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Plum Assignment

Indian Orchard, or The Orchard, as residents call it, was once a thriving mill town. In recent years, however, the former Indian settlement and home to groves of plum trees (hence the name) has deteriorated and, in many ways, lost some of its identity. A recently unveiled master plan for the Springfield neighborhood creates a blueprint for bringing new life to the area and creating what is being called a "21st-century mill town." Optimism abounds, but the challenges facing residents, planners, and business owners are considerable.

01151. That’s the zip code for Indian Orchard, Mass., and a number that people in this blue collar neighborhood of Springfield are quite proud of.

ëThe Orchard,’ as they call it, is the only neighborhood in the city with its own postmark, and residents will usually correct parties that put ëSpringfield’ on items sent to them. "It’s an immensely proud community," said Katie Stebbins, the city’s senior planner, who long ago learned the proper way to address mail to people in this section by the Chicopee River. "The residents are proud of their history, their diversity, and their uniqueness."

This pride explains why more than 200 people turned out for an unveiling of a new master plan for the community, an important document that has created an outline for what Stebbins and others call a "21st-century mill town." That phrase was chosen to convey the need to blend the past with the future, she said, noting that the community is at a crossroads of sorts.

Its stock of residential and commercial properties is aging, and before more of them are lost to parking lots, the neighborhood wants to make a concerted effort toward becoming a destination, she explained. The plan for achieving that end is multi-faceted, and calls for connecting Main Street with the currently underutilized riverfront; making facade improvements to a number of the century-old buildings in the downtown area; attracting new small businesses, especially restaurants and other entertainment venues; and finding a new life for an old industrial complex that essentially bisects the neighborhood.

Fred Andrews, executive director of the Indian Orchard Main Street Partnership, believes all that is doable, although he acknowledges that putting goals down on paper and making them happen are two completely different things, especially at a time when the level of public funds for such endeavors is dwindling and no one can really be sure of the appetite for private investment.

But, like Stebbins, Andrews sees progress and senses both the requisite optimism and energy needed to achieve more over time. He points to several facade improvements that have already taken place downtown as movement in the right direction. And he notes a considerable uptick in the number of calls from people exploring possible investments in the neighborhood.

"There is some vibrancy downtown," he said. "We’ve had some faÁade improvements and also the hoped-for result — people in neighboring buildings seeing that progress and deciding to become part of the movement."

Charles Brush, owner of the massive Indian Orchard Mills, a home to more than 100 small businesses and artists, and a member of the panel that pushed through the master plan, sees both the vast potential in The Orchard and the challenges facing the community. Mostly, he sees enthusiasm.

"People were lined up out the door the night we unveiled the plan; people came to see what was happening," he said. "Now, we need to tap that energy and move forward. We can turn Indian Orchard into a destination — we have all the components in place."

Beyond the predictable rush of optimism that accompanied the release of the plan, however, lies the obvious question: what now?

Stebbins says she isn’t sure, and told BusinessWest that much depends on the residents and business owners who turned out to see the plan unveiled. She equated creation of the master plan to sketching an outline in a coloring book — it can be colored in any number of ways.

"What happens next is not a passive approach — waiting and hoping for something to happen — but a very active approach," she explained. "We want to be open to every opportunity that comes our way, pursuing it with the neighborhood and seeing where it leads. You treat everything as a possibility until it’s not.

"It’s like a patchwork quilt," she continued. "You keep piecing things together, and eventually you have something."

Fruits of Their Labor

The name Indian Orchard is derived from the area’s past life as both an Indian settlement and, later, a home to groves of plum trees.

In an attempt to reflect that past, street signs, building facades, Andrews’ business card, and even the back cover of the master plan’s executive summary have incorporated the color purple. And soon, new plum trees may be growing in the downtown and elsewhere in the community. Andrews said planners have done some research, and believe they’ve found a hearty variety of tree that can stand up to the climate and congestion of a Northeast urban center.

But planners also want to breathe new economic life into a community that has most often been described as ëtired’ in recent years. Indeed, the vibrancy that existed years ago has been lost due to a number of factors, including the exodus of the textile makers and many other manufacturers, the emergence of Boston Road as a major retail center, which sucked life from Main Street, and the flight of many working class residents into the region’s suburbs.

The vision for a retooled community — one that will be called ëThe Village of Indian Orchard, a neighborhood of Springfield’ — is that of a destination, said Stebbins, an area rich with shops, restaurants, artists, antiques, bike paths, walking trails, and other features that would attract people from across the region and perhaps well beyond it.

She calls it the "strolling effect."

Many communities have an area in which people can stroll, she said, noting that this activity blends recreation with window-shopping, actual shopping, and dining. Northampton is this area’s best strolling center, she noted. Springfield doesn’t have such an area at present — downtown comes close, but it lacks the requisite variety of shops, she said — and The Orchard could someday fill that role.

To make The Orchard a destination, a place to stroll, however, many things have to happen, said Stebbins, especially the link between Main Street and the riverfront. She told BusinessWest that the community’s downtown is in many ways unremarkable and similar to countless others in this area and across the country, for that matter. The scenic Chicopee River does give the neighborhood a chance to do some things that other cities and towns can’t, however.

"If we can’t get the river opened up and established as a destination point with the downtown, then Main Street is going to have a much longer road to travel."

One stated goal for planners is to create a riverfront park that would stretch from a parcel near the tip of Main Street to the Indian Orchard Mills, and construct bike trails and walking paths along that strip. Much of that property is owned by Consolidated Edison — it was sold to that corporation by Western Mass. Electric Co. as part of a divestiture of assets forced by restructuring of the energy industry — and some talks have taken place between the city and that company, said Stebbins.

Brush, whose mills have become home to a number of noted artists, believes those galleries could become a key component in making The Orchard a destination, especially if his mills can be more effectively linked to Main Street stores and restaurants and a cluster of antique outlets.

"We have 43 artists here now, and our open studios bring hundreds of people down to the mills," he said. "We need more events and attractions like that; we need to create more reasons to bring people to Indian Orchard."

Planting Seeds

While offering a quick tour of the downtown area, Andrews stopped at one of a collection of new bus stop benches. The colorful, tile-covered benches were created by artists at the Indian Orchard Mills, he explained, and are one of the many small initiatives in that area creating some enthusiasm in the community.

There are other, similar examples of progress, he said, pointing out comprehensive facade improvement projects at Indian Orchard Glass and Orchard Variety, which sit on opposite sides of Main Street. There have been other faÁade initiatives, and more are being planned, he said, adding that they give the downtown a cleaner, more modern look, one that will hopefully spur additional investments in that area.

Andrews said The Orchard is perhaps Springfield’s most culturally diverse neighborhood, with a mix of Portuguese, Polish, Hispanic, and Armenian residents, among other groups. He envisions a number of ethnic restaurants and cultural attractions in the downtown. He says there are entertainment opportunities as well, including a new life for the old Grand Theater and perhaps a much larger home for the cramped Titanic Museum.

"There’s a lot that can happen, and a number of very positive things have already happened," he said. "I think it’s a matter of getting things moving and having people want to become part of something special."

Stebbins agreed, and said that while there are several vacant storefronts downtown, this should be viewed more as an opportunity than a concern. "In many ways, it’s like a blank canvas."

She cited Red Rocket Records on Main Street, a business that draws music enthusiasts, especially heavy metal fans, from far and wide, as the type of destination attraction that The Orchard needs in much greater numbers, and she believes it can happen.

"Why not? People will find Indian Orchard to come to Red Rocket Records," she said. "If these people can find it, then other people can — if we give them a reason."

She told BusinessWest that much of her optimism stems from the amount of interest being expressed in The Orchard, from both existing business owners and some from outside the region expressing interest in living or doing business in the neighborhood.

"Every day, I get a call from someone about Indian Orchard, either someone already in The Orchard who wants to figure out how to make it better, or someone outside The Orchard who wants to find out more about it — and that’s either businesses or potential homeowners," she said. "Some of the calls are from existing business owners, some who say that they’ve been thinking about sprucing up their site, but didn’t because they didn’t think anything was happening. Now that they see things going on in the building next door, they want to do something themselves."

But is there funding available for such projects?

Stebbins paused when asked that question, and admitted that there’s never as much money as planners and entrepreneurs want or need. But she said that some money remains from a $160,000 facade improvement grant, and there are some pockets of money to tap into.

The bus stop benches were the result of a grant, she said, noting that planners will have to be diligent and imaginative in their pursuit of resources. "We’re going to turn over every rock."

Building Momentum

While exploring links between Main Street and the riverfront and trying to expand the cultural offering downtown, planners will also address a number of other issues. Some, like the benches, trees, and street signs, are smaller in scope and designed to build visibility, enhance the community’s image — it is still viewed as many as a high-crime, low-income area — and improve traffic flow.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of the former Chapman Valve/Crane site, a 52-acre strip of land that has plagued the neighborhood for decades.

Old renderings of the Indian Orchard neighborhood show a small downtown area dwarfed by the massive Chapman Valve complex, where workers, mostly immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries, made valves for various industries.

The site expanded and evolved over the years — the Navy built a foundry there in the 1940s, and the complex was actually a satellite site for the Manhattan Project — and the neighborhood grew up around it. Homes now crowd a site that is largely abandoned and overgrown.

Residential development is planed for a portion of the parcel, said Stebbins, and some construction has already begun, but the fate of the building that housed the Navy foundry is still to be determined, and there are environmental hurdles to be cleared before anything can be done on the site.

In fact, it was Stebbins’ work on the Chapman Valve site — she is the city’s brownfields coordinator — that got the ball moving toward creation of a master plan for the neighborhood. "We said to ourselves, ëwhat are we going to do with this beast?’" she said.

"We worked with the neighborhood to figure out what would be a good use for the site, and eventually, the focus shifted to the whole neighborhood."

It will likely be several years before the fate of the industrial site can be resolved and a new life for that property found, said Stebbins, adding that the long view must be taken on many elements contained in the master plan.

It could be 10 to 15 years or more before many of the visions are realized, she said, noting quickly that areas like Northampton and Alexandria, Va., both great strolling areas, took years to reach their potential.

She doesn’t know how The Orchard’s mostly blank canvas will be colored in, but she is very confident that the neighborhood’s master plan won’t gather dust on a shelf, like so many before it in a number of area communities.

"It’s the enthusiasm of the residents that will keep this from getting dusty," Stebbins said, holding the document aloft. "People are very proud of this community, and they want to see something happen with it."

Branching Out

Stebbins, 33, told BusinessWest that many people her age look at The Orchard and see the ëdestination’ potential that she does. For many older residents, however, there is more skepticism. "For many of the older people who grew up here, it’s a lot harder to see what this neighborhood can be."

For the concepts outlined in the master plan to become reality, planners must get all those in the community on the same page, literally and figuratively, and begin to create some momentum for moving forward.

Progress will come a piece at a time, said Stebbins — just like that patchwork quilt.

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