Community Profile: Enfield, Conn.
Enfield Enjoys Vibrant Business Development
Last year, Jeannette Norman and her husband, Lou Masachi, purchased the former Friendly’s restaurant at 86 Enfield St. in Enfield, Conn. “The building had sat empty for several years and was an eyesore,” Norman said.
But they were intrigued by the location — right off of I-91 and almost in front of MassMutual — and after gutting and renovating the building and cleaning up the property, they opened the doors to the Backyard Bar and Grill on July 2, 2012.
Although the couple hoped the eatery would do well with a broad clientele — it boasts a full bar as well as a children’s menu and a good environment for families — its popularity has been greater than they imagined. “Business has been excellent, even better than we expected,” Norman said.
She cites Enfield as an ideal spot to own and operate a business. “It has a lot of diversity in terms of demographics, a lot of commercial opportunity, and a good mix of residents and businesses,” Norman told BusinessWest, adding they opened an outdoor patio in May, which has also proved to be a draw.
Town officials say the success the couple has experienced mirrors the experience of many business owners as Enfield has undergone an unprecedented amount of growth in the last few years. “In the past year alone, we have issued more than $100 million in building permits, which is more than the town has ever done in its history,” said Town Manager Matthew Coppler.
The upswing is remarkable, considering a number of serious setbacks that occurred in 2007 and 2008. “Westvaco closed, and Lego downsized from 800 to 300 employees,” Coppler said, adding that the cutback resulted in 1 million square feet of empty distribution and manufacturing space.
Circuit City and Bernie’s also went out of business, along with a number of other retail stores. “Things were very bleak at one point, and we had one of the highest vacancy rates of retail space in the state. It was very bad for about two and a half years,” Coppler said.
But in 2009, Enfield’s economy began to rebound, and in the ensuing years the town saw rapid growth. “What has come out of the setbacks we suffered is far greater than what we had here before,” he said.
Lego’s Enfield warehouse and offices have undergone a $10 million renovation, which transformed it from a manufacturing facility into offices for white-collar workers. Phase 1 is finished, another expansion is planned, and when it is complete, the number of jobs regained will be close to those that were eliminated. The toymaker’s distribution and manufacturing space has also been filled, including square footage leased by Coca-Cola and Advanced Auto.
In addition, Westvaco’s property was purchased by Data Warehouse Co., while the former Bernie’s store became home to Underwriter’s Laboratories when the company relocated to Enfield.
The German biomedical equipment maker Eppendorf Manufacturing Co. has also expanded twice in less than 10 years, and last spring, the firm began a $25 million expansion to its production plant, in addition to buying land from the town.
Growth also occurred at MassMutual. The company tackled a $15 million renovation of its Enfield campus after purchasing the Hartford’s Retirement Services division. “They are finishing the exterior of the building right now,” Coppler said, adding that the acquisition brought about 300 new jobs to Enfield.
Yankee Castings is also expanding, with a 5,000-square-foot addition. “And the second phase of their addition will add another 40,000 square feet,” he noted.
The retail arena has also improved considerably, and the former home of Circuit City is now occupied by P.T. Richards. Meanwhile, storefronts in Enfield Mall that sat empty are now occupied. “We have gained back more than we lost,” Coppler said. “Things have happened very quickly, especially on the commercial side.”
The large anchor industries in town, which include Lego, Hallmark, MassMutual, and Eppendorf, have also helped to keep the economy strong. “And Brooks Brothers is consolidating all of its operations to Enfield,” Coppler said, adding that, during the past two years, partnerships have formed between these cornerstone businesses and the town’s schools, leading to internships and externships for students. “One of our goals is to keep our youth here.”
The third draw is the affordability of housing and rental space. “It provides a lot of opportunity for people who want to live and work in our town,” he said.
Peter Bryanton agreed. “Enfield has every available service people need. It’s all right here,” said the town’s director of Community Development. “We have seven plazas and an enclosed mall, and in the last 18 months, Aspen Dental and Moe’s restaurant have opened up in Enfield Commons, and on Hazard Avenue, the site of the former Bickford’s has become home to Chipotle, Supercuts, and a wireless store.
“Plus,” he continued, “Hartford Hospital has several satellite medical facilities in Enfield, and St. Francis Hospital recently established health facilities here. These are all building blocks to the future we are trying to create.”
A fourth attraction is the active role citizens play in the town’s government. “The people who live here want the best for their community and believe in living up to their responsibility. They want to be part of town committees,” Coppler said. Recently, 50 residents applied for 13 spots on the high-school building committee. It’s a quality that stretches back to World War II, when Enfield had the highest per-capita enlistment rate in the U.S., he noted.
But although the town has experienced tremendous growth in the past few years, officials say they continue to work to keep Enfield vital. “We are trying to live up to our reputation of creating an environment that makes people want to live here,” Coppler said, citing infrastructure improvements that include $60 million spent on sidewalks and roads over the last 15 years.
Town leaders have also adopted measures to streamline the permitting process. “In the past, Enfield was seen as creating barriers to growth. But that has changed,” he said, explaining that officials made a concerted effort to meet with business owners to get feedback about how they could improve the system, then implemented their suggestions.
He cited the exterior renovation of MassMutual, which is nearing completion, as an example of that success. “They came to us with their plan on June 26, and within a month, they had all of the approvals they needed, including those for wetlands,” he said, adding that the wetlands presented a challenge for the town, “but our land-use board holds special meetings when things need to get done.”
The town also took a proactive stance in 2008 and 2009 by building a Hampton Inn on the edge of the industrial park. It contained a pad for a restaurant, and a Longhorn’s Steakhouse is set to open there soon.
Enfield is made up of a number of neighborhoods or small villages, which include Hazardville, Scitico, Shaker Pines, Southwood Acres, and Thompsonville.
Once home to manufacturing mills, Thompsonville is today the focus of a revitalization plan aimed at bringing new life to the area that was once considered downtown when the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Co. was thriving and an untold number of homes were built to accommodate workers.
But the town’s center of activity moved when Enfield Mall was constructed. The neighborhood took another hit when Bigelow closed its doors, and “Thompsonville was left in the dust,” Coppler said.
Bryanton agreed, saying the village is now “an urban center with a lot of absentee landlords.” But plans have been put in place to rejuvenate the area. A $3.5 million intermodal transportation center is being built to accommodate travelers on the planned Thompsonville stop of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line.
“It will be multimodal and will include rail and bus service and a pedestrian/bike path that will link Enfield Street to the Connecticut River as part of the Connecticut River Access Project,” he told BusinessWest.
The downtown is dense, and although there are numerous vacancies, “we know that transit helps bring about economic development,” Bryanton said. “We have also put in new streets and sidewalks and done a large pond-restoration project.”
In addition, the nonprofit Enfield Community Development Corp. has been tasked with granting $180,000 in microloans for startup businesses and expansions in Thompsonville. A tax-abatement process for improvements and new construction in the area is also in place, and town officials are in the process of completing a zoning study to ensure that space is available for new businesses that fit in with the natural surroundings, he added.
As for Coppler, he believes the town is filled with vitality and has experienced tremendous growth, but has not yet realized its full potential.
“Today, our vacancy rate is the second-lowest in the state,” he said. “There is money to be made here, and we can show that we have worked to help businesses come to Enfield or expand here.”