projects will be taking place simultaneously over the next few years, said Nixon, adding that all are needed for the community to better accommodate those tens of thousands of visitors every day.

Currently underway is work on the roundabout at the west side of the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in Northampton.

“The current configuration is not efficient — it doesn’t allow cars to go through quickly,” he explained. “They’re going to put an exchange with the ramps, the bridge, and the surface streets, so that will get traffic moving a lot quicker.”

In addition, the Bay Road Bridge over Fort River is being completely replaced. The bridge will be reconstructed with wider shoulders and new sidewalks, with construction set to begin in the spring of 2021.

Finally, a four-year project is set to widen Route 9 from Town Hall to 2.5 miles east by the malls. This project will add another lane to the popular route in hopes of significantly reducing traffic tie-ups.

“Traffic congestion has been a real problem in some areas, but is now becoming a real problem all over the East Coast,” Nixon said. “Taking care of the infrastructure is of regional importance.”

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250 (2010)
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.36
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

Equally important is maintaining what has been a diverse business community, he noted, adding that, while the retail and hospitality sectors have exploded along Route 9 in recent decades, agriculture remains a huge part of the town’s vibrancy — and its identity.

“Agriculture is a part of our heritage,” he said. “This is still very much an agricultural town.”

He’s talking about the six dairy farms and endless acres of preserved farmland on town property that accompany the booming business on Route 9.

The town has the most protected farmland in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he said, adding that the strong commercial and industrial base helps the community to not only preserve its agricultural base, but keep its residential tax rates comparatively low.

But while small in size (population-wise) and mostly rural in character, Hadley is facing some big-city challenges.

“We are, at our core, a small town,” Nixon said. “We have the resources of a small town, and yet we’re dealing with much larger issues.”

Chief among them is traffic, he said, adding that this is a seasonal concern for the Berkshires and Cape Cod, in Hadley, it’s a year-round problem, although conditions are somewhat better when the colleges are not in session.

The town will have some help as it goes about taking on these various challenges in the form of a higher bond rating.

On June 21, Hadley was informed that its bond rating was upgraded from AA+ to AAA, an achievement only three other towns in Massachusetts — Northampton, Great Barrington, and Lenox — can currently boast.

“That’s quite an achievement for a small town,” said Nixon. “We’re insufferably pleased with ourselves. It’s an accomplishment not only of the town government and the million things that we do, but it’s also an accomplishment for the entire business, residential, and agricultural community. It’s something that everyone can take pride in and feel good about and take credit for.”

Keegan added that a financial team has been working hard alongside elected officials to make the higher bond rating possible.

“Having that bond rating … not only is it public recognition of all the good work being done by the municipal employees and volunteers, but it also puts us in the best position we can be in in terms of borrowing,” she said. “The timing on that could not have been any better.”

Planting Seeds

As for the future, Nixon hopes Hadley continues to build upon its recent successes and especially that higher bond rating.

What is distinctly clear is that the town is in a period of ongoing growth and evolution, all while maintaining the rural quality and agricultural character that makes Hadley, well, Hadley.

And like that AAA rating, this is something to celebrate.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Four years ago, a $7,500 grant from MassDevelopment helped to fund the first annual Downtown GetDown block party in Chicopee. Mayor Richard Kos understands why that was a good investment.

“They like the idea of people coming downtown, because when they do, it gives other people impetus to want to develop the downtown,” he told BusinessWest.

In that first year, he went on, “the block party really removed a lot of question marks. People say there’s no parking downtown. Well, we had 15,000 people over a weekend, and no one complained about parking. It was not an issue. We had people come down and say, ‘this is a nice place to walk around.’ It’s safe, secure, well-lit at night, and they had a lot of fun.”

Now in its fifth year, Downtown GetDown is again expected to draw around 15,000 people the weekend of Aug. 23-24, offering a steady diet of music, entertainment, food, and more than 60 vendor booths.

And what visitors will see is a downtown on the rise, the mayor noted. Take, for example, two residential projects in the pipeline, both of them conversions of former mills: the SilverBrick Group’s $29 million project that will offer 280 units at the Cabotville Mill, and Mount Holyoke Development’s $14 million project that will bring another 105 to the Lyman Mills building.

Across the street is Ames Privilege, a 270-unit development that opened several years ago and now has a two- to three-year waiting list. “We look at that as a model,” Kos said. “If anyone wonders about the need, we point out what a success Ames Privilege is.”

Mills have a particular attraction for young professionals who seek urban living surrounded by public transportation options and walkable amenities. The latter will get a boost with the expected opening of a C-Town supermarket downtown.

“That eliminates a food desert downtown,” Kos said. “To some degree, they’re anticipating what’s happening when you add several hundred apartments. People need groceries — it’s convenient to just walk out your door to a market that provides a lot of food options.”

Chicopee has also signed on to the regional ValleyBike program, with the downtown joining two other locations — in Chicopee Falls and Willimansett — with bike-share stations. “We think those will be positive, and will give people another way to get to work and do things they enjoy doing,” the mayor added.

But perhaps the most intriguing development downtown is the two-year MassDevelopment grant that will pay for a Transformative Development Initiative fellow who will focus on economic-development initiatives in the city center, said Lee Pouliot, the city’s director of Planning and Development.

“Our objectives are things like reactivating the old library that’s been vacant for a really long time, getting vacant storefronts filled, and using the GetDown as a catalyst for finding entities that might be interested in growing their business to a permanent location,” he said. “It’s taking energy from those activities and, through the fellow who’s working on our behalf, getting those things to the next step.”

To Kos, it’s all about continuing the momentum that has been picking up steam in recent years. “That’s how you get a downtown where people want to come,” he said, adding, “I grew up in an era of urban renewal where you tore everything down, and unfortunately sometimes there was no plan to replace it, so you wound up with nothing. And then people would scramble to find stuff.”

But he sees value in preserving a downtown’s character — for example, the old mills — while looking to the future. “The old brick-and-mortar buildings were so much more impressive than the new stuff.”

 

For this edition of Community Spotlight, we shine the light on what’s happening not only in Chicopee’s downtown, but across a city that developers have found increasingly attractive in recent years.

Mayor Richard Kos says Chicopee’s downtown is enjoying more visitation and vibrancy.

Long Overdue

One of the city’s more visible signs of improvement is the work going on at the 148-year-old City Hall itself, which is undergoing a $12 million improvement and renovation project addressing everything from handicap accessibility to roof and foundation repair; from a new elevator to a full auditorium renovation.

“This building needed a little attention,” Kos said. “The last time I was mayor, we built schools and a library. This time, we’re fixing things.”

The city also bought a house near City Hall from the Valley Opportunity Council, and will demolish it; coupled with other city-acquired properties nearby, the endgame will be 125 to 150 additional free parking spots next to City Hall and walking paths to connect them with downtown destinations.

That comes on the heels of a $10 million renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety complex a couple miles away on Court Street. “As one proponent of that, we’re putting a civilian dispatch facility there and making it robust enough to make it regional,” Kos said, an effort that currently includes Longmeadow but could eventually expand to other towns.

“A number of communities have been looking to do this, but nothing was being done, and we made our improvements sufficient, so it just made sense,” the mayor continued. “In some parts of the country, there’s a regional dispatch for 20 to 30 cities and towns. Here in Massachusetts, nearly every community has own dispatch, and for some, it just doesn’t make sense, with one or two calls a night, if that.”

The city is also training civilians to work the system, which will keep more uniformed officers on the street, he added.

Meanwhile, the 10-year (so far) quest to develop the former Uniroyal site continues, as the city needs to abate three more buildings, demolishing one and securing two for future development, including office and residential uses, Pouliot said.

The city also continues to invest in its two high schools, such as an upcoming replacement of the turf field at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and new LED lights for the Chicopee High School field. It’s also starting an $8 million reconstruction of Fuller Road that will include permitting work to create access to Chicopee River for kayakers.

On the city-services side, Kos continues to tout Chicopee’s low residential tax rate, a municipal electric-light utility with similarly attractive rates, and a plan, also through Chicopee Electric Light, to install high-speed fiber throughout the city, joining the growing ranks of ‘gig cities’ across the U.S.

“That will benefit both residents and businesses,” he said. “The internet is really what drives so much now.”

Meanwhile, in preparation to close its dump on New Lombard Road, which it did in June, Chicopee has promoted less waste over the past few years by limiting trash pickup to one 35-gallon barrel per household, with residents able to buy bags for additional trash.

“For the vast majority of people, it’s worked well,” Kos said. “We also gave everyone a barrel three times that size for recycling, which sends the message that you should recycle more than you throw away, and it’s been working. Our trash has gone down by over 25%.”

Give and Take

In other words, it takes cooperation between the city and its residents and businesses to create an environment where people want to live and set up shop. On the latter front, the booming commercial center at Mass Pike exit 5 picked up another pair of businesses with Five Guys and Mattress Firm in recent months, while Dinesh Patel’s planned $45 development at exit 6 is set to begin soon, and will include a hotel, a gas station, a sit-down restaurant, a coffee shop, and two fast-food eateries.

In Willimansett, major employers like Callaway and J. Polep are thriving on Meadow Street, while Chicopee Street recently saw the opening of Leadfoot Brewing. Meanwhile, the new marijuana economy has arrived in Chicopee as well, with Mass Alternative Care already operational on East Main Street, Theory Wellness set to open a shop on Fuller Road, and a couple of other businesses moving forward with the permitting process.

In short, there’s a lot going on, said Kos, who is getting ready to step down from his second stint as mayor, not seeking re-election this fall. To help harness that energy, the city is getting ready to launch a comprehensive planning project, a resident-driven project being conducted by Horsely Witten Group under a two-year, $150,000 contract.

“It will simply answer the question, ‘what does Chicopee want to be in 20 years?’” Pouliot said, “so we can start developing policy and update zoning to support what we want to build now, versus what we wanted to build back in the ’40s or the ’70s.”

Added Kos, “we’re not only dealing with the present, but preparing for the future” — and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about both.

“We’re trying, as a city,” he went on, “to move on multiple fronts to draw more businesses and more residents — to make this a place where you want to live, not where you have to live.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Cynthia West says Easthampton had the best ‘feel’ for the business she launched with her daughter, McKenzie, the Sonnet & Sparrow ‘curated thrift store.’

It was the food that brought Cynthia West to Easthampton.

Well, sort of.

It was the food, in the form of weekly visits to restaurants like Galaxy, Kisara, and others that gave West … well, a flavor of Easthampton and, eventually, the opinion that this was the place to bring a business she had been thinking about and dreaming about for some time.

It’s called Sonnet & Sparrow, a “curated thrift store” she operates with her daughter, McKenzie West, in space that was once part of the historic, yet also somewhat notorious, Majestic Theater on Cottage Street. Notorious because 30 years ago it was showing adult films and had become a symbol of the decline of Easthampton and the Cottage Street area.

Now, Cottage Street, and the city as a whole, have been reborn, and West decided she had to be part of what is generally referred to as a renaissance in this old mill town.

“I chose Easthampton because I love to eat here,” West, who opened her store just two months ago, said matter-of-factly. “We found the community very welcoming; we wanted to be in the Valley, and we found that Easthampton had the best feel for what we wanted to do.”

She’s certainly not alone in these sentiments about Easthampton’s feel and it being an ideal home for a new business, as made clear in an anecdote the city’s mayor, Nicolle LaChapelle, related about a manufacturing firm that expressed interest in this community in the shadow of Mount Tom as a landing spot.

“They’re looking for 40,000 square feet, and they’re looking in Easthampton because, when they surveyed their employees, who have an average age of 47, they found that they want to be able to live and walk to work, have some options when it comes to leisure recreation, and be part of a city,” she said. “Easthampton checks all those boxes.”

Suffice it to say Easthampton checks a good many boxes for entrepreneurs across the broad spectrum of the regional economy, with a number of new ventures opening over the past few months, and even the past few weeks.

Businesses like INSA, a multi-faceted cannabis complex in the Keystone mill complex on Pleasant Street that includes a cultivation facility, dispensary, lab, kitchen, and more. The company, led by CEO Mark Zatyrka, has other locations in the region and is expanding into other regions of the state, but Easthampton is the headquarters location.

And like Prodigy Minigolf & Gameroom, located in the basement of the Eastworks building, also on Pleasant Street, and home to an eclectic mix of businesses. Founder Jeff Bujak, a musician looking to hit some different notes, calls this the most challenging mini-golf to be found anywhere, but there’s much more to the operation, including an extensive list of board games and video games that would make any Boomer nostalgic and any Millennial quite intrigued.

And like Veracruzana Mexican restaurant, or should we say the latest Veracruzana. Phil Pallante and his wife, Sunia Hood, had already purchased the restaurant’s two locations in Northampton and Amherst, but even before they did that, they informally decided Easthampton would be the next push pin on the map. They eventually found a spacious storefront on Union Street right next door to the Chamber of Commerce, and opened just a few weeks ago.

Mark Zatyrka, seen here in INSA’s dispensary, says he and his partners were drawn to Easthampton because of its amenities and welcoming approach to the cannabis industry.

Collectively, these entrepreneurs and others we spoke with say they came to Easthampton for the same reasons West did — they saw a city on the rise, one that that boasts vibrancy, arts and culture, a growing restaurant sector, healthy tourism, no shortage of things to do, and a very ‘green’ mindset.

Comparisons to neighboring Northampton are inevitable and seemingly constant. There are many who call this the ‘new Northampton.’

But while flattered by such comments, Maureen Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, doesn’t believe they accurately describe what’s going on here. Indeed, she told BusinessWest that, while there may be some similarities, Easthampton has forged its own identity.

“We’re not the ‘next Northampton,’” she said. “Northampton does Northampton really, really well. And we do Easthampton outstandingly well. I like to say that our community is hip, cool, wow, and now.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest explores all that goes into that phrase and why Easthampton is becoming the landing spot of choice for a growing number of businesses.

Getting On Board

Casey Douglass says that, when he arrived on the scene in Easthampton roughly 15 years ago and opened his first restaurant in the city, the community was, in his estimation, like that literary little engine that could and its signature phrase ‘I think I can.’

By that, he meant the city was emerging and developing what became a healthy dose of confidence. It’s no longer saying ‘I think I can,’ but instead has shown that it can do it, he suggested.

“Now, we’re moving like a bullet train, and I’m happy to be on it,” said Douglass, owner of Galaxy, a fixture on Main Street and his third such venture in the city after Apollo and what is now Coco and the Cellar Bar. “And there are plenty of seats available.”

As noted earlier, seemingly every month, if not every week, another business owner is getting on board, keeping Belliveau and her ceremonial ribbon-cutting scissors quite busy.

Before getting to some of the recent arrivals, and others, like Douglass, who can talk about the scene in Easthampton with decades of perspective, we need to talk about how Easthampton got here, a state where it is being increasingly compared to its neighbor, a destination that is still the most economically vibrant community in the region.

Summing things up, LaChapelle, a labor attorney who came to the city in 1997, said that, in the mid- to late ’90s, Easthampton laid the foundation for a revival, a reinvention of itself from a mill city to an arts and cultural center, and it has carefully built on that foundation ever since.

Phil Pallante says Main Street in Easthampton was the logical location for the third Veracruzana restaurant.

The bedrock on which it’s built is effective zoning, a huge inventory of old mill buildings ready to be repurposed, a business-friendly government, and a community that can blend affordable housing, plenty of recreation, and that increasingly ‘green’ mindset mentioned earlier.

Over the past few decades, it has steadily added building blocks, she said, in the form of new businesses across many sectors, a slew of new restaurants and cultural attractions that are bringing people into the city, and, perhaps most importantly, jobs to replace those lost when the mills closed.

LaChappele was quick to note that this business-friendly attitude certainly applies to the burgeoning cannabis industry. Indeed, while some communities have outlawed such ventures or are just putting a toe in the water, Easthampton, like another neighbor, Holyoke, has rolled out the red carpet, but in a careful, thoughtful way.

“We’re head over heels in love, I would think, with cannabis, and I don’t that’s overstating it,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything this industry is generating, from tax dollars to jobs to foot and vehicular traffic.

“This is a unique industry; it’s very rare in these days that a person on the street or a collection of investors can get in on a new industry and be a part of the regulations,” she went on, adding that the community currently hosts one such business, INSA, but it has several other host-community agreements in place and other ventures in various stages of progression. “It’s a unique opportunity where we, as a community, get to write the rules and work with entrepreneurs on something that provides local tax revenue. I can’t imagine when that will happen again, and I expect the presence of cannabis-related businesses to grow in Easthampton.”

This open affection is no doubt one of the factors that brought INSA to Pleasant Street.

“Pretty early on in the process, we realized how much time and money went into creating this business and how important it was to be timely,” said Zatyrka. “So we wanted to find a city that was welcoming to us. At the time, there were a lot of cities that weren’t as welcoming, and it gets expensive to push your agenda on a city and its constituents.

Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle says Easthampton can “check a number of boxes” for business owners across a number of sectors.

“I was born in Easthampton,” he went on, adding that the other founders are local as well. “In combination with the progressive nature of Easthampton as well as what the mill district and the mills had to offer, we thought this was the perfect home for us.”

There are now more than 150 people working in the company’s facilities at the Keystone complex, in operations ranging from cultivation to retail, he went on, adding that there is plenty of room to expand.

Scoring Points

Prodigy’s Bujak noted, in what can’t be considered an upset, that his favorite Seinfeld episode is the one called “The Frogger.”

You remember (even if you’re a Millennial) … that’s the one where George discovers that, years after he last played a Frogger machine at a pizza parlor he’s revisiting, he’s still the high scorer. And he attempts to take the machine home, an adventure that ends, predictably, in calamity.

Prodigy has been bringing in a lot of George Costanza types since it opened in the spring of 2018, said Bujak, noting that they come to play a wide array of video games that took up a good part of their lives in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. And they’re playing them on a collection of vintage TVs that he’s had no problem assembling because their previous owners were happy to find someone to take them off their hands. He’s also drawing many teenagers and older individuals (this course is not for young children) to his challenging mini-golf operation.

“I’ve played mini-golf everywhere in this country, and this is by far the most challenging — I won’t say difficult, but challenging — and I wanted it that way,” he said, adding that it plays as much like a video game as it does like golf.

Jeff Bujak made Easthampton home to what he calls the most challenging mini-golf facility in the country.

While he’s lived in Northampton for many years, Bujak noted, he never thought of opening his venture there. Instead, he always focused on Easthampton. He said Will Bundy, owner of Eastworks, made him one of those deals that couldn’t be refused. And he didn’t.

“It’s been very successful,” he said of his first 16 months in business. “I’m doing three times the business I thought I thought I would, and that I put down in my original business plan.”

Early on, he was relying heavily on his large fan base, acquired through many years as a touring musician, but visitation from area communities has escalated, and he’s now averaging 500 to 700 people a week.

“And these 500 to 700 people are now also going to the mill district, and to Food Truck Fridays, and to INSA, and to the Mill Pond concerts,” he said, adding that business has become another of those aforementioned building blocks that support one another and bring ever-greater vibrancy to the community.

Pallante agreed, telling a story with many of the same themes as those told by West, Bujak, and Zatyrka.

He said he and his wife would often eat in Easthampton to avoid the congestion in Northampton and Amherst, and in doing so came to understand that the community was building momentum and had become a true destination in its own right. Together, the two drew up plans for the latest Veracruzana on a napkin while having a bite at still another of the city’s restaurants, Amy’s Place, on Cottage Street.

“We knew that, from everything the city had to offer, and logistically as well, this was the place we wanted to be,” Pallante said. “It became very apparent that Easthampton is aggressively seeking and helping people come here, and creating a culture where people want to be.”

Michael Poole, a welder and sculptor and thus one many artisans now working (and in many cases also living) in Easthampton, echoed these sentiments.

He joked that, if they did one of those Taste of Easthampton-type of events when he first arrived in the city in the early ’90s, it would have featured “a few slices of pizza, and none with pineapple on them.”

That last reference was an attempt to accentuate just how much has changed in a quarter-century or so. There is now a solid portfolio of restaurants acting not only as drawing cards bringing visitors and even entrepreneurs (like West), but as anchors for a host of other businesses that need foot traffic to succeed.

Poole noted that a diverse mix of businesses now exist, and many people are choosing to live and work in the community, a change from when he first arrived.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.46
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

“There weren’t a lot of jobs back then,” said Poole, owner of Blue Collar Artisans and noted for his ornate ‘tree’ handrails, furniture, and other forms of home décor, as well as the bicycle rack on Main Street he fashioned out of the numbers in the city’s zip code — 01027. “People lived here and worked someplace else.”

Now, many more people are coming to Easthampton to work, he noted, quickly adding that many now choose to settle in Easthampton because of all it has to offer and commute to work.

He measures the progress, unscientifically to be sure, by the volume of traffic on Holyoke Street.

“My business is at the far end of East Street, and I can tell what time it is by where the line of traffic stops,” he said. “Our house is right on Holyoke Street, and we joke about the ‘Easthampton rush hour’; every year it gets a little longer. But those are the problems you want.”

Right Place, Right Time

Indeed they are.

Easthampton didn’t have to worry about traffic jams or finding enough parking spaces 20 years ago. Now, it does, to some extent, and, as those we talked with agreed, those are good problems to have.

As is being called the ‘new Northampton.’

It’s always meant as a compliment, said Belliveau, but, as she noted, it’s not really accurate. The city is indeed thriving and establishing itself as a destination, but it’s not the new Northampton; it’s the new Easthampton.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Baystate Health & Wellness Center, which opened last year, lies alongside significant improvements to the Dwight Road corridor at the East Longmeadow line.

When people think of economic development, they might think of a flood of new businesses into a community. Longmeadow will never have that, Town Manager Stephen Crane said, but it certainly has economic development — centered instead around residential property values and the quality of life that maintains them.

“What sustains property values are investments like middle schools, senior centers, things that make the community more desirable to live. That’s the number-one goal of Longmeadow,” he said of a town in which 95% of all property is residential.

“As I always say, our number-one economic activity is the sale of single-family homes,” he went on. “So keeping those homes a desirable place for people to live is job one, and new senior centers, new schools, new amenities — those are the things we can do as a municipal government to sustain that quality of life.”

While a new middle school has been talked about for years, a new senior center will soon become reality, after a groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 11. The Longmeadow Adult Center will move from its current location, a former elementary school at Greenwood Park, to a $14 million facility on Maple Road next year.

“It’s a fantastic project. It’s a very big deal,” Crane said, noting that the demographic trend commonly called ‘the aging of America’ is certainly underway in Western Mass.; in fact, 29% percent of Longmeadow’s population is age 60 or older, and that number grows every year. Because of that, he said, communities need to provide services that help seniors age in place.

“The senior center will fill a lot of gaps we have in terms of aging in place,” he told BusinessWest, noting amenities like its state-of-the-art gymnasium with a suspended walking track. “The programming space will be substantially better than what we have now. The current programs are great, but the new space will reflect the quality of those programs.”

Crane, who has been Longmeadow town manager for the past six years, will be departing his seat next month after inking a three-year contract as town manager in Concord. He’s witnessed plenty of changes in town during that time, but one of the intriguing ones has been Longmeadow’s shifting demographic reputation, spurred by growing amenities for seniors and a significant stock of ranch homes for single-floor living. In short, a town once known as a place where young parents raised their kids and moved out is becoming an all-ages destination.

Taxing Concerns

To maintain those amenities — and the quality of life so critical to keeping residential property values high — town officials support legislation on the state level that would allow it, and other towns, to override a key element of Proposition 2½, which went into effect in 1982.

That legislation sets a 2.5% ceiling on total property taxes — or $25 per $1,000 of assessed value — and a 2.5% annual limit on property-tax increases. (The ceiling does not include excludable debt for capital projects like the senior center.) Proponents of a change, at least in Longmeadow, would like towns to be able to override the first part of the law by moving the ceiling higher, first by a two-thirds vote at town meeting, then at the ballot box.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government.”

“We are approaching that ceiling. And costs are going to continue to go up, unless property values stay the same or go up. If we have a 1% dip in our real-estate market, our tax rate jumps up even if we don’t spend another dime,” Crane said. “We are not proposing to touch the 2.5% increase, but we propose that the community can set the ceiling where it wants, and decide for themselves how much they want to invest in themselves. It’s really a local-control thing.”

While Longmeadow has the highest residential tax rate in the Commonwealth, it also has a high bond rating. “So our tax rate is not the result of profligate spending. We are an extremely well-managed town from a financial standpoint. We have to be very careful and make great decisions and pursue value in earnest, which we do.”

One way it does that is by pursuing regionalization when possible, as with the two-town (and perhaps others in the future) regional emergency communications center, or RCC, that Longmeadow is establishing with Chicopee, housed in that city’s Police Department and operated by an independent district called WESTCOMM. That system is expected to go live in October, and dispatchers have already been hired.

“The Baker administration is pushing municipalities to work together,” Crane said. “We certainly embrace that, whether it’s working with East Longmeadow on shared health services for public health, the regional dispatch with Chicopee, we are always reaching across town lines, trying to find ways to work more efficiently and relieve burdens on taxpayers.”

He understands how legislation to change Prop 2½ could be cast as merely an effort to raise taxes, and he understands how that goes over with some.

“Would it lead to increased taxes? Not any more than the current two-and-a-half-percent cap allows year after year. Would it lead to higher tax bills in the future? Potentially. But is it essential to maintain property values and maintain the community’s quality of life? Yes.

“To hit that ceiling,” he continued, “means reductions in services that may not be impactful right away, but would lead to a downhill momentum where services are reduced, quality of life goes down, property values then go down as well — and that’s even if the economy and real-estate market stay stable.”

Important, though, is the fact that, under the proposed change, each community would have a say in moving its tax ceiling — and Crane said Longmeadow residents have long been aware of its unique tax base and the need for community investment to keep property values high.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government,” he added. “The state doesn’t really give a lot of local-control options to communities for generating revenue.”

Moving Right Along

Meanwhile, the town continues to pursue improvements and development on both the public and private fronts. Along the busy Dwight Road corridor that intersects Converse and Williams streets — where the Baystate Health & Wellness Center opened last year — a major infrastructure project included street and sewer upgrades, new sidewalks and bike lanes, and improved traffic-light coordination across the East Longmeadow town line.

“The corridor improvements on Dwight Road are complete, which is a regionally significant improvement,” Crane said. “Traffic is flowing exponentially better than it ever did. Those improvements were clearly needed.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.09
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.09
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

On the private-investment front, in addition to the Baystate project and a 21,000-square-foot expansion of the Longmeadow Shops in 2017, a memory-care facility is planned on the site of a former synagogue on Williams Street, and the former Brewer-Young Mansion on Longmeadow Street has been converted to professional offices, with developers eying a mix of uses, including shared workspaces. On the municipal side, the development of a new Department of Public Works facility on the site of a former tennis club on Dwight Road continues despite unexpected costs from asbestos removal from the soil.

Overall, Crane said, “town meeting been generous with appropriations. To me, it’s a sign that they have faith in their local government and know that, if it wasn’t really needed, we wouldn’t be asking for it. The success we’ve had with approval of things shows we are able to articulate the community’s needs in a way that town meeting agrees with.”

For instance, voters recently authorized a $1.54 million debt exclusion to continue improvements to the Wolf Swamp Road athletic fields, which Crane called the town’s biggest and busiest recreational asset.

“The fields have fallen into disrepair for a variety of reasons — lack of irrigation, overprogramming, and just some disinvestment,” he told BusinessWest. “The DPW does the best it can to maintain those fields, but without irrigation and with the overprogramming, there’s a limit to how effective you can be with maintenance.”

The plan includes a new, central parking lot, converting current parking at one end of the complex to field space, and achieving a net gain in field space.

“The fields will be stripped, graded, planted, and irrigated,” he went on. “It’ll be a couple years out of service, but when it comes back online, it’ll be the envy of the region, I think. That’s not a great economic driver, but when we have tournaments, those do generate revenue for the town, but it also sustains quality of life, which does have economic value.”

‘A Good Place’

Crane said the various departments in Town Hall want to support its local bricks-and-mortar businesses with good infrastructure and cooperative permitting. “You can help people with what they need or you can make them climb through the regulatory systems on their own, and I know we really try to do what we can for our local businesses.”

But he also understands that housing — and the higher revenues that come from raising quality of life and keeping home values high — will always dictate much of what Longmeadow is able to achieve.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve had a small part in accomplishing,” he said as he prepared for his newest challenge in Concord. “We have a great team, great departments, and outstanding volunteers. I’m proud to have been a part of many positive changes that have happened in the community — things that have been quality-of-life improvements, but have not changed the character of the community. The next town manager will have challenges, but I think the town is in a good place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski say the Westfield Education to Business Alliance benefits both current employers in the city and some of their future workforce.

Kate Phelon has long appreciated the spirit of collaboration between Westfield’s municipal, business, and educational leaders — and points to the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which just wrapped up its third year, as a good example.

The alliance, WE2BA for short, connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent. Last year, it launched an adopt-a-classroom program — Mestek, Forum House, and PeoplesBank were the initial adopters, and more are expected to come on board next year — while Westfield High School’s annual career fair drew a record 61 vendors.

“We want to get more people involved — more businesses adopting more classrooms,” said Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce. “The principals are engaged in this.”

Stefan Czaporowski, the city’s Superintendent of Schools, said those efforts can have long-term economic-development impacts.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

It’s not just WE2BA (much more on that later) that’s showcasing the city’s strengths. Take, for example, Go Westfield, a collaboration among municipal officials, Westfield Gas + Electric, Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“The city had never really taken on the task of marketing itself until just recently,” Mayor Brian Sullivan said. “It’s a work in progress, but we’ve gotten much better at touting what we have. We’ve got a lot of things here. We have an airport, a college, a hospital. We’ve got an exit off the Mass Pike. We’ve got transportation potential, between I-91 and the Pike. We’re literally two hours away from six different state capitals; geographically, we’re situated nicely. And we have more developable land than most.”

But Go Westfield is about more than marketing; it’s also a means to continual self-improvement. Phelon cited three recent focus groups — targeting the retail, manufacturing, and nonprofit sectors — as a notable example.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate. But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

“These are the businesses that are here, and we wanted to find out from them what’s working really well, and what keeps them up at night,” she told BusinessWest. “That helps us better market ourselves as we address concerns and find out if other businesses have the same concerns. We want to make our existing businesses happy and address their issues — and if we don’t know what those issues are, we can’t help them.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’ve gotten much better at listening to stakeholders. It used to be that the city would have an idea, and we would go after that idea. Now, it’s more reaching out to the companies in town and saying, ‘what’s working? What’s not working? What do you need?’ We’re making the companies already here a little better, and by listening to their needs, it’s helping out other companies who are saying, ‘yeah, we needed that too.’”

Sullivan hears those needs at the Mayor’s Coffee Hour, sponsored by the chamber and hosted by a different business each month.

“Those companies get to show off what they do, and we get to talk about things like construction projects, road projects, what’s coming down the pike for the City Council,” Sullivan said, adding that he often brings along other city department heads to enrich the discussions. “I don’t want to just stand in front of the room and talk; it’s got to be a two-way conversation. And an hour can fly by.”

That’s partly because there’s a lot to talk about these days in the Whip City — and the collaborations driving that progress are becoming more robust.

Welcoming Party

When someone contacts one of the Go Westfield member organizations, Sullivan explained, other members are quickly roped in, whether that’s a municipal department, Westfield Gas + Electric, or the chamber. “If some company is interested in coming here and calls the chamber, Kate’s been really good at giving me a heads-up that, ‘hey, these people are looking to come.’”

Companies like Wright-Pierce, a 72-year-old environmental/civil infrastructure engineering firm, which recently announced it will open an office in Westfield.

Or Myers Information Systems, which is relocating downtown from its previous location in Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it. The firm expects to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the coming months.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $38.00
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

“Some of the reasons Myers chose here were the chamber, a bike trail, access to downtown, and fiber coming from the Gas + Electric,” the mayor said. “We reached out, wooing them to come to us. They were pretty impressed with how solidified we were as a group.”

He was referring specifically to Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas + Electric that continues to expand gigabyte-speed internet to residences and businesses across the city.

“Having access to that is huge for an awful lot of companies that are looking for bandwidth and a central location for their employees,” he explained. “Companies aren’t 9 to 5 anymore, where people come in and do their work and leave. It’s all hours of the day, it’s weekends, and if you can have access to high-speed internet, you can thrive as a company.”

The Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, continues to focus on revitalizing a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017.

The same year, the Westfield Redevelopment Authority demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The WRA plans to issue a request for proposals for the site — much of which used to house J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime store — within the next month.

The mixed-use concept, Sullivan said, is an important one for a wide swath of Millennial professionals who crave city living with walkable amenities.

“They want to live downtown and don’t want cars; they want to walk or bike anywhere they want to go — a total urban lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest. “With Millennials, it’s not ‘build your house somewhere and have your two cars and go to your job.’ They want to be downtown, walk to the coffee shop, bring their laptop, do some of their work there, and go for a bike ride.

“The trend is all about internet access, getting to and from places without using a car, and downtown visibility,” he went on. “That’s what drove Myers to Elm Street, access to all these things.”

Another economic trend in Massachusetts involves the cannabis industry, and Westfield has embraced such businesses, with four available licenses for retail, cultivation, or other uses; two are currently going through the permitting process. With Southwick and West Springfield currently not in the marijuana game, Sullivan noted that Westfield is in a good spot when it comes to cornering market share, particularly from across the Connecticut border.

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept at “opening up our ears” and being responsive to the needs of the business community.

“The City Council is figuring out whether we want one in downtown core district or keep them on the outskirts,” Sullivan said. “It’s such a new industry that nobody really knows what’s going to shake down. Everything is on the table right now.”

Meanwhile, initiatives like Go Westfield continue to dig into what the business community wants and how to bring new companies into the fold, with the goal of boosting economic development not only downtown, but across this sprawling city of more than 47 square miles.

“You have to adapt, and we’re getting better at adapting and opening up our ears,” he added. “And that’s what these focus groups are doing. We’re sitting there and listening to what’s lacking or what’s not working, or maybe what is working, and doing more of that.”

Back to School

Phelon and Czaporowski are excited about the potential of expanding the reach of the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, enlisting graduate students from Westfield State University to help out with programs moving forward. At a focus group in the spring, about 20 professors from various degree programs expressed an interest in working with different organizations in town, getting students into the weeds of local businesses.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back. We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

The existing connections work on multiple levels. For instance, the students who worked with Mestek in the adopt-a-classroom program improved their presentation skills and performed, on average, markedly better than their peers in the school’s science fair. Meanwhile, Westfield teachers went to Mestek to help employees with limited English proficiency boost those skills.

“We want to expand adopt-a-classroom because getting the business community in front of the kids and sharing their expertise and their work experiences is huge,” Czaporowski said. “And we want to keep promoting what some call soft skills and we call essential skills — speaking with eye contact, how to interview, résumés, but also how to be a productive employee — things like punctuality and attendance. We call them essential skills because these are skills you’re going to need throughout life.”

Meanwhile, businesses visited elementary schools for career-day events toward the end of the school year, getting kids thinking early about career pathways and even what high school to attend to best serve those interests.

“We’re exposing kids to relevant life learning,” the superintendent said. “And it’s beneficial to the businesses too. The experience is eye-opening for them.”

That’s partly because students learn differently today — in a more interactive, collaborative style, with different tools — than they used to, Sullivan said, and it’s helpful for employers to understand that.

“It’s all about workforce development,” he said. “A lot of these companies will need their talents someday. They need those kids to walk into their business and start working. That training is now happening in the schools. And it’s a two-way street. A lot of the best companies in town are sending a representative to some of these meetings with the students because they want the students to know their product when they get out.”

Whether it’s through the career fair, adopt-a-classroom, or other efforts, Phelon noted, there are many ways to engage with students and show them what career and lifestyle opportunities exist in their own backyard — just as Go Westfield broadcasts that message to a much wider audience.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back,” she said. “We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]