By Mark Morris
Deerfield is one busy town these days.
Residents there are engaged in 22 different boards and committees planning several ambitious projects to better the town. Still, while all that activity is admirable, it also invites confusion if anyone feels out of the loop.
A group of 15 residents who serve on several boards and committees in Deerfield were aware of the potential pitfalls and formed the Connecting Community Initiative (CCI) to improve communication among the various committees and with municipal officials. Denise Mason, chair of the CCI, said the initiative came about after increasing frustration among members of several boards and committees.
“Because we are all volunteers, people often don’t have the time to stay on top of activities that fall outside of their committee work,” Mason said. “We created the CCI to eliminate the silos in town so we can keep all our projects moving forward.”
The initiative started in November, with the group meeting eight times since then. Mason said they’ve been successful so far with keeping people informed and projects on track.
One big project involves renovating and repurposing the former Deerfield Grammar School to house the municipal offices. Part of the plan also calls for building an addition on the back of the building, where the town’s senior center would be located.
“These projects are part of a bigger objective, which is to create a walkable town campus in Deerfield,” Mason said, explaining that 45% of residents are over age 45.
Kayce Warren, Deerfield town administrator, strongly supports these plans and intends to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to develop a municipal parking lot centrally located in town.
“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community. With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”
“If there’s parking, people will come,” she said. “We’re looking to create a campus that provides walking access to the municipal offices, the senior center, and other resources, such as a small market and a bank.”
The walkable community idea doesn’t stop at the center of town. Work has begun on a municipal park on North Main Street, located past Frontier Regional School. Warren would like to see sidewalks extend from the center of town to the park, nearly two miles up the road.
“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community,” she said. “With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”
Location, Location, Location
Deerfield’s location along the Interstate 91 corridor makes it easily accessible from all directions. Many in town are hopeful the new Treehouse Brewery that opened in the former Channing Bete building will be a catalyst for drawing people to town. In her meetings with the brewery, Mason said Treehouse is cautiously developing its Deerfield location in three phases.
“Right now, they are working on the second phase, which calls for construction of a pavilion to stage outdoor concerts,” Mason said. “Once that’s up and running, hopefully this year, there is a big potential for other businesses to benefit as well.”
Among those businesses, Yankee Candle will likely benefit, as it has always been a big tourism draw for Deerfield. As Yankee and Treehouse are located close to each other on Route 10, Warren is hopeful they will create a working relationship to bring even more people to Deerfield.
It would surprise no one if the two entities were brought together by Diana Szynal. The executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce recently moved the organization from downtown Greenfield to Historic Deerfield. She said the move makes perfect sense because, prior to COVID-19, Historic Deerfield traditionally drew nearly 20,000 visitors a year.
“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources.”
“We will be opening a visitor center, which will allow us to promote all the attractions in Deerfield and surrounding towns,” Szynal said. The chamber’s former visitor center was located in a corner of the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Greenfield, a location she said was never worthy of Franklin County. “With the visitor center in Historic Deerfield, thousands more people will be able to learn about all the fun things to do in Franklin County.”
While Szynal and her staff are still settling in from the move, which occurred in mid-January, their focus is on having the visitor center ready to go when Historic Deerfield begins its season on April 16.
Jesse Vanek, vice president of Development and Communications for Historic Deerfield, said 2022 is a tremendous opportunity to welcome back large crowds to the outdoor museum that depicts life in 18th-century New England. “Historic Deerfield is such a special place, and we’re hoping to see our in-person visits get back to pre-COVID levels.”
Deerfield at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1677
Area: 33.4 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $15.17
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.17
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available
Every year, the museum runs a full schedule of programs for visitors. Beginning in the spring, programs will range from Sheep on the Street, which explores heritage breed sheep and the role of wool processing in New England’s history, to a Summer Evening Stroll held on July 3 and themed on Deerfield during the American Revolution.
COVID and the winter season inspired Historic Deerfield to expand its program offerings online through virtual sessions. As a result, the museum now reaches audiences around the world. The winter lecture series included relevant topics such as understanding climate change from a historical perspective.
“We are fascinated with the response to our virtual programming,” Vanek said. “I believe it helps entice people to come visit us, which is good for our organization, the town, and the region.”
Out in the Open
Szynal has learned that people will travel long distances to take part many of the outdoor activities in Deerfield and Franklin County.
“We were shocked to learn how robust fly fishing is here,” she said. Indeed, whether casting a line into the Deerfield River or rafting in Charlemont, outdoor activities are a true resource for the area and bring in people who often stay for several days.
“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources,” she said.
Warren is thrilled that Szynal and the chamber are now part of Deerfield.
“Diana has great ideas, and I think she can help us keep Historic Deerfield connected to the rest of the community,” Warren said, adding that, in a perfect world, Deerfield would provide more incentives for tourism, but ongoing infrastructure projects have stretched budgets to their limits.
Located between the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, the town faces constant challenges with stormwater runoff and flooding issues. Bloody Brook, which also runs through town, maintains a higher-than-normal water table.
“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the tow. They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”
Deerfield was one of the first communities to qualify for the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program. MVP grants are awarded to cities and towns that build climate-change resilience into all their infrastructure plans. Warren explained that type of thinking applies to every project in town, from simple tree boxes designed for better stormwater management to larger projects like the school repurposing and sidewalk additions.
“We are linking everything together in terms of managing water issues, and we’ve set our sights on staying on top of this for the next 50 to 100 years,” Mason said.
As Deerfield’s many projects move forward with Mason and the CCI keeping them on track, Warren took a minute to appreciate the situation.
“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the town,” she said. “They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”