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Destination: Memorial Drive

Surge in New Development Shows Changing Attitudes About Chicopee
Chicopee construction

Chicopee construction

The notation on the latest construction -activities report for the city of Chicopee says it all.

Next to a listing for a planned, 2,000-square-foot Starbucks cafÈ to be built near the PeoplesBank ATM on Memorial Drive it says, No Longer a Rumor.

While the actual facility hasn’t been built — no groundbreaking has even been scheduled — Starbucks’ latest Western Mass. site appears to be fact, says City Planner Kate Brown, and this says something about Chicopee and Memorial Drive.

"There’s an interesting juxtaposition there," Brown told BusinessWest. "You have Wal-Mart on one side of the street, and a $5 cup of coffee on the other side. I’m not really sure what that says, but I think it means that Chicopee and Memorial Drive have what a lot of national retailers are looking for.

"I think it means that people are now looking past the income statistics," she continued, noting that, until now, most national chains have looked past Chicopee, presumably because its demographics were not attractive enough. "People are getting past the numbers and seeing the opportunities that exist here."

Bill McCabe agrees.

He’s a project manager with CBL & Associates Properties Inc., a Tennessee-based, publicly held real estate investment trust (REIT) with more than 70 million square feet of retail property in its portfolio. The company spent more than three years in tough negotiations to wrest a large portion of the former Fairfield Mall property from the Pennsylvania-based REIT Preit-Rubin Inc., and finally prevailed early last year.

CBL is now constructing what is being called the first phase of new retail development in the old mall site. Four national chains — Staples, Marshall’s, Sleepy’s, and iParty — will occupy a 75,000-square-foot facility, while additional retail is being planned.

"This really fit in our portfolio … the location is fantastic — the turnpike exit is right there — and Memorial Drive gets a significant volume of traffic," said McCabe, who noted that the presence of Wal-Mart and Home Depot have prompted many other retailers to give Chicopee a hard look.

Mayor Richard Goyette calls it a "domino effect."

He said that as more national retailers come to Memorial Drive, the traffic count on the street goes higher, which, in turn, prompts more retail, and a continuation of that cycle. The phenomenon can be seen not only in new ventures, but the expansion and renovation of existing businesses, he said.

"I see a lot of momentum on Memorial Drive … there’s a lot happening, and that only draws more interest in that area," he said. "It’s exciting to watch things unfold."

And as development continues on Memorial Drive, attention is also being paid to infrastructure, said Goyette, noting that work is being done to ease access into the new retail complex at the former mall site and to accommodate the increased traffic on roads leading to the area.

We expect to be drawing people from a much wider area than we have," said Goyette, who told BusinessWest that city officials want to make Memorial Drive a destination, not a place people want to avoid.

What’s in Store?

A further look at Chicopee’s latest construction activities report, which includes projects in all phases — conceptual, planned, permitted, under construction, and completed — and also lists development opportunites, reveals the extent of activity on this street framed by the turnpike and Westover Air Force Base.

In addition to the four big boxes under construction at the former mall site, which was demolished in 2002, an Applebee’s restaurant is planned for the north side of that complex, near the Wal-Mart entrance drive. Meanwhile, CBL is moving ahead with phase 2 of its plans for the former mall property, with several more retailers planned for another 70,000 square feet of space.

And then, there’s the Starbucks, which is planned for a site just off the turnpike exit, in the so-called BJ’s plaza, a development that also includes Big Y and sits adjacent to a Stop & Shop, a recently opened Hampton Inn, a Bank of America branch, and the aformentioned ATM.

There are a number of other projects in the planning stages, and several developments that have been completed, including:

• A planned 8,500-square-foot expansion project at Curry Honda;

• Preliminary plans for Bob Pion Pontiac to expand into the former Admiral DW’s restaurant next door;

• Ongoing faÁade improvements at the Price Rite plaza, including paving and a new roof;

• Planned relocation of the Ocean State Job Lot at the front of the Fairfield Mall site to the site of the former Ames store in a plaza further north on Memorial Drive;

• Construction of a new Auto Zone at the site of the former Ponderosa restaurant;

• Rehabilitation of a former bank branch building into the new home of the Freedom Credit Union;

• Demolition of the Pizza Hut restaurant near the front of the former mall and construction of a Ninety Nine restaurant; and

• Construction of "The Arbors Kids" day care and summer sports adjacent to an existing assisting living facility.

The list goes on, said Brown, noting the sum of the development projects and their diversity show that Chicopee, and specifically Memorial Drive, is becoming an increasingly popular site for retailers of all kinds.

Why? The need for some national chains like Home Depot and Wal-Mart to penetrate and then saturate new geographic areas certainly has something to do with it, she said. But location, location, location, — the credo of the commercial real estate realm — is also a big factor, as are changing attitudes about the city itself.

For decades, the national chains seemingly ignored Chicopee, said Brown, opting instead for the Holyoke Mall area, Boston Road in Springfield, Riverdale Road in West Springfield, Route 20 in Westfield, or Route 9 in Hadley.

What few retailers the city could attract were mostly discount shops like Bradlee’s, Ames, and Caldor’s, which all fell victim to Wal-Mart and other national giants. The situation was so bad that Brown, when asked if the arrival of Wal-Mart had an adverse effect on existing retailers, said, "there was hardly anyone left to be devastated."

Thinking Outside the (Big) Box

That scene is changing, with the arrival of Home Depot and Wal-Mart, the current construction of the four additional big boxes, and the promise of more development up and down the street, said Brown, who told BusinessWest that the surge in development on Memorial Drive began in the late ’90s, and was greatly accelerated by the ultimate demise of the Fairfield Mall.

Opened in 1974, the mall enjoyed some early success with a mix of discount anchors and several local businesses in its main concourse. Eventually, however, it couldn’t compete with larger area malls, especially nearby Holyoke, and as the discount stores failed and traffic to the mall steadily decreased, its fate was sealed.

The de-malling of the site — a term used by development professionals to describe the process of retrofitting a parcel for development — started in late 2000, and was slowed by a sluggish economy and a complicated ownership situation. At the time, the property was held by three concerns, all with different agendas and priorities.

The property still has three owners, but they appear to be on the same page. Home Depot owns its parcel, formerly the site of the Caldor’s store, New York-based Vornado Realty Trust holds the parcel on which the Wal-Mart was built, and CBL owns the former mall concourse area and most of the parking lot.

It was the arrival of Home Depot, which began construction in 2001 and opened in August of 2002, that got the ball rolling, said McCabe, adding that the start of construction on the 139,000-square-foot Wal-Mart provided additional momentum — and vast potential.

It was a combination of location and potential that attracted CBL, which primarily owns regional malls that are the dominant retail facility in middle-market acres.

The 22-acre portion of the former Fairfield Mall site is one of many acquisitions CBL has made in the past year. Others include the 1.2 million-square-foot Mall del Norte in Laredo, Texas, the 991,000-square-foot Northpark Mall in Joplin, Mo., and the 1.1 million-square-foot Monroeville Mall just outside Pittsburgh.

The Chicopee purchase is much smaller in scale, said McCabe, who works in the company’s Boston office, but it is an important addition to the portfolio. And he believes the company’s track record with many national retailers, coupled with the site’s location and other amenities, bode well for the future.

"We wouldn’t have gone into this if we didn’t have the retailers on board," he explained. "One of the nice things about being a national company is that we have very good relationships with a number of different retailers. If we didn’t think this made sense for them, we wouldn’t have gone forward with this property.

"We feel comfortable with the location," he continued, "and with Chicopee."

McCabe couldn’t reveal to BusinessWest the names of retailers who are close to inking deals to come to the former mall site, but he said several contracts are pending for storefronts that will be between 1,600 and 12,000 square feet.

He expects a mix of local and national stores, and said Home Depot and especially Wal-Mart are companies that attract other retailers.

"We have a number of Wal-Marts in other shopping centers we own, and they’re fantastic for business," he explained. "A lot of other retailers see the traffic that Wal-Mart generates and they want to be a part of that."

With Wal-Mart and the mix of other retailers to occupy the site, the former mall complex will be drawing shoppers from at least a 10-mile radius and perhaps more, said McCabe, noting that there are several projects planned to accommodate the higher traffic volume.

Additional turning lanes will be created at the former mall site to allow easy access, said Goyette. Meanwhile, the city will undertake a project to widen Fuller Road, which connects Memorial Drive with Route 291, and another to facilitate movement on Sheradon Street, which runs behind the former mall complex.

Progress — Down the Road

Returning to the subject of demographics and income statistics, Brown said, "if we had Longmeadow’s numbers, this resurgence on Memorial Drive would have happened a long time ago."

The fact that it’s happening now is evidence that attitudes about the statistics are changing — and that perhaps the most important stat is that there is now a Wal-Mart at 545 Memorial Dr.

While the reasons for the burst of activity on the street can be debated, what can’t be is the notion that the area is now a real destination.

As with the planned Starbucks cafÈ, the emergence of Memorial Drive is no longer a rumor.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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