Community Pride Plays into Hampden’s Growth
John Flynn is extremely proud of Hampden — so proud he can’t help talking at length about the close-knit atmosphere he claims pervades every section of town.
“The word that best describes Hampden is ‘community’; it’s a place where people care about their neighbors,” said the chair of the Board of Selectmen. “I talk to people all the time who tell me they were surprised to find their neighbors went out of their way to meet them and bring them food when they moved to our town. It still happens here because we are all about community.”
Flynn added that the selectmen feel the same way about Hampden. “We can’t solve everyone’s problems, but each person is treated with respect,” he told BusinessWest.
Doug Boyd agrees. “Hampden is a great community with a lot of small businesses and self-employed people. The governance is very responsive to issues, and since everyone knows everyone else, communication is very easy,” said the co-chair of the Advisory Committee and member of the Community Preservation Committee.
“It’s what makes Hampden different from other cities and towns,” he continued, explaining that, although there has been a fair amount of development and a significant increase in the number of new homes in Hampden over the past 40 years, the town’s population has increased only slightly, and everyone has an equal voice in determining how tax dollars are spent.
But change has occurred, and the biggest project has been the $45 million conversion of the former Hampden Country Club into what the owners call a ‘lifestyle club’ called GreatHorse that features not only a championship golf course, but a plethora of offerings designed to appeal to families.
“The club was built in the early ’70s and has had four owners,” Flynn noted, explaining that it went up for auction in 2011 and was purchased for $1.4 million by the Antonacci family, which owns USA Hauling and a number of other business ventures.
Their original plan was simply to make improvements to the golf-course bunkers, but one improvement led to another, and it soon morphed into a major undertaking.
Today, the only thing that remains of the former course is the routing of its holes: everything else is new, including the irrigation system, tee boxes, fairways, greens, bunkers, and cart paths.
The old clubhouse was knocked down in 2013, and a new, state-of-the-art, 25,000-square-foot facility took its place. Amenities include two semi-surround simulators for indoor teaching, a fitness center, a salon, massage rooms, a barber’s chair, and an 185-seat dining area that has individual wine lockers and an adjacent horseshoe bar with seven TVs.
There is also an outdoor patio that boasts five TVs and a large, circular firepit; and family fun can be found in the 75- by 30-foot outdoor swimming pool, sprinkler play area, and bocce courts.
“The property was closed for almost three years while it was being rehabilitated, but today it is truly a showpiece,” Flynn said.
Boyd agreed and said the transformation represents a significant investment, one that benefits the entire community.
Residents recently voted to build the town’s third solar farm on two parcels of land that contain a capped landfill. Two other solar-photovoltaic, electricity-generating facilities were built on private property in recent years, and Hampden is waiting for permitting from the state for its newest farm, which will be built and operated by Amaresco Inc.
“It represents a substantial investment that will increase tax revenue without a corresponding increase in services,” Boyd noted, adding that, because Hampden has a unified tax rate, residents and businesses benefit equally when new sources of revenue are developed.
Flynn said the solar farm could generate $200 to $300 a year in taxes, and although that amount of money might seem negligible to some cities and towns, the majority of Hampden’s budget is paid for by property taxes, and small amounts add up, so officials are always looking for new ways to generate income.
“Money from the solar farm could be put toward a new dumptruck or another capital expenditure,” Flynn noted.
National Grid also made an $11 million investment in Hampden last year when it built a new substation that connects 6,500 customers in East Longmeadow, Wilbraham, Hampden, Monson, and Palmer to the larger Massachusetts power grid. The company says the new infrastructure increases its ability to supply backup power to the area, and not only will decrease the number of electric outages but will also improve restoration times when they occur.
“Hampden is where National Grid’s main trunk is located,” Flynn noted. “The new substation will generate $250,000 in tax revenue, and the company told us they plan to add to it every year.”
Hampden is also building a new, $3 million police station on Allen Street. The 5,000-square-foot building will be paid for with a 20-year bond, and is expected to be completed next month. It will replace the current, 900-square-foot station in Town Hall which is sorely inadequate and doesn’t allow for any privacy because other town offices share the same hallway.
Flynn said town officials explored the possibility of building a new station for more than a decade before voters finally cast ballots in favor of the project, but every effort was made to explore costs and viability before the concept was presented to residents at a town meeting.
“We assembled a building committee that went over every detail very carefully. The committee was made up of residents as it’s their money,” Flynn said, referring again to Hampden’s close-knit community and the way information is shared and decisions are made.
Flynn said the town’s current focus is a half-mile strip on Main Street that needs revitalization. Opportunities for businesses exist there: Hampden Hardware is for sale, and a nearby Cumberland Farms property has been vacant for at least 15 years.
“Both properties overlook the Scantic River,” Flynn said, explaining that the Board of Selectmen recently sought help from state Sen. Eric Lesser to apply for a business-development grant to help bring new life to the area.
“But we take a team approach to everything we do; we hold frequent public meetings, and if we all don’t agree, a project doesn’t happen,” he noted.
In addition, the Community Preservation Committee has consistently spent money to acquire and preserve land, which is something town residents support.
The majority of properties Hampden has acquired were brought to the town’s attention by the Minnechaug Land Trust, a non-profit agency run entirely by volunteers who administer and maintain Minnechaug Mountain and Goat Rock Trail in Hampden, as well as two properties in Wilbraham.
Flynn told BusinessWest that the group coordinates with the state to put together packages that allow the town to acquire land for preservation and conservation.
“Although we don’t gain any tax revenue from these properties, they help to maintain the intangible character of the town,” he said.
Boyd noted that Memorial Park sits directly across from the vacant Cumberland Farms property, and the Parks and Recreation Department has spruced up the playing fields, built a new pavilion, replaced an old playscape, and built a thriving summer program around the spray park on the property.
“Usage is up, and a group of people would like to see the town improve that area of Main Street to keep the good things going that are happening at the park,” he said, adding that, thanks to the Minnechaug Land Trust, the town acquired two parcels of land adjacent to the park, and resident Charles Thompson has volunteered his time to blaze new trails, improve rudimentary ones that existed, and maintain them on a continuing basis.
Laughing Brook is also in conversation with the town to launch a capital campaign to build a new pavilion, and Flynn said the nature preserve continually expands its menu of programs and events.
Hampden is also making a significant investment in its infrastructure. Three years ago residents voted to spend $2 million over a five-year period to rebuild their roads; and Hampden and East Longmeadow recently joined together to submit a grant application to the state through the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
Any money gained will be divided between the towns, but Flynn said Hampden could use its share to install sidewalks, because there is only one existing sidewalk in the town.
Another development kicked off in 2014 when Bethlehem Baptist Church on 216 Allen St. acquired a parcel of land directly across from it. It built a new, $6 million, 35,000-square-foot church on the site that opened last fall; it seats 625 people and houses a café, activity center, children’s wing, adult-education wing, and section dedicated to middle- and high-school age youth.
Life Church purchased Bethlehem’s former building, and although it won’t bring in any new tax revenue, said Boyd, “it’s a productive use of the property.”
The key to Hampden is balanced growth, which officials and residents strive to achieve while maintaining the character of the town and strong sense of community that has been its trademark for generations.
“Our town is well-governed, efficient, and responsive, and if someone has a problem, it’s not difficult to find the right person to address it. And many, many residents, including myself, volunteer to help,” Boyd said. “It’s not always easy in today’s busy world to make the effort, but we have a lot of people willing to do it.”
Hampden at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 5,139 (2010)
Area: 19.7 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $19.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.36
Median Household Income: $80,751 (2013)
Family Household Income: $90,688 (2013)
Type of government: Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, Rediker Software Inc., Hampden Police Department
Latest information available