Businesses Reflect Southampton’s Rural CharacterBruce Coombs has observed the slow pace of progress in Southampton over the years, a quality long ingrained in the fabric of this rural community.
He owns two businesses on College Highway, the section of Route 10 that runs north and south through town: land-surveying firm Heritage Surveys, and a second enterprise, Heritage Books, located in the historic 1904 building that once housed Southampton Library.
“I started Heritage Surveys in 1976 in the basement of the building which is currently a Subway,” he told BusinessWest. In the decades since, “we’ve had to deal with various town boards and officials — not only in Southampton, but in other towns — and that’s a constantly changing scenario because board members change continuously. There have been some great people on the boards who are very cooperative and easy to deal with, and there have been others on the boards with personal axes to grind, who haven’t been as cooperative.”
Still, he was quick to add, “we deal with that in all communities, and Southampton currenty has a pretty good Planning Board and Conservation Commission, and I’m able to work with them. We currently have two subdivision projects before the Planning Board.”
To be sure, Southampton’s residential growth has outpaced its commercial growth, with the housing stock rising more than 50% from 1990 to 2010, and population rising from 4,500 to more than 5,800 over that period. Meanwhile, the number of companies doing business in town has hovered around 125 for the better part of the last decade.
“We have approximately 33 members from Southampton,” said Eric Snyder, president of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, which includes Southampton in its purview.
“They are primarily the smaller businesses,” he added. “There’s limited manufacturing here, and they also seem to be on the smaller side. We have a couple of machine-shop members, contractors, things like that.”
Still, despite the lingering effects of the Great Recession, “our understanding is that business is holding on well here. There are a lot of successful family businesses — historically, a lot of businesses here have been family businesses. And our local businesses are holding their own in this economy.”
Resistant to Change
Southampton’s rural character is almost two centuries in the making, dating back to the mid-19th century, when manufacturing mills began to spring up across Massachusetts. In particular, communities along the Connecticut River and its tributaries developed thriving mill industries.
In the 1840s, a businessman named Samuel Williston proposed to build a mill in Southampton, but the town was reluctant to support such industry and the influx of immigrant workers that came with it. So, in 1847, Williston established his National Felt Mill in neighboring Easthampton, and Southampton focused mainly on agriculture as its primary economic base, in so doing maintaining a more rural character than nearby communities like Westfield and Holyoke.
Today, Southampton is still largely rural — only 1% of the town’s land is zoned commercial, virtually all of it along the Route 10 corridor — and serves primarily as a bedroom community for Greater Springfield and Northern Conn. In fact, of the town’s roughly 5,800 residents, close to 40% commute to jobs in Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, Northampton, Easthampton, Chicopee, West Springfield, Amherst, or South Hadley, while only about 350 work in Southampton itself.
The town’s economy consists mainly of small stores, restaurants, and service businesses, many of them family-owned or home-based, with a smattering of chains, including Big Y, Rite Aid, and Tractor Supply.
When town officials were preparing a master plan for Southampton earlier this year, they solicited opinions from residents, who, for the most part, are interested in expanding the town’s municipal tax base, but at the same time eager to protect the community’s rural character.
“The greatest challenge in achieving this vision,” the planners wrote, “will be determining what type of economic growth should be promoted in the future and what type of public infrastructure, such as water and sewer service, will be feasible to support economic growth in areas where it is desired.”
In addition, the report noted, “residents expressed a preference for encouraging types of economic growth that maintain and expand the town’s existing and proposed recreational opportunities and amenities, especially those that are connected to Southampton’s natural, cultural, and recreational resources. This approach would benefit residents directly and also serve as an economic marketing attraction. Further, residents said they would also like to support small businesses and provide services that support home-based businesses, such as coffee shops, computer support, and meeting locations.”
Home-based enterprises — about 85 residents work from home — indeed make up a significant portion of the town’s business culture, while working farms, while not as numerous as they once were, are still prevalent, with 43 still in operation.
Among the businesses operating in the town’s tiny commercial zones, Big Y is by far the largest employer, with 170 jobs in Southampton, while other moderate-sized companies include Heritage Surveys, Marmon Keystone, Connecticut Valley Biological, and Lyman Sheet Metal, all of which employ between 10 and 25 people.
What Southampton lacks in commercial zoning, it makes up for in spades when it comes to open space. In fact, 87% of the land in town remains in a natural, undeveloped state, with about 22% of that, or some 4,100 acres, designated as open space or recreational lands, most of which is permanently protected from future development.
That natural character of the town’s geography is a treasured facet of Southampton life to many residents, and helps explain the slow pace of economic growth. In fact, a 2005 open-space survey revealed that residents enthusiastically support the development of bike paths, sidewalks, conservation trails, and playing fields, even as they’re less concerned with attracting an influx of businesses.
“While the market ultimately drives the types of businesses that will choose to locate in Southampton, the town can take active steps to encourage the preferred types of business through its zoning bylaws and infrastructure improvements,” the recent master plan states. “It is possible for this bedroom community to increase its commercial base and maintain its rural character, but town officials will need to be wise on where they place their investments.”
Away from his land-surveying business, Coombs is able to interact with a wide variety of residents on the weekends, when his bookstore is open for business (he also maintains a website offering access to 30,000 books). No matter which hat he happens to be wearing, “this is really a great town to live and work in.”
But it’s not always a town that embraces change, he added.
“I had been on the planning board for about 10 years, and also served on the Rural Lands Committee,” he said. “At one point, we did kind of a zoning review that was partially funded by the Forestry Service. It was a project that included some master planning, and we came up with proposed revisions to the bylaws. It was defeated.”
Added Snyder, “there is a certain amount of retail businesses in a couple of centralized areas — basically on the Route 10 corridor, College Highway — but, personally, I get the impression that residents would prefer to keep the character of the town as it is — primarily a rural-based community.”
Coombs called the growth he has seen — primarily on the residential side — normal, “non-offensive” growth.
“I think people like living here,” he told BusinessWest, “and they like to move to Southampton from other communities — more so than moving the other way.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]