An Opportunity for Springfield

Administrators with the University of Massachusetts made it official last week: they’re taking a serious look at broadening their presence in downtown Springfield with what is being called a possible ‘satellite center.’

The university issued a request for proposals, one that states that it is seeking 25,000 square feet of space suitable for classrooms, faculty offices, and other uses, with the option of doubling that space at a later date. Proposals are due Sept. 3, and it’s safe to say there will be quite a few of them to consider.

That’s because there are a number of potential landing spots for such a facility, ranging from Tower Square to Union Station; from 1350 Main St. to the properties in Court Square — and all of them could use the boost that a UMass presence would provide.

There has been speculation building about UMass doing ‘something’ in downtown Springfield for years now, and a few months ago we warned that such a facility, like a casino in some respects, would not magically transform the city or even its downtown, and that expectations for how a satellite center might change the landscape needed to be kept in perspective.

That said, a UMass satellite center could be one of many momentum generators in the city’s central business district, even if the university takes just 25,000 square feet, which amounts to one or two floors in most of the office buildings and facilities mentioned above.

For starters, creation of such a facility will require a substantial build-out, which will mean construction jobs. It could also change the complexion of some of those office buildings and landmarks. For example, it would provide a major boost for a Union Station project that is progressing, but still needs a spark to generate interest from more retailers. A facility in Tower Square, meanwhile, would generate some needed foot traffic and generate some life in a landmark that is still a shell of its former self and is dominated by vacant storefronts, although the presence of Cambridge College has provided a lift. For 1350 Main St., UMass might help turn on the lights in some floors that have been dark for the better part of a decade, while at Court Square, a center could provide a solid foundation for future development.

And there are many other sites that could come into the picture, with similar opportunities for progress.

Beyond the benefits to the real-estate market, a UMass satellite would generate other benefits. It would bring young people, many of them with money to spend, into downtown Springfield, and it would introduce them to a city they might otherwise not experience.

Depending on what types of programs and classes are offered downtown, there might be more and better opportunities for students to undertake internships with Springfield-based businesses and establish relationships that could last for years or decades.

Also, a UMass presence might even bolster efforts on the part of city officials to inspire market-rate housing projects in the downtown that would provide a balance for the subsidized units that still dominate the landscape in that part of the city.

All this is speculation, and a downtown Springfield UMass facility is likely years from opening its doors. But speculation is good, as long as people keep those expectations in check.

A UMass satellite center is certainly not going to be a game changer, to borrow the phrase that so many elected officials and economic-development leaders like to use these days.

But it would help Springfield ultimately win what isn’t a game, but a very important and very necessary endeavor to change the complexion of its central business district.

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