Doing Business in: Chicopee

City Strives to Create Momentum in Its Downtown Core
Doing Business in: Chicopee

Economic-development leaders hope the Ames Privilege building is only the beginning of more housing downtown.

“Chicopee is the crossroads of New England,” Gail Sherman said proudly — even as she acknowledged that other communities might take offense to that descriptor.

“I know a lot of cities say that,” said Sherman, president of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce. “But with the Mass Pike and the interstates, this really is a very convenient location.”

The chamber’s goal, however, is to make Chicopee more than convenient for business owners, but also an affordable and attractive place to do business.

“Our electric rates are lower than many other cities because we have a municipal electric company,” she noted, also citing property taxes, which were lowered last year so that businesses are paying less than before to the municipality — an attractive draw for companies to locate in town. “That’s a real advantage at a time when people are tightening their belts.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bissonnette and other Chicopee officials are busy shepherding projects to draw more retail, services, and housing; expand parking capacity downtown; and generally try to counter an economic climate that has not been kind to any city.

“Business is still tough,” Sherman said. “Manufacturers are struggling, and everyone’s wondering whether to hire people back or not, wondering what will happen in the new year. Some businesses have laid off a third of their workforce. Retail has done pretty well with the holidays, but now the holidays are over. And restaurants are struggling; people aren’t eating out as much. Everyone seems to be waiting to see what happens in 2010.”

It’s a year when some long-awaited projects could start to bear fruit, positioning Chicopee to benefit from whatever economic recovery might emerge in the new decade.

Parking Lost

Patrick Gottschlicht, co-owner of the Munich Haus restaurant downtown, knows the area has a long way to go before becoming the sort of vibrant destination some envision. But his establishment has been one of downtown’s significant success stories, and when he looks out his front door, he sees opportunity.

“Every time I talk to the mayor, he’s trying to attract some new businesses. He hasn’t forgotten about the downtown, and one of his priorities is getting businesses down here,” Gottschlicht said.

“Obviously in it’s hard in this economy to attract new business, but there’s definitely unlimited potential downtown,” he added. “There are a lot of open storefronts, but that can be a good thing too, because once we get some of them filled, it could cause a chain reaction and bring more business down here.”

Parking capacity has been an issue, and the city continues to examine possible downtown properties to purchase and convert to more parking.

“There’s been a big push for more parking, and there’s a good chance we’ll see that happen,” Gottschlicht said, noting that, while Munich Haus faces a shortage of parking during lunch hours, it’s easier to find a spot nearby for dinnertime, after many businesses are closed for the day.

“A lot of downtown storefronts are empty,” Sherman said, “but so much is about parking. Once we make more parking, we’ll start filling up some of those storefronts” — and perhaps start that chain reaction Gottschlicht mentioned.

Other downtown projects aimed at revitalizing the area are at various stages of progress. The historic mill building now known as Ames Privilege is home to some affordable housing, and New York-based developer Josh Guttman has been targeting the neighboring Cabotville complex for more condos, both affordable and market-rate. Sherman believes housing is a key component to the long-term health and vibrancy of any downtown, and such a project could be an attractive residential option for Elms College professors, Baystate Health employees, and retirees.

“It’s that whole idea of people living around the businesses,” she said. “When people retire, they want to be closer to downtown services.”

Then there’s the bike path being developed alongside the Chicopee River, which should be completed this spring, as well as a burgeoning nightlife scene, with the success of the Maximum Capacity nightclub and talk of converting the former Rivoli Theatre into a European-style nightspot.

City officials take seriously the potential for more entertainment and dining options. They can point to a recent resident survey conducted as part of a long-term neighborhood revitalization plan funded in part by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Nearly 90% of respondents felt that more retail, entertainment, and leisure options were ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ to the downtown’s revitalization. More than 80% also named more food and beverage options and better parking as ‘very important’ or ‘essential.’ When asked where they would spend the city’s money to revitalize downtown Chicopee, the three clear favorites were to raze or fix up blighted properties, increase parking, and increase retail activity.

Gottschlicht also cited the old library building that borders City Hall and is currently vacant. “The library is still out there for requests for proposals,” he said. “Something could definitely happen with that building; there’s a ton of potential over there.”

For potential fulfilled in Chicopee, the clearest success story has been the rebirth of the Memorial Drive retail corridor — particularly the stretch adjacent to Mass Pike exit 5. Where the dying Fairfield Mall used to sit is now a complex housing Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Marshalls, and a host of other retail establishments and dining options.

“Memorial Drive continues to grow,” Sherman said, noting that the stalled Chicopee Crossroads development at exit 5, with a planned mix of retail and restaurants, could eventually be another success story. “The whole area has become a thriving retail center.”

Deep Roots

Sherman said Chicopee has one other selling point that’s harder to quantify: a close-knit community feel in its various neighborhoods that, over the long term, breeds loyalty to business establishments.

“It’s the second-largest city in Western Mass., yet it feels like a town; businesses here have deep roots in the community,” she said.

Gottschlicht agreed. “For us, the key to our success has always been the people of Chicopee,” he said. “It’s a very, very loyal city, and we knew that coming in; my mother grew up in Chicopee, and my grandfather grew up here and worked here. So that loyalty of the businesses and residents has been a key component; their word-of-mouth promotion is the best advertising we could have.”

Sherman also praised the financial stweardship of the city, which gives it flexibility in pursuing various projects.

“Chicopee is in great shape fiscally,” she said. “We have almost $10 million in a rainy-day fund, so, unlike a lot of cities, we’re blessed with having good fiscal management.”

She concedes, however, that many of the moves Chicopee is making to attract businesses, from downtown improvements to competitive tax rates, may only be laying a foundation for future economic development, because the state of the current economy continues to spook developers and business owners from making moves.

“Businesses are worried because they don’t know what’s coming, so it could take two or three years for everything to bounce back — if it ever does,” she said. “Some people say that, with this economy, we’ll never go back to what we perceived as normal.”

Which is why it’s all the more important — particularly in a state known for saddling business owners with costly regulations — for a city to create as much of a business-friendly environment as possible, to compete when the economic tide does turn.

“This city seems to respect the fact that businesses carry the city,” Sherman said. “When businesses move out, so do residents.”

So far, however, Chicopee continues to grow, and the projects strewn across the drawing board of the chamber and city officials continue to take shape, albeit slowly.

“We’re hoping for a kind of renaissance in the years to come,” Sherman said, again contemplating the needs of Chicopee’s downtown. “The mayor feels like it’s going to happen, and I feel it’s going to happen, too.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached

at[email protected]

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