Community Spotlight

Longmeadow Shows Resilience Amid Challenges

Community Spotlight

Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza

Armata’s rebuilt plaza (rendering).

Armata’s plaza

After being ravaged by a fire, Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza (rendering above).

Longmeadow is a quintessential small town, veined by Route 5 and a few other arteries and lined with historical homes dating back to before the Revolutionary War. But with a much higher percentage of residential properties than businesses, townspeople have long rallied around the town’s small commercial sectors.

“Our economic development is not so much what you would see in some of the larger cities around us, but Longmeadow has held pretty strong, certainly, over the past three or four years now,” said Lyn Simmons, town manager. “We did not have as much of an impact from COVID as some of those other larger communities that have large retail sectors … but this past year has been pretty good. I think a lot of them are trying to get back to whatever this new normal looks like for us.”

Coming out of the pandemic, the small clusters of business in town have kept residents engaged, said Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, adding that the Longmeadow Shops have “done a wonderful job” with their ‘Stroll the Shops’ initiative and creating activities to keep town residents involved.

“It brings business in, they’ve got shops, they’ve got dining there, and then, across the street, you have more shopping. Wonderful things are happening there.”

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go. From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

Residents and folks from out of town can stop at Alex’s Bagel Shop as they get off the I-91 exit onto Longmeadow Street or stop at the Shops for retail therapy and a bite to eat.

The Maple Center shopping plaza, which was ravaged by a fire a little over a year ago, has long been an attraction as well. Students and their families from Bay Path University frequent the stores, adding to the impact of the economic development.

Bay Path, in fact, is closely identified with Longmeadow, drawing faculty, staff, and students into town from the surrounding areas of Northern Conn. and Western Mass. Barone explained that, even though the college has been in business for 150 years, its “bones and integrity” are still very present.

“What you loved about it 30 years ago is still what you love about it; it still has those great bones, and that’s so important because sometimes, as communities or businesses grow, they grow so much that they lose sight of who they are and what their mission is. I feel [Bay Path] managed to hold onto that really well in Longmeadow.”

 

Out with the Old

Despite the tragic loss of Armata’s Market and a few other shops in Maple Center, store owner Alexis Vallides is looking forward to a fresh start.

Armata’s Market was founded in 1963 by the Armata family and purchased by the Vallides family in the early 2000s. Vallides told BusinessWest that she knew running a business was something she always wanted to do.

“It’s in my blood. I’m fourth generation in my family business,” she said, noting that her great-grandfather immigrated from Greece and launched a career in the food industry. “After I graduated from college, I took a bigger role, and there’s just an opportunity to kind of slide in there.”

The small grocery store had expanded over the decade she had run it; it wasn’t just known for its meats anymore, but also deli foods, prepared hot and cold meals, and a from-scratch bakery.

“We were in a pretty good groove at that point, and people had caught on,” Vallides said. “And we had become pretty well-known. Anytime you would pull into our parking lot, you’d see half Connecticut plates and half Massachusetts plates. So I know we had a good following, and I feel like we definitely did impact the town of Longmeadow economically.”

The fire that tore through the plaza the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2021 completely decimated Armata’s, the Bottle Shop, and Iron Chef. A hair and nail salon were also displaced after the tragedy. The fire’s origin is still listed as undetermined, and no report has been released by the state fire marshal’s office. The lead investigator has retired, and the town is still looking for a replacement.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.64
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

“It had a massive impact on those neighborhoods there,” Simmons said. “Those people that just ran out to grab some milk or order dinner and pick it up quickly … we saw a big impact just from people’s day-to-day lives, with the convenience of having those offerings there. And certainly there’s the impact to the people that worked in all of those businesses, especially at that time of year. It was really hard.”

However, through tragedy came resiliency and determination. Vallides and her team continued to provide turkey dinners, deliveries, and from-scratch baked goods that holiday season. The people of Longmeadow rallied around them and are excited for their eventual return.

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go,” she said. “From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

 

In with the New

As the town gears up for 2023, there is plenty of anticipation about when Maple Center will be rebuilt. The town is currently working with the owners of the property on their rebuilding plans and are going through the hearing process soon, hopefully starting construction within the next few months.

Vallides told BusinessWest she has signed an intent to return with the landlord, but not an official lease yet. At the moment, the new floor plan for Armata’s is expected to be 3,000 feet larger than it was previously.

Right now, she is hard at work with her team as they move into Village Food Mart in Hampden. A second location was always a possibility, but the opportunity had to be right before jumping in.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns.”

“The fire isn’t the only reason we went to Hampden. I would like to believe that, if we still had Armata’s standing today, we still would have taken up the opportunity,” she said. “I think Hampden Village Food Mart resonates a lot with me because it is very similar to Armata’s in many ways, so that’s the kind of opportunity that I was looking for — I didn’t want to just take the first opportunity that came to me. It had to be something that was going to align with what we had built for the brand of Armata’s.”

Barone agreed. If it wasn’t for the support of locals and outside shoppers, there wouldn’t be such a push for the small market to come back.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns. It speaks volumes for Armata’s, and it speaks volumes for the people in the town of Longmeadow,” Barone said. “Everybody longs for them to come back. So instead of going to that little corner, we have to go up the street to the Longmeadow Shops, and there’s some great restaurants there. It’s a change in routine. We just have to wait and see what’s to come in the new phase.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

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