Investments in the Future

EditorialBWlogoThere probably hadn’t been this much excitement about a demolition project in Springfield since the city finally took down the old York Street Jail nearly a decade ago. Or since the crumbling Hotel Charles, located next to Union Station, was put out of its misery in the late’90s.
There was Mayor Domenic Sarno with his hardhat and ceremonial sledgehammer taking a few solid whacks at the old River Inn on State Street. When the pomp was over, the bulldozers moved in, taking down a property that had become much more than an eyesore in recent years — although it was certainly that.
Indeed, the long-vacant property had become an impediment to progress — not only on that specific parcel, but across that section of the so-called State Street corridor. Recognizing this, DevelopSpringfield acquired the property at a foreclosure auction in January, with an eye toward demolition and then movement toward redevelopment. As economic-development initiatives go, this wasn’t exactly front-page news (though close), but it constitutes an important step forward for that neighborhood and the city as a whole.
And creating such initial steps — while also stimulating the ones that will follow — is the unofficial mission statement for DevelopSpringfield, the public-private partnership created to stimulate development activity in the city, especially in the wake of the tornado that tore through several neighborhoods nearly two years ago.
The agency is taking a multi-pronged approach to that assignment, but generally, it is currently engaged in identifying development opportunities and facilitating them through what the agency’s president and CEO, Jay Minkarah, calls “strategic investments.” And the River Inn project is a perfect example.
“This place held back the development of the entire neighborhood,” Minkarah told the local press. “It’s good that it’s going to be gone.”
Good, because if it was still there — and it probably would be, because it’s highly unlikely that a private developer would pay the cost of acquiring the property, demolishing it, and settling back taxes totaling $80,000 — then this large slice of State Street would remain undeveloped for the foreseeable future.
The same could likely be said for some of the other properties the agency has acquired recently. These include the historic building at 83 Maple St., known as the Ansel Phelps House (Springfield’s fourth mayor lived in it for some time), which had fallen into a state of disrepair and placement on the Springfield Preservation Trust’s list of endangered historic properties in the city, as well as the historic Gunn Block at the corner of Walnut and State streets, another threatened property said to be city’s oldest commercial building.
Neither is likely to be redeveloped soon, but their acquisition signals the start of movement that will likely remove that ‘threatened’ designation and, more importantly, trigger the kind of development that generates momentum in a specific neighborhood.
There is no way of knowing when and how the River Inn property, or any of the others acquired by DevelopSpringfield, will be transformed for future use. After all, the Hotel Charles acreage and the York Street Jail parcel are still vacant lots. And the same is true, more or less, for the site of the old Steigers building on Main Street. It was to be “a little park for a little while,” said city officials when it came down. That was 18 years ago.
But it’s safe to say that these investments will eventually stimulate movement within the development community and generate real progress with the challenging assignment of revitalizing struggling neighborhoods. Thus, they are solid investments in the city’s future.