Commercial Projects Coming to Fruition in Palmer
The scope of economic development in Palmer is so diverse that Charlie Blanchard had to make a list to ensure he didn’t forget any major projects when he spoke about them with BusinessWest.
“We have a lot of commercial activity taking place. There has also been an increase in high-tech manufacturing; new medical office space is being developed, and we have a new recreational motorsports raceway,” said the town manager. “Progress continues in Three Rivers, and we are working to revitalize the Thorndike Mills.”
Linda Leduc, the town’s planner and economic development director, added that projects that were permitted years ago are coming to fruition, and commercial properties that sat on the market for years are finally being purchased.
“I’ve seen a 180-degree turnaround this year, and it has brought a multitude of new jobs to Palmer,” said Leduc, who attributes recent growth to a resurgence in the economy.
And, as she noted, change and progress is taking place in all parts of the community, including the Palmer Industrial Park in Bondsville.
Blanchard said Detector Technology Inc. needed room to expand and purchased a building from Wayne Buxton, who was using it to house his ShedWorks Inc. business.
“Wayne needed to downsize but wanted to stay in Palmer, so he kept half the lot and built a new, smaller structure on it,” Blanchard noted.
The decision reflects a trend he and Leduc are seeing: businesses are choosing to stay in Palmer, whether they are downsizing or expanding, if they can find appropriate space — a pattern town officials believe is based on the town’s location, competitive tax rate, good school system, and excellent municipal services.
“We’re right on the Mass Pike, which is ideal for businesses and for their customers coming from the east and west,” Blanchard said, adding that interviews with owners and executives of 16 companies showcased in a 2014 promotional video titled “Industry Alive in Palmer: An Inside Look at Local Businesses” showed they are happy with the educated workforce in the area and have dedicated, exemplary employees.
Growth is also occurring in the downtown area known as Depot Village, which is the first commercial district travelers encounter after they exit the Turnpike. It’s a prime commercial area and the place where O’Reilly Auto Parts chose to expand their New England presence.
“They purchased a vacant building on 1569 North Main St. that had been an eyesore for years,” Blanchard said. The old structure was demolished, and a new, state-of-the art distribution center has been built on the lot.
In addition, the American Legion building on 1010 Thorndike St. was purchased by Fire Service Group two days after it went on the market last May; the company was located in a smaller building in town but wanted to expand.
Meanwhile, Michael’s Party Rentals is moving from Ludlow into the former home of Baldyga’s Auto and RV Sales Inc. on 1221 South Main St. Company President Michael Linton said he purchased the 20,000-square-foot building in early January, and it is undergoing a substantial renovation.
“We’re building a showroom and design center so that we have a dedicated space where wedding planners, brides and grooms, and corporate clients can see our inventory and design capabilities,” he noted. “We’re also adding office space, as there wasn’t any in the building, and plan to install a $60,000, state-of-the-art tent-washing machine which will allow us to clean the tents we rent with less labor.”
The cost of the building, renovation, and new machine are expected to total about $712,000, and Linton anticipates moving in May or June when it is complete.
“My entire staff is excited. We are extremely cramped in our current location and looked for a building for two years,” he continued. “A combination of factors led to the decision to relocate in Palmer: the price of the building, its access to the Mass Pike, Palmer’s commercial tax rate, and the proximity to my home in Sturbridge.”
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at the many reasons why development is occurring in Palmer, and the various forms it is taking.
While Baldyga’s sold its property for the Michael’s relocation, the business didn’t leave Palmer; Blanchard said the owner purchased an empty lot on Park Street and has plans to construct a new, smaller building on the site, which is in the permitting stage.
In addition, a former Knights of Columbus hall was purchased last fall by Joe Kelley of Angelica Properties. It sits on the corner of Route 32 and River Road and had been for sale for more than a year; it is currently in the permitting stage, and the plan is to renovate it and turn it into state-of-the art medical office space.
Meanwhile, Northern Construction Service Inc. is another company that has chosen to expand in Palmer. About three years ago, owner John Rahkonen purchased a lot adjacent to the business that contained a mini-golf course and batting cages. They were demolished, and a new, state-of-the-art, 7,400-square-foot building, which cost about $1 million, opened in early February.
The company has grown from a $2.5 million operation in 1994 to a $45 million to $50 million business today, and although Rahkonen has two other locations, the new office space, which features skylights and advanced technology, was critical to continued success.
Today, the business occupies about 12 acres, but Rahkonen wishes there were more space available in Palmer so he could continue to expand there.
“I could use another 10 acres,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he agrees with town officials that Palmer’s location is ideal due to its access to key roadways. “We’re in the middle of the state, an hour from Boston and the New York border, and 40 minutes from Hartford. Interstate 91 is around the corner, the Mass Pike is here, and I-84 is 20 minutes down the road.” The company’s work requires moving heavy machinery all over New England, up to the Canadian border, and as far away as White Plains, N.Y., as well as to Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, so access to a multitude of roadways is helpful.
The town also boasts a new recreational facility called Palmer Motorsports Park. It opened last May on a 500-acre tract of land, and since that time, Road & Track magazine has named it as one of the top 10 racetracks to drive on in North America.
However, it was one of the aforementioned projects that didn’t get off the ground for years due to the flagging economy.
“The Sports Car Club of America permitted the site for a sports motorpark in 2007 because they wanted a track in the Northeast,” Blanchard explained. But the land was not developed until 2012 when club member and private investor Fred Ferguson built the multi-million-dollar recreational facility with its 2.3-mile track, which has since brought new people to Palmer and had a beneficial impact on businesses in the north end of town.
As noted earlier, it is just another of a slew of projects that is expanding and diversifying the economy of a community that just three years ago was pinning its hopes on a resort casino.
Efforts to revitalize the Thorndike Mills, situated north of Depot Village, are another example of continued progress.
The property consists of seven linked mill buildings that contain 90,000 square feet and sit on 15 acres. They were once home to the thriving Diamond Cascade Manufacturing Co. but have been vacant since 2000, although a hydropower turbine operation has been installed at the site.
“The hydro units are under the floors because the canal runs beneath the buildings,” Leduc said, noting that some units are also located near the dams. But, despite the fact that she has worked with the mill owners for more than a decade to find new uses for the property, they couldn’t seem to make any progress.
However, new hope was generated last fall, thanks to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who was instrumental in introducing them to the Central Mass. Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), whose work includes revitalizing the Warren Mill in West Warren, the Hardwick Knitters Mill in Hardwick, the Holland Road Mill in Sturbridge, and now, Palmer’s Thorndike Mill.
Leduc said a tour of the properties was conducted last fall as part of a larger project that includes the Jefferson Mill in Holden.
“We’re working with the CMRPC, MassDevelopment, and the Mass. Department of Housing and Community Development,” she noted. “It’s an interesting and important collaboration because these mills are significant historic structures. Our mill was once the center of Thorndike Village.”
The Center for Economic Development at UMass Amherst is also involved, and will hold a conference titled “The Future of the Massachusetts Mill Community” on April 12 in the campus center. In addition, UMass Professor of Planning John Mullin and a group of his students are working to identify common themes shared by these mills.
“We were on our own for years, so it’s wonderful to have this support,” Leduc said.
Growth is also occurring in Three Rivers, and collaborative efforts to revitalize Main Street are coming to fruition, thanks to work by the consortium On the Right TRACK (the acronym stands for Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge).
Partners include North Brookfield Savings Bank, Palmer officials, the Palmer Historical and Cultural Center, the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce, the Palmer Redevelopment Authority, and the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp., all of which have been working to build a cultural and creative economy that will attract visitors.
Alice Davey, the town’s community development director, noted that the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. was successful in its bid to win a $13,500 Adams Art Grant for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, and the town completed a market-assessment and business-recruitment tool as well as a feasibility study showing that a building on 2032 Main St. obtained through the tax-title process has potential for redevelopment.
In addition, Davey said, “Palmer also signed a Community Compact agreement with the Commonwealth which will provide us with assistance. We’re taking positive steps forward, and many things are in the planning stages.”
The town also boasts five solar farms, and permits for four new ones have been issued. The newest operations include a five-megawatt farm on the grounds of the former Palmer Metropolitan Airfield that went online last February. It was built by Borrego Solar and is financed, owned, and operated by Syncarpha Capital.
In addition, a 4.8-megawatt operation on Baptist Hill Road, which was developed by Blue Wave Capital and is owned by Sun Edison, went online earlier this month. Blanchard said the town will purchase 2.8 megawatts of the generated electricity, which will meet 100% of its municipal needs and should result in a 20% to 30% savings on its electric bill.
Overall, officials expect growth in Palmer to continue. “There is so much going on here, and we are touching so many areas of the economy that are growing,” Blanchard said.
As a result, optimism is running high as new ideas to revitalize the Thorndike Mills are brought forward, and the creative economy in Three Rivers, the new racetrack, and a host of other growing enterprises attract people to “the town of seven railroads” from many different roadways.
Palmer at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 11,049 (2015)
Area: 32.14 square miles
Tax Rate (Residential and Commercial): Palmer, $21.27; Three Rivers, $22.19; Bondsville, $22.13; Thorndike, $22.30
Median Household Income: $50,050
Family Household Income: $58,110
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Markets
* Latest information available