Economic Development in Palmer Accelerates
A dozen years ago, Meena and Bharat Patel purchased Junction Variety store in Palmer. They established a loyal client base, but several years ago, the cost of operating the antiquated building, combined with the need for extensive repairs and inadequate parking, forced them to make a decision about whether to remain in town and build a new structure or move their business elsewhere.
“We decided to stay here; I love Palmer,” said Meena. “The people are very supportive, and we have good relationships with our customers.”
Last June, ground was broken on a new, 40,000-square-foot facility. It is expected to be completed within a few weeks, and once the store is moved, the old building will be demolished, and a parking lot with 20 parking spaces will take its place.
Junction Variety will occupy 2,200 square feet of the new structure, which will almost double its current size, and the remaining 1,800 square feet will be available for lease as office or retail space.
The project is part of a flurry of commercial activity that began last year and is rapidly accelerating, creating momentum in this community.
“It’s definitely a sign of the recovering economy. Things are happening a lot faster now than they did in the past, and we are very busy,” said Town Planner and Economic Development Director Linda Leduc, who explained that, a few years ago, projects were permitted that never moved forward, but today construction often begins months after the permitting process is complete.
The list of developments, moves, and expansions nearing completion or underway is lengthy, as Leduc and Town Planner Charlie Blanchard explained during a lengthy interview with BusinessWest. It includes four new solar farms (last year the town had five, which brings the total to nine), construction of a $17.2 million Emergency Department at Baystate Wing Hospital that will begin this year, a $2 million expansion of an advanced-manufacturing company that was recently finished, grassroots efforts in Three Rivers that are leading to change, and churches in residential neighborhoods being reused in creative ways.
Construction is also underway at Town Hall. A $400,000 heating and air-conditioning system was installed over the past two years and paid for with funds from the Green Community Act. And this year, renovations are being made to the entire building to make better use of space vacated by the Police Department when it moved into a new, $7.4 million facility several years ago.
Specifically, the public meeting room will be expanded and gain a new entrance; a new conference room and additional storage space will be created; the Board of Health, Conservation Department, Building Department, and Veteran’s Agent will move into larger offices; and new lighting, windows, and carpeting will be installed throughout the building.
“We have a lot of activity taking place for a town this size,” said Blanchard, attributing it not only to renewed confidence in the economy, but to the willingness of officials and the Town Council to work with businesses and make changes to accommodate their needs.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes a look at projects that were recently completed, underway, or on the drawing board throughout the four villages that make up the town of Palmer.
Change continues to take place in Depot Village, the first commercial district travelers pass through after they exit the Mass Turnpike.
Last year, Mark Baldyga of Baldyga Inc. stopped selling travel trailers and made the decision to focus on autobody work and used-car sales, which necessitated a move, because his 1221 South Main St. location didn’t provide the frontage and exposure he needed.
Finding a suitable property proved difficult, but he hoped to remain in Palmer because he grew up in the town, has spent more than 30 years on the Fire Department, and has an employee who is also a firefighter.
“I have a good reputation, and people here know me, which is one of the main driving forces for my business,” Baldyga said, adding that he has close ties with the community.
His search led to a two-acre parcel on Route 20 with the frontage he needed. However, before he purchased it, he petitioned the town to change the area from general zoning to highway business so he could move forward with his plan.
The petition was accepted, and Baldyga split up the acreage, which was needed because the rear portion of the plot contained a multi-family home.
Ground was broken last spring for a new, 5,500-square-foot building that is nearing completion; he expects to reopen in a few weeks.
He told BusinessWest that the neighbors were not only accommodating, but supported the zoning change, and it has worked out well for everyone involved.
“The town will get more taxes, businesses of a similar nature can move here now, and my tenants are happy because I made improvements to their apartments and cleaned up the property,” he noted, adding that, if the zoning change hadn’t been approved, he would have had to leave Palmer.
Michael’s Party Rentals purchased Baldyga’s former location, and President Michael Linton said the company moved from its Ludlow locations and did a substantial renovation of the 20,000-square-foot building, included the addition of a showroom, design center, and state-of-the-art tent-washing machine.
Other moves have occurred in Depot Village. Last year, the Fire Service Group purchased the former American Legion building on 1010 Thorndike St., which allowed the company to expand from a smaller location, and construction plans have been approved for a Dollar General store on the corner of Breckenridge and Park streets that will be built after the single-family home on the site is demolished.
Progress has also taken place at Detector Technology, a precision-manufacturing firm located in Palmer Industrial Park. Blanchard said the company needed room to expand and purchased a building from Wayne Buxton, who was using it to house his ShedWorks Inc. business.
“Wayne needed to downsize but wanted to stay in Palmer, so he kept half of the lot and is building a new, smaller structure on it,” Blanchard noted, explaining that Detector Technology recently finished a $2 million renovation of the former Shedworks.
Baystate Wing Hospital is also building a $17.2 million, 37,000-square-foot Emergency Department on its Palmer campus. Ground was broken in November, and the institution is meeting all its timetables.
“They are a major employer and are making a big investment that will be beneficial to our residents as well as the region,” Leduc said.
The town’s capped landfill on Emery Street is another property that has been given new life. Leduc said a request for proposals was issued for the site several years ago, but nothing came to fruition until Syncarpha Solar, which owns and operates a solar farm on the adjacent former Palmer Metropolitan Airport, made the decision to build a second facility on the landfill.
“We were happy they were interested in generating additional solar power on the site,” Leduc said, adding that the town had five solar farms, and, in addition to the new one on the landfill, Nexamp, Nextsun Energy, and Beaumont Solar also built solar facilities last year.
“Two are operating, and the other two are waiting to be interconnected, but once that happens, Palmer will be generating almost 25 megawatts of electricity on its nine solar farms,” she noted.
The facilities will bring in new revenue and result in energy savings. Palmer will receive $121,000 annually for the next 25 years in lease payments from the solar farm on the capped landfill, and will begin getting net metering credits this year from Blue Wave Solar on Baptist Hill in Three Rivers, which Blanchard estimates will save the town 30% to 40% of the generated cost of electricity.
Two other projects Leduc describes as “exciting” involve the conversion and reuse of former churches.
Artist Bruce Rosenbaum and his wife, Melanie, recently purchased St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Main Street in Thorndike. It had been vacant for several years, and will become their residence and the new home for Mod Vic Steampunk Design when the couple moves from Sharon.
“It was a perfect situation,” Leduc said, explaining that churches often are located in the middle of residential districts, and although the town is willing to rezone whenever it makes sense, it’s not always possible.
The Rosenbaums created the first functional steampunk house in the world, and their business repurposes and infuses modern technology and gadgets into period, relevant antiques and salvage objects.
“We work with clients in the U.S. and internationally to design one-of-a-kind pieces, creatively combining eras and ideas to transform the ordinary into incredible steampunk functional art,” Bruce said, adding that the couple has clients all over the world and looked throughout the Commonwealth and in Connecticut before deciding that St. Mary’s Church was a great place to expand their business.
The 1876 gothic structure, with 30-foot ceilings and tall stained-glass windows, three wooded acres, and 30 parking spaces in the middle of a residential neighborhood appealed to them, especially since they have clients in Amherst, Holyoke, Northampton, and Springfield, including MGM.
They worked with the town to get a home-occupation permit before purchasing the home earlier this month, and are looking forward to relocating and creating a showroom and gallery in the historic space, as well as holding steampunk workshops for families.
In addition, Amherst Railway Society purchased the Crossroads Christian Church on South Main Street in Depot Village and plans to move there on June 16.
“It’s a nostalgic reuse of a historic church and very fitting since Palmer is known as the Town of Seven Railroads,” Leduc said.
Collaborative efforts to revitalize Main Street in Three Rivers are also bearing fruit, thanks to work by the consortium On the Right TRACK (the acronym stands for Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge), which has been working to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.
The Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. was awarded a $13,500 Adams Art Grant for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, and the town completed a market-assessment and business-recruitment tool as well as a feasibility study showing that a building on 2032 Main St. obtained through the tax-title process has potential for redevelopment.
“The town will put out a request for proposals as soon as we have grants in place for the building,” Leduc said.
A number of property and business owners also began meeting 11 months ago in a grass-roots effort to help the revitalization effort, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts.
Community Development Director Alice Davey said Nancy Roy, of Interactive Schoolhouse, was instrumental in starting the group. The agency received $35,000 from MassDevelopment and used the money to hire Union Studio in Providence, R.I. to design a conceptual plan for the center. The consulting firm held a public presentation several weeks ago to get input from residents, and the final report is expected in the near future.
Davey said suggestions put forth during the meeting included making the downtown more pedestrian-friendly, building a walking path with river access around the perimeter of Laviolette Park and upgrading the parking there, and expanding Hryniewicz Park, which is used for movie nights, concerts, and other events staged by the town’s recreation department and the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s an exciting time for Three Rivers,” she noted. “The public meeting was well-attended, and residents and property owners eagerly anticipate the final plan and development of a course of action to implement some of the recommendations.”
Bruce Rosenbaum says steampunk is more than just art: it’s a way to creatively problem-solve, learn how to adapt to a situation, and be resilient.
“You look at an object, know the purpose it was designed for is obsolete, then find a way to give it new life and make it beautiful and functional,” he said, adding that the idea translates to people and cities, and he is excited to work with Palmer “as the town re-imagines itself.”
That certainly applies to Three Rivers, and progress is indeed underway that will put the Town of Seven Railroads on the map as it moves forward on a fast track that is attracting new businesses and helping existing ones to expand and grow.
Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $21.57; Three Rivers, $22.25; Bondsville, $22.06; Thorndike, $23.01
Median Household Income: $51,846
median family Income: $68,200
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available