UMass Center Is Yet Another Puzzle Piece

It was with considerable fanfare that Gov. Deval Patrick, UMass administrators, and Springfield city officials announced last fall that the university would be greatly expanding its presence in downtown Springfield with a 26,000-square-foot learning center to be built in Tower Square (see related story, page 6).

And there will be much more hype roughly a month from now when most of the same people — plus many others, we’re sure — will gather to mark the opening of that gleaming facility, less than a year after it was announced.

Indeed, expectations are high when it comes to this center and its potential impact on Springfield and especially its central business district. Maybe too high.

For years now, city officials have been urging the university, one of this region’s largest employers and arguably the economic engine with the greatest horsepower, to takes its brand and influence to downtown Springfield. The school has responded with a number of smaller-scale initiatives, involving everything from the arts to precision manufacturing to relocation of the university’s Design Center into a building in Court Square.

The facility now known as the UMass Center at Springfield represents a far more significant investment in terms of dollars — the cost of this complex is more than $5 million — and commitment to the city. And as it prepares to open its doors to students on Sept. 2, with more than 30 classes covering a host of subjects, there is a great deal of hope and anticipation when it comes to what the center will mean for the city.

It is expected to provide a huge shot in the arm for Tower Square, which, as everyone knows, has a first floor defined largely by empty storefronts and sparse foot traffic. The UMass Center, which may have 200 to 300 students taking classes there this fall, could help re-energize the once-thriving retail center.

The facility is also expected to provide a spark for downtown, in terms of that aforementioned foot traffic, but also psychologically. After all, if UMass Amherst is willing to make that kind of investment in Springfield’s central business district, then things must be getting better. Right?

As we said, maybe the expectations are a little too high.

Overall, we believe that William Dávila, the recently named director of operations, has the right perspective as this highly anticipated experiment gets underway.

Rather than focus on enrollment numbers for this fall — which appear solid, by the way — Dávila and his staff seem more concerned with getting this facility off to a good start and making sure that the students coming there have a good experience.

This is important, because no one really knows if people will want to come to downtown Springfield for classes, given the city’s lingering image problem and perceptions regarding safety. Other schools, most notably Western New England University, have created satellite facilities downtown, only to see them fail.

If these first students at the UMass Center come away satisfied with their experience, it will be that much easier to sell the facility — and Springfield itself — to others down the road.

Meanwhile, this first year is a time to build partnerships and foster collaborative efforts that will make the UMass Center much more than a place to take classes. It can — and needs to be — a community resource.

There is now a large UMass sign on the east side of Tower Square. It proclaims the arrival of the university and the start of what could be an exciting new era downtown.

Let’s hope it’s a sign of progress and a sign that better times lie ahead.

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