Some Steps in the Right Direction

Jay Minkarah, director of DevelopSpringfield, is right when he says that most of the projects currently in the agency’s portfolio don’t make much sense — financially, anyway.

The Gunn Block, the condemned 19th-century commercial building on the corner of State and Walnut streets that the agency acquired last year, is in horrific condition. Rehabbing it will be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, and when that day comes, the property will sit on the edge of a mostly vacant, considerably underutilized block of buildings across State Street from Springfield Technical Community College.

No wonder the development community had no interest in it.

It’s also had very little, if any, interest in the property known as 83 Maple, the former residence of Ansel Phelps, Springfield’s fourth mayor, which DevelopSpringfield acquired last year and is currently rehabbing. Also long-condemned, the property has not been occupied for years, has resisted at least a few efforts at revitalization, and has become one of many symbols of stagnation in the city.

And then, there’s the former River Inn parcel just a few hundred yards down State Street from the Gunn Block. It has become an eyesore and a crime scene, and DevelopSpringfield acquired it at auction a year ago and razed it with the intention of selling the parcel for reuse, hopefully for retail.

All three of these projects would have to be described as very long shots and financial risks that traditional developers wouldn’t touch.

But as Minkarah told BusinessWest, they are also very symbolic, and therefore appropriate projects for this private, nonprofit agency to use to generate momentum and create a sense of accomplishment in the city.

And such victories are needed because, while we keep reading and hearing about the billions of dollars that will be spent in the city over the next few years — and those numbers are certainly impressive — there is still a sense of ‘seeing is believing’ in this city, and there still isn’t much to see.

‘Strategic’ was the word Minkarah used repeatedly to describe the agency’s current projects, and it’s an appropriate term to use. By revitalizing the Gunn Block and moving forward with a planned grocery store across Walnut Street, the city could spark a new development in Mason Square and change the face of that block just east of Commerce High School. And landing a major retailer in the former River Inn property could generate more momentum for a stretch of State Street that is showing some signs of life, and will show more when the old fire station just down the road is finally rehabbed.

Meanwhile, successfully converting the Ansel Phelps House into use for professionals could stimulate more progress in the Maple Heights area, an historic area that could use a dose of optimism.

At the very least, these projects should create more of a very important ingredient in the city’s efforts to bounce back from fiscal turmoil, natural disasters, a stagnant economy, and a gas blast: hope.

Minkarah’s theory is that, if people see that some of the most blighted properties in the city can be a given a new life, then just about anything is possible.

And he’s right.

These projects may not make sense financially, but they are certainly small — and potentially big — steps in the right direction.

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