South Hadley Seeks Growth, Collaboration
By JACLYN C. STEVENSON
Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said 2016 is shaping up to be a transitional year for South Hadley, but not necessarily a quiet one.
“A lot of projects finished last year,” he said, listing completion of a new library, high school, elementary school, and two new parks among them. “Things are steady. Now we’re assessing where we’re at and where we need to go.”
Several avenues have already been pointed out for the Hampshire County town of 17,000, guided by an expansive, town-wide renewal plan with a focus on creating healthy environments, giving the overall commercial landscape a boost, and collaborating whenever possible with neighboring communities.
The latter has been a necessity for South Hadley since its incorporation in 1775, largely due to geography. It’s in a unique spot; bordered by Hadley, Amherst, Granby, and Chicopee, and separated from Holyoke and Easthampton by the Connecticut River, South Hadley is insulated by a series of canals, rivers, and reservoirs, and isn’t fed by any interstate highways. It’s long depended on cooperation with its neighbors, particularly Holyoke, but with the town on solid footing with some new, positive developments on the horizon, Sullivan said South Hadley is positioned to offer its neighbors plenty in return.
South Hadley formed an official redevelopment authority last year, which is now working out a plan for revitalization that will begin in the area of South Hadley Center — commonly known as ‘the Falls,’ a former mill village with historic industrial roots — and branching out across town from there.
“It’s been a detailed and aggressive endeavor,” he said, noting that the plan will be presented to town meeting this year and, if approved, must then also be accepted by the state in order to access grant funding and other opportunities.
“Like most mill villages, we’re looking to regenerate the community and adapt it to be a cool place. The attempt is not to gentrify the mill village by any means — the attempt is to make it more habitable, safer, and particularly more pedestrian-friendly.”
As arguably South Hadley’s largest presence, Mount Holyoke College — and the college-owned Village Commons and Orchards Golf Club — is an active presence in the town’s revitalization efforts. Kevin McCaffrey, director of Government and Community Relations in the office of the president at the school, said Mount Holyoke has ramped up its community-support efforts of late, ranging from collaborations with the town’s schools to planning assistance for a new network of recreational trails that extends the walkable-town concept across the community.
“Mount Holyoke has very close ties to South Hadley in terms of economic development and revitalization, and we work every day to strengthen our relationship to the community,” he said, noting that, most recently, the college contributed $300,000 toward the Bachelor Brook Stony Brook Conservation Area and constructed a new boathouse with a community-rowing component, among other projects.
“Mount Holyoke is closely involved with South Hadley in planning efforts around issues such as development of new bike- and hiking-trail opportunities to enhance the quality of life for residents and our students alike,” added McCaffrey. “Our local connections, already strong, have strengthened further under President Lynn Pasquerella, who is very committed to community outreach, and should continue to grow under acting President-elect Sonya Stephens.”
Jeffrey Labrecque, chief operating officer of the Village Commons, has a similarly positive view of South Hadley’s overall business picture and how it’s positioned for the coming years. Today, the town has an opportunity to tackle some key issues surrounding growth in the business sector, he said, including increasing the commercial tax base in hopes of reducing the residential tax burden.
“I see business in South Hadley as being very steady, with a sudden increased interest in commercial and retail opportunities and with restaurant growth exceeding expectations,” he said, noting that conditions at the Village Commons reflect this stability; the mixed-use complex with a focus on retail, restaurants, office, and residential space is currently at 98% occupancy.
“On the office side, interest has calmed down, but business is stable. South Hadley’s ‘big little village’ continues to thrive and brings in business from all over the Valley,” he went on. “Most importantly, we are here to stay, we are invested, and we voluntarily support the community, its events, and its goals on a variety of levels.”
The Commons is eyeing possible expansion opportunities of its own, perhaps in the areas of additional leasable space or parking. Any move on the part of the Commons or South Hadley at large, said Labrecque, should be made to ensure a strong position in the local market, and always with an eye toward what’s happening in adjacent towns.
“There is a lot of growing competition in neighboring communities, and the future may very well lead to shared departments and services with neighboring towns,” he said. “We would be remiss in our position to sit back and watch; we need to always be looking for new ways to improve growth.”
Making Paper Tigers
In that regard, Sullivan said South Hadley has recorded a few wins lately. One of the most heralded developments in the Falls recently was the arrival of Mohawk Paper, the largest family-owned producer of envelopes in the country. Mohawk’s plant moved into a group of buildings formerly known as the U.S. Gaylord properties last year, and makes more than a million envelopes a day.
“It was quite a coup,” said Sullivan. “They were looking at plants not only in this region — in Chicopee, Westfield, Holyoke — but also locations in other states, including New Hampshire and Connecticut. We see having them choose South Hadley as a big success.”
What’s more, the properties still have more than 200,000 additional square feet of space available that the town is now actively looking to fill. Labrecque said Mohawk’s arrival was exactly the kind of boon South Hadley was hoping for, and added that he sees several other hot spots for development, including the now-vacant Newton Shopping Plaza.
“We’re seeing some great growth on the commercial-industrial side, and I remain hopeful that will support additional commercial interest,” he said. “While there are many areas of concern, I hope that much of the focus goes to Bridge and Main streets and the corner of Newton and Lyman streets. Route 33 from Newton Street to Chicopee also has prime areas of opportunity.”
Labrecque noted that growth in the commercial sector is the ultimate goal, but he does see development in the housing market as one of the town’s most immediate opportunities.
“I foresee huge opportunities, especially in the area of rental housing,” he said. “For some 26 years, the Village Commons has maintained a residential waiting list that at times could exceed 30 anxious prospective tenants. Whether you add housing on Main Street or College Street, there will continue to be a need.”
Sullivan agreed that South Hadley’s residential base is solid, and improvements to its infrastructure are very much on the town’s to-do list, in order to continue to attract residents, visitors, and businesses alike.
“We need to improve the housing stock,” he said. “We’re hoping this spurs investment in other properties from people around them who haven’t invested in years but might start feeling a new level of confidence. We’ve been very aggressive enforcing codes and health and safety regulations, particularly among absentee landlords.”
Two separate condominium projects are now underway in town — six units in the former public library through a $1.8 million investment, and plans for a second condo development near the new library building have just been approved, raising that investment in housing to nearly $3 million.
It’s a move that goes back to the overall redevelopment plan for the town — “those are the kinds of gateways you want to make really inviting to have people see the value of the community right away,” noted Sullivan — but development in the housing sector is also one aspect of a larger effort to continue to cultivate South Hadley’s strong niche in the business of aging.
“South Hadley is not an aging community so much as it is a community that is investing in aging,” he said. “Whether the community recognized it or just through happenstance, they have positioned the town very well to be ready for that industry.”
Sullivan listed elder-care businesses including Loomis Communities, Wingate at South Hadley, and Hubert Place, a federally funded supportive housing development for residents 55 and older, as examples.
“There are also early talks happening now regarding the construction of a new senior center for the town,” he went on, “and of becoming a ‘dementia-friendly community,’ a commitment to working with issues around people with changing abilities due to diseases of the brain.”
To that end, April will be Dementia Awareness Month in South Hadley, and the town is now exploring AARP’s Age-friendly Communities program to develop practices for walking, biking, and other outdoor recreation opportunities that are suitable for users of all ages. If approved, South Hadley would be the first community in Western Mass. to hold the title, and Sullivan hopes the focus on creating walkable areas will resonate with residents of all ages.
One project underway is a shift in operations at the town-owned Ledges Golf Club. The course’s general manager will now serve as the town’s recreation director, with the goal of attracting more South Hadley residents to the property for myriad activities year-round, from walking to snowshoeing. Sullivan said he’s also keenly interested in creating a walking path to Holyoke’s train station, less than a mile away from the center of South Hadley.
“People could walk across a bridge and access transportation to New York or Montreal,” he said. “We think that’s one of those cool features that could be an economic catalyst for South Hadley.”
Stakes and Bonds
All of these endeavors demand collaboration within South Hadley and beyond, but Sullivan, McCaffrey, and Labrecque each told BusinessWest that the climate in town is one more accepting than ever of cooperative ideas aimed at cost savings, efficiency, and economic growth.
“We work with the college quite a bit,” Sullivan said, “and we get a lot of cooperation from many surrounding towns, including Granby, Ludlow, Hadley, Chicopee, and particularly Holyoke. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse understands the connection that exists between the city and South Hadley.”
McCaffrey said Mount Holyoke also sees that link and many others, and is actively creating programming aimed at the revitalization of South Hadley and economic growth region-wide.
“We’re very interested in discussing further opportunities,” he noted. “South Hadley’s economic health and our health as a college are intertwined, and we are always looking for opportunities to strengthen the bonds of South Hadley.”
South Hadley at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,514 (2010)
Area: 18.4 square miles
Residential and commercial Tax Rate: $19.85 (Fire District 1); $20.49 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
median family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town Administrator, Town Meeting
Largest employers: Mount Holyoke College, Loomis Communities, Mohawk Paper
* Latest information available