Doing Business in: Chicopee
City Leaders Want to Make It Easy to Get StartedAsk anyone about the business community in Chicopee, Mayor Mike Bissonnette told BusinessWest, and you’re going to get a biased opinion.
“Talk to new owners or existing operations, and they’ll tell you,” he said. “They come to City Hall telling us, ‘we want to be here.’”
With one of the Pioneer Valley’s more bustling commercial thoroughfares on Memorial Drive, along with an expanding series of industrial parks adjacent to the Westover Air Force Base, that rhetoric is indeed grounded in pragmatic reality.
But such enthusiasm has been put to the test in recent years, most recently and famously with the profound downsizing at the Callaway Golf plant on Meadow Street. The factory cut back hundreds of jobs due to corporate restructuring — meaning a shift in manufacturing to low-cost wages in Mexico and China — but the city was able to keep operations continuing for some of the more prestigious lines of the brand; for now, roughly 150 to 200 jobs are safe in Chicopee.
While that chip shot into the rough might spell disaster for many other communities’ business base, Chicopee, while impacted, has not been staggered because of its diversified business portfolio — both of varied industries and different geographic locations for growth. And Bissonnette gives a great deal of credit to the seasoned professionals he has in City Hall, all of whom he says are actively engaged in supporting a business-friendly climate for development.
“We have one-stop shopping on permitting and licensing,” he explained, “where we put all our department heads together when someone has a proposal, before they file it, so that we can identify for them what we see as significant issues or potential hurdles that they need to address before they file their plans.”
One of those departments in the city, the Office of Community Development, has a storehouse of ideas on what needs to be addressed within the city and how that can be, or has been, accomplished. Tom Haberlin has decades of experience as the city’s director of economic development, and he said that, while some solid momentum has been building in the Westover business parks and the city’s center, there is still considerable work to be done.
The Westover Economic Development Corp., owner of the burgeoning commercial parks — Airparks North, East, West, and soon-to-be-developed South — is affiliated with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and Bissonnette and Haberlin praised that organization for its substantial and fruitful marketing efforts.
“The EDC provides excellent overall region-wide marketing for prospects outside the area,” Haberlin said, “so when developers show up here, they might cast a wider net. Maybe five or six times a month we’ll get a prospectus looking for 25,000 square feet somewhere in the city.”
While new investors eye the desirable properties in the city’s portfolio, such as a $35 million development slated to break ground across from the Home Depot on Memorial Drive containing retail, restaurant, office, and hotel space, there are some businesses that didn’t need to look very far to find the perfect spot in Chicopee.
The John R. Lyman Co. has been a city business since 1906. As owner of the subsidiary LymTech Scientific, the business manufactures specialized wiping cloths for a variety of industrial uses. Third-generation owner Bill Wright said that, when it came time for him to realistically address the modernizing needs for his business, he needed to make a decision.
Should the company relocate closer to its suppliers and core clients, in the southern U.S.? It’s a decision that many business owners face, but for Wright and his wife, Anita, it was simple.
“There’s a lot of heart in my decision to stay,” he said, standing among the boxes scattered around his offices about to be moved to their new location on Westover Road. Like his own history with the company, he said that many of his employees are second- or third-generation also. He could have forced the hand of local officials to keep his expanding business in town, he explained, “but I’m not interested in playing hardball with these people’s jobs.”
Like the officials in City Hall, Wright said that Chicopee is a good place to do business, and his words are echoed by both newcomers to the commercial tax rolls as well as some that have put the city on the map. In this latest profile of the area’s business community, BusinessWest looks at Chicopee, a city that has good reason to have a biased perspective on its commercial future.
Practice Makes Permits
On a large wall opposite his desk, Bissonnette hangs the prized shovels from groundbreaking ceremonies in the city. It’s a fairly large collection, and if the trend continues, he might need a bigger wall.
Chicopee has been fortunate to secure some high-profile business imports, primarily in the Westover area. Bimbo Bakeries, new owner of Sara Lee, is one of the world’s largest commercial bakeries, and on Taxiway Drive, it is completing work on a $33 million warehouse and distribution center.
Bissonnette and Haberlin both agreed that the EDC is doing effective work in terms of attracting new tenants such as the bakery, and they said City Hall’s role in landing these businesses takes the form of making the process for stetting up shop as simple as it can be.
“In my view, the city’s role is to not be an impediment,” Bissonnette said. “In terms of our branding, from a sort of industry standpoint, people talk to each other. We want those people to know how easy it is to start here.”
As an example, he cited the research and development facility for Qteros at Westover. “That was a last-minute decision by Qteros to change its location and come to Chicopee,” he explained. “We were very proud of that. We were able to get their permitting turned around in two weeks, so they could move forward with applications for federal funding.
“The Commonwealth has said that they want to see permitting turned around in six months,” he continued. “They think that’s a good target. I think six weeks is too long, so we try to turn things around from the date it’s filed to the time it’s approved in about two weeks.”
Victor Augusto said that he grew up right around the corner, on Dwight Street, from his present office.
He’s the CEO of Bernadino’s Bakery, a Chicopee institution started by the Stadnicki family back in 1918. A decade ago, he underwent a $1 million expansion to modernize the facility and improve distribution and production. When asked if it would have been more cost-effective to build new, he said the company could have easily relocated to another community.
“Most of our employees live here, though,” he explained. “I would not want to lose them.”
Since the expansion, Augusto said that Bernadino’s has grown, and now provides bread to many area schools and hospitals. But a major avenue of commerce has come from private-label production and distribution of other manufacturers’ products.
“Our trucks are already going to Stop and Shop, with our label,” he explained. “While we’re there, in a few more minutes, we can put in Vermont Breads, or Joseph’s Pitas, or Mission products. Transportation is a good percentage of costs, so these outside companies benefit.”
Augusto said that Bernadino’s range spans most of the Northeast, as far south as New Jersey. He sees the distribution component of his operations as one key to the continued growth of the bakery, despite the trend toward low-carb lifestyles.
While the Atkins Diet phenomenon was a hiccup in the company’s history, he laughed as he described some of the customers that come from far outside the city limits every day to get his signature baked goods.
“One gentleman comes every day from Longmeadow to get one type of bread,” he said, “and he’s tall and skinny!”
There are many emotions wrapped up in Wright’s decision to move his operations to Westover. He was just a kid when he first started coming to work with his father in the same building where he later operated the company.
“Here we are manufacturing clean-room products in a warehouse built in the 19th century,” he explained. “We had a lot of space, but it was the wrong type of space. These buildings were designed for hand carts, and here we are with gas-powered fork trucks. The accident waiting to happen never happened, and thank goodness for that.”
Meanwhile, Lyman sells his high-tech and industrial wiping cloths all over the world, and to some of the biggest names on these shores. Steinway Pianos is one of his oldest accounts, and locally, he provides cloths to Yankee Candle, Callaway, Hasbro, and E-Ink in South Hadley, maker of the technology found in ‘e-reader’ portable devices, such as Kindles and Nooks.
After a Chicopee Chamber of Commerce event at the Westover municipal airport, he and his wife noticed a building with a large ‘available’ sign. “I wrote the number in my BlackBerry,” he said, “and called them the next morning.
“At the time it was still occupied by a shrinking plastics business,” he continued, “and I thought, ‘what would we ever do with all this space?’ Well, we bought the facility last March, and are constructing a building within the building to house a clean room. We haven’t even moved in yet, and I’m not worried at all about having too much space.”
As Lyman’s business expands into the high-tech arena, so too does his expanding market base. “But we’re a small business,” he said, “and we want to act small — to be reactive and personable.
“Our forte is service and quality,” he explained, “and while it’s tough to go head to head with the competition in Asia, what we do is outperform on this continent, quality and service-wise, because we’re here and we can react fast. We make good product and can make them think twice before shifting to an Asian competitor.”
Even though his client base in this area was once the manufacturing plants that have long since departed, he said that there never once was a thought that he would take the opportunity to expand by relocating his operations elsewhere.
“There’s a pledge of loyalty to our long-time employees,” Lyman said. “There are a lot of second-generation employees, or cousins, friends. There’s a community here.”
Strength in Numbers
It’s business owners like Augusto and Wright who give Bissonnette reason to think that his office’s collection of shovels hasn’t even come close to rounding out.
After the sale last year of 57 acres to the Westover EDC, the proposed Airpark South will have the ability to attract the largest-possible commercial tenants. The mayor cited the region’s loss of Pepsico some years back because no community in the Pioneer Valley had the space available for its needs, which was in the neighborhood of 1 million square feet of floor space.
And with that business community’s strength comes an important aspect for the city at large — a good commercial base to offset homeowners’ taxes.
“For the fifth year in a row we have the lowest residential tax bill in the entire Valley,” Bissonnette said, “and lower water and utility rates than most other communities. One of the things I hear almost universally, from places like Callaway, is that the dedication of the employees, the quality of the employees, is what keeps them wanting to stay here.”
Chicopee might have some hard numbers to put toward that line of thought, also, as census results are tallied. “We believe that our population has gone up, on the order of 1,000-plus. We’ll be one of the few communities in Western Mass to show that kind of growth,” said Bissonnette. “This augurs well for money allocated from the government, based on population. That could easily turn into $15 million to $20 million over the next decade.”
And that will turn into more people who are biased toward the city of Chicopee. Looking over the evidence from all those groundbreaking ceremonies, Bissonnette said, “I believe we are poised to come back bigger and better. I’m privileged to sit here.”