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Doing Business in: PALMER

The Town of Seven Railways Rekindles the Past
Doing Business in: PALMER

Robin and Blake Lamothe, who own several businesses in Palmer, say the town has definite potential to thrive.

Railways in Palmer are almost as old as the town itself. So ingrained is the town’s identity as the historic ‘town of seven railways’ that manhole covers along Main Street are cast with the relief of a locomotive.

These days, Palmer appears in the news primarily as the hotly contested possible site for an outpost of the Mohegan Sun casino empire. But people in town are quick to say that, while it’s important to be prepared for such a development should casino gambling be legalized in the Commonwealth, until then the plans are just pie in the sky.

“There’s a lot of talk about whether a casino would be positive or negative,” said Matt Streeter, town manager. “We need to have growth; that’s the bottom line. It’s an old mill town, and like many others there’s a depressed feel that has lingered.”

The Quabog Chamber of Commerce represents Palmer and 14 other towns from Belchertown to East Brookfield. Chamber President Lenny Weake agreed that, like many other towns with a former manufacturing base, Palmer has seen that base erode considerably. But he is optimistic that the tide has been stemmed.

Among many success stories, he referenced the former Tambrands factory in the Three Rivers section of town, what is now known as the Palmer Technology Center, as a good use of a defunct mill. And due to the town’s location at a Mass Pike exit, a high volume of traffic rolls through.

“We have all the major intersections for this section of the Commonwealth,” he said. “The state highways, the pike — the access to get in and out of the area is phenomenal. That turnpike exit is very well-traveled. In July, I believe the number of transactions there was 275,000. That’s a tremendous amount of people. The key is to get those people to stop here.”

Adding to the downtown’s Depot Village, named for the train station that supplied the town moniker, are a handful of new businesses within the last few months, Weake said. People in Palmer, he continued, are very community-minded, and proudly support local business. Along with the usual blend of mom-and-pop establishments and outposts of nationwide chains, there are businesses in town that are unique destinations.

“Nancy Bryant’s gallery right along Main Street is like something out of a big city,” he said. “She has chosen Palmer as her home base, while she could be anywhere, really.”

Photo Finish

Bryant’s Giclée of New England Gallery, Studio and Frame Shop sits squarely at the enviable intersection of Main and Thorndike Streets in the heart of downtown.

“This location is perfect,” she said, “because my customers come from all over to get here. If you tell someone to get off the highway and then drive another 30 minutes, well … as a business owner, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘turn right off the pike and drive straight for three minutes.’”

Her gallery showcases the work of regional artists, and her giclée printing process, essentially a fine-art, high-resolution means of printing digital or digitalized images, has won her a wide fan base. “I work personally with the artists, they become part of the process, and that’s what makes us unique,” she said.

At her location since 2003, Bryant has seen the town slowly but steadily gaining a foothold in rebuilding its economy. Like many in town, her thoughts are that Palmer can and should take advantage of its inherent strengths. “The whole atmosphere is bristling right now,” she said. “We can either go forward, or we can fall back. Palmer has been a depressed area for a long time.”

One of those strengths lies in the steel tracks that put the city on the map in the 19th century. Although Streeter remains impartial on the conversation about casino possibilities as a boost for the town coffers, he expressed confidence in rail’s potential for his town.

“Rail service is something more tangible,” he explained. “There are rails here already, the trains make stops here. There is a station that could easily be retrofitted to make it passenger-ready. Unfortunately, some prevailing plans don’t seem to include Palmer.”

He refers to the proposal by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission supporting the Vermonter rail service running north-south, currently stopping in Palmer to switch tracks, to be rerouted through Holyoke and Northampton, creating rail service along the ‘Knowledge Corridor.’ While the multi-million-dollar plans are still just that — plans — the future looks good for passenger rail in those two cities, and not so good for Palmer.

“It’s part of the town’s identity,” said Streeter. “I’d say it was a slap in the face when they stopped passenger service, back in 1971 or ’72.”

But there is hope for the legions that see Palmer as a natural for passenger railway inclusion. The Patrick administration has publicly supported Boston’s extensive commuter-rail network to extend past the current terminus in Worcester to head into Springfield. A stop in the town of seven railways is not out of the question.

“Having a stop here would benefit us, but also all the surrounding communities that might not find it as easy to get to Springfield,” Streeter said.

All Aboard

While many in town ardently support the return of passenger rail service to Palmer, there are few more knowledgeable about that reality in Depot Village than the couple who own the depot itself.

Since 1987, Robin and Blake Lamothe have owned the historic train station in town. After completely renovating the ghostly shell of a structure, a jewel designed by H.H. Richardson sited amidst landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, the beautifully restored building became home to their popular Steaming Tender Restaurant.

In addition to the restaurant, the couple owns several businesses throughout Palmer, including active storefronts right along Main Street. The station is the couple’s first building, bought back when they were in their early 20s, but since then they have been active members of the town’s business community.

“We believe in Palmer,” Robin said. “The potential is there.”

As testament to that belief, among the many hats that Blake wears in Palmer — co-owner with Robin of several stores and host of a radio show, among others — he is chair of the town’s Redevelopment Authority. His knowledge of the history of trains in his town is matched by his thoughts on what he sees as opportunity for that past to become the future.

“At one time, there wasn’t a railroad in the United States that didn’t want a presence here,” he said, counting off the names of a bygone era.

These days, however, the reality is that Palmer faces stiff competition from the Vermont state lobby in its bid to reroute the Vermonter. What Blake has called the “Population Corridor,” referring not only to the bedroom communities near him but also to the vast student body in Amherst, has lost traction against the Knowledge Corridor.

But that’s not the end of an era, Lamothe said. He’s been in talks with several other rail lines, with a variety of other options on how Palmer could be incorporated into their routes. Commuter rail from Boston is one option, as is New England Central’s line to connect Amherst and Southern Conn. to subsequent points beyond, and the Lake Shore Limited, an Amtrak route spanning Boston to Chicago. The rail lines exist, and outside of the Beacon Hill commuter extension, the trains already pass through town.

The waiting game for passenger rail doesn’t slow down the Lamothes’ plans for other businesses in town, though. “We have purchased many vacant buildings and have tried to put some form of business in there,” Robin said. “We’re putting in a bed and breakfast at the top of the road, the Trainmaster’s Inn. There are a lot of people that come through, not just for the Brimfield Fair, but rail enthusiasts. A lot of them. And currently there’s inadequate accommodations in town.”

Blake added that, ultimately, their goal is to restore Depot Village to what it once was — a thriving hub for the railway, but also for the surrounding community. “We have a great opportunity. The more businesses that we have, like antique stores and such, the more people we will have floating through,” he said.

Currently the couple is in the beginning stages of restoring Olmsted Park in front of the train station. “People come to Palmer to see the trains,” Robin said. “For railroad buffs, this location is a big deal.”

“I want to see things move forward,” Blake said, and by the looks of his and Robin’s business portfolio in Palmer, they are doing just that. Much like the trains that once brought wealth into town, the couple’s business endeavors are becoming another engine for town’s economy.

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