Investment Key to a Resurgent Springfield

While visiting Grand Rapids, Mich. recently, several members of a delegation from Greater Springfield (see related story page 20) — participants in a program called City2City — engaged in a little game of ‘what if …’
“Suppose a group from Grand Rapids were to come to the City of Homes,” those initiating the exercise began. “Where would we take them, and what could we show them that would make them say, ‘wow!’”
There was some disagreement, but the general consensus was that such a delegation should certainly visit the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College and its Scibelli Enterprise Center, both unique facilities. Baystate’s Hospital of the Future (a $250 million initiative) would certainly be on a tour agenda, as well as the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, which the health system has developed in conjunction with UMass Amherst. The Quandrangle might warrant a visit (especially its new history museum, a tribute to Springfield’s industrial past). The Basketball Hall of Fame might make the itinerary, and perhaps the convention center, although every major city seems to have one of those.
So those playing this game concluded that, while Springfield has some things going on, there probably isn’t enough to fill a two-day visit with interesting stops, and thus certainly not enough to qualify Springfield for the same title Grand Rapids has earned: ‘resurgent city.’
It’s easy to see why Springfield is on the wrong end of the City2City tours: while those communities have successfully reinvented themselves and diversified their economies from strong manufacturing bases (or are well down that road), Springfield is still in the early stages of that process.
But there is something else missing as well. It was a word heard repeatedly in both Winston-Salem and Greensboro, N.C., visited by a City2City delegation a year ago, and again in Grand Rapids: investment. Individuals and corporations are investing in those three communities. Some are investing in Springfield (MassMutual, Baystate Health, and Big Y, for example, can’t be expected to do more), but simply not enough.
Instead, many businesses and individuals are dis-investing, by moving out of the city and especially its downtown, or by standing on the sidelines and hoping that someone else will take the lead in revitalizing Springfield. Such actions are still signs of the troubling times for the region’s largest city and unofficial capital.
The Grand Rapids city manager told the Springfield delegation that many of the professionals and businesses that had moved out of the Furniture City in the ’70s and ’80s have moved back in. The reason? Because they not only want to be there, but feel they need to be there. How many business owners can say the same about Springfield?
Not enough, certainly, and the reason is obvious: the city hasn’t given them enough cause to feel that way. Despite the many stops of interest listed above, Springfield is still lacking momentum, lacking what those in Grand Rapids called “game-changers,” and lacking investment.
The June 1 tornadoes and the vacant lots they’ve created in the South End and elsewhere provide opportunities for some investment, and the possibility for some true game-changers. In the meantime, there were plenty of vacant and underutilized properties before the twister struck, and a general lack of vibrancy on most days.
But Springfield is a classic chicken-and-egg case. Specifically, why would people invest in a city that lacks momentum and vibrancy? But how does a city gain vibrancy unless people are willing to invest?
Somehow, both things have to start happening at once. Most say this will occur when there’s a spark, something like the huge hotel renovation project in Grand Rapids or that city’s new downtown arena. Sparks are good, but what’s better is a general understanding that investments in Springfield are investments in this region — and investments in a better future for everyone.