Community Spotlight: Greenfield
Greenfield Crafts Detailed Road Map for the Future‘Independence.’
That’s a word Mayor William Martin uses frequently, and a goal he has set for Greenfield that the city is well on its way to achieving, in his estimation.
“Synonyms are ‘sustainability’ or ‘resiliency,’ and that is where we have focused our economic-development efforts,” he said. “We want Greenfield and its residents to become as independent as possible.”
To that end, an important initiative kicked off last month when Greenfield Light and Power began operating as a municipal aggregation plan to provide electricity. The town gained final approval and certification for the plan from the Department of Public Utilities in October.
Greenfield has a contract with Peregrine Energy Group to develop the innovative initiative, which will not only bring lower-cost electricity to the community, but includes measures to procure it from renewable sources.
“Our price is fixed and is about .0125 per kilowatt hour,” Martin said, adding that the variable rate from Western Mass. Electric was about .014 per kilowatt hour at the time of the interview. “Although it may not seem like much of a difference, it adds up when you factor in millions of kilowatt hours,” he explained.
The mayor said it’s important for the town to be able to offer competitive pricing because reports from the U.S. Small Business Bureau show small businesses account for 60% to 80% of the jobs in the U.S., and the top obstacle they face in New England and Massachusetts is the cost of electricity.
“We want to continue to help existing companies in Greenfield expand as well as facilitate and accommodate the Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of businesses that are an idea in someone’s garage,” said Martin as he outlined steps taken over the past three years to bring the municipal aggregation plan to fruition.
Greenfield Light and Power also plays into Greenfield’s commitment to a green economy and environment, because power purchased will be generated from renewable energy sources.
“We were the first city in the state to be designated as a green community,” Martin said. “We worked hard for this and can only get better. We already have a 2.5-megawatt solar farm and can create new solar and hydroelectric projects. We will eventually produce all of the electricity that we need and move it into our aggregation plan.”
The successful establishment of the municipal aggregation plan, coupled with the Green Communities Act of 2008, which gave municipalities the opportunity to seek independent telephone and Internet service, laid the groundwork for a telecommunications or (fiber-optics) light plant also designed to further Greenfield’s independence.
“I want us to have our own Internet provider and phone company,” Martin told BusinessWest, noting that he conceived the idea three years ago.
Steps to establish what’s known as Greenfield TelNet were enhanced in 2012-13 when the Mass Broadband Institute laid seven miles of fiber-optic line in the town as part of a project to increase broadband access to communities along Interstate 91 (more on that later).
Other projects designed to make Greenfield a more attractive place to live, work, and own a business include the town’s new, handicapped-accessible rail platform located behind the John W. Olver Transit Center. It was completed in December, and in addition to stops by Amtrak on its reconfigured Vermonter line, commuter rail service has been proposed that would run between Springfield and Greenfield four times a day, with stops in Holyoke and Northampton as well as Springfield.
Martin said a state transportation-funding bill passed last year includes $30 million to acquire and retrofit older MBTA commuter-rail locomotives for the line.
He hopes the new rail service will entice people to live in Greenfield and commute to jobs in Springfield, or travel to the town from Vermont, park there, and use the train to get to work. “People hired for the MGM casino could avoid congestion on I-91. Plus, it will give businesses in Springfield options to hire people out of the immediate job pool,” he said.
Net Gains and Concrete Results
Martin’s telecommunications proposal received approval from the Town Council two years in a row, and the town is waiting to get the legislative approval necessary to hold a special election for voters on April 14. Martin hopes the approval will come through and residents will approve Greenfield TelNet at that time.
However, steps have already been taken in an effort to shrink the time frame to implement service while following the process. The town partnered with Holyoke Gas and Electric to ultilize its fiber-optics network to create voice over IP telephone service and also contracted with Crocker Communications to install and maintain it. As a result, the phone service was changed over to VoIP in Town Hall several weeks ago, which Martin said will save about $158,000 a year. After wrinkles are worked out in the system, the town’s schools will also be outfitted with the new phone system.
“The next step will be Internet access, and we hope to develop strong partners to provide and service it for the city and for our residents and businesses at a future date, which could result in a huge cost savings for everyone. We want to guarantee the future use of fiber optics and make sure that bandwidth is not reserved for those who can afford higher rates,” Martin said. “Our plan includes installing wireless Internet access downtown in the future, which would be free to housing authorities. It would also guarantee the existence of Greenfield Community Television, and the possibilities would be unlimited.”
However, he added that the town is in discussions with Comcast to renew its contract, because it wants to leave all its options open.
Meanwhile, Martin said Greenfield has a number of other significant projects underway to spur economic growth. Construction of a new, $66 million Greenfield High School is expected to be complete in August, and the new $60 million Franklin County Courthouse is slated to be finished in two years.
“There is also a lot of private investment taking place,” the mayor told BusinessWest, noting that the owner of the block downtown that houses Wilson’s department store is putting together a proposal for a hotel and banquet hall that would occupy the upper stories of the building over the store and include new construction on the Chapman Street side of the property, which abuts a parking lot.
It would recreate the 19th-century hotel that once existed there, Martin said. “It served the bustling economic activity in the area, and was supported by industry and businesses. We haven’t seen the proposal yet, but a new boutique hotel would be important, as it would give people a place to stay overnight and would be another asset to our downtown.”
Patriot Care, a licensed and experienced medical-marijuana company, is also nearing the permitting phase for rehabilitating a historic building on the western part of Main Street.
“The $1 million project is expected to begin in the spring,” Martin said. “We are focusing on rehabilitating buildings from the early 1900s of Greenfield’s heyday.”
He added that the state has accepted a proposal to conduct a feasibility study for a new library, the school administration office is moving from Davis Street to Main Street, and the public safety commission has selected a site and formed a committee to move forward on a new public-safety complex that would house the fire and police departments.
In addition, “the Ford Toyota dealership on Main Street is building two new showrooms behind its present structure, which will separate the brands and showcase them in larger, more modern facilities. In addition, a new $2.5 million Cumberland Farms on Federal Street will be finished in a few weeks, and there is a proposal for a new Dunkin’ Donuts and Sunoco Convenience Store on Federal Street, which is the second-largest commercial area in the city.”
Baystate Franklin Medical Center is also adding a new, $23 million surgical wing to the hospital, which is expected to be open next year. In addition, Baystate purchased the former Holy Trinity School and convent across the street and has plans to demolish them and erect a medical professional building on the property.
Another project that has ties to the city’s history involves the Wiley and Russell Dam. It was scheduled to be demolished years ago, but the town requested that the Department of Conservation and Recreation Office of Dam Safety conduct a new review last November. As a result, it has been reclassified from a significant-hazard-potential dam to a low-hazard-potential dam, which means a failure would not be likely to result in any loss of life or significant damage to property.
The dam, which has a V-shaped waterfall just upstream of the Meridian Street Bridge, does need some repair. But in addition to making plans for that work, Greenfield officials are exploring the possibility of constructing a fish passage at the site with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
Martin said the dam speaks to the town’s history, and in the 1800s, two businesses existed at its base, which include a company whose genesis led to the development of Kennemetal Inc.
Last July, that firm announced plans to expand its Greenfield operation with a $5 million investment in infrastructure, new equipment, and machinery. The expansion will result in 50 new jobs, which will be added over the next five years. Martin said the company’s decision to invest in the town is particularly significant because Greenfield was pitted against a site in South Carolina that Kennemetal considered after it closed its factory in Vermont.
Argotech is another Greenfield business that employs skilled workers and has plans to expand. “The company is based in our industrial park and is investing $20 million over the next 10 years in new equipment,” the mayor said.
He explained that the city is working with Greenfield Community College, Franklin County Technical School, and the Regional Employment Board to make sure both of these companies will have access to a pool of people trained in the specific job skills required in their industries.
“We talked about this and about our utility plan during our pitch to Kennemetal, and told them what we could provide in terms of training and power savings,” Martin said. “It’s the type of accommodation and collaboration we facilitate to help large businesses move to Greenfield or expand here.”
The town has also taken over a 100-year-property on an 11-acre site on Federal Street, and put out a request for proposals to redevelop 75,000 square feet of former factory space in a commercial condominium on the site obtained in December through the Bankruptcy Court. Greenfield also purchased the undeveloped half of the property from the court, which contains three playing fields on 6.62 acres the city had been leasing for $1 a year from Lunt Silversmiths.
“The entire property has been rezoned,” Martin said.
He added that Greenfield’s location and affordable housing also make it an attractive place to live and work. “We are the junction between Routes 2 and I-91 and have been known as The Crossroads since the Village of Deerfield was established,” he said. “Businesses are expanding here and are coming to Greenfield because they see it as a safe investment. We have shown that we can maintain a stable tax base of $1.36 million, and we are very competitive when it comes to the cost of electricity.”
Martin believes the measures that Greenfield is taking to become independent will bear fruit and make the town more resilient.
“Some people are guessing that the future will be different. But we guess we will be prepared for whatever it holds; we’ll have as many options as possible,” he told BusinessWest.
And that’s a solid blueprint for a sustainable economy.
Greenfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456 (2010)
Area: 21.89 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $22.51
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.51
Median Household Income: $33,110 (2010)
Family Household Income: $46,412 (2010)
Type of government: Mayor; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center; Town of Greenfield; Greenfield Community College
* Latest information available