Opinion

Remaking Easthampton

Easthampton is finally shedding its old mill-town identity in exchange for a new image and commercial dynamic, a hybrid of grit and glitz, with strong hometown flavors. The change has been a long time coming and is the result of a variety of factors, including an emerging arts community, a reinvented government, strong and community-minded business leadership, and real estate assets ranging from recycled factory buildings to picturesque millponds reflecting the stunning escarpment of Mt. Tom.

Twenty-five years ago, local boosters were talking up Easthampton as a diamond in the rough poised for a renaissance like its neighbor, Northampton.

It turns out they were a couple of decades ahead of themselves.

The local business news in the late 1970s and early 1980s had mainly to do with factory closings and layoffs and halting attempts to spruce up a crumbling downtown. Still, to give the enthusiasts credit, they had, even then, some grounds for optimism.

The vast, previously abandoned factory complex on Cottage Street in the heart of the town, facing onto Nashawannuck Pond — Easthampton’s scenic crown jewel — had been taken over by Riverside Industries Inc., a non-profit agency serving the developmentally disabled. With prescient entrepreneurial spirit and skill, Riverside was rapidly bringing the building back to productive life with a vibrant, unique mixture of enterprises: its own collection of offices and program space and piecework assembly workshops, plus chunks of cavernous space it rented out to independent craftspeople who were converting the raw real estate into studios and workshops.

So the seeds of change had been sown. But that change was slow to catch on. The blossoming of One Cottage Street for years seemed to be a kind of hothouse phenomenon, little noticed outside the building; just this year Riverside has hired a community development director to actively promote itself. It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that Easthampton convincingly started to turn the corner.

As late as the mid-’90s, the downtown’s four main commercial streets had a combined 30% vacancy rate, while a million square feet of traditional, red-brick industrial space was going begging, according to city planner Stuart B. Beckley, who arrived on the scene in 1989.

That was the nadir. The trend since has been one of dramatic recovery. The numbers have caught up with the hopeful rhetoric. Today, the downtown retail vacancy rate is down to 5%, and more than a half-million square feet of formerly vacant factory space has either been converted to business and residential use or is being actively developed, according to Beckley.

New independent shops, galleries, restaurants, and entertainment venues have cropped up on Cottage and Union streets. Existing, family-owned retail enterprises like Manchester’s Hardware and Village Pizza on Union Street have undertaken major downtown building projects. Manchester’s has just torn down a derelict furniture store and built a new addition in its stead to house a new equipment-leasing division. The city’s surviving manufacturing enterprises, concentrated now in modern, single-story plants in the outlying industrial areas, seem to be thriving, and, in the case of Tubed Products, the October Co., and Liebmann Optical Co., among others, investing in new or improved facilities is paying off.

BusinessWest looks this month at the remaking of Easthampton, and what the future holds for this community on the other side of the mountain.

A Work of Art

Unquestionably the single most important development in the town since One Cottage Street, which served as its original inspiration, has been the continuing transformation of the massive former Stanhome factory on Pleasant Street into a multi-use commercial and residential ’community’ called Eastworks (see related story, page 22). Eastworks has brought an important new wave of entrepreneurs and artists into town, many to live as well as to work. They in turn have been integral to the revitalization of the downtown, becoming customers for food, services, and hardware, as well as patrons of new restaurants.

Two other projects involving high-profile properties, while far smaller in scope and general impact than Eastworks, have been just as important as symbolic affirmations of the town’s new direction, according to Mayor Michael Tautznik, who calls them "investments of hope in the future of the community."

Silas Kopf, a nationally known master of marquetry (the art of decorative wood inlay) who was among the first group of craftspeople to move into One Cottage Street, bought the former fire station at 84 Union St. for $230,000. Plowing into it multiples of that sum he doesn’t wish to reveal, he has had it completely renovated into a spacious first-floor studio and showroom/office, and second-floor apartments.

Almost simultaneous with Kopf’s undertaking, Jo Roessler and Nora Kalina, owners of Nojo Design, formerly tenants in Eastworks, bought the derelict former X-rated Majestic Theater on Cottage Street, the downtown’s most embarrassing liability, and converted it into another high-end woodworking shop and showroom.

"Silas has done a wonderful job with the fire station. It’s exactly what I wanted there, from the point of view that it’s an interested business person in the community who’s making an investment in a very vital piece of property," said Tautznik. "More important than what’s going on inside the building is what the investment means. It represents a lot of hope in the future of the town and the belief that property values will continue to increase. We continue to be impressed by people who make those kinds of investments."

As a result of the progress that’s been made, Easthampton in 2003 is finally starting to deal with "problems" that, 15 years ago, it only dreamed of having. These include congestion, insufficient downtown parking, and lack of vacant industrial space, notes Thomas W. Brown, vice president for retail banking at Easthampton Savings Bank and president of the town’s Economic and Industrial Development Commission.

"The visible proof of a revitalization in the city today is Cottage Street; if you drove through there two or three years ago, you would have found vacant storefronts and no issues with parking," he said. "I remember getting together with merchants back then, and they said, ’we’ve got a parking problem,’ and I would say, ’no, we wish we had a parking problem.’

"Well, today we do have a parking problem. It’s real. Fortunately, we have a municipal parking lot being built on Cottage Street. Try to find an empty storefront in that area today; you’d be hard-pressed."

Among the catalysts for revitalization in Easthampton cited by Brown, Tautznik, and others are:

ï the adoption of a mayor/council form of government, which has proven more efficient and more responsive than a volunteer selectboard;

ï the municipality’s success, beginning in the late ’90s after almost a decade of drought, in landing key state and federal grants targeted to economic development;

ï the strong local presence of the non-profit, Northampton-based Valley Community Development Corp., which, funded with $200,000 in grants from the city, staffs a storefront on Cottage Street providing assistance to small, startup businesses;

ï ’spillover’ from nearby Northamp-ton’s growing regional and national reputation as a magnet for young professionals and creative entrepreneurs;

ï plenty of flexible, upper-story, former factory space at an affordable price;

ï the emergence of the arts in particular, and small independent businesses in general, as an ’economic engine’ in the community; and

ï the town’s fabled hometown spirit, reflected in such organizations as an Economic and Industrial Development Commission, the Chamber of Commerce, and Cottage Street Stations (a grassroots merchants group), which have worked hard to market Easthampton, provide a variety of business services, and physically upgrade downtown commercial districts.

The community still has plenty of its rough edge left. It remains a blue-collar town and proud to be unpretentious and community-minded, says Michael Garjian, a resident, indefatigable promoter of Easthampton, and small-business director for the Valley CDC. He can count numerous new enterprises in town, including the non-profit Flywheel Arts Collective on Holyoke Street and the Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton on Union Street, among his clients.

"Easthampton is all about community," he said. "It’s what makes this a great city. It’s a blue-collar city … the sense of community in this town is strong."

Look to the Future

That the gritty old town is giving way, nevertheless, to some kind of hybrid of the old and the new is evident on Cottage Street at noontime on the first really balmy day of spring in mid-April. There hasn’t been energy and bustle like this since the heyday of the mills, oldtimers say.

The street is swarming with pedestrians, including fishermen who’ve spent the morning angling in the pond, school children who’ve been let out early for the day, and a variety of workers enjoying a lunch break. The latter include laborers who are constructing a long-awaited new municipal parking lot on Cottage Street and a number of people who work at One Cottage Street.

Pedestrian traffic is good news for the shops on Cottage Street, including Carl Charrette’s Sunrise Pastry Shop at 42 Cottage St. and, two doors down — just opened in April — his Sunrise Sweetie’s, an old-fashioned candy shop and soda fountain.

The bake shop is full this day; customers are lined up in rows three deep at the counter to place their take-out orders for homemade soup and sandwiches. Two doors down, youngsters are streaming into Sunrise Sweetie’s. Shiny metal lids chime as the kids, scampering down the polished wooden aisles, open and peer into some of the 300 glass candy jars laid out in gleaming, inviting rows. A couple of adult customers peruse a glass case containing the chocolates that are made in the large commercial kitchens that Charrette constructed in the basement of the building. He employs 11 people among the two retail establishments and his wholesale business.

Charrette says he’s fortunate that his retail businesses are perking along just when his wholesale trade, due to the sluggish general economy, has fallen off steeply.

He acknowledges he has reason to be grateful, now more than ever, that three-plus years ago, his landlord, Mai Stoddard, "cut me a deal to get me here."

Stoddard, who is a native of Estonia, is a longtime local travel agent and Realtor who owns the building where Charrette’s shops are located, as well as being the proprietor of the Nashawannuck Gallery at 38 Cottage St., which she launched five years ago in the storefront between Charrette’s two shops.

Before Stoddard and Charrette met, he was operating his wholesale-only bakery from a rented barn on the edge of town on Park Hill. Stoddard was looking for a solid, stable business to take root on the street and be a good companion business to her own. She was tired of renting to fly-by-night tenants who "would paint the places purple, then leave town after a half a year, owing me money," as she put it. To lure Charrette, she offered to let him occupy the space at 42 Cottage St. rent-free for six months and walk away after that if he chose, with no further obligation.

This was not a case of altruism on her part, but a practical decision aimed at furthering the "revitalization of the street," and thus strengthening her real estate investment over the long haul, Stoddard explains. To get good, reliable tenants to rent upstairs, something she’d had trouble doing, she needed to have viable businesses downstairs, she told BusinessWest.

"Good business decisions don’t always translate immediately into money," Stoddard noted. Her gallery, for example, isn’t making her money, she said, but it is paying off in a larger sense, she believes, by helping to change the image of Easthamp-ton and put it on the map as a haven for artisans and craftspeople, and a destination for their customers.

As the first shop in town to carry high-end fine arts and craft objects made by the artisans next door at One Cottage Street, the gallery "tapped into a real strength of the community,’’ she said. The gallery also has served as a venue for a variety of special community events, including the annual wine-tasting party put on as a fundraiser by Cottage Street Stations at Nasha-wannuck Square, a merchants group of which she and Charrette are active members. Cottage Street Stations is focused on making physical streetscape improvements to the Cottage Street area.

Road to Recovery

It’s one of her business maxims, Stoddard says, that — whether growing a business or growing a prosperous community — "sometimes it’s more important to look good than to feel good."

These days, Easthampton is doing both.

The renaissance predicted a quarter-century ago has been unfashionably late, but it was well worth the wait.

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