In Springfield, Now Is the Time to Dream

The event was called “Vision 2017: The Right Direction.”

Staged on March 24, it was the second edition of what will apparently become an annual get-together at CityStage, where city officials and others involved in the broad spectrum of economic development gather to talk about what’s happening and what might happen. And the focus is on a number — in this case $2.8 billion — that represents the sum of the public and private projects ongoing or in the pipeline.

This year’s presentation included a detailed breakdown of projects in progress — MGM Springfield, Union Station, and others — and those that will start soon, such as the expansion to the Sr. Caritas Cancer Center, the new Innovation Center, and the highly anticipated but also dreaded I-91 reconstruction project. There was also an entertaining update and look ahead concerning efforts to create an entrepreneurial renaissance downtown.

But easily the most intriguing aspect of the program was one titled “Dare to Dream.” It was a sequence of computer-generated images depicting what could happen in and around downtown Springfield in the years to come.

It’s amazing what one can do with the right software. Indeed, the Republican building was transformed into a minor-league baseball stadium and the so-called Steiger’s parcel, a.k.a. ‘a little park for a little while’ (it’s going on 20 years now, but who’s counting?), had been filled with, alternately, an ultra-modern, market-rate housing project or a beach populated with young entrepreneurs soaking up some sun (the beach concept garnered more crowd approval).

Meanwhile, the former Chestnut Middle School parcel was now home to a sparkling mixed-use facility, a new performing-arts center had been built in Mason Square, and Riverfront Park (complete with sailboats on Connecticut) had been given a serious makeover.

Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief development officer, stressed repeatedly that all this was merely speculation and that people shouldn’t take any of those pretty pictures as givens or even firm possibilities.

But he also noted that it’s certainly OK to dream. And he’s right.

Indeed, years ago, and not that many years ago, people would have laughed at those computer-generated images and considered them unreasonable and not doable. And while some of those sentiments may linger to a certain extent, they are largely being replaced with feelings that all or certainly most things are not beyond the city’s reach.

An $800 million casino project becoming reality in the South End will help do that, and so will an official end to more than 40 years of roadblocks to the renovation of Union Station.

But there’s more to it than that. There are the three colleges now populating downtown Springfield in some manner. There’s TechSpring and the Innovation Center and the arrival of HitPoint Studios at 1350 Main St. There’s new market-rate housing like Silverbrook Lofts, and the promise of more to come. There’s an aggressive, results-oriented DevelopSpringfield already changing some neighborhoods.

There’s a palpable sense of momentum and a sense that, yes, things can happen here.

Of course, there are a number of challenges facing leaders as they strive to revitalize the city, from struggling public schools to sky-high poverty rates to lingering perceptions that the city and its downtown are not safe. But unlike years ago, there seems to be a sentiment that these systemic problems can be overcome. Because of that, this is a time to heavily promote Springfield, tell its story, and inspire private developers to invest here, because it is likely to be a sound investment.

We’re not sure how many of those computer-generated images will become reality — maybe none of them. What we do know is that now, perhaps more than at any time in the past 30 or 40 years, you don’t have to dare people to dream.

Just encourage them a little.

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