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Gut Reaction

A New Plan of Action for The Bosch
American Bosch manufacturing complex

American Bosch manufacturing complex

Months ago, an ownership team was conducting a series of formal and informal studies designed to gauge whether all or some of the sprawling former American Bosch manufacturing complex could be salvaged for future development. All debate was ended by a Dec. 16 blaze that effectively gutted the landmark. Now, as demolition commences, talk is of what might develop at the nine-acre parcel at the Springfield-Chicopee line.

TJim Sullivan was heading back to Holyoke from a meeting in Boston last Dec. 16 when his cell phone rang.

Usually, Sullivan, treasurer of the O’Connell Development Group, can talk and drive at the same time. But after only a few seconds of conversation he decided he’d better pull over.

The Bosch, he was told, was on fire.

That’s the name people have used for decades when referring to the former American Bosch manufacturing complex on Main Street at the Springfield-Chicopee line. O’Connell was, and is, part of an investment group known as MSBB, LLC that owned the sprawling, vacant — and uninsured — buildings, and had been exploring a wide variety of development options for the property.

It was an admittedly long-term project that was about to become exponentially more complicated and expensive.

"It was a quick trip back from Boston," Sullivan told BusinessWest, adding that, when he arrived at the scene around 6 p.m., the buildings were fully engulfed.

"I stayed until around midnight — I didn’t really know what else to do," he said, adding that he found himself joined on that frigid night by several former employees of the German-based company, which manufactured radios and other products at the Western Mass. facility. "People had tears in their eyes Ö many of them were very emotional; they had many fond memories of the years they spent there."

Sullivan didn’t cry that night, but no could have blamed him if he did. The fire, which raged throughout the night, effectively gutted the imposing structure, rendering it unfit for any type of development. And, contrary to popular opinion, the blaze, while it has in some ways accelerated the process of developing that nine acres of real estate, has not facilitated it.

"People have come up to me and said, ’I guess this makes your job much easier,’" said Francesca Maltese, development manager at O’Connell who is also involved in the Bosch project. "In fact, the fire makes everything harder, starting with demolition, and it means we’re spending money, and lots of it, when we’re not taking any in."

Started earlier this summer, the complex demolition process is expected to take at least the next six months. When the parcel is cleaned, the task of developing it will be easier than it is now, said Maltese, noting that it is difficult for many would-be investors to adequately evaluate the site when it is still dominated by a burned out hulk.

Still, ’easier’ is a relative term. While both Sullivan and Maltese say a number of potential uses are being explored, from health care to housing, manufacturing to retail, it is difficult to gauge how much interest there will be in the property.

Sullivan said the so-called Wason section of Springfield has repositioned itself in recent years, from a manufacturing center to a home for health care facilities ranging from physicians’ offices to Baystate Health System’s D’Amour Cancer Center. Whether that trend will continue at the Bosch site isn’t known, he said, adding that, for now, the focus is on preparing the property for development.

BusinessWest looks this issue at how the December fire has changed the equation for The Bosch and what the strategy will be for developing what must be considered a prime piece of real estate.

History Lessons

Maltese told BusinessWest that during one tour of the main four-story manufacturing/administration building at the Bosch complex, she came across some old plans for the structure.

"I decided I better take them before the mice ate them," she said, displaying one drawing, still in good condition, dated 1910. It shows three ornamental medallions, featuring the corporate symbol for the Bosch company, that would grace the exterior of the building.

Those medallions will be carefully extracted during the demolition process and shipped to Bosch headquarters in Stuttgart, she said, leaving this region with only memories of the plant — and there are many of those.

Bob Forrant, a former machinist and business agent for the union at American Bosch in the ’70s and ’80s, and now an unofficial historian of the plant, told BusinessWest that, at its height during World War II, the company employed perhaps as many as 20,000 people. "They ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

One of many machining and manufacturing facilities that helped give Springfield its reputation — and its nickname (the City of Homes) — the Bosch was a coveted workplace. "That was the best place to work in the Connecticut River Valley," said Forrant. "They took good care of their people Ö everyone wanted a job there."

Opened just before World War I, the plant was taken over and essentially operated by the U.S. government during that conflict, said Forrant, noting that American leaders considered any German-controlled plant a security risk. After the war, the government gave the plant back to the Germans, who operated it until the second world war, when the government again took it over. After that conflict ended, officials put the plant out to bid, and it was purchased by a group of U.S. investors and became American Bosch.

The Springfield plant was expanded in the early 1940s with the addition of a one-story manufacturing facility. Eventually, the complex grew to more than 500,000 square feet. Over the years, workers produced a wide range of products, including motors for car seats and windshield wipers, and, in its later years, fuel-injection systems for trucks and the M 1 Abrams tank.

American Bosch was purchased by United Technologies Corp. in the mid ’70s. UTC closed the facility in 1986 after years of gradual downsizing, part of a larger movement of manufacturing operations from New England to warmer, less costly areas of the country. The property had several owners and a few uses (most of them warehouse-oriented) over the next several years, said Forrant.

The complex was eventually acquired by a small development group, headed by John Bonavita, creator of Springfield’s Tavern Restaurant, among other projects, that was known as Crossbow, LLC. The O’Connell Group, which has developed a number of buildings and parcels in the region, including the Crossroads business park in Holyoke’s Ingleside area, became partners in the Bosch venture in the spring of 2003.

"We looked at it as a long-term development play," said Sullivan. "Actually, a very long-term development play."

In the months after becoming part of the ownership team, O’Connell explored a number of options for the Bosch property, said Sullivan, adding that the talks included consideration of both rehabbing the buildings on the site and demolition of those facilities and subsequent redevelopment.

"We looked at everything, from soup to nuts," he told BusinessWest. "We explored medical uses, retail, residential development, every option we could think of."

And while no official determination was actually made on whether to rehab or demolish the buildings, he said, the general feeling was that the one-story manufacturing building could not be reused, and that the four-story structure could, with great imagination and determination, be retrofitted.

But the fire last December brought a swift end to any and all debate.

Out of the Ashes

Suspected to be a case of arson, the intense fire leveled the one-story section of the complex, and caused irreparable damage to the main building. In the days following the blaze, many former employees of the Bosch, Forrant among them, drove by the site to survey the damage and reflect. Local historians said the city had lost an important piece of its industrial heritage.

For MSBB, LLC, the fire dramatically altered the course, timeline, and financial dynamics of the already-challenging development venture.

For starters, the blaze and the damage caused by it will greatly increase the cost of demolition, said Sullivan, who declined to give a specific figure but said it will easily exceed seven figures. Razing the structures will be a more risky proposition, he said, because the buildings are less stable than they were before the fire, making the work more time-consuming, and thus raising the price tag.

The high cost of demolition is one of the many factors that make the fire much more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to developing the property, said Maltese, adding that the fire has ultimately robbed the ownership team of flexibility with regard to the cost and timetable of the project, something that many not in this business do not understand.

"The common perception is that the fire solved a problem for us," she said. "It didn’t. In fact, it created more problems for us."

When asked if MSBB can ultimately recover the costs of razing the Bosch property and make this venture profitable, Sullivan offered a conditional ’yes.’ He said much depends on the market, the level of interest in the site, and the intended future use of the property.

Over the past several years, the Wason section has been the site of a wide range of health care and biotech developments. Only a few blocks from Baystate Medical Center, the area is now home to the Biomedical Research Institute, which Baystate has created in conjunction with UMass Amherst. That stretch of Main Street is the site of many health care-related ventures. Baystate has several facilities in that neighborhood, including its cancer center, Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Center, Baystate Rehabilitation Center, and others.

Meanwhile, Atlantic Capital Investors has rehabbed several old manufacturing buildings in the area for health care and related uses. Partners Ben Surner and Mark Benoit have converted a former factory at 3500 Main St. into the new home for the Pioneer Valley Chapter of American Cross and other tenants, while also combining rehab of the former Wason Trolley building with new construction to create a complex that hosts Baystate Reference Laboratories, Novacare Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy, The Hand Center of Western Mass., and other health care businesses.

Surner and Benoit are also moving forward with plans to create the Brightwood Medical Arts & Conference Center in a large manufacturing building that actually abuts the Bosch complex.

"So health care is certainly one possibility for the Bosch property," said Sullivan, adding quickly that there are many options, including retail, residential development, and others.

MSBB is not actively marketing the property at this time, said Maltese, adding quickly there are discussions going on at a number of levels. She told BusinessWest that talk, and marketing efforts, will escalate as the demolition process continues and developers can properly evaluate the real estate.

Forward Thinking

As they talked about the Bosch property and its potential for development, both Sullivan and Maltese struggled with which tense to use with regard to the buildings on the site.

Both the present and past work, said Sullivan, noting that while the landmarks are still there, from a literal standpoint, from a development perspective they are gone, and have been since the night of the fire.

For the most part, though, those at MSBB are focused on the future. What will transpire at that the Bosch site remains to be seen, but there is cautious optimism that a productive new use can be found, one that might ease some of the many loses incurred on that night last December.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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