Community Spotlight: Easthampton
Partnerships Anchor Easthampton’s DevelopmentMayor Karen Cadieux says Easthampton’s transformation from a mill town into a thriving city began roughly 15 years ago, and continues today due to unique and ongoing collaborations.
“One hand helps the other here, and partnerships between the city and private business owners have spearheaded revitalization,” she explained. “Public funding has encouraged business owners to make investments, which is how our story began.”
Town Planner Jessica Allan agrees.
“The city finds money through grants for infrastructure, and as a result, private business owners use their own money to make improvements to their property,” she noted. “Things have happened in Easthampton because the community and city have worked together to improve different areas. Our arts community has also formed collaborations to help Easthampton gain recognition in and outside of the Pioneer Valley.
“In the past, Easthampton had a really strong manufacturing base. It is still happening within the mills, but in a creative way,” she continued, citing enterprises that include furniture makers and a high-end wrapping-paper business whose clients include New York City boutiques.
She pointed to the Pleasant Street mills project that is now underway as a good example of a public-private partnership. Several years ago, Michael Michon, who owns Mill 180; Will Bundy, who owns the Eastworks Mill; and James Witmer, who owns the Brickyard Mill, approached the city for help. “They told us they had tenants who wanted to move into their buildings but were hesitant due to the lack of parking,” Allan said, adding that the trio had the idea of connecting their buildings and flipping the entrances, so they would open facing the Manhan Rail Trail instead of on Pleasant Street, because there was space there for a new parking lot.
The owners paid for the design, which includes 440 parking spaces, trees, and lighting. “The city did its part by applying for a MassWorks grant. The city received $2.75 million in October 2012 for the first phase of the project, and a second $1.5 million a year later to increase the parking capacity,” Allan said.
Money from the first grant will pay for an upgrade of the water lines as well as burying the electric lines. “We’re really dealing with safety issues,” Allan said. “The original water lines are still there, and the fire-suppression system doesn’t have enough pressure. There will also be new lateral connections to each building, so, if there is a problem in one building, it won’t affect the others. And burying the electric lines is helpful to the fire department.”
All those involved said Western Mass Electric Co. is a key player in the undertaking and that the utility made additional investments outside the area to some of their substations so the mills can get the power they need.
Cadieux says the project has been challenging, and Allan has held weekly construction meetings with representatives from city departments, the mill owners, the design consultant and engineering team, WMECO, and the construction contractor.
“The project is really complex, and a number of easements were needed,” she said. “But the end result will be rewarding and will spawn new economic activity. And the mill owners have spent millions on their buildings in anticipation of being able to fill in their empty space.”
Cadieux agrees. “It’s absolutely fantastic to have all these groups working together,” she said. “The project is very important to everyone involved.”
Cadieux said the city’s history of partnerships began 15 years ago on Cottage Street when a buyer wanted to purchase the former 9,000-square-foot Majestic Theater, which was an eyesore that had been closed for years.
“But the owner of the theater insisted that he would not sell to the man unless he also bought the parking lot across the street. He couldn’t afford both properties, but the city was able to help by purchasing the lot with state funds,” she explained. “It was advantageous to both sides because the city needed more parking. And since that time, the city has received a great deal of state funding for infrastructure improvements. As a result, many restaurants and businesses have gone into space on the street.”
The city’s next major project is aimed at helping downtown businesses as well as providing people with a new recreational outlet. It’s called the Nashawannuck Pond Promenade Park, and will finally bring to fruition an idea that was born about a decade ago. The park is in the design stages, and, thanks in part to a $400,000 grant from the state, construction is expected to begin this summer.
“The 30-acre pond is in the heart of the community and will provide a gathering space for residents and visitors,” Allan said, as she viewed the peaceful body of water from the mayor’s office windows.
“The park will be the gateway to the cultural district on Cottage Street and will make Easthampton a destination location. We want to attract tourism and bring foot traffic downtown,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is another example of how public funding spurs economic development in the city.
She added that the city is also looking at streamlining its permitting process and has partnered with the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce to develop a workshop for first-time business owners. “In the past two years, ten new businesses have applied for permits downtown, and we are filling in vacant storefronts,” she said.
Allan explained that increased interest in space downtown is related to Easthampton City Arts+ and the events it sponsors, such as monthly art walks, which are very popular.
The formation of that organization resulted from yet another collaboration, this one between Easthampton City Arts and the Easthampton Cultural Council, which shared office space and coordinated events at Old Town Hall with a shared mission before they merged and became ECA+.
The group has worked with the city on a variety of occasions, and last year it was successful in its bid to have Cottage Street designated by the state as its 16th cultural district. “The effort was spearheaded by ECA+,” Allan said, adding that the city applied for the designation from the Mass. Cultural Council in January 2013.
The mayor says these partnerships are beneficial. “It’s exciting to have all of this happening in one community, and the growth that is taking place due to partnerships between the city, private businesses, and the arts community makes Easthampton unique.
“Again, it’s a matter of people working hand in hand,” Cadieux continued. “The arts community stimulates art growth, which attracts businesses to the city, and that results in our diversity.”
Fifty affordable-housing units called Cottage Square Apartments are also under construction in a long-abandoned building at 15 Cottage St. “It was our largest tax title and was purchased by a developer three years ago. The city supported the developer’s idea, and the project was permitted under special zoning,” Cadieux explained, referring to Easthampton’s so-called “smart-growth zoning,” which allows for denser development downtown. The mayor added that the city procured $200,000 in Community Preservation Act monies, which has helped the owner leverage additional state and federal funding.
Improvements to infrastructure, as well as the city’s pure water, which comes from the Barnes Aquifer, have also played a role in attracting three breweries to the city over the past three years. The Abandoned Building Brewery was created through a renovation of 2,700 square feet in the Brickyard Mill; the Ford Hill Brewery and Hop Farm, located in a 9,500-square-foot building on three acres less than a mile away, is expected to be operational by the end of the year; and New City Brewing, which is not yet open, has chosen Mill 180 as its home.
Cadieux said partnerships will continue to take center stage in Easthampton. “Things have happened here because the business community and the city have worked together. We are committed to working collaboratively with our business and arts community and do all we can to foster partnerships.
“As a result,” she concluded, “we are flourishing — which is exciting, especially during these economic times.”