Enfield Aims to Become a Multi-track Destination
Commuters whisking past Enfield, Conn. on I-91 — especially exits 47E and 48, which drain into the heavily trafficked corridors of Routes 220 and 190, peppered with shopping centers and fast-casual restaurants — no doubt see the stretch as a retail mecca, but a closer look casts doubt.
Take the Enfield Square Mall, for instance, which has been heavily buffeted by store departures and doesn’t draw nearly the traffic it used to.
“From a retail perspective, yes, we lost some of the anchor stores of the mall — Macy’s, Sears — but I know there has been some interest from new stores to go into the mall,” said Mike Vezzola, executive director of the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, noting, as one example, a new Party City on the property, one of the biggest among the chain’s New England stores.
“I spoke to the folks at the mall last week, and we’re starting to see the retail aspect rebound a little bit,” he went on. “But it’s definitely more of a mixed bag. Ten years ago, we were looking at Enfield as the retail hub between Springfield and Hartford. I feel that’s shifted to Manchester. Instead, we’re now an all-inclusive package drawing from all aspects of economic development.”
Take, for instance, a strong uptick in small and sole-proprietor businesses coming online in the past year, reflective of an entrepreneurial wave that has been noticeable in Western Mass. as well. Or a wave of warehousing and distribution companies that have set up shop in Enfield over the past year or two.
“It’s a combination of a few things,” Vezzola said, noting that the manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution niches have been bolstered by the likes of Veritiv, Plastipak, and Conval all moving into Enfield in the past year. “We’ve also seen a lot of interest from property managers and developers who have been purchasing open lots here in town, with intentions of perhaps bringing more distribution and manufacturing businesses into the area.”
Recognizing an opportunity to create a pipline of local talent for such companies, Asnuntuck Community College unveiled its new, 27,000-square-foot Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center in the spring, part of an overall $25 million campus expansion plan. The new space will allow Asnuntuck to double its enrollment in its undergraduate manufacturing-technology programs. Meanwhile, the college is extending its tuition rate for Connecticut residents to students from Massachusetts. All these moves are aimed at bolstering what is becoming a key part of Enfield’s — and, perhaps, the region’s — economy.
Enfield, Conn. at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1683 in Massachusetts; annexed to Connecticut in 1749
Population: 44,654 (2010)
Area: 34.2 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $31.43 (plus fire district tax)
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.43 (plus fire district tax)
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Lego Systems
* Latest information available
“Within the past year, the state has given much support to Asnuntuck to focus on advanced manufacturing and programs that are more of a specific niche in terms of a career path,” Vezzola told BusinessWest. “The expansion of that school has been phenomenal, everything from the infrastructure to the subtleties like offering in-state tuition prices to Massachusetts residents.”
Other developments have local officials equally excited about Enfield’s position, from a planned transit center in the Thompsonville section of town to MGM Springfield’s opening in 2018 and, perhaps, a second casino just to the south in East Windsor.
“If anything, I think Enfield is going to be more appealing over the next five years with the institution of a new commercial rail system and the casinos going up,” Vezzola said. “I can see Enfield really being the middle-ground tourist attraction, the alternative place to stay between those two points of interest.”
As for that railroad, service on a New Haven-to-Springfield line should be up and running in the spring of 2018. Enfield — specifically, its Thompsonville neighborhood on the Connecticut River — is one of the proposed stops along that line, although the station won’t be up and running immediately. Nor will it be built in a vacuum, as the town has been planning a transformation of the future station site into an intermodal transit center in a walker-friendly village.
“It’s a rather large and complicated project,” said Peter Bryanton, the town’s director of Community Development, adding that the sticking point has been a former power-plant site that sits on the river. “That site is owned by Eversource, and we started negotiating with Eversource about five years ago to go on the property and do environmental testing, because we need to know what kind of contaminants are there before we can do anything. We’re now at the point where we have an access agreement with them, and we’re in the process of getting a firm to do the work for us.”
Depending on the results of that survey, if the site needs to be remediated or capped, the transit-center could be looking at a three- to five-year timeline. In the meantime, the state will build a basic rail station, with an elevated, double-tracked platform on each side. Later on, the town will build in some parking, bus facilities, and outdoor recreation, such as walking trails and overlook areas so people can enjoy the view of the river.
“Hopefully the commuter-rail system revives some of the walkability in town,” Vezzola added. “The service will start running in 2018 — we’re the only stop on the Connecticut River itself — and the Thompsonville project will be greatly affected by that once it’s instituted. We really want to take the train station and make a livable, walkable atmosphere, with restaurants and retail shops from the train station all the way up to Town Hall, all the way up Main Street. It all kind of works together.”
There isn’t room for a lot of retail at the site, Bryanton said, but one four-story commercial building, acquired by the Enfield Community Development Corp., will feature some ground-level retail and housing on the upper floors.
“We’ve gone through the conceptual phase, and we’re now in the construction planning phase,” he noted. “The rail-station plans are almost completed — the state is working on that — and with our environmental work, we can move on our construction plans for the infrastructure around the rail station.”
Vezzola noted that the chamber’s role is to foster economic growth and development in the four towns it represents. “We’re here as a supporter of local commerce and want to be a driving force behind keeping our region an appealing, attractive place to grow your business.”
That’s why he’s cheered by some of the initiatives taking shape in and around Enfield, from workforce-development progress to the future transit center to a pair of casinos, although the East Windsor, while approved by the Connecticut Legislature, isn’t quite a done deal.
“I think Springfield is a sure bet, and that is most certainly going to help tourism in this particular area,” he said. “We have plenty of restaurants in Enfield, the Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn hotels in Enfield will be pretty much occupied, and it’s only going to be bigger if the East Windsor casino comes to fruition as well, because we’re right in the middle. We’re not a 45-minute commute, like coming from Northampton or West Hartford; we’re your driveable destination.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]