Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight: South Hadley

South Hadley Falls Rebound Gathers Momentum

Michael Sullivan says the newly opened Texon Mill Park in

Michael Sullivan says the newly opened Texon Mill Park in South Hadley Falls features a walking trail with beautiful views.

The village known as South Hadley Falls was the center of life and commerce in the town of South Hadley for more than a century. But over the past 60 years, major employers downsized or moved, and as buildings and lots were left vacant and underutilized, the village slowly lost its vitality.

But ‘the Falls’ is undergoing a revitalization, one that is a central feature of the community’s master plan. And efforts by town officials to realize a vision outlined in a report titled “The Rise of the Falls” are coming to fruition.

“When we first started down this path, we wanted to draw attention to South Hadley and the Falls,” said Town Administrator Michael Sullivan. “We are at the point where we are seeing some results, but talks with developers have pointed out other needs and opportunities, so the plan is evolving and changing.”

Indeed, officials are taking a holistic approach that includes a variety of measures. For example, several weeks ago, the South Hadley Redevelopment Authority, established last year, unveiled concepts aimed at changing the traffic pattern at the intersection of Main and Bridge streets and Main and Lamb streets. The SHRA would like to see roundabouts created, which Sullivan says are often referred to as “traffic-calming devices,” because they slow down traffic and improve pedestrian safety, while allowing vehicles to flow in an orderly manner.

In addition, the Redevelopment Authority is evaluating the use of several properties that are highly visible to drivers who enter South Hadley Falls from Holyoke via the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge.

“Two are vacant, and two are occupied by businesses, but that may not be their highest and best use; there might be suitable and available space for them to move into elsewhere in South Hadley,” Sullivan said, adding that this would have to be negotiated, but one site contains an auto-repair shop that is an eyesore due to distressed vehicles sitting outside.

“We want to use these properties to make a statement. First impressions count, and they are on adjoining lots that encompass 7.3 acres,” the town administrator told BusinessWest, as he talked about the importance of how people view the Falls.

Another part of the redevelopment plan that plays into the way the area is viewed is abating vacant and blighted buildings, and combined efforts by the Planning Board, selectmen, and Redevelopment Authority to eliminate the problem have yielded some success.

Sullivan said the town was successful in its bid to get Mohawk Paper to open a new, 120,000-square-foot envelope manufacturing and distribution facility in the Falls in the former James River Graphics building, which had been vacant for more than 10 years. South Hadley competed against Chicopee for the business, but Mohawk chose the Falls and invested $2.5 million to retrofit the building. “They opened May 15, added 35 jobs, and told us they plan to add another 35 next year,” he said.

In addition, Presstek consolidated the manufacturing side of its New York and New Hampshire plants and expanded its business in South Hadley via a $2 million upgrade of machinery and improvements. “They also added 25 employees,” Sullivan said.

Expanding Horizons

These investments, coupled with the growth of other businesses, led town officials to realize they need more housing and transportation options if they expect to attract new residents to South Hadley Falls.

“We need to redouble our efforts to provide workforce housing,” Sullivan said, explaining that the hope is that new hires in South Hadley or the environs will want to move to the village.

Progress in that arena is already taking place. Via the tax-title process, the town took ownership of a home on 8 Graves St. that was in deplorable condition, and is hoping to auction it off at the end of the month.

South Hadley officials also worked with the Attorney General’s office to get the owner of an abandoned home on 10 Canal St. to sell it. They were successful, and it was purchased, renovated, then resold to a family that is now living there.

“We’re using a variety of tools to try to improve housing and are really positioning South Hadley for the new millennium,” Sullivan said.

The town’s efforts have been aided by developer Nicholay Dipon, who plans to construct three new buildings that will contain 12 condominiums on an empty lot owned by the town situated across the street from the new, $7.7 million South Hadley Public library on 2 Canal St., which opened in August.

The selectmen have also approved Dipon’s plans to convert the decommissioned library building on 27 Bardwell St. into six market-rate apartments, and Sullivan said all of these units will be steps away from the newly opened, $12 million Texon Mill Park, which features a 3.4-mile looped walking trail with breathtaking views of the Connecticut River and the Holyoke Electric Dam.

In addition, South Hadley applied for a 40R designation from the state, which would allow the town to substantially increase its supply of housing and decrease its cost by expanding zoning for dense housing. Sullivan said officials expect to find out if their bid was successful in the next few months, adding that, if South Hadley receives the designation, it will give the town access to grants and low-interest loans to meet the goal.

“But we’re trying to give thoughtful consideration as to where we would put any new housing,” he told BusinessWest, explaining that the town recently received a $15,000 Planning Assistance Toward Housing Grant, which will be matched by $21,000 from town coffers to determine how to improve the available housing stock and increase density while keeping the Falls safe from crime.

Access to recreation is important to young professionals, and the town appropriated $30,000 to have the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission determine the best way to establish a pedestrian/bicycle path that would connect the Village Commons to the Falls.

Sullivan said the path is necessary because the housing market has changed dramatically over the last decade, and graduate students and young professionals are looking to rent apartments of 900 square feet or less in walkable neighborhoods where they can recreate as well as live and work.

“They can climb the Mount Holyoke Range at one end of town and canoe or kayak on the river at the other end,” he said. “But young people today don’t want to put a bike rack on their car. They are very active and will want a bike path, so we’re trying to find a way to tie in the amenities we have and offer diverse recreational opportunities, which include things such as golf.”

Public transportation is another critical component that appeals to young professionals, and the new Holyoke rail platform slated to open in September is within a mile of the Falls.

Although residents will be able to bike or walk to the train when service begins, South Hadley officials realized they needed to offer alternate ways to get there. To that end, they worked closely with Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority and created a ‘Tiger Trolley,’ which will allow residents to use the bus to get to the high-speed train when service begins without having to use a vehicle, and travel to Big Y, the Village Commons, restaurants, and other attractions in town.

The trolley began operating in February and runs from the Mueller Bridge in Holyoke into the Falls, before looping through South Hadley to the Village Commons. In addition to regularly scheduled stops, there is a transit-access-point, or TAP, program, which allows people to get picked up at any one of eight additional stops if they call a half-hour in advance or use a smartphone app to schedule a stop. Five of the pickup points are in South Hadley, and three are in the Falls, and Sullivan noted that, once the high-speed rail service starts, it could eliminate the need for residents of the Falls to own a vehicle.

“The Tiger Trolley transportation system is the first of its kind in the state, and we plan to increase the number of stops as demand increases,” he said, explaining that people who are on the bus can ask the driver to drop them off at any of the access points.

Work in Progress

Town officials are doing all they can to make South Hadley Falls into a walkable, vibrant neighborhood, and will continue to expand their plan to realize that goal.

“We want to build on our strengths as we head into the future,” Sullivan said, “and although we are positioned well as a cradle-to-grave community, there is still room for improvement.”

South Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,961

Area: 18.4 square miles

County: Hampden

Residential Tax Rate: $19.38 to $20.26

Commercial Tax Rate: $19.38 to $20.26

Median Household Income: $46,678 (2010)

Family Household Income: $58,693 (2010)

Type of government: Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; Exopack Advanced Coatings; Big Y World Class Markets; Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School
* Latest information available

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