WestMass at 50: Still a Regional Asset
For some time now, those round-number anniversaries, especially the ones with names involving precious metals or gems, have become appropriate times to pause and reflect on whatever or whomever is celebrating that anniversary.
And so it is with the WestMass Area Development Corp., which marked 50 years of existence this past spring, and is making note of that milestone at ceremonies in October. Most people in the area and its business community would not have guessed that this organization is that old — it has made most of its headlines and impact in the past 25 to 30 years — but that is the reality.
It started in business as the Springfield Area Development Corp., and most of its early projects involved the City of Homes and bringing new economic-development opportunities to a city that hadn’t seen any in some time. The thought process at the time was that a nonprofit organization was needed to promote development by aggregating land, making it ready for building, and then patiently filling the space created with businesses that were appropriate for the community in question and would bring needed jobs and tax revenue.
The thinking was that a nonprofit group would be more willing to take on projects with certain degrees of risk, and that it would be more patient and prudent with regard to how this space was filled. And a half-century later, one could easily argue that those who conceived of this organization were correct in their thinking. The evidence can be found in Springfield, Agawam, East Longmeadow, Westfield, and other communities, where the landscape has literally been changed because of WestMass.
Nothing has come very easily for WestMass, but over the years, its track record has shown that it has indeed taken on some projects that the private development community would have passed on. In so doing, the region has several industrial parks that might otherwise have become large subdivisions or, worse, still be undeveloped, idle land.
WestMass has drawn some criticism over the years for not being more willing to take on difficult brownfield projects, such as the Uniroyal complex in Chicopee; for the painfully slow rate of progress in the Chicopee River Business Park; and for appropriating large tracts of the region’s precious developable land for massive distribution facilities that provide generally low-paying jobs — and not as many of them as they did in years past. Meanwhile, it’s been argued that too much of this region’s time and energy, economic-development wise, has gone toward filling WestMass and Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. industrial parks, when there are many other priorities in area cities and towns.
By and large, however, WestMass, like Westover, has been, and continues to be, a very valuable asset for the region. It is suffering mightily through this recession, as it has the past several, including the recession of the late ’80s, when it was forced to declare bankruptcy, but when the skies clear and the huge inventory of existing manufacturing and distribution space is depleted, WestMass properties will play a key role in attracting new businesses and retaining existing ones that need space to grow.
Looking down the road, we are reminded of something that Allan Blair, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., has said often — that when it comes to economic development, all the easy projects have been done. Everything now is logistically challenging, and the degree of difficulty will only increase over the coming years and decades.
To thrive in such a challenging environment, this region and its economic-development leaders will have to be bold, imaginative, and persistent. These are the qualities that have marked WestMass since the beginning, and we hope they will see the organization through at least another half-century of service.