Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight: Wilbraham

Wilbraham Carefully Crafts a Plan for Growth

Tracey Plantier and John Pearsall

Tracey Plantier and John Pearsall say Wilbraham residents want to maintain the town’s historic New England charm.

John Pearsall says Wilbraham residents appreciate the town’s New England charm and want it maintained. But they’re equally thankful for the plethora of stores, businesses, and restaurants available to them on Boston Road.

“Wilbraham is primarily a residential community, and what attracts people here is the quality of life,” said the town’s planning director. “But people are also comfortable with the idea that Boston Road is very commercial, and they want growth there to continue.”

These opinions were voiced repeatedly in studies contained in a report released last September titled “Wilbraham Looks Forward.” It documents the results of surveys and focus-group meetings conducted by an all-volunteer vision task force over an 18-month period. Members of the panel were appointed by the Planning Board, and their goal was to solicit opinions from residents and business owners about what they appreciate about the town as well as change they would like to see in coming years.

“Our mission was to generate a consensus-based guiding vision to address Wilbraham’s current and evolving challenges and opportunities,” said vision team chair Tracey Plantier, who is a member of the Planning Board and volunteer for the Open Space and Recreation Plan Committee (more about the report later).

Wilbraham was devastated by the tornado that swept through Western Mass. in 2011, but the majority of that damage has been repaired. And although commercial and residential growth has been slow since 2008, Pearsall said, “last year, things started to rebound.”

In December, Lumber Liquidators opened on 2148 Boston Road, and two auto dealerships made significant investments in their properties. Balise Ford held a grand-opening ceremony to welcome the public to a new, 26,000-square-foot, $4.2 million dealership about 11 months ago. The expansion added about 20 new jobs and helped strengthen the town’s tax base.

“Officials from Balise told us they were impressed by the town’s streamlined permitting process,” said Pearsall. “They described it as effortless compared to other communities.”

In addition, Lia Toyota’s showroom on 2145 Boston Road got a $300,000 facelift last year. “And Baystate Self Store LLC on 2350 Boston Road is expected to open in June with 73,125 square feet of available storage space,” said Pearsall, adding that some of it will be climate-controlled.

Growth is also occurring in the residential sector, as 18 new homes and/or condominiums were built in 2013 at a cost of $4.74 million. “The majority were in the Gardens at Wilbraham and in Cedar Ridge, which are both on Boston Road,” Pearsall said.

Eric Fuller, the town’s planning director, told BusinessWest that the three-mile strip of Boston Road that runs through Wilbraham is zoned for commercial and industrial use and contains land and buildings available for purchase or for lease. “Properties for sale include the former Medeiros Williams Chevrolet Co. building and lot.”

Pearsall agrees that opportunity abounds on Boston Road, home to a significant amount of underutilized and/or vacant space. “The former Taylor Rental property next to Home Depot is available, and on a smaller scale, there is space for lease in a number of strip malls,” he said. “Plus, the site across the street from Post Office Park has been cleaned up and is for sale.”

Post Office Park is a horseshoe-shaped, planned commercial development on Boston Road with two entrances and traffic signals. The back of the property is home to many businesses that are attractive to families, including the YMCA’s Wilbraham branch, All American Gymnastics, a dance academy, some small retail shops, and a pediatric medical office.

But land is still available at the front of the park, which Pearsall said is suitable for a high-profile retail business, due to its visibility from Boston Road and the fact that 40,000 vehicles travel up and down the busy thoroughfare each day.

“It is a significant commuter route, with Springfield to the west, Palmer to the east, and the entrance to the Mass Turnpike in Palmer,” he said. “Jake’s Restaurant across the street feeds off the traffic from the people who attend recreational and sporting events at Post Office Park, and Eastfield Mall, just down the road in Springfield, attracts shoppers.”

Enhanced Value

Education is important to Wilbraham residents, and the town boasts three secondary schools, including the private Wilbraham-Monson Academy; the parochial Cathedral High, temporarily housed in the old Memorial School building; and the new, $50 million, state-of-the-art Minnechaug Regional High School, which serves students from Wilbraham and Hampden.

“When people come into my office, they always ask about our schools, and the high quality we offer is a really big draw,” Pearsall said, explaining that the new high school has a day-care facility, and the grounds of the old building have been turned into athletic playing fields.

Eric Fuller

Eric Fuller shows off a copy of “Wilbraham Looks Forward,” which documents opinions solicited from residents and business owners.

“And Wilbraham Monson Academy continues to expand its campus,” he continued. “A brand-new dorm is under construction for students in their middle-school program, and they have put in new athletic playing fields.”

Major investments have also been made at Spec Pond, which is home to a summer day camp run by the Parks and Recreation Department. “More than $1 million has been spent in the park over the last few years,” said Fuller. “We have new pavilions, a new playground, and new playing fields for youth baseball, lacrosse, and softball. It’s a very large complex with lights that can also be used for night football. Plus, a spray park is being installed and will be ready by the time summer arrives.”

In another section of town, the iconic Rice Fruit Farm building is undergoing a major renovation. “The Rice family ran their farm for many generations and grew their fruit stand into a retail store,” Pearsall explained. But the storefront has been vacant since the family closed the business about five years ago.

Fuller said there was some interest in redeveloping the site, but its residential zoning was a stumbling block. However, that changed recently when the Planning Board revised the zoning based on the fact that the building had been operated as a farm stand. “It allowed the new owner to repurpose the structure and make it into a viable business,” he explained.

The retail establishment, called Heritage Farm Stand, is expected to open within the next few months. “They’ll sell fruit, ice cream, pies, and baked goods, and will have indoor and outdoor seating,” Pearsall said. “This is an adaptive reuse of a building that everyone in town wanted to reopen.”

Vision Quest

The town is comprised of a number of neighborhoods — Wilbraham Center, North Wilbraham, East Wilbraham, Wilbraham Mountain, South Wilbraham, the Boston Road Corridor, and the Pines section — and during the past year, residents and business owners from all sectors had the opportunity to voice their opinions about what type of change they would like to see in the future via surveys conducted by the Vision Task Force.

“We created subcommittees that did in-depth studies on education, land use, livability, and town services,” Plantier said. “The study was unique and something that few towns do, but we wanted to create a focused vision strategy.”

To that end, the task force developed an extensive questionnaire titled “Community Insights,” and residents were given the opportunity to respond online or in writing at town meetings, at concerts in Fountain Park, and during tours of the new high school held at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.

The study was designed to provide input on what Plantier refers to as “the dynamics of change,” and answer the questions, “where are we going?” “what are we in the process of becoming if we follow the current course?” and “what will Wilbraham look like in 20 years and beyond if current trends continue?”

The task force also held focus-group sessions with business owners, members of the Boston Road Business Assoc., the Rotary Club, the East of the River Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations. In addition, a survey was mailed to 200 businesses.

The final event was called Imagine Wilbraham Day, which was attended by 100 people who had the opportunity to express or reiterate their opinions about what works well in town and what changes could prove beneficial. The results have been compiled in a report titled “Wilbraham Looks Forward,” and a new committee has been created to facilitate ways to implement desired change.

However, two items that emanated from the surveys are already on the town’s agenda and will be voted on during the May 12 town meeting. The first involves signage and would allow new businesses to erect temporary signs welcoming customers.

The second would permit an expansion of land use in Wilbraham Center. Pearsall explained that every plot of land in the neighborhood is currently zoned as either neighborhood/office space or neighborhood/shopping space. “We are not changing the zoning; we are homogenizing it,” he said, adding that the proposal would give property owners the ability to create food establishments or small shops in that section of town.

However, Plantier reiterated that, although residents want more shopping and restaurant options, they are deeply committed to maintaining the look and feel of Wilbraham, which she described as “a scenic, small New England town.”

“One of the biggest challenges to our economic development is balancing the change that residents want while keeping the look and feel of a scenic, historic small town with green, open space,” she said, adding that two requests voiced repeatedly in the survey are for additional sidewalks and bike lanes along the roadways.

The May town meeting will also give residents the chance to learn about volunteer opportunities with the town’s nonprofit organizations. Booths will be set up by representatives who will be ready and willing to share information. “This is important, as many people who responded to the survey expressed an interest in becoming more engaged in town, and said they want to see more events held in our community,” Plantier said.

Wilbraham also has two active committees pushing for a new safety complex and senior center. Although financial resources are limited, the Fire Department completed a $2.8 million renovation of its main fire station last year. “It was brilliantly done in a manner that didn’t require the town to borrow any money,” Fuller said. “It was a collaborative effort, and the fire chief was committed to adapting what he had to the needs of the department through the use of available funds.”

Pearsall added that the project set a precedent “to be creative and try to get the best results at the lowest cost to the taxpayers.”

Home-based Help

One thing that makes Wilbraham unique is the willingness of its residents to share their time to improve life in town.

“Many people own businesses or have professional expertise and are happy to contribute their talents or make donations to programs here,” said Pearsall. “There is a lot of community support to improve the quality of life.”

That trend is sure to continue as “Wilbraham Looks Forward,” paying due diligence to the opinions of residents who take great pride in the place they call home.

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
<strong>Population: 14,868 (2010); 13,473 (2000)
Area: 22.4 square miles

County: Hampden

Residential Tax Rate: $20.44
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.44
Median Household Income: $90,670
Family Household Income: $102,557
Type of government: Open Town Meeting

Largest employers: Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Town of Wilbraham; Wilbraham and Monson Academy; Life Care Center of Wilbraham
* Latest information available