Easthampton Strives to Become Destination City
Moe Belliveau says it’s certainly not the most important part of her job. But it just might be the most meaningful.
She was talking about the ribbon cuttings that mark the openings of new businesses and expansions of existing ventures. As executive director of the Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, Belliveau, like her colleagues at chambers across the region, has taken part in more of these than she can count. In fact, after borrowing a pair of large ceremonial scissors for her first such celebration nearly three years ago, she ordered her own pair.
But despite some sameness, these ceremonies never get old, she said, because they’re not about her — or the various elected officials who might turn out for the ceremonies. No, they’re for the business owner or owners in question, and for many, it’s one of the biggest days of their lives.
“This is an important day for them — people put their lives into these businesses,” she explained. “And it’s important that these moments are celebrated.”
There have been many ribbon cuttings in Easthampton in recent years, said Belliveau, who took the helm at the chamber three years ago, noting that this former mill town continues to make great strides in the effort to reinvent itself as a center for the arts, retail, hospitality, and, in a word, vibrancy.
The most recent involved Corsello Butcheria, a Roman-style butcher shop opened by Vincent and Kasey Corsello on Cottage Street in April.
By Roman-style, Vincent means a butcher shop modeled on the one they frequented while living in Rome, an open-air facility where shoppers would stop and pick up something fresh for that night’s dinner.
A software project manager by trade — actually, he’s worked in various capacities — Corsello said he returned from Italy determined to become an entrepreneur and intent on starting his own butcheria. And he says Easthampton is the perfect landing spot.
In fact, his commentary sums up the thoughts of many now doing business there or supporting the business community in various ways.
“This is a truly authentic community with all the moving parts,” he told BusinessWest. “Twenty years ago, people would have said Easthampton’s best days are behind it; now, I think, and most people think, its best days are ahead of it.”
Meanwhile, the next ribbon cutting will likely come on June 10 at a venture known as Valley Paddler, which will bring paddle boats to Nashawannuck Pond in the center of the community.
There have been many others in recent years, involving restaurants, breweries (there are three of them now), arts-focused establishments, tech companies, and much more.
Together, they speak to Easthampton’s revival and vibrancy, or its “renaissance,” the word chosen by Mayor Karen Cadieux, who believes it fits.
She’s had what amounts to a front-row seat for this transformation as it has unfolded over the past quarter-century or so. Indeed, she served as an assistant to the selectmen and then the town administrator before Easthampton officially became a city in 1996, and then served in that same capacity to the community’s first mayor, Michael Tautznik.
What happens … is you have new owners who take abandoned buildings, and they bring new ideas to the table. And it becomes growth, and it becomes catchy.”
When Tautznik decided not to seek re-election after eight terms in office, he encouraged her to seek the corner office, which she did, triumphing in the 2013 election.
With all that experience at both desks in the mayor’s office, she spoke with some authority when she said “this is a working mayor’s position,” noting that those two people do it all, but they also work in partnership with a host of other individuals and agencies, including the chamber.
And much of that work, she said, involves making the city more business-friendly and a true destination for a host of constituents, including artists, tourists, craft-beer lovers, and, yes, those looking for a good place to set up shop.
As an example of these efforts in the name of business friendliness, she cited what have come to be known as ‘roundtable meetings.’ These are gatherings involving a prospective new business owner and a number of city officials, where questions are asked and answered and a road map of sorts is laid out for getting to another one of those ribbon cuttings.
“A meeting is scheduled with my office, and anyone who would be involved in the permitting process — the city planner, the building inspector, the fire chief, the DPW director, and others — all of them are there,” she explained. “They can ask anything they want, they bring in their plans, tell us their idea … and in that way, they’re prepared for when they go to the Planning Board.
“It has streamlined the process, and in the meantime, they know we’re willing to work them,” she went on, adding that these roundtables have met with a very positive response.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Easthampton, a city that continues to add new chapters to a compelling storyline of economic revival.
Lager Than Life
It might sound like a line from Casablanca, but in this case, no one who utters it has been misinformed.
People really do come to Easthampton for the water. In 2015, the city won the gold medal for the best-tasting water in the U.S. at the National Water Assoc. Rally in Washington, D.C.
Cadieux has a ceremonial coffee mug to prove it, although she and the city have much more substantial proof of that honor in the form of three craft-beer breweries that now call the city home.
“You need good, clean water, and lots of it, to brew beer,” said Belliveau, adding that Fort Hill, Abandoned Building, and New City Brewery are now helping to … wait for it … create a buzz in this community.
But while water is one of the main ingredients in the city’s revival, both literally and figuratively, there are many others. That list includes an abundance of old mill buildings with large expanses ready for imaginative reuse, public/private partnerships that have made such reuses feasible, a thriving arts community, with many of its members taking up space in those mills, and a city government looking for new and different ways to streamline the process of doing business here.
And now, another critical ingredient is a more active, more responsive chamber of commerce, one that Belliveau came to after a stint with the Westfield Business Improvement District before it was dissolved. She said she was drawn by the energy in the community and a desire to be part of the story that was being written there.
“I was between jobs and in a position to start a new adventure,” she told BusinessWest. “I could feel the buzz starting to rise and the excitement in Easthampton. And the city had an interesting combination — there’s an urban feel, but the city hasn’t lost its suburban charm; there’s an interesting intersection of all that here.”
Since arriving, Belliveau said she has been focused on taking the focus off of merely staging events — for fund-raising, networking, and other purposes — and bringing more value to members.
And that value has come in many forms, from so-called ‘listening sessions,’ where input is sought from businesses across different sectors of the economy, to a universal gift card redeemable at dozens of area businesses that are also chamber members.
“I did a lot of listening; I talked with everyone I could — members, non-members, former members — to try understand who we are and where we wanted to go,” she explained. “When I arrived, the board was very ready for some new energy, some new animation, and moving out into the world.
“We were event planners at that time — that’s what the chamber was,” she went on. “And we decided to do something new and different, and the board has embraced the idea of evolution.”
That specific tone of this evolution has been set as a result of reaching out to various constituencies — members and non-members among them — and responding to the feedback, she said, adding that she initiated something she called “listening lunches.”
One of the first was with restaurateurs and other hospitality-related business owners, she said, adding that this sector was not well-represented on the chamber at the time.
“We started at noon, and I figured people would be on their way by 1; instead, we were still talking at 2,” Belliveau recalled. “There were many takeaways, and one of them was their perception that we weren’t marketing this area as well as we should.”
The universal gift card was part of the response to that feedback, she said, adding that the chamber does essentially all of the heavy lifting — it markets and sells the cards. The original goal when things got started early last fall was to have 25 to 30 participating members on board, a target that was easily reached, and today there are more than 40 participants, and the number continues to rise.
The cards have been popular with the public as well, she said, adding that they sold well in the run-up to the holidays, and have been in demand recently, with graduations, Mother’s Day, and other events on the calendar.
There have been other initiatives within this evolutionary process, she went on, including collaborative efforts with other neighboring chambers, including Holyoke, Northampton, and Westfield, and new, more value-laden events, including a women’s leadership conference to be presented in conjunction with the Holyoke chamber, slated for Sept. 22. “The Art of Risk” will be the broad theme for the day-long conference, which will feature keynote speaker Angela Lussier, founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, a business devoted to helping women find their voice.
As she talked about how Easthampton has evolved over the past quarter-century or so, Mayor Cadieux talked repeatedly about partnerships — on many levels.
They have involved private business and city government, the city and state, and among a host of agencies working within the broad realm of economic development, she said, adding that these efforts have succeeded in making Easthampton a welcoming city when it comes to both business and tourism.
As just one example, she cited the case of an entrepreneur looking to buy a commercial property (a former theater) on Cottage Street.
“The owner wouldn’t sell the property without the adjacent parking lot,” she explained. “But the new buyer didn’t have money for the parking lot, so what we did was obtain a grant for the parking lot, and it became a partnership.”
That was maybe 15 years ago, she went on, adding that there have been countless examples of such partnerships since, and these efforts by public agencies to help private business owners have created an environment conducive to continued growth and vibrancy.
“What happens in such instances is you have new owners who take abandoned buildings, and they bring new ideas to the table,” she went on. “And it becomes growth, and it becomes catchy.”
To sustain this momentum, the city has been diligent about finding ways to continue a dialogue with the business community and continuously improve and streamline the process of helping new businesses plant roots in the city.
The chamber’s listening sessions are one example of this, said the mayor, adding that another involved her successful efforts to attain a technical grant to gauge just how competitive the city is with its permitting process.
“From that, we started the roundtable meetings,” she said, adding that the response to such sessions has been overwhelmingly positive.
“All of our departments are communicating with a prospective new business,” she explained. “You don’t have to go from this department to that department to this department — we’re all right there. It’s another example of partnership, and I think it sends a really good message.”
That message was received by Vincent and Kasey Corsello, who cut the ceremonial ribbon in mid-April and are enjoying early success with a fairly unique venture that offers locally sourced food.
“We cut food to order — if you want a pound of ground beef, we’ll grind it right in front of you,” he noted. “If you want a steak, we’ll cut it right there so it will be just the thickness you want.”
Slicing steaks is a long way from software-development work, but after living and working in Italy for years and seeing how the butcheria was not just a source of fresh meat but also a gathering spot in the community, he decided he wanted to create one of his own.
His family settled in Easthampton, and the Corsellos quickly determined that this community was the right place at the right time for their venture.
“The town looks somewhat unassuming from the outside,” he told BusinessWest. “But has all those moving parts … it has its own truly local economy. I’m thrilled with it; there’s no place I’d rather be at this point.”
A Cut Above
Those ceremonial scissors Belliveau ordered have turned out to be a good investment. In other words, they’ve seen quite a bit of use over the past few years alone.
That’s a reflection of many positive things in the community, from its growing cultural community to the paddleboats soon to arrive on Nashawannuck Pond; from the universal gift card to those craft breweries; from the roundtable meetings to the Roman-style butcheria in the heart of downtown.
They all provide solid evidence of a renaissance, an evolution from an old mill town to a new and exciting destination city.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
Easthampton at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1809
Area: 13.6 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $15.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.59
Median Household Income: $57,134
median family Income: $78,281
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest employers: Berry Plastics; Williston Northampton School; National Nonwovens Co.; October Co.
* Latest information available