Making Union Station Viable


No one would ever call renovating Springfield’s Union Station the ‘easy’ part.

A different adjective would certainly be needed to describe a journey that has lasted roughly 40 years and included more ups and downs than anyone could count; file drawers full of plans that featured everything from an IMAX theater to a high-end restaurant to a day-care center; calls for action, and calls to mothball the thing and let the next generation figure it out.

To put things in perspective, BusinessWest turns 33 years old in a month or so; one of its very first cover stories was an in-depth conversation with then-station owner David Buntzman about what he planned to do with the landmark.

Dozens of stories and tens of thousands of words later, we are finally — finally — talking about Union Station in the present tense, rather than the past or future. As they say in the transportation business, it’s been quite a ride, and not one single thing about it, not even fixing the clock in the concourse or putting up the new sign over the door, has been easy.

But now comes what most would consider the even harder part — making the station viable, a word Webster defines this way: “capable of living; capable of growing or developing; capable of working, functioning, or developing adequately; capable of existence and development as an independent unit; having a reasonable chance of succeeding; financially sustainable.”

Most people believed that Union Station could be renovated — it would be difficult, but it was certainly doable. But many have wondered out loud and long doubted whether the station could live up to those definitions of ‘viable.’

And the questions were, and still are, well worth asking, because there must be a good reason for spending $80 million to renovate a building that doesn’t hold any real meaning, or solid memories, for anyone under the age of 60, other than nostalgia. And many people couldn’t find one.

But U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and his long-time aide Kevin Kennedy, now Springfield’s chief Development officer, pressed on, firm of the belief that the station could, indeed, be viable, as defined above, as a transportation hub, business center, and catalyst for further economic development in Springfield’s central business district.

We’re about to find out if they’re right, although it will certainly take several years and perhaps even a decade or more to fully answer that question.

There are many things going in the station’s favor, certainly, and together, they make the timing for its rebirth exponentially better than 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. So much so, in fact, that people might be glad it took so long to get this done.

They include continued progress in revitalizing Springfield and its downtown. The word ‘renaissance’ gets kicked around often, and it’s a little strong, but it probably works. If the station were to have opened a decade ago, with the city’s finances and its downtown in much worse shape, its prospects for viability would be far dimmer.

The same can be said regarding the rebirth of rail transportation in the Northeast corridor. New lines have been created, old ones revitalized, and talk continues about the state making a huge investment in an east-west line that would bring Boston a whole lot closer to Springfield, and vice versa. A decade ago, most of these developments were just talk or dreams.

The conditions are also much more favorable when it comes to urban living and demographics. Cities are making a huge comeback, and demographics are a big reason; Baby Boomers are retiring, and many are moving back to cities, especially walkable ones; meanwhile, Millennials seem to like cities (again, walkable ones) far more than their parents. They’re settling into cities, and many are choosing urban areas with transportation (usually rail) that can take them to work somewhere else.

And then, there’s the casino era launched by MGM Springfield. It’s a big part of this renaissance, and the agreement between the company and the city calls for MGM to pay $7.5 million over the next 15 years to help defray the costs of operating the station and building out spaces for tenants. A decade ago, such private-sector help and the cushion it provides was unimaginable.

So, the not-so-easy part is over, and the even harder part begins. There is still no shortage of skepticism out there, but if the station ever stood a chance of being truly viable, now is certainly the time.

Let this intriguing new era begin.