Mayor William Sapelli said he received the text late on a Friday afternoon earlier this month, and it was somewhat unexpected; he was anticipating word coming later.
But it was very, very welcome.
It came from state Lt. Gov. Karen Polito, and it said, in essence, that the state had approved what’s known as an acceleration agreement for the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project. What that means is that money has been apportioned that will allow the general contractor, Palmer-based Northern Construction, to pay crews overtime to work on nights and weekends to accelerate (hence the name) the timeline for completing what amounts to a full replacement and widening of the 74-year-old bridge over the Westfield River.
As a result, the anticipated completion date, originally May 21, 2022, is now August 9, 2021.
And what this means is that the 2020 edition of the Big E will be the last that will have to contend with this all-important span, which links Agawam with West Springfield, being under construction.
That’s why that text was so welcome. Even though the two communities, the Big E, tens of thousands of people who visited it, and those who live, work, and do business near the bridge somehow made it through the 2019 exposition without major incident, doing so presented a serious challenge.
It’s not something they’d want to do again, but they’re quite grateful to only do it once more, to be sure.
“This is great news regarding the bridge,” said the mayor. “With this acceleration plan, we’re going to cut almost a year off the completion time.”
The bridge project has been the dominant topic of conversation in this city (remember, it has a mayor) that is still officially called the Town of Agawam since well before construction began. And Sapelli has been part of many of those conversations as he continues a daily ritual of eating breakfast — and often holding court — at different eateries in the community.
“We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”
As was noted in this space last year, this rotation includes Partners, Giovanni’s, and a somewhat new addition, the Pride station on North Westfield Street in the center of Feeding Hills.
“There, it’s a bunch of old-timers — a great bunch of guys; I’m the youngest one there,” Sapelli, the retired school superintendent who just started his second two-year term as mayor, noted. “We used to meet at the McDonald’s, but with the renovation at Pride, they moved over there. That’s on Mondays; I’m there at 7 and then in City Hall by 7:30. We sometimes take up as many five tables, and there’s always a lot to talk about … beyond the bridge.”
Indeed, while that project has complicated things at and for the Big E and also caused some initiatives to hit the ‘pause’ button, including redevelopment of the Games & Lanes building on Walnut Street Extension and the site of a former motel on Suffield Street, there are still things happening.
Indeed, the shopping plaza on Springfield Street once dominated by a FoodMart that saw its roof collapse and has struggled with vacancies in recent years is now essentially full. The latest additions include Still Bar & Grill — now occupying space that was briefly home to a satellite location of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — and a small but intriguing market called Kielbasa and Dairy. It sells more than those items, but they are the headliners. Which explains why they’re on the sign.
Agawam at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1636
Area: 24.2 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available
Meanwhile, a new tenant — TW Metals, a subsidiary of O’Neal Industries — has taken over roughly half the sprawling space once occupied by Simmons Mattress in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, a Westmass property located on the site of the former Bowles Airport.
Also, another new business, Vanguard Renewables, an organic recycler, has broken ground on Main Street, said Sapelli, adding that a new over-55 housing development is being planned for a large parcel on South Westfield Street, and a number of vacancies in the myriad strip malls and small shopping centers that populate the city are being filled.
And perhaps the best news for the business community is that the business tax rate has come down slightly, a step that Sapelli believes speaks loudly about this community’s commitment to being business-friendly.
For this, the latest edition of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Sapelli about all these matters and what they mean moving forward for a community that is very much looking forward to life after this bridge project has been completed.
Food for Thought
Getting back to those gatherings over breakfast, Sapelli said the tone has been generally positive lately — and it hasn’t always been so, especially in the ramp-up, if you’ll pardon the expression, to the start of the bridge project.
The improved mood can be attributed in part to the bridge work already being ahead of schedule — thanks to a considerable amount of work on nights and weekends — and the fact that, while there have been inconveniences, they haven’t been as bad as many anticipated.
“What I’m hearing — and believe me, they wouldn’t be afraid to tell me otherwise — is how smoothly they think things are going,” said the mayor. “It’s not as congested as they thought it would be, and things are moving pretty well and they’re on schedule, which never happens with projects like this.”
That held true, generally speaking, for the 17 days of the Big E last September, he went on, adding that a great deal of collaboration and early planning efforts paid off handsomely.
“It wasn’t as bad as many people thought it would be, and I heard that not only from residents but police officers working details,” said Sapelli. “And we attribute this to the fact that we met — with ‘we’ meaning the police, the administration, West Springfield police, and the Big E — and came up with a plan of action.”
Elaborating, he said the Big E printed materials instructing motorists how to get to the fairgrounds without using Routes 75 (Suffield Street) and 159. And visitors — most of them, anyway — heeded that advice. The Big E also used park-ride facilities in Agawam that helped ease traffic on and around the bridge, despite record attendance at the fair.
And for the 2020 edition … well, things will go a little more smoothly because the three lanes to the south of the bridge (now under construction) will be open, as opposed to the two lanes on the north side currently being used.
But enough about the bridge. There are other things happening in the community, starting with that important vote on the commercial tax rate, said Sapelli.
The town’s split rate now looks like this: $16.83 residential and $31.61 commercial. Last year, the numbers were $16.65 and $31.92. Commercial rates don’t generally go down at the expense of the residential side, Sapelli acknowledged, and the decrease was only 31 cents.
But that’s an important 31 cents, perhaps on the tax bill and certainly from the standpoint of sending a message, said the mayor, adding that some historical perspective is in order.
“Years ago, when the split in the tax rates originally started, the rates were fairly close; now, the commercial rate is almost double,” he explained, adding that he and other city officials decided it was time to move them closer together.
“At my presentation to the City Council, I talked about how we, as public officials, talk about being business-friendly,” he recalled. “It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to do it.”
He believes the unanimous vote in the council is a solid example of ‘doing it,’ and he believes it might help bring more new businesses to consider Agawam moving forward.
In addition to that lower rate, the community boasts good schools, available land, plenty of parks and recreation (three golf courses, for example), and, as noted, ample opportunities for retail operations.
There have already been some intriguing additions, he said, noting that the Still and Kielbasa and Dairy are solid additions to the plaza on Springfield Street, and they’re helping bring more people to that section of Agawam.
Meanwhile, TW Metals helps fill a troubling vacancy in the industrial park, he noted. The company signed a 10-year lease for 65,000 square feet, half the nearly 130,000-square-foot building, now owned by Agawam 320 TGCI LLC, an affiliate of the Grossman Companies.
“I think we’re doing well because of our location and because we’re business-friendly,” said Sapelli. “We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”
Bridging the Gap
As noted earlier, the bridge project has put some initiatives on hold in this community, including efforts to revitalize and modernize the Walnut Street Extension area, which includes the Games & Lanes parcel, and also redevelopment of the parcel off Suffield Street.
But in most other respects, things are moving forward, and the talk over breakfast at the Pride store, Partners, and Giovanni’s has been generally positive. And with that text from the lieutenant governor, there was certainly more good news to discuss around those tables.
In short, this community isn’t waiting until the ribbon is cut on the new bridge to create momentum, more jobs, and new opportunities.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]