Easthampton Emerges as a Regional Destination
It’s called WorkHub on Union.
This is an ambitious project to create co-working space at the Easthampton Chamber of Commerce facility on Union Street.
WorkHub will create space for solopreneurs and emerging business ventures, and also provide access to mentorship programs, networking events, educational programming, and other support services designed to accelerate the growth of startups and small businesses.
In addition to all that, Moe Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, categorizes the project as a not-so-subtle shift in the direction and overall mission at the chamber — one that moves the agency away from the traditional networking events that have defined such agencies, and more into the realm of true economic development.
“This is part of the evolution of this chamber,” she explained, adding that other examples (as we’ll see later) include more emphasis on professional development and educational programs on topical issues such as artificial intelligence.
WorkHub, for which Belliveau is actively trying to raise $500,000 to make it reality, is one of several positive economic developments in a community that has been making headlines mostly for the wrong reasons in 2023.
“Housing, housing, housing … that’s our biggest need right now.”
Indeed, a school-superintendent search that has gone terribly awry — the leading candidate had his job offer rescinded, in part, over his use of the term ‘ladies’ in an email to the School Committee chair — has brought national and even international attention, and not the kind this community would want, as well as resignations among school-board members and even a bid within the community to recall Mayor Nicole LaChappelle.
An interim school superintendent has been hired, and a search for a permanent successor will resume later this year, said a defiant LaChappelle, who responded to the recall effort in June by saying, “I will continue to do what I have been doing for five and a half years — working to give all of Easthampton the best quality of life possible.”
As noted, aside from the controversy surrounding the superintendent search, there have been generally positive developments in this community. It continues to build on the considerable progress made over the past few decades in transforming itself from a mill town to a destination, one with a strong arts community, a growing number of restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, such as Tandem Bagel, an emerging cannabis sector, and scores of old mills that have found new uses as everything from artists’ studios to event spaces; cannabis dispensaries to condos and apartments.
Specific initiatives range from CitySpace, the nonprofit group tasked with creating a flexible arts and community space in Old Town Hall (Burns Maxey, CitySpace’s board president, was honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2023), to the ongoing and very ambitious One Ferry Project to renovate several mills on Ferry Street; from the chamber’s WorkHub on Union project to expansion of the renamed public library into the former Bank of America building on Park Street.
Moving forward, LaChappelle said that perhaps the city’s greatest need is for more housing because the community is in vogue, and in addition to being a great place to work or start a business, it is increasingly viewed as a desirable place to live.
There are several housing projects in various stages of development, including redevelopment of three former city school buildings, she said, but the need for more is constant.
“Housing, housing, housing … that’s our biggest need right now,” she said, adding that, while it’s a good problem to have in some respects, it’s a stern challenge for which her administration continues to seek solutions.
Work in Progress
As she talked with BusinessWest about plans for WorkHub on Union, Belliveau said the initiative was conceptualized to address that growing part of the community’s business community that visitors and residents can’t see — and they can see plenty.
These are ventures that people are operating in their basements, home offices, and dining-room tables, she said, adding that such businesses existed before the pandemic, but mushroomed during that time.
“This year’s topic focus is going to be resilience and collaboration, but collaboration with technology, and specifically around AI. We want to help people move from fear and panic to ‘how is this tool going to benefit my business?’ There will be some hands-on experimenting and learning with AI.”
“These are businesses, but they’re informal as opposed to formal,” she explained, adding that her goal is to take these ventures out of the basements and onto Main Street — or Union Street, as the case may be.
“We want to help these businesses become more sustainable and more resilient,” she explained, adding that there are probably hundreds of these ventures in and around Easthampton.
Recognizing the existence of, and the need to support, these businesses and those behind them, the chamber applied for and received a seed grant from MassDevelopment to conduct a feasibility study for the WorkHub facility. The results of that study verified the need and essentially confirmed that this was the project for the chamber at this time in its history and the city’s history, said Belliveau, adding that the chamber’s board voted to raise funds for the initiative and get the ball rolling.
The total price tag is roughly $500,000, which includes construction, a website, branding, and marketing, she noted, and to date, the chamber has raised $180,000 for the venture, with a $50,000 contribution from Sourcepass, an Easthampton-based IT-solutions company being the latest gift. There has also been a $100,000 ARPA earmark, as well as a $25,000 donation from Easthampton Savings Bank and $5,000 from Greenfield Savings Bank.
Easthampton at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1785
Area: 13.6 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $14.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.65
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available
Belliveau said WorkHub will provide more than physical space for as many as 18 small businesses following a complete renovation of the chamber’s space. Indeed, she said the goal is to position it as an educational hub as well to help entrepreneurs succeed, thus creating a “vibrant, lively, healthy local economy and regional ecosystem.”
She said the facility would be ideal for artists, freelance writers, consultants, and ‘digital nomads’ — those who travel from job to job but still might need a home base of sorts. It will include workstations, a conference room, private spaces (she called them ‘phone booths’) for phone calls and teleconferencing, and light administrative support. There is really nothing like it in Easthampton, she emphasized, and it should receive a strong response.
As noted earlier, the hub represents the latest and most visible evidence of ongoing evolution at the chamber, Belliveau said, noting that it is moving more toward economic development and professional development than the pure networking that has characterized this and other chambers in the past.
Other examples include the women’s professional-development conference called sheLEADS, the latest installment of which was staged in June, and Ignite, a two-day professional-development conference scheduled this year for Nov. 15-16 at Abandoned Building Brewery. The working title for the event is “Humanification in the Age of AI.”
“This year’s topic focus is going to be resilience and collaboration, but collaboration with technology, and specifically around AI,” Belliveau explained, adding that she hopes to have 50 to 75 people in attendance. “We want to help people move from fear and panic to ‘how is this tool going to benefit my business?’ There will be some hands-on experimenting and learning with AI.”
Getting Down to Business
The chamber’s WorkHub project is one of many initiatives designed to help spur new business development and create more vibrancy and jobs, said LaChappelle, adding that, in the post-COVID area, businesses still need support, but often different kinds of support than they did at the height of that crisis.
“During COVID, I thought our city’s response when it came to economic development and what I call Main Street jobs and concerns … I was proud of the job we did; we all pulled together,” she explained. “Now, our task is … ‘we’ve made it through; how do we keep the new things going, and how do we help the people who were always there?’
“We’re not back to the walking traffic on Union Street and Cottage Street that we had pre-COVID,” she went on. “What are we going to do to support those businesses? You rise to the challenge in a crisis, but resiliency is the long game.”
Elaborating, she noted that, to create this resiliency, the chamber and city need to work together to build into the ecosystem long-term educational and capital support. Such work is ongoing, the mayor said, adding that WorkHub is just one example of providing needed support to businesses and entrepreneurs to not only help them maintain what they’ve built, but get to the proverbial next level.
Such initiatives to build resiliency are needed, she said, because over the past few decades, Easthampton has succeeded in inspiring and nurturing entrepreneurship and growing and diversifying its economy.
That includes a cannabis cluster, if you will, that is adjusting to a new reality in the form of more competition — in this state and from other states — as well as falling profits and even tighter margins, creating a survival-of-the-fittest environment.
“The ones who got in early, and the ones who had the strongest business plans, are fine,” she explained, putting INSA, the Verb is Herb, and others in that category. “And the ones who came in because they had the biggest dispensary somewhere else and thought they’d put a branch here … they’ve closed or have chosen not to expand.”
Beyond cannabis, the cultural economy continues to thrive in Easthampton, LaChappelle said, noting that many of its old mills have become home to artists and art-related ventures, and to residents as well. Meanwhile, the city has been working with property owners on initiatives to improve the mill district.
“We’ve been successful in getting grant money to re-envision and design that mill district and make it friendlier to the immediate neighborhood and see what we can do for walking traffic and safety,” she explained.
“All of the mill owners have been great partners,” she went on, citing the Ferry Street project, which has seen several of the long-abandoned Hampden Mill buildings re-envisioned and repurposed, as the latest example of the old mills that gave the city its character finding new life.
Easthampton was able to channel $3.9 million in MassWorks public-infrastructure grants for improvements at Ferry, Pleasant, and Loveland streets to support the One Ferry mixed-use development initiative, she said, citing this as one example of the city, state, and mill owners working collaboratively to achieve positive change in the mill district.
Today, the city is working with developer Mike Michon, who also developed Mill 180, and One Industrial Lofts LLC to determine the best course for what’s known as Mill 7, the largest of the eight mills still standing on the property (many have been razed) moving forward.
“It was to be a mixture of apartments and some affordable housing, and other uses, but the affordable-housing process is now years behind,” LaChappelle said. “So he’s looking at some other solutions and mixed use, and we’re helping him do that.”
Housing, as she noted earlier, is the most pressing need within the community. And while there are several projects planned or already underway — from a new apartment complex on Cottage Street to the 180 units planned for a mixed-used development at the former Tasty Top site on Route 10 (a project called Sierra Vista Commons), to redevelopment of three city school buildings into roughly 70 apartments — there is certainly a need for more, she said.
But clearly, despite its challenges, Easthampton has become a hub of positive activity and progress, in every sense of those words.