Downtown Investments Spark Growth in Chicopee
Mayor Richard Kos says Chicopee is well-poised for growth, thanks to what he called a multi-faceted approach to economic development.
“We’re trying to address the city as a whole to make sure we strengthen any areas where there are weaknesses,” he told BusinessWest a few days after being sworn into office for the second consecutive term and sixth term overall. “Although any urban environment has challenges, Chicopee has a great track record of addressing infrastructure needs in conjunction with development opportunities, and we continue to build on this in one of the strongest financial communities in the state.”
To that end, biweekly meetings are held to assess projects that are underway or on the drawing board. And there are several in those categories, as developers convert space in old mills and buildings downtown and a variety of neighborhoods for housing, business, or industrial use.
In turn, the city has done its part; in addition to initiating infrastructure improvements that encourage growth, it has a new middle school, is focused on improving its network of parks, and stays closely aligned with Westover Air Reserve Base, which has a significant economic impact on the city and region.
Revitalization is taking place in Chicopee Center, and Kos said two high-profile projects show that significant investments are being made downtown. The first is a $6 million conversion of the former John R. Lyman Mill building at the lower end of Front Street, situated next to the Chicopee River Canal, that has been vacant for several years.
A developer has purchased it and plans to convert the space into 80 market-rate live/work/loft apartments, Kos noted, adding that a groundbreaking ceremony is expected for March.
The second project is a $7 million renovation of the Kendall Building at 4 Springfield St., which has been purchased by Valley Opportunity Council. That agency plans to convert it into 39 apartments with $3.1 million in help from the state, Kos explained.
A request for proposals was also issued last month for Chicopee’s old library, which sits adjacent to City Hall.
“We’re looking to see what the private sector wants to do with the property,” Kos said, adding that the city secured a number of grants that allowed it to undertake selective remediation and resolve contamination issues in the building.
“Marketing this building is part of the emphasis we’re placing on our downtown,” he went on, noting that security cameras were installed downtown last year to help make it “a safe, secure, and convenient place to live.”
Michael Vedovelli said the city is fortunate to be working with developers in the old mills, and received a $2.6 million MassWorks grant to make utility, water, and sewer infrastructure improvements in the canal area.
“It’s a very competitive process, and they are difficult to obtain; there were 110 grant applicants, and only 37 were awarded,” said the director of Community and Economic Development. “But we constantly do all we can to create a vibrant downtown, and the projects in Chicopee Center are moving forward and will generate more activity.”
Tom Haberlin, the city’s Economic Development manager, agreed, saying these are the first investments that have been made in the area since 40 new apartments opened last year at Ames Privilege, a former mill and downtown complex that is home to several businesses and 120 apartments.
“When these projects are finished, the bookends [of the mills] will be complete, which leaves the middle of the sandwich to be developed, and we are hopeful that the owners of the mills will ramp up their plans,” he told BusinessWest, explaining that Ames Privilege and the Lyman building sit on opposite ends of the mill area that flanks the canal.
Private investment is being matched by public investments, and the city has demolished a six-family property on 296 Front St. that it plans to turn into a parking lot.
Kos said adding parking space is part of an effort to make City Hall more accessible, and earlier this month the City Council voted to fund an analysis of the building in hopes of turning the antiquated third-floor auditorium into a community meeting center. The council also allocated $500,000 to preserve stained-glass windows in the building that had deteriorated.
The well-known Munich Haus restaurant downtown is also making improvements, which include enlarging its parking area. Its owners purchased the former Ferris parking lot downtown and are awaiting final approval to reconstruct it, Kos said. The new lot will contain more than 50 spaces to complement the businesses’ beer garden and restaurant, and 15 will be designated as free public parking sites.
“Chicopee is one of the largest cities in the area that provides substantial free parking, which is part of the comfort and ease of getting into our downtown,” Kos noted, adding that Munich Haus also purchased the former Bank of Boston building and continues to invest in Chicopee.
Multitude of Projects
As Kos mentioned earlier, there are a host of economic-development initiatives taking place across Chicopee.
Cleanup efforts continue on the 27-acre Uniroyal property, for example, and last year the city not only secured a $200,000 grant to make improvements to the six-story historic administration building on the site, the City Council approved adding $186,000 to weatherproof and preserve it for the future.
The former Facemate site is also being addressed, and several acres are out for bid.
“We anticipate interest in building senior living there,” Kos said, explaining that the acreage abuts the new $10 million RiverMills Senior Center that opened in September 2014.
Progress is also taking place at the former Schine Inn. It was built in 1960 and decades later became the Plantation Inn, known for its 30-foot waving mascot that greeted travelers coming off Exit 6 on the Mass Pike. Kos said 194 motel units on the site have been demolished so a luxury auto dealer can fulfill plans to build a dealership there.
Developments are also taking place in Aldenville, and the former Racing Oil Service Center at 181 Front St., which has remained vacant since 2004 due to contamination issues, will be cleaned up, thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The city also welcomed coffee-maker manufacturer Chemex to a location off James Street after the business moved from its Pittsfield location to Chicopee, said Kos, noting that many businesses move to or expand in Chicopee due to its accessible location. In fact, it has been marketed as the ‘Crossroads of New England’ because of its easy access to I-91, I-391, and the Pike.
Education ranks high on the list of Chicopee’s assets, and last year the 90-year-old former Chicopee High School building on Front Street reopened as the 1st Sgt. Kevin Dupont Middle School after undergoing a $38 million renovation. The building boasts a television production room and a number of new science laboratories, and Kos says half of the city’s middle-school students attend the new school.
Work on the city’s network of parks is ongoing, and last year, a $20,000 KaBOOM! grant paid for new playground equipment at Nash Park with the help of volunteer labor. And although the public outdoor pools were found in need of extensive repairs, the city was able to reopen the Rivers Park pool last summer after it received a $400,000 state grant to do needed work. And earlier this month, the City Council accepted another state grant that will pay for 70% of the cost of replacing Ray Ash Park pool located in the city’s center, Kos said.
Westover Air Reserve Base is a major entity that adds to the city’s economy, and the 2015 Air Show proved to be of its most successful public events. Nearly 375,000 people attended, and an economic-impact study estimated the air show had an $11.5 million economic impact in the area, Kos said, explaining that more than $9 million was spent on hotel stays, meals, gas, and other items. Meanwhile, he added, the fact that base commander Col. Albert Lupenski was recently promoted to general shows his leadership has captured attention in Washington, D.C.
In addition, eight of Westover’s C5-As are being retrofitted with the “quietest engines in the industry and will become C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft,” Kos noted.
Many military installations across the country have closed due to budget cuts, but the city has an innovative plan to help Westover remain open. Kos said 69 multi-family units of military housing on 26 acres that were purchased from the U.S. Navy in 2011 are being demolished to make way for a three-megawatt solar farm on the property with the aim of reducing Westover’s utility bills.
MassDevelopment agreed to provide $1 million to fund the project, and that grant was matched by $1 million from the state.
The base uses approximately $2 million of electricity each year, so this step will save the facility $100,000 annually, which equates to a 5% reduction, Kos said.
“The solar farm will also be a plus for the city because we are clearing up a long-abandoned property and developing it into a taxpaying entity; it will benefit Chicopee, Westover, and the neighborhood,” he noted, noting that roughly 70% of the acreage will contain the solar farm, while the remainder will be preserved for future development because it is contiguous with Westover AirPark North.
The park contains the former Avery Dennison Corp. building, which was purchased by investors after the plant closed two years ago. Yankee Candle now occupies 289,000 square feet of the building, Kos noted, adding that the company opened a distribution operation there.
Haberlin said the number of available commercial and industrial buildings in the city is one of its strengths because many communities lack the space that businesses need to expand. “Chicopee continues to have a supply of large industrial buildings that are being reabsorbed and reused. The cost is typically about $30 per square foot, which is 30 to 40% less than the cost of new construction.”
Celebrating Continued Success
The city is divided into distinct neighborhoods that include Chicopee Center, Chicopee Falls, Willimansett, Fairview, the Burnett Road area, and Aldenville, and last September the city held its first block party downtown.
“We received a $7,500 grant from MassDevelopment and had help from local businesses,” Kos said. “The streets were closed from noon to 10 p.m., and more than 7,000 people attended the family-friendly event that showcased food, entertainment, and the convenient assets of our city in a way that multiple generations could enjoy. We also have a Halloween event downtown which 3,000 families attended last October, and our annual Christmas-tree lighting that more than 1,000 people turned out to see. We are a substantial city that still has a small-town atmosphere and sense of community.”
Haberlin agreed. “Our neighborhoods complement each other and give the city its unique flavor,” he said, “making it a great place to live, work, play, and call home.”
Chicopee at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1848
Area: 23.9 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $16.91
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.17
Median Household Income: $45,763
Family Household Income: $58,118
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; Chicopee City Hall; Ethos Energy; J. Polep Distribution Services
* Latest information available