Economic Development Is a Priority for Agawam’s Mayor
Six Flags New England may be the largest employer and taxpayer in Agawam, but it also has the potential of becoming the city’s largest headache.
But that hasn’t happened, says Mayor Richard Cohen, who is not shy about taking some of the credit for that.
“When I was first elected, traffic around Six Flags was one of the largest issues in Agawam,” he said. “We came up with a lengthy memorandum of understanding with the park, and since then, they have done everything possible to work with us. As a result, we have developed a very friendly relationship with them, one that we wish to continue.”
During Cohen’s seven-plus years in office, he has presided over some significant economic-development success stories, from the growth of Six Flags to the speedy occupancy of the Agawam Industrial Park. But through it all, he has maintained that, for a city to be attractive to business, it first must be an attractive place to live.
To that end, Six Flags is a special challenge. Uniquely positioned on the Main Street of a small city – perhaps the most residential setting in the entire amusement chain – the park has always posed concerns for its neighbors.
But the city has also done its part to alleviate problems, said Deborah Dachos, director of planning and community development. Specifically, Agawam has used grant money to generate a traffic impact study for the area and plans to spend more than $1.5 million on improved street lighting, new signs, synchronized traffic signals, and aesthetic improvements.
“We have a plan to modernize Main Street in terms of sidewalks, granite curbing, and beautification of the Main Street area with significant landscaping,” she said.
They’re obviously the fastest-growing business in Agawam, and we have a relationship with them where, in advance of any new attraction, we do planning studies to ensure that the impact on the community will be limited.”
That’s Agawam in a nutshell, at least in Cohen’s vision: a place where commercial, retail, and industrial ventures can thrive, but only in the context of a livable city. And despite occasional setbacks, it has proven to be a business model that works.
It has certainly worked for the industrial park, which Cohen calls “one of the prides of the city, and one of the finest industrial parks in the Pioneer Valley.” His enthusiasm is justified by the statistics: the park is essentially full, while some veteran tenants are actively expanding their facilities. The mayor said he’s not surprised that Agawam has proven to be a draw for businesses.
“We have maintained one of the lowest commercial tax rates in the region,” he told BusinessWest – $25.93 per $1,000, to be exact. “The whole city has sewer and water. We’re close to Interstate 91, close to Bradley Airport, and not far from New York State. I think the location is very attractive.”
In addition, Cohen said he has improved communication between developers and city officials and streamlined the approval process on projects. “We’re trying to make things very easy, and we’ve been successful,” he said. Furthermore, “we’ve gone out and met with businesses to see what we can do for them, and I think that dialogue has helped make development in Agawam a positive experience.”
Still, Cohen says he doesn’t want Agawam to rest on its laurels, and he supports further commercial expansion where appropriate.
For example, redeveloping the mostly vacant shopping plaza on Springfield Street remains a priority. Meanwhile, Development Associates, an Agawam-based developer of commercial and industrial sites, is conducting preliminary studies on a potential new industrial park on a 24-acre parcel on Suffield Street. The same firm is also developing a 25,000-square-foot site at Suffield Street and Shoemaker Lane for office and retail space.
Of course, not every development plan comes to fruition. Proponents of a proposed retail development on Tennis Road – which had retail giants like Target and Lowe’s attached to it – suffered a setback last year when voters defeated the project by a 3-to-1 margin at referendum.
“There was some controversy over whether Agawam citizens wanted big-box stores there,” Cohen said. “My feeling was from the beginning that people should vote on it, and the fact that people defeated it shows that the democratic process works. The people spoke, and the development did not go forward.”
The mayor was quick to emphasize, however, that not all economic development in Agawam involves physical expansion.
For instance, Cohen said the city is taking ‘baby steps’ toward the development of a business improvement district along the Suffield Street corridor. Such a zone is created when the majority of business owners in a certain area choose to make collective contributions to the maintenance, development, and promotion of the business district.
“They have an assessment on their tax bills that goes directly to them, to spend on things like façade improvements, sidewalks, parking, and marketing schemes,” Dachos said. “But right now, we’re just in the investigative stage of doing that.”
In addition, the city has cultivated a busy small business assistance center, funded completely by donations, that offers professional counseling and advice to people who want to start a business or move their company to Agawam. Cohen said it’s a natural extension of his pre-mayoral role working with the small-business incubator at Springfield Technical Community College.
“We have a very dynamic and involved board of directors, including people in banking, real estate, software, marketing, and law,” Dachos said.
The center has also sponsored a series of free workshops on various aspects of running a business, and hopes to secure grant funds to launch a comprehensive computer training course.
“Most of our clients at the workshops expressed a desire to do some hands-on computer training,” Dachos said, explaining that she would like to see a 10-week computer course covering both the basics of computing and specific software relevant to businesses, such as QuickBooks. “We think we could be successful with that.”
Of course, when it comes to economic development, supporting new businesses is only half the challenge. Keeping companies from leaving is equally important.
“One of our main goals has always been to maintain and grow what we already have,” Cohen said. “We have a strong tax base for industrial and commercial development, and we’ve had very few vacant storefronts.”
He says part of the reason is that Agawam continues to cultivate quality-of-life projects aimed at creating an attractive city for residents and businesses alike. For example, a $4 million, 50-acre park at School Street and River Road will be partially funded with state money through the Community Preservation Act and the Urban Self Help Program.
“I want to make this city attractive to businesses, but still maintain a town-like atmosphere,” Cohen said. “Those types of things are very important to me – not only as the mayor, but as a resident.”
So far, that’s been a recipe for economic growth in this city by the Connecticut River, where roller coasters continue to lift riders high above Main Street.