Community Spotlight

Easthampton: It’s Not the ‘New Northampton’

Community Spotlight

Cynthia West says Easthampton had the best ‘feel’ for the business she launched with her daughter, McKenzie, the Sonnet & Sparrow ‘curated thrift store.’

It was the food that brought Cynthia West to Easthampton.

Well, sort of.

It was the food, in the form of weekly visits to restaurants like Galaxy, Kisara, and others that gave West … well, a flavor of Easthampton and, eventually, the opinion that this was the place to bring a business she had been thinking about and dreaming about for some time.

It’s called Sonnet & Sparrow, a “curated thrift store” she operates with her daughter, McKenzie West, in space that was once part of the historic, yet also somewhat notorious, Majestic Theater on Cottage Street. Notorious because 30 years ago it was showing adult films and had become a symbol of the decline of Easthampton and the Cottage Street area.

Now, Cottage Street, and the city as a whole, have been reborn, and West decided she had to be part of what is generally referred to as a renaissance in this old mill town.

“I chose Easthampton because I love to eat here,” West, who opened her store just two months ago, said matter-of-factly. “We found the community very welcoming; we wanted to be in the Valley, and we found that Easthampton had the best feel for what we wanted to do.”

She’s certainly not alone in these sentiments about Easthampton’s feel and it being an ideal home for a new business, as made clear in an anecdote the city’s mayor, Nicolle LaChapelle, related about a manufacturing firm that expressed interest in this community in the shadow of Mount Tom as a landing spot.

“They’re looking for 40,000 square feet, and they’re looking in Easthampton because, when they surveyed their employees, who have an average age of 47, they found that they want to be able to live and walk to work, have some options when it comes to leisure recreation, and be part of a city,” she said. “Easthampton checks all those boxes.”

Suffice it to say Easthampton checks a good many boxes for entrepreneurs across the broad spectrum of the regional economy, with a number of new ventures opening over the past few months, and even the past few weeks.

Businesses like INSA, a multi-faceted cannabis complex in the Keystone mill complex on Pleasant Street that includes a cultivation facility, dispensary, lab, kitchen, and more. The company, led by CEO Mark Zatyrka, has other locations in the region and is expanding into other regions of the state, but Easthampton is the headquarters location.

And like Prodigy Minigolf & Gameroom, located in the basement of the Eastworks building, also on Pleasant Street, and home to an eclectic mix of businesses. Founder Jeff Bujak, a musician looking to hit some different notes, calls this the most challenging mini-golf to be found anywhere, but there’s much more to the operation, including an extensive list of board games and video games that would make any Boomer nostalgic and any Millennial quite intrigued.

And like Veracruzana Mexican restaurant, or should we say the latest Veracruzana. Phil Pallante and his wife, Sunia Hood, had already purchased the restaurant’s two locations in Northampton and Amherst, but even before they did that, they informally decided Easthampton would be the next push pin on the map. They eventually found a spacious storefront on Union Street right next door to the Chamber of Commerce, and opened just a few weeks ago.

Mark Zatyrka, seen here in INSA’s dispensary, says he and his partners were drawn to Easthampton because of its amenities and welcoming approach to the cannabis industry.

Collectively, these entrepreneurs and others we spoke with say they came to Easthampton for the same reasons West did — they saw a city on the rise, one that that boasts vibrancy, arts and culture, a growing restaurant sector, healthy tourism, no shortage of things to do, and a very ‘green’ mindset.

Comparisons to neighboring Northampton are inevitable and seemingly constant. There are many who call this the ‘new Northampton.’

But while flattered by such comments, Maureen Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, doesn’t believe they accurately describe what’s going on here. Indeed, she told BusinessWest that, while there may be some similarities, Easthampton has forged its own identity.

“We’re not the ‘next Northampton,’” she said. “Northampton does Northampton really, really well. And we do Easthampton outstandingly well. I like to say that our community is hip, cool, wow, and now.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest explores all that goes into that phrase and why Easthampton is becoming the landing spot of choice for a growing number of businesses.

Getting On Board

Casey Douglass says that, when he arrived on the scene in Easthampton roughly 15 years ago and opened his first restaurant in the city, the community was, in his estimation, like that literary little engine that could and its signature phrase ‘I think I can.’

By that, he meant the city was emerging and developing what became a healthy dose of confidence. It’s no longer saying ‘I think I can,’ but instead has shown that it can do it, he suggested.

“Now, we’re moving like a bullet train, and I’m happy to be on it,” said Douglass, owner of Galaxy, a fixture on Main Street and his third such venture in the city after Apollo and what is now Coco and the Cellar Bar. “And there are plenty of seats available.”

As noted earlier, seemingly every month, if not every week, another business owner is getting on board, keeping Belliveau and her ceremonial ribbon-cutting scissors quite busy.

Before getting to some of the recent arrivals, and others, like Douglass, who can talk about the scene in Easthampton with decades of perspective, we need to talk about how Easthampton got here, a state where it is being increasingly compared to its neighbor, a destination that is still the most economically vibrant community in the region.

Summing things up, LaChapelle, a labor attorney who came to the city in 1997, said that, in the mid- to late ’90s, Easthampton laid the foundation for a revival, a reinvention of itself from a mill city to an arts and cultural center, and it has carefully built on that foundation ever since.

Phil Pallante says Main Street in Easthampton was the logical location for the third Veracruzana restaurant.

The bedrock on which it’s built is effective zoning, a huge inventory of old mill buildings ready to be repurposed, a business-friendly government, and a community that can blend affordable housing, plenty of recreation, and that increasingly ‘green’ mindset mentioned earlier.

Over the past few decades, it has steadily added building blocks, she said, in the form of new businesses across many sectors, a slew of new restaurants and cultural attractions that are bringing people into the city, and, perhaps most importantly, jobs to replace those lost when the mills closed.

LaChappele was quick to note that this business-friendly attitude certainly applies to the burgeoning cannabis industry. Indeed, while some communities have outlawed such ventures or are just putting a toe in the water, Easthampton, like another neighbor, Holyoke, has rolled out the red carpet, but in a careful, thoughtful way.

“We’re head over heels in love, I would think, with cannabis, and I don’t that’s overstating it,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything this industry is generating, from tax dollars to jobs to foot and vehicular traffic.

“This is a unique industry; it’s very rare in these days that a person on the street or a collection of investors can get in on a new industry and be a part of the regulations,” she went on, adding that the community currently hosts one such business, INSA, but it has several other host-community agreements in place and other ventures in various stages of progression. “It’s a unique opportunity where we, as a community, get to write the rules and work with entrepreneurs on something that provides local tax revenue. I can’t imagine when that will happen again, and I expect the presence of cannabis-related businesses to grow in Easthampton.”

This open affection is no doubt one of the factors that brought INSA to Pleasant Street.

“Pretty early on in the process, we realized how much time and money went into creating this business and how important it was to be timely,” said Zatyrka. “So we wanted to find a city that was welcoming to us. At the time, there were a lot of cities that weren’t as welcoming, and it gets expensive to push your agenda on a city and its constituents.

Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle says Easthampton can “check a number of boxes” for business owners across a number of sectors.

“I was born in Easthampton,” he went on, adding that the other founders are local as well. “In combination with the progressive nature of Easthampton as well as what the mill district and the mills had to offer, we thought this was the perfect home for us.”

There are now more than 150 people working in the company’s facilities at the Keystone complex, in operations ranging from cultivation to retail, he went on, adding that there is plenty of room to expand.

Scoring Points

Prodigy’s Bujak noted, in what can’t be considered an upset, that his favorite Seinfeld episode is the one called “The Frogger.”

You remember (even if you’re a Millennial) … that’s the one where George discovers that, years after he last played a Frogger machine at a pizza parlor he’s revisiting, he’s still the high scorer. And he attempts to take the machine home, an adventure that ends, predictably, in calamity.

Prodigy has been bringing in a lot of George Costanza types since it opened in the spring of 2018, said Bujak, noting that they come to play a wide array of video games that took up a good part of their lives in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. And they’re playing them on a collection of vintage TVs that he’s had no problem assembling because their previous owners were happy to find someone to take them off their hands. He’s also drawing many teenagers and older individuals (this course is not for young children) to his challenging mini-golf operation.

“I’ve played mini-golf everywhere in this country, and this is by far the most challenging — I won’t say difficult, but challenging — and I wanted it that way,” he said, adding that it plays as much like a video game as it does like golf.

Jeff Bujak made Easthampton home to what he calls the most challenging mini-golf facility in the country.

While he’s lived in Northampton for many years, Bujak noted, he never thought of opening his venture there. Instead, he always focused on Easthampton. He said Will Bundy, owner of Eastworks, made him one of those deals that couldn’t be refused. And he didn’t.

“It’s been very successful,” he said of his first 16 months in business. “I’m doing three times the business I thought I thought I would, and that I put down in my original business plan.”

Early on, he was relying heavily on his large fan base, acquired through many years as a touring musician, but visitation from area communities has escalated, and he’s now averaging 500 to 700 people a week.

“And these 500 to 700 people are now also going to the mill district, and to Food Truck Fridays, and to INSA, and to the Mill Pond concerts,” he said, adding that business has become another of those aforementioned building blocks that support one another and bring ever-greater vibrancy to the community.

Pallante agreed, telling a story with many of the same themes as those told by West, Bujak, and Zatyrka.

He said he and his wife would often eat in Easthampton to avoid the congestion in Northampton and Amherst, and in doing so came to understand that the community was building momentum and had become a true destination in its own right. Together, the two drew up plans for the latest Veracruzana on a napkin while having a bite at still another of the city’s restaurants, Amy’s Place, on Cottage Street.

“We knew that, from everything the city had to offer, and logistically as well, this was the place we wanted to be,” Pallante said. “It became very apparent that Easthampton is aggressively seeking and helping people come here, and creating a culture where people want to be.”

Michael Poole, a welder and sculptor and thus one many artisans now working (and in many cases also living) in Easthampton, echoed these sentiments.

He joked that, if they did one of those Taste of Easthampton-type of events when he first arrived in the city in the early ’90s, it would have featured “a few slices of pizza, and none with pineapple on them.”

That last reference was an attempt to accentuate just how much has changed in a quarter-century or so. There is now a solid portfolio of restaurants acting not only as drawing cards bringing visitors and even entrepreneurs (like West), but as anchors for a host of other businesses that need foot traffic to succeed.

Poole noted that a diverse mix of businesses now exist, and many people are choosing to live and work in the community, a change from when he first arrived.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.46
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

“There weren’t a lot of jobs back then,” said Poole, owner of Blue Collar Artisans and noted for his ornate ‘tree’ handrails, furniture, and other forms of home décor, as well as the bicycle rack on Main Street he fashioned out of the numbers in the city’s zip code — 01027. “People lived here and worked someplace else.”

Now, many more people are coming to Easthampton to work, he noted, quickly adding that many now choose to settle in Easthampton because of all it has to offer and commute to work.

He measures the progress, unscientifically to be sure, by the volume of traffic on Holyoke Street.

“My business is at the far end of East Street, and I can tell what time it is by where the line of traffic stops,” he said. “Our house is right on Holyoke Street, and we joke about the ‘Easthampton rush hour’; every year it gets a little longer. But those are the problems you want.”

Right Place, Right Time

Indeed they are.

Easthampton didn’t have to worry about traffic jams or finding enough parking spaces 20 years ago. Now, it does, to some extent, and, as those we talked with agreed, those are good problems to have.

As is being called the ‘new Northampton.’

It’s always meant as a compliment, said Belliveau, but, as she noted, it’s not really accurate. The city is indeed thriving and establishing itself as a destination, but it’s not the new Northampton; it’s the new Easthampton.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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