Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight: Deerfield

Efforts to Revitalize Deerfield Gain Momentum

From left, Kayce Warren, Carolyn Shores Ness, and Paul Olszewski

From left, Kayce Warren, Carolyn Shores Ness, and Paul Olszewski are working to revitalize Deerfield’s Center Village District.

The Yankee Candle Flagship Store is one of the most popular attractions in New England and draws tens of thousands of people to Deerfield each year. But although the complex is only about a quarter-mile from the village center, most visitors fail to go the distance and discover what the downtown area has to offer.

“In the past, our downtown businesses have missed out on the opportunity to benefit from the potential associated with Yankee Candle,” said Deerfield interim Town Administrator Kayce Warren. “So we’re working to make the center into a place that people will want to visit — a place where they can shop, eat in our restaurants, buy produce from local farm stands, and just enjoy.”

The idea is not new, and town officials and community-based groups began focusing on sustaining the economic viability of the town decades ago.

But last March, a study called the South Deerfield Complete Streets and Livability Plan was completed, outlining a revitalization plan for the future. The 116-page document is part of the Franklin Council Regional Government’s Plan for Sustainable Development and contains measures that will bring South Deerfield into the 21st century and transform its downtown into a thriving, walkable destination. It encompasses economic development, land use, and transportation, and details topics ranging from driving routes and parking to bike paths, new sidewalks, and an enhanced streetscape design.

However, the plan is married to two other initiatives. The first involves a joint effort between the Planning Board and the Deerfield Economic Development Industrial Corp. (DEDIC), which owns and manages Deerfield Industrial Park. The board requested help from DEDIC several months ago to change the zoning within the park to allow for commercial development, because it is currently zoned strictly for industrial use. It’s considered a critical component in helping Deerfield move forward, since manufacturing has declined and DEDIC has had to turn away interested commercial developers and businesses in recent years.

“The industrial park is only about a mile from downtown, and if more businesses move here and the streetscape plan is implemented, it would not only generate an increase in tax dollars, but would also bring more employees to town who could shop, eat, and do business in the village,” Warren said. “An influx of new businesses would support both our public and private sectors.”

The third initiative is focused on sustaining the agricultural history of the town by enacting measures to help local farms prosper, as well as preserving the farmland that plays a major role in Deerfield’s bucolic landscape and economy. Efforts have been spearheaded by the nonprofit organization Community Involved with Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA.

“We recognized in the ’70s that agriculture was an important economic generator. Our soil is in the top 5% in the world, especially along the Connecticut River, so the potential for production is huge,” said Carolyn Ness Shores, a member of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Health. “We have struggled to maintain a balance for many years, but there has been a resurgence of interest in our downtown, and the goal of the streetscape plan is to revitalize this center and connect it to Yankee Candle and our industrial park, which will make it more attractive to businesses and residents.”

Need for Change

Today, the village center contains two banks, an antique store, an art gallery, several restaurants and farm stands, a few retail shops, a gas station, some small businesses, and the offices for CISA and state Rep. Stephen Kulik.

But it has been apparent for quite some time that the formerly thriving downtown has not been headed in a sustainable direction.

“When we applied for a grant for the streetscape plan, we knew we had to figure out how to attract people and give them a reason to be downtown. I was on the Planning Board for more than 20 years, and it has been a long-term vision,” Shores Ness said, adding that it’s important to consider Deerfield’s economic history to realize the value of the three-pronged plan.

Paul Olszewski agrees. “Things started to slide in the ’70s when large companies closed or were sold,” said DEDIC’s chairman of the board, citing Deerfield Plastics and Oxford Pickle Co. as examples.

Things came to a head in that arena in 1977, when Millers Falls Tools, which is owned by Ingersoll Rand, threatened to move out of the area and take 700 to 800 jobs with it. When that occurred, a group of business people and residents in Deerfield took action, and, led by John Ciesla, DEDIC was formed as an emergency response.

“A group of folks worked night and day to build Deerfield Industrial Park along with a new building on the property, and tax incentives and other measures were used as a carrot on a stick to get Millers Falls Tools to relocate from Greenfield to the building,” Olszewski said. The plan worked, and the tool company became the anchor business in the new park, which was zoned for manufacturing and industrial development.

A few years later, the nonprofit Deerfield Land Trust was formed by a small group of concerned citizens with the goal of preserving agricultural land. It was a grassroots effort, and Shores Ness said meetings were held at her kitchen table.

“At the time, the balance between agriculture, industry, and residential was about 30/30/30. But since then, the town has struggled to maintain that balance,” she told BusinessWest. “However, we’ve managed to keep a uniform tax rate that is conservative and stable, which helps to make Deerfield attractive.”

Years ago, long before it became a household name, CISA took a proactive stance on the agricultural front and began encouraging people to “buy local” and “grow local.”

“We have fought hard to get equity in the farm bill,” Shores Ness said, adding that $32 million in federal funds is distributed in Massachusetts each year, and Deerfield gets a large proportion of the money. “But it’s a constant struggle for farmers to sustain their businesses. It would be very easy for them turn their land into building lots, but if that happens, the top 5% of the best soil in the world will be lost forever.”

Hope for the Future

Olszewski said the town’s geographic location is ideal for businesses, because it sits directly off Interstate 91, is close to the Five Colleges system and a half-hour from the Mass Turnpike, and is expected to benefit from the planned resumption of rail service via Amtrak’s Vermonter passenger train. But, despite all that, other efforts have been needed and initiated to promote economic development.

In 2009, the town purchased the former Oxford Pickle Co. property and leveled the 15-acre site. It was zoned for all types of business, and currently the town is negotiating with New England Natural Bakers, which wants to build on a portion of the property.

Warren said the hope is that other businesses will follow, because the site is adjacent to the downtown area.

Olszewski said DEDIC is also working with the Planning Board to change the zoning in the industrial park to include commercial development, and will present the plan to residents at the April 2015 town meeting.

He said two pivotal events occurred that led DEDIC to become active again, as the board hadn’t done much for years.

“Last year, Disston Tools closed their plant in the industrial park; they were the anchor tenant and were leasing the building that Millers Falls Tools had been in before them,” said Olszewski. “Then John Ciesla died. He was DEDIC’s original chairman and spearheaded the effort to purchase land in 1977 to create the industrial park.”

The terms of the board members had expired, and the selectmen made new appointments during the summer. And since Olszewski took over as chairman, he has spent a lot of time in Boston working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and has requested funding to pay for technical assistance to update the new zoning plan that will be presented to residents in April.

If this occurs, he said, it will open doors in the industrial park.

For example, there is a building set on five acres that could be used as an incubator for small businesses or offices. “People could be very creative with the space. But time is of the essence, as the building has been empty for several years, and we want to see something done with it while it is still in good shape and we can still market it,” Olszewski went on, adding that, if the zoning plan is approved, DEDIC could also help market the remainder of the Oxford Pickle site.

However, implementation of the streetscape plan will be required to keep the three sectors of the community balanced and interconnected, which includes filling empty storefronts as well as attracting entrepreneurs to purchase or lease land preserved for farming, which can be found within a half-mile of downtown.

“The new streetscape plan will provide connectivity, and if agriculture and economic development keep pace, it will keep the downtown viable,” Warren told BusinessWest, adding that local produce is used by the restaurants in town and sold in its farm stands.

Olszewski added that niche farming is becoming fruitful, as evidenced by the success of Berkshire Brewing Co. in South Deerfield, which has negotiated with MGM to carry its ales and lagers in the casino slated for downtown Springfield.

But in order for everything to gel, funding is needed to implement the streetscape plan. It was a complex endeavor to create it, and included incorporating suggestions from residents culled from numerous focus groups and meetings.

However, the final version contains many bullet points, which include improving the street markings and adding parking areas; making the center look more like a village through the establishment of green spaces, trees, and other beautification measures; designing bicycle lanes; establishing pedestrian plazas; introducing a farmer’s market with high-end foods and a bakery; exploring the use of the pickle factory as an incubator for UMass Amherst; and creating a new intersection and a more unified identify.

“But we need money to do all of these things, and it’s very competitive to get federal funding for streetscape projects,” Shores Ness said.

However, the selectmen voted to make obtaining federal funding for the streetscape a priority earlier this month, and the town is working with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments on that goal.

Optimistic Outlook

The potential of the combined initiatives has amped up town officials’ enthusiasm about the future.

“What’s exciting is that everyone is working together to make our center village vital again,” Shores Ness said. “It’s been a long process and a slog for a lot of people in town, but we think we have all of the pieces in place, and we are getting to the point where we can overcome the last hurdle and move into the 21st century.

“We have a vision for Deerfield, and we plan to make our downtown a walkable, sociable place where people feel safe and where businesses want to settle, due to our unique, viable mix of sectors,” she went on. “There will be connectivity between the synergy of Yankee Candle, the industrial park, and our center village district.”

And when that happens, the balance the town once knew will finally be restored.

Deerfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,125 (2010)
Area: square miles: 33.44 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $13.71
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.71
Median Household Income: $66,970 (2012)
Family Household Income: $86,165 (2012)
Type of government: Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co.; Pelican Products; Deerfield Academy

* Latest information available

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