Greenfield Mayor William Martin acknowledged that it isn’t exactly a scientific measure of either his downtown’s vibrancy or the efficiency of his long-term strategic plan for the central business district. But it certainly works for him.
He’s being told there’s a parking problem downtown. Actually, he’s been told that for some time. Until recently, the commentary involved the east end of that district by Town Hall, and the chorus was so loud and so persistent that the community is now building a 272-lot parking garage in that area, due to open in the fall.
But now, he’s also hearing that complaint about the east side of downtown, and he’s expecting to hear it a lot more with the opening of the Community Health Center of Franklin County on the site of the old Sears store on Main Street, a facility that will bring more than 100 clients and employees to that location every day.
In the realm of municipal government, parking problems generally, but certainly not always, fall into that category of the proverbial good problem to have, said the mayor, adding that a far worse problem is to have no parking woes — not because you have plenty of parking, but because no one is coming to your downtown.
And that was more the state of things in Greenfield for some time, Martin intimated, putting the accent on ‘was.’
Indeed, while Main Street may look pretty much the same as it did a few decades ago, at least at a quick glance, it is vastly different, and in some very positive ways, said the mayor, adding that his administration’s broad strategy has been to bring people downtown for goods and services and let this critical mass trigger economic development on many levels. And it’s working.
“We thought that, if we can bring people downtown and provide what they need, the free market will take care of people want,” he said, adding that the theory has been validated with everything from new restaurants to live entertainment to offices providing acupuncture and cardiology services.
Jim Lunt agreed. Now the director of GCET (Greenfield Community Energy and Technology), a municipal high-speed Internet provider, and formerly director of Economic Development for the community, he said the downtown has evolved considerably over the past decade or so.
Getting more specific, he said it has morphed from a traditional retail district, as most downtowns are, into more of a combination entertainment district and home for small businesses and startups.
“We’ve focused on small businesses that we can bring in, and we’ve worked a lot to build up the creative economy; our downtown, like many downtowns, looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago,” Lunt told BusinessWest. “There are a lot more restaurants, a lot more opportunities for more social gathering, as opposed to what people would think of as traditional shopping.”
In addition to social gathering, there is also vocational gathering, if you will, in the form of both new businesses and also a few co-working spaces that are bringing a number of entrepreneurs together on Main Street.
To get that point across, Lunt, sitting in what amounts to the conference room in Town hall, simply pointed toward the window, a gesture toward the building next door, the Hawks & Reed Entertainment Center, which, in addition to being a hub of music, art, and culture, is also home to Greenspace CoWork.
That space, on the third floor, is now the working address for writers, a manuscript editor, a few coaches, a social-media consultant, and many others, and has become, said Lunt, maybe the best example of how Greenfield has put the often long-unoccupied upper floors of downtown buildings back into productive use.
MJ Adams, who succeeded Lunt as director of Economic Development, agreed, and she summoned another term to describe what downtown has become: neighborhood.
She said it has always been that to some extent, but it is now even moreso, with more living options and other amenities in that area.
“We’re starting to look on downtown as more of a neighborhood,” she explained. “We’ve always looked at it as the civic and service center for the county, but people are starting to perceive downtown Greenfield as a neighborhood that has a mix of housing styles, is attractive to a wide range of people, especially young people, has a lot to offer, and is very walkable.”
Greenfield didn’t get to this state overnight, said those we spoke with, noting that the process has been ongoing and more strategic in nature since the official end of the Great Recession and the arrival of Martin in the corner office (both of which happened in 2009).
That strategy has involved a number of tenets, everything from creation of GCET, which gives downtown Greenfield an important asset in a county where high-speed Internet access is a luxury, not something to be taken for granted, to a focus on making downtown a destination for a wide gamut of services, from education to healthcare.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest examines how these pieces have come together, and also at how they have positioned Greenfield for continued growth, vibrancy, and maybe even some more parking issues — the ‘good-problem-to-have’ variety.
Hub of Activity
To explain his broad strategy for Greenfield’s downtown, Martin essentially turned the clock back more than 200 years. Sort of.
Back in those days, he explained, Greenfield, anointed the county capital, was a supplier of goods and most services to the many smaller communities surrounding it.
Small steamships and rail would bring goods north on the Connecticut River to Greenfield, he explained, and residents of surrounding towns would make their way to the center of Franklin County to get, well, pretty much whatever they needed.
“I consider that a tradition and also a responsibility,” said Martin, now serving his fourth term. “And that’s what we’ve based our downtown on — providing what people need.”
It also has always done that with regard to government functions, he said, citing everything from the county courthouse, post office, and jail to Greenfield’s library, the largest in Franklin County. But Martin’s goal was to broaden that role to include education, healthcare, and more.
And specific economic-development initiatives, technology, societal changes, the community’s many amenities, and some luck have helped make that goal reality.
In short, a large number of pieces have fallen into place nicely, said those we spoke with, enabling downtown Greenfield to become not only a destination, or hub, but also a home — for people and businesses across a diverse mix of sectors.
These pieces include:
• A burgeoning creative economy that features a number of studios, galleries, and clubs featuring live music;
• A growing number of restaurants, in many categories, that collectively provide a critical mass that makes the city a dining destination of sorts. “There are 13 different ethnic restaurants, there’s some really good bars, several places for live music that weren’t here just a few years ago, and art galleries,” said Lunt. “I think that’s the biggest change downtown”;
• Greenfield Community College, which has steadily increased its presence downtown with a campus that brings students, faculty, administrators, and community leaders to the Main Street facilities;
• The community health center, which will bring a host of complementary services, including primary care, dental, and counseling for emotional wellness together under one roof in the downtown, where before they were spread out and generally not in the central business district;
• Other healthcare services. In addition to the clinic, a cardiologist has taken over an old convenience store downtown, said the mayor, noting that there is also an acupuncturist, a holistic center, a massage therapist, and other healthcare businesses in that district; and
• Traditional retail, of which there is still plenty, including the landmark Wilson’s Department Store.
Actually, these pieces haven’t just fallen into place by accident, said Martin, noting, again, that they have come into alignment through a broad strategic plan and specific initiatives designed to make the downtown more appealing and practical for a host of businesses, as well as number of existing qualities and amenities.
“We decided that we should do everything we can to provide the infrastructure necessary to attract people and entities when the economy turned,” he explained. “And we worked on a number of things that were real problems.”
High-speed Internet access was and is a huge component of this strategy, said Lunt, noting that it has been directly responsible for a number of businesses settling in the city.
Meanwhile, other parts of that strategic initiative include renewable-energy projects that have helped bring down the cost of energy; creation of a Massachusetts Cultural District, which has made the community eligible for certain grants; a façade-improvement project that has put a new face on many properties downtown, and many others.
The community already had a number of strategic advantages when it came to attracting both businesses and families, said Lunt, noting that, overall, while Greenfield’s location in rural Franklin County is limiting in some ways — contrary to popular opinion, there are actually few available parcels for large-scale developments, for example — it brings advantages in many others.
Elaborating, he said that many younger people prefer a rural setting to an urban one — for both living and working — and can find most of what they’re looking for in Greenfield.
That list includes a lower cost of living than they would find in Boston, Amherst, or Northampton; outdoor activities ranging from hiking to whitewater rafting; culture; a large concentration of nonprofits serving the county; and, yes, high-speed Internet access, something people might not find 20 minutes outside of downtown.
“It’s a beautiful area, and real estate is quite affordable compared to much of the rest of the state,” said Lunt. “And the Springfield-Hartford metropolitan area is now 1.2 million, and that’s not that far down the road; a lot of people would happily commute for 45 minutes to live here and get to jobs there.”
This combination of factors has attracted a number of young professionals, many of whom may have gone to college in Boston or another big city and started their careers there, but later desired something different, said Adams.
It has also attracted entrepreneurs, said Lunt, including several video-game developers, many of whom now share a business address — co-working space known as Another Castle.
Located on Olive Street in space that until recently housed the Franklin County registry of Deeds, it became home to the video-game developer HitPoint, which was located in Greenfield, relocated to Springfield, and has now moved back. And it has created a co-working space that enables other small game designers to take advantage of shared equipment and facilities, effectively lowering the cost of doing business.
Moving forward, the town’s simple goal is to build on the considerable momentum it has created through a number of initiatives. These include work to redevelop the former First National Bank building, vacant for decades and the last of the properties on the stretch as Bank Row to be given a new life.
The town’s redevelopment authority has site control over the parcel, said Lunt, adding that the next steps involve working with the state, private grant writers, and the city to acquire funds to convert the property into a downtown cultural center to be used for everything from a farmers’ market to perhaps a museum of Greenfield history.
If all goes according to plan, all the properties on Bank Row will be back in productive use for the first time in 40 years, he told BusinessWest.
Another initiative is the parking garage, which has been years in the making, noted the mayor, noting that it took several attempts to secure funding help from the state for the project.
The facility will ease a well-recognized problem, exacerbated by the new county courthouse in that area, and provide yet another incentive for people to come to downtown Greenfield.
As for parking at the other end of Main Street … well, that’s a good problem to have. For now, anyway.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]