Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight: Southwick

Community Spirit Fuels Growth in Southwick

Russell Fox grew up in Southwick and remembers when it was primarily a farming town. Although that has changed, farming still plays a significant role in the town’s economy, and the close-knit community that developed generations ago continues to be a cornerstone of life there today.

“There’s a community spirit in Southwick that people want to be part of,” said Fox, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “It is alive and well and is enhanced by the generosity of our residents. We’re also very fortunate to have an extremely active business community that invests time and money in the town, along with many boards and commissions manned by volunteers.”

Karl Stinehart concurred. “People willingly step forward to volunteer to improve the community and help move it forward,” said the town’s chief administrative officer.

A prime example is the town’s new Whalley Park, which exists thanks to the generosity of John Whalley III and Kathy Whalley, who donated a 70-acre parcel to Southwick in honor of their son John Whalley IV, then paid to outfit it.

Russell Fox says residents' willingness to help the town makes Southwick an attractive place to live and work.

Russell Fox says residents’ willingness to help the town makes Southwick an attractive place to live and work.

Fox said the park is in line with the town’s open-space plan and fulfills the need for more playing fields for youth sports, which were sorely needed. “The park also has a beautiful playscape, pavilion, underground irrigation system, and plenty of safe parking,” he told BusinessWest, adding that it will be run by the Parks and Recreation Commission.

It is located on 42 Powder Mill Road, adjacent to the Southwick Recreation Center, which stands as an example of the long history of private investment for public good. The center was formed in the ’60s by a group of farmers and residents, and is still run entirely by volunteers. “The people who created this nonprofit took out mortgages on their homes to raise the money they needed to acquire 24 acres for the center,” Stinehart said.

Today, it hosts sports teams that include soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, and floor hockey, serving hundreds of children and teens each year and boasting one of the best fields for travel soccer in Western Mass. “People love to come to Southwick and play on the field here,” Fox said.

A new, $500,000 animal shelter, called the Polverari/Southwick Animal Control Facility, is also being built, thanks to the generosity of residents Robert and Barbara Polverari, who approached town officials with the idea.

Stinehart said their proposal was timely, because the town had outgrown its old shelter, which was an outdated cinderblock building with electric heat. “It was so small, there was no way to separate different types of animals other than provide them with their own cages. It got to the point where we had to bring in temporary structures to house the kittens and cats,” he said.

The new facility not only fills a need, but also pays tribute to some town residents. For example, the adoption room was named after 22-year-old Haley Tierney, who was killed last year in a motor-vehicle accident, while the outdoor cat field is named for logger Tyler Granfield, who died in 2012 at age 28 while working at a job in East Longmeadow.

Southwick officials said there are many other examples of residents pitching in to address gaps the town cannot afford. For example, last year, when the police department needed bulletproof vests, residents and businesses came forward to pay for them. “And in the past few years, they also paid for two police dogs,” Stinehart said.

The town’s residents also support local businesses, who, in turn, do their share to contribute to the quality of life. “We were the first local community to have flags that welcome people to the town along our business corridor,” Stinehart said, noting that the business community paid for them. “There are also U.S. flags along College Highway that were donated and demonstrate the patriotism of the townspeople.”

Proactive Stance

Signs that greet drivers entering Southwick read, “Recreational Community,” and its attractions include the Congamond Lakes, the 6.3 mile Southwick Rail Trail, three golf courses, and a miniature golf course. “Southwick is also the home of motocross, plus we have two campgrounds and a very active Parks and Recreation Committee,” Fox said. “The town has also invested millions in cleaning up its lakes, and we have rehabilitated our boat ramp.”

The regional school system has expanded in the last two years and now includes Granville, in addition to Southwick and Tolland. The addition of the third town made the school system eligible for state funding not previously available, which prompted major renovations to Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional High School, which are all on one campus on Feeding Hills Road.

Fox said the three-year, $69 million project is nearing completion and includes additions as well as upgrades. “A new science wing and a wing that will become a junior high for seventh- and eighth-graders is being added to the high school,” he said, adding that the middle school currently houses grades 5 through 8.

Other improvements to the schools include new roofs, windows, heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, and upgrades to make the buildings handicapped-accessible. “What’s unusual about this project is that the state typically only approves renovations to one school at a time, but they approved renovations for all of our three schools simultaneously,” Fox said. “This is a major step for the region, and everything is on schedule, so we are very happy.”

The state will pay for 40% of the work, and the three towns will share the remaining cost. “The voters of Southwick, Tolland, and Granville all approved debt exclusions to make this a reality,” Steinhart said. “They understand it’s important to keep our schools up-to-date so we can equip students with the skill sets they will need to enter the job market.”

A new, rubberized track at the high school is also under construction, thanks to a combination of Community Preservation Act funding and a $500,000 donation from alumnus Steven Nielsen via the Steven and Elizabeth Nielsen Gift Fund.

Nielsen graduated in 1981 and resides in Florida, but continues to support his alma mater. “He funds the Atkinson Scholarship, which is one of the largest scholarships given to a student at the high school each year. Plus, he has anonymously donated computers and school supplies,” Fox said, adding that Nielsen’s philanthropy is an example of the generosity of Southwick’s former and current residents and their dedication to the town.

Moving Forward

Economic growth has also occurred in the business arena. A new funeral home has been approved, Rite Aid expanded, and a CVS was built. “There is also a new Pride gas station, a new dollar store, and several new businesses in our industrial park,” Fox said.

In addition, in an effort to promote local businesses, the town partnered with Agawam to complete an expansion of Route 57, which will also benefit residents who use it to travel back and forth to work.
Other projects include $17 million of sewer infrastructure improvements downtown and around the lakes. Phase 1 was completed a few years ago, and the town is set to embark on Phase 2.

Karl Stinehart says Southwick takes a proactive stance to applying for state and federal money to improve quality of life.

Karl Stinehart says Southwick takes a proactive stance to applying for state and federal money to improve quality of life.

Stinehart explained that part of the motivation for the sewer work comes from the fact that Southwick is growing. Its population has reached about 9,500, and once it exceeds 10,000, it will no longer qualify for federal funding aimed at towns with populations beneath that number. “We want to make sure we don’t lose out on any opportunities to offset future expenses.”

But the small-town community spirit remains strong and is boosted by a number of active civic organizations in town, which include the Rotary and Lions clubs. “The Rotary hosts an Interact Club in the high school and offers internships and job shadowing through their Business Education Alliance program. This things connect people and keep them integrated,” Stinehart said.

Fox agreed. “The Rotary took up a collection this year to pay for the annual fireworks display. They received donations as small as $1 from children and as large as thousands from adults, which says a lot about our community; there is a reason why Southwick is growing, and it’s that people want to live here,” he said, adding the town has seven churches for 9,500 people, which illustrates the diversity of the population.

Seniors are choosing to live in Southwick, too, and several new 55-and-over communities have proved popular. “The American Inn, which offers independent and assisted living, has more than 200 residents who came from towns that include Westfield and Agawam as well as states as far away as New York because they wanted to make Southwick their home,” Fox said.

He has given updates on town government at the inn and said the Board of Selectmen has held meetings there. “Many people who live there are active in the community and we want to reach out and welcome new residents and urge them to become involved. We are a whole community, from young to old.”

To that end, a new, 1,500-square-foot addition was added to the Council on Aging building to accommodate the increase in demand for services and activities for seniors.

There are also two solar projects under development. “They are being done very tastefully; we appreciate alternative energy, but want to keep our rural views and vistas,” Fox said, adding that the farms in existence are very active and profitable.

Bright Future

Many new developments are taking place throughout the town. “We’re very busy and have a lot of positive things going on. We’ve been proactive with our infrastructure as well as improvements to our schools, and our fire station, police station, library, and Town Hall have all been renovated or moved to new buildings,” Fox said. “So I’m optimistic that new businesses will continue to come to Southwick, which will help with our tax rate and make the town an even more desirable place to raise a family.”

However, he reiterated that the strong sense of community will continue to play a major role in Southwick’s development. “The spirit that began when the town was first settled carries down to this day.”