Cracking the Whip

Westfield Charts Progress Downtown and in Its Industrial Parks
Lisa McMahon

Lisa McMahon, seen at Westfield’s Farmers Market, says there is a great deal of interest in downtown real estate.

Moving like a freight train.

That’s the speedy-sounding metaphor Westfield Mayor Michael Boulanger used to describe the forces transforming both his city’s downtown and overall immediate future. As he delved into the details, the description doesn’t seem far off.

A city with a long history evident in three centuries of architecture along its city green, Westfield dates to the 1660s as the westernmost outpost of the Massachusetts Colony. In its heyday, it was a manufacturing center for bricks, cigars, and the buggy whips that give the city its nickname. Today, more than 40,000 people inhabit its 47 square miles, with a median income of around $45,500.

Westfield has long been free from many of the social ills plaguing its regional peers. It boasts steady home prices, a low crime rate, and a solid middle-class population have made the Whip City something of an anomaly in the Pioneer Valley.

While other former mill cities strive to shore up their communities from decades of urban blight, Westfield has its eyes on a larger prize, nothing short of transformation into a destination city, not unlike nearby Northampton. In this latest community profile, BusinessWest talks to some of those people with the lofty, yet very real, goals of making that happen.

Home Court Advantage

Nationwide, economic development has been as stagnant as the summer’s heat. But Westfield boasts new-business planning that most communities can only dream of. Boulanger sat at the head of his conference table recently to outline the details of that “freight train” he described.

“Contrary to what the Massachusetts economy, or that of the nation, has shown in terms of a lack of growth, well, there’s a lot of stuff happening here now,” he said. Indeed, there is.

The undeveloped areas of land around Barnes Airport on the north side of the city are proving to be fertile grounds for significant growth. Home Depot had already operated a regional facility in that section of town, but plans are underway for a $25 million rapid-deployment center in Campanelli Industrial Park.

“That facility will be the regional distribution facility for all the Home Depots in Eastern New York State, as well as New England,” said Boulanger. “That’s a 675,000-square foot facility, and that to us is huge.”

Not only did Westfield successfully keep the facility within city limits after sites in Connecticut were considered as potential hosts, but officials estimate that 150 new jobs will be added to the city’s workforce.

Also scheduled for construction in Campanelli Industrial Park is a $400 million power plant owned by the Pioneer Valley Energy Corp. Boulanger noted that all permitting is in place; phase two of the project, involving gas lines from Southwick, is underway; and the site promises a substantial contribution for the city’s tax coffers. “We’re expecting annual revenues for Westfield to be around $3.2 million,” Boulanger said.

Why Westfield? Boulanger was happy to expound on the relative strengths of his community. “We had the space available, first and foremost, and not many other places did, really, for facilities of that size,” he explained. “We’ve got the airport right there for corporate needs, we’re at the axis of highways going north-south and east-west, we’re close to a major city, Springfield, as well as a commercial airport. In the case of Home Depot, Westfield is centralized for all the facilities for the stores they need to service.”

Boulanger noted that new growth is not limited to the industrial park. Barnes & Noble plans to open a 10,000-square-foot facility incorporating a Starbucks café in the city common, with a target date for business beginning in summer 2010. “That will be a huge anchor point for other establishments to build off that brand and its presence,” he said. The retailer’s college-bookstore division also signed an agreement in principle with Westfield State College, with business to begin in October of this year at the campus.

In a statement, WSC President Evan Dobelle noted that Barnes & Noble was unanimously recommended to be the school’s managing bookseller, adding that “they have been highly successful in communities of all sizes.”

But the bookstore isn’t all that the city and college will be sharing.

Head of the Class

When BusinessWest recently turned its focus on Westfield, the big news was Boulanger and Dobelle agreeing to join forces in using downtown student housing to spur revitalization in the city’s center. The two understand that a college community is dependent on both town and gown for reciprocal strength and vitality. Boulanger said that the plan is moving along, and that he “couldn’t be more pleased.”

“The college had put out requests for proposals for student quarters in the downtown area a few months ago,” he said; that process has closed and is being reviewed by the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM). “That office will come out with some decisions on those housing locations in a few weeks, so we can use that as a springboard for other projects in downtown.

“Revitalization of downtown is really college-dependent at this point,” Boulanger continued, adding that “the close partnership with the college is very strong, and I do know that they want to do this as much as we do. This really will serve as the catalyst for commercial and economic growth.”

Dobelle is no stranger to town-and-gown collaborations, nor, for that matter, the corner office itself. For two terms back in the early 1970s, he served as mayor of Pittsfield. Since then, he has been president at four different colleges; he became the 19th president of WSC in December 2007. While at Trinity College in Hartford, he successfully led efforts to utilize the school’s strengths to strengthen the poor neighborhoods surrounding the school.

“Westfield has an affluence that you don’t find in a lot of cities,” Dobelle told BusinessWest. “But the reality is that the dollars spent in Westfield are drawn out of the city because there aren’t places for that money to be spent here, be it retail or entertainment.”

The plan to house students downtown has a definite target date for move-in day for the fall 2010 semester, but Dobelle said it could realistically happen as early as the beginning of next year.

He sees WSC as an “anchor tenant” for downtown Westfield, and belives that, once people with disposable income start moving into those locations, business can be viable and successful, with a chain reaction taking place whereby the public sector wants to be a part of that vibrant culture. Locally, the turnaround of Northamp-ton’s downtown in the 1980s and ’90s is often cited as an example.

When the Great River Bridge (Elm Street) construction project is completed, the village green is redone, and the infrastructure of the city is repaired in a couple of years, Dobelle hopes that WSC will have proved to be the catalyst for a bustling city center like that of other college towns across the nation. He sees his role as president of a public college having even more of a place in that collaboration.

“When a public college is subsidized by the taxpayers, then there is a responsibility,” he said. “I could build dormitories on the campus and then not pay any taxes. But doing this is a more-responsible way to be respectful of the local property owners and the taxpayers subsidizing our institution.”

Home Improvements

When WSC successfully integrates into the city’s downtown, it won’t be the first agent of change in the historic center.

In the summer of 2006, the wheels were set in motion for the third Business Improvement District in the Commonwealth, located in Westfield. Lisa McMahon is executive director of the WBID, noted that, like other small to mid-size American cities, “strip malls took their toll on downtown’s economy. The Chamber of Commerce, the business community, and also City Hall agreed that our downtown was not well-represented.”

Like most people in the city, McMahon said that the collaboration with WSC puts some planning into a holding pattern. Once DCAM knows where those student-housing units will be, the private sector will follow. More than just director of the BID, McMahon has become a liaison to interested developers.

“I’ve become a bit of a connector,” she said, adding that “I’m familiar with the real-estate stock in the city, so I’ll get calls from people both here and out of the area, saying, ‘I’m looking for x square feet,’ or ‘I need a storefront or a second floor.’

“I’ve walked around downtown with developers from all over,” she continued, “from Eastern Mass., from New York, who are all interested in downtown; they’re interested in the potential and the possibilities here.”

Students’ feet on the streets translates into consumers with money to spend, and the business community knows that. McMahon said that some of the calls she has been fielding reflect that demographic. “We have someone who is interested in opening a fish market, another a clothing store, a chocolatier, all these different people who are really interested and who want to get in on the ground floor here,” she said.

In fact, McMahon said the response has been so overwhelming that the WBID has pulled back on its advertising of commercial properties due to the sheer volume of calls.

But the WBID isn’t limited in scope to attracting new blood to the city center. During a well-attended ‘Farmers Market,’ one of the agency’s initiatives, McMahon told of what the BID means for the city. Like others of its kind, the agency strives to make the city, in its words, “a clean, attractive, safe, well-programmed, and aggressively promoted location in which to live, conduct business, shop, and visit.”

From the Farmers Market to concerts on the Green; from holiday lights and decorating vacant storefronts downtown to programs for youths, seniors, free health care, and adult literacy, the WBID has become a one-stop “New Deal” for Westfield, she said, adding that assistance from the city has been vital to her own successes.

“All of these things — Summer Sounds, the Farmers Market, and more, we wouldn’t be able to do any of them if we didn’t have the cooperation of the Parks and Recreation commission, the licensing commission, the City Council, the restaurateurs,” she said. “Even here, right now, the church across the street gives us their parking lot.

“People want to see downtown succeed,” she continued. “From the Gas & Electric linesmen who help us with lights on the common to the Police Department, everyone pitches in. It would never be able to happen if we didn’t have collaborations from everyone in the city. People are community-minded, and they want to see change.”

As a benchmark of the WBID’s success, McMahon said a number of properties originally opted out of the BID, “but many have since contacted us to say, ‘how do we get in? We want to be part of the BID, we want to be on the Web site, we want to be on the flyers that come out.’”

Overall, she said the city is responding positively to all that the WBID has done. “People stop you on the street and say, ‘we appreciate what you are doing here.’”

Summing things up, McMahon said the city is in a holding pattern for further development now, but not for long.

In just a few weeks, the first wave of college students will find out their new potential addresses in the city center for next year. From students to the new development that follows, it seems clear that Westfield is cracking the whip anew, and is charting a new course for success.

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