Diverse Growth Enhances Easthampton’s Vitality
It’s a park like no other.
To begin with, it’s inside an old mill building and filled with a seemingly endless array of large, leafy edible plants that are used to prepare foods in the open restaurant that sits in the park’s center. The plants are grown hydroponically, or without soil, and are nourished with lights and a special mineral solution.
There are spaces inside the park’s 14,000 square feet to suit every mood: private and communal seating areas, a mushroom house designed to be an enclosed area for meetings and other gatherings, an amphitheater built for lounging and conversation, and the multi-level Hamptonaeum, which park owner Michael Sundel says is a modern version of space set aside centuries ago by towns and cities to promote learning.
The park, which opened Sept. 7, has already put down roots in the community, and on a recent day families were enjoying the golf putting area, ring toss, bocce, and two cornhole games in a space where Sundel hopes to start cornhole leagues this winter.
To make things even better, the park is open seven days a week, there is no admission charge, and everything — except the food in the restaurant — is free.
Indeed, Mill 180 Park in Easthampton is a new concept and pilot that Sundel created to give children and adults a place to do things they would normally enjoy in an urban yard on a year-round basis.
“I wanted to give people the sense that they are in nature in a place that is educational, fun, and relaxing,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his background is in software and he hopes he can sell the idea and expand the park in the future.
It’s a quiet place filled with relaxing sounds, created through a process known as weatherbending; the sounds change constantly according to elements such as the local weather, the time of day and time of year, and the cycles of seeding, growing, maturing, and harvesting in the hydroponic gardens.
Visitors have been treated to live music on Friday nights, birthday parties have been held there, and so has a Democratic Committee meeting, among other meetings. And the park has applied for one of the eight new all-alcohol liquor licenses Easthampton has granted to stimulate business downtown and in the Mill District.
Mayor Karen Cadieux loves the park, has attended events in it, and sees it as an exciting addition to a multitude of projects that have been taking place in Easthampton.
“We are just buzzing with economic growth and have had eight ribbon-cuttings in the last month alone,” she said, noting that the grand-opening events took place at diverse businesses ranging from Mill 180 Park to a new club where people can play table tennis, an interior-design studio, an art studio, a laser and cosmetic-surgery center, and a manufacturing facility.
Some of the businesses are new ventures, others chose to move to the city, and still others changed their location within Easthampton because they needed room to expand.
But they all speak to the vitality of a city that has transformed its mills, created a thriving arts district, and become a destination, thanks to public and private investments and partnerships thoughtfully forged between the city and its business community.
For this edition, BusinessWest continues its Community Spotlight series with a look at what is happening in Easthampton and the factors that have led to what Cadieux calls “a whirlwind of economic activity.”
Developer Mike Michon, who is responsible for the revitalization of Mill 180, purchased it after deciding in 2008 to move his family to Western Mass.
They were living on the South Shore, and he looked at sites in Springfield and Holyoke before finding Mill 180, which he purchased largely due to its location.
“I did a demographic study before I moved here, met people in City Hall, and thought it was a nice place to do business. Everyone in town has been very supportive,” he said.
The mill was in really bad shape when he bought it, but the fact that it faces Mt. Tom and has a pond, bike path, and park behind it appealed to him.
“I thought it would be a great place for mixed-use development,” Michon said, adding that it took a year to put the deal together, but he found the city “very developer-friendly” as he obtained the permits needed to move forward.
Today, in addition to the new indoor park, Mill 180 is home to the Conway School of Landscape Architecture, a number of software and advertising companies, a machine shop, and an insurance company, all of which occupy the first two floors.
The mill’s third floor contains 24 high-end, market-rate apartments with beautiful views. The final units were completed in June, and although rents are as high as $2,400 per month, they were all pre-rented before they were finished.
Phase 3 of the six-mile section of the Manhan Rail Trail that runs through Easthampton behind the mills was recently completed and is expected to bring foot and vehicular traffic to tenants, include new breweries with outdoor patios facing the bike path, and all types of businesses.
Phase 3 included a new, 1.4 million-square-foot, lighted parking lot that runs behind all of the mill buildings; walkways that provide access from the bike path to the parking lot; and a retaining wall that separates the parking area from the rail trail.
Michon said the changes and new parking lot are a wonderful example of a very successful public-private venture that was funded by three major MassWorks grants.
Cadieux noted that the Pleasant Street Mills Project started with work by the city so the fire department could access the back of the building.
But it quickly morphed into a larger project: the mills were rezoned for mixed use, and the city worked closely with the Pleasant Street owners.
Michon played an important role, as he recognized in 2010 that more parking was needed, and after talking with legislators, he and another mill owner spent a significant amount of money upgrading their spaces.
The magnitude of the project also led Eversource (formerly WMECO) to upgrade the electric lines going into the buildings.
“It’s something they had not planned to do for 10 years, but they were inspired by the project and the fact that the mill owners invested money to do renovations at the same time,” Cadieux said.
Today, thanks to three substantial MassWorks grants, three of the revitalized, 19th-century brick mill buildings have been connected, there is a main public entryway behind them, and the expanded parking lot that ties the back of the mills to the Manhan Rail Trail, Lower Mill Pond, and CCC Park, on the other side of the rail trail behind the mills, was finally finished several weeks ago.
“It’s incredible to get grants for three years from the state, but it’s because of our success story,” Cadieux said. “It’s an example of state dollars put to use at their best.”
The majority of change taking place in Easthampton is occurring in the Mill District and the Cottage Street Cultural District, which was one of the first cultural districts approved by the state.
Cadieux said three grand openings were staged over the past month in the Keystone Mill Building at 122 Pleasant St., where ongoing renovations have been made to suit tenants.
Design House 413 Kitchen Showroom recently held a grand opening in the building, and so did New England Felting Supply and KW Home, which both moved from the former Majestic Theater building on Cottage Street because they needed room to expand.
Cadieux said the space they had occupied was filled immediately by Off the Map Tattoo, another Easthampton business which had outgrown its space, but wanted to stay in the city and was able to consolidate its operations under one roof in its new location at 82½ Cottage St.
“We were really excited that Off the Map found the space they needed because we didn’t want to lose the business,” Cadieux said, noting that, in addition to offering tattoos and tattoo removal, the business hosts guest artists, offers a wide array of special events and educational seminars, and has other locations in Colorado and Italy.
Another unusual new business — Zing! Table Tennis Club — also opened in the past few weeks in a 3,800-square-foot space at 122 Pleasant St.
Cadieux told BusinessWest that the ribbon cuttings are expected to continue, because an entirely new business is waiting to open in the Keystone Mill Building.
Easthampton officials approved a 27,000-square-foot medical-marijuana cultivation and dispensary/retail store in March that will be operated by Hampden County Care Facility Inc. and is expected to create 50 new jobs. At this point, the company is waiting for state approval to open.
However, the mills are not the only area where growth is occurring. A ribbon cutting was held several weeks ago at the Button Building on 123 Union St. when Dr. William Truswell, a board-certified facial plastic surgeon, moved his Aesthetic Laser & Cosmetic Surgery Center from Northampton to Easthampton.
“The Button Building was purchased several years ago by Five Star Building Corp., has been completely renovated, and is almost filled to capacity,” Cadieux said.
In addition, on Sept. 23, two artists opened Spot 22 in the Cottage Street Cultural District. Amy Johnquest, who makes custom-painted banners under the BannerQueen moniker, is sharing the space with photo dealer Stacy Waldman, who collects and sells vintage snapshots, photographs, and ephemera under the name House of Mirth, and the business is expected to bring a new element to the thriving area.
“We’re very lucky to be able to maintain our economic diversity,” Cadieux said.
She attributes the accelerated growth that has taken place in the city over the past few years to the single tax rate, the vibrancy of the community, and the unusually strong partnerships that exist between the city and its businesses.
But they have been carefully forged, and the mayor is doing all she can to facilitate growth.
For example, whenever a business is interested in moving to Easthampton she sets up a meeting with city officials, that include the fire and police chiefs, the city planner, a health agent, and representatives from the Building Commission and Department of Public Works, who sit down with the business owner and let them know what they need to do before they go in front of the regulatory board.
“It has worked out very well; businesses are attracted to a thriving community, and that’s what we are,” Cadieux said.
The city also updated its website several months ago, making it more user friendly as well as comprehensive, and published a Small Business Permitting Guide in June.
And in June, the mayor staged a so-called ‘Listening Session’ for the entire business community, and their concerns were taken into consideration in a review undertaken by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to determine if ordinances need to be changed to keep the city competitive with surrounding communities.
“I wanted to find out if we are over-regulated, under-regulated, and if we are really competitive,” Cadieux said, adding the report was just completed.
Dramatic changes that have occurred in Easthampton in recent years include the revitalization of the mill area and the fact that the city has become a place known for the arts, thanks to Cottage Street’s designation by the Mass Cultural Council as a Cultural District.
“That area is thriving and filled with artists, restaurants, and businesses. We’ve been working on the downtown area for many years and it’s an amazing build out,” Cadieux said, noting the addition of three breweries and the $945,000 Nashawannuk Pond Promenade Park which was finished last year and boasts a boardwalk, three handicapped boat ramps, and an area for fishing, have made Easthampton a destination location.
“It’s all a continuum of how we have been rebuilding the community; there is so much going on here that it is difficult to focus on any one thing,” Cadieux said.
Which makes Mill 180 Park even more important, because it provides residents with an unusual place to relax, have fun and enjoy the beauty of nature — albeit, inside.
Easthampton at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1809
Area: 13.6 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $15.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.59
Median Household Income: $57,134
Family Household Income: $78,281
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest employers: Berry Plastics; Williston Northampton School; National Non Wovens; October Co.
* Latest information available