Home Posts tagged Commercial Real Estate (Page 6)
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After more than 30 years in business, the commercial real estate development firm of Development Associates has a keen understanding of the Western Mass. market, the emerging business sectors, and challenges facing area business owners. Armed with that knowledge, DA is forging ahead with a number of projects, many speculative in nature, designed to give new and evolving businesses the space to grow.

Fanning a stack of four-color postcards like a hand in a poker game, Ken Vincunas, general manager of Development Associates, said the cards are a small representation of DA’s growing presence in the region; they announce newly completed building projects and new space for lease across Western Mass.

“We have so many things going on right now that it can be hard to see what, if any, areas we’re missing,” he said.

Indeed, the company has its fingers spread across a large portion of the local landscape, and is continually expanding an already broad portfolio that includes the construction, renovation, brokerage, leasing, and management of properties from Connecticut to the Berkshires and beyond.

Based in Agawam, DA operates as a commercial and industrial real estate, construction, and development firm. Vincunas represents the second-generation management of a company started by his father and partner Edward J. O’Leary.

For the past 15 years, Development Associates has developed a strong foothold in the development of build-to-suit and multi-tenant lease facilities across the region. The company currently owns and manages several properties in Western Mass. and more than 1.1 million square feet of leased space in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Today, business is brisk at DA. Several projects are in various stages of development across the region, ranging from new construction of office and industrial facilities — such as two projects underway in Agawam and Chicopee — to renovations to the leasing and management of existing properties.

The company’s diversity, both in terms of the types of work it handles and the wide array of business sectors it serves, has yielded keen insight into the state of the local economy, current trends and challenges, and prospects for future growth and economic development.

Overall, Vincunas sees strong organic growth in a number of sectors, especially health care, retail, and education, but also recent struggles in efforts by area economic development leaders to bring new employers to the area.

BusinessWest looks this issue at DA’s strong track record in property development and management, and how it is responding to recent trends and growth opportunities with confidence, in for the form of spec building that many developers shy from, and imagination.

Strong Suit

Vincunas doesn’t take the old Field of Dreams outlook — ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But he does believe that if he builds the right facility in the right location, then business owners will come, look, and often lease several thousand square feet of space.

This is what the company is currently doing in two area industrial parks in Agawam and Chicopee, and what it has done through much of history.

“We have space of all kinds for all people in all areas,” he said. “We have a commitment to the area and its businesses, and we’ve been able to serve those businesses well … many tenants in our buildings will work with us when they’re ready to expand, and relocate into other buildings that we own or have recently constructed.”

And that’s an area that is also strong for DA – the construction and renovation of buildings at some new, key locations. One will be located at Silver and Suffield streets in Agawam, near the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, and will include 25,000 square feet for lease. The project, dubbed the Agawam Crossing Professional Center, is expected to commence in June, with space available for professional offices and specialty retail.

Also under construction in Agawam is a 20,000-square-foot industrial flex building on Gold Street that Vincunas has targeted for light industrial, manufacturing, service, R&D, or distribution uses.

In addition, DA is building a 42,500-square-foot facility in Westover Airpark North on Griffith Road in Chicopee, which is geared toward office and light industrial uses, and has development sites available on about 25 acres of land on Route 10 and 202 in Westfield near Barnes Municipal Airport.

A Finger on the Pulse

All of the buildings are expected to house several tenants across a wide spectrum of industries, but as the health care sector strengthens in Western Mass., so do the numbers of businesses moving into larger office spaces. The Agawam Crossing site, for instance, is expected to house several medical offices – either physicians, dentists, and other health care professionals or satellite businesses such as legal services, medical equipment firms, or staffing firms.

“The interior can be finished to suit, and we hope to attract medical businesses because Agawam is in need of a purely professional building,” explained Vincunas, adding that other sites are also seeing strong interest from the medical community, including the Griffith Road site in Chicopee, which is slated to become the new home for Hudson Home Health Care, currently located in Agawam.

On a larger scale, New England Medical Practice Management (NEMPM) recently signed a three-year lease at the Greenfield Corporate Center earlier this month; 2,550 square feet will be used as office space where NEMPM provides medical practice billing services. A veteran’s outpatient medical clinic, as well as the Visiting Nurse Association have also located in the 145,000 square foot Greenfield Corporate Center, and some office space remains for lease.

In the future, Vincunas said he hopes to beckon more health care and medical businesses to Western Mass., by providing them with appropriate space for their needs — be it getting started or taking a venture to the next level.

In South Deerfield, for instance, an industrial center adjacent to route 116 has ‘high technology’ space available, appropriate for office, lab assembly, clean manufacturing, or medical production.

“We hope to bring some of the biotech industry to the area with properties like the one in South Deerfield,” he said, referring to a sector that many economic and regional planning groups, including the Regional Employment Board (REB), MassDevelopment, and the Economic Development Council (EDC), have targeted as possible areas for new growth in Western Mass.

Overall, Vincunas said most of the growth in the region has been organic, a trend area development leaders would like to change.

“One trend we see is that people aren’t generally coming to Western Mass. from other places looking for industrial space,” said Vincunas. “We’re just not attracting people from other areas right now.”

What’s more, the cost of doing business – from fuel costs to engineering expenses – is rising, and that’s putting a crunch on the entire commercial real estate industry.

“High commercial tax rates are also having an impact in many communities,” he said, noting that this has spurred a trend toward development in outlying suburbs, such as Greenfield, East Longmeadow, and Southwick, where tax rates and the cost of real estate is often lower.

A Hand in the Future

“We have to keep our eye on potential new uses and new creative ways to fill and manage our properties,” said Vincunas, noting that this helps DA-owned and managed properties remain viable and relevant in various economic climates and to many industries. “A lot of factors might keep people from coming here, but with good buildings in good locations, there is always at least some healthy turnover within those buildings regardless of the economic climate.

“We have many resources for many industrial opportunities,” he continued, “so a primary focus for us now is to continue to serve and invest in the area by providing quality space and bucking the negative trends.”

Fanning that set of announcement cards on the table in front of him, Vincunas said DA’s hand looks good … but as far as its role in the region goes, they’ll continue to aim for a full house.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Departments

Paul A. Tierney

United Bank announced the following:
• Paul A. Tierney has been promoted to Senior Vice President, Commercial Banking. He specializes in commercial real estate lending;

Doug Bourbeau

• Doug Bourbeau has been promoted to Vice President, Commercial Banking. He is responsible for generating new commercial loans and specializes in equipment financing;

• Dena M. Hall has been promoted to Vice President, Marketing and Communication Relations. She has overall responsibility for the bank’s marketing and community relations efforts and manages the Investor Relations program for United Financial Bancorp, a publicly owned corporation and the holding company for United Bank, which is traded on the NASDAQ National Market under the symbol UBNK. She also serves as Vice President of the United Charitable Foundation.

Joanne Sheedy

• Joanne Sheedy has been promoted to Assistant Vice President, Credit Department. She manages the credit department and ensures the bank’s high standards for credit quality are met and maintained.

Steve Piubeni

• Steve Piubeni has been promoted to Assistant Vice President, Management Information Systems (MIS). He has overall responsibility for the Information Systems Department, designing and maintaining the bank’s computer networks and plays a key role in the implementation of the bank’s technology plan.

Kim Merritt

• Kim Merritt has been promoted to assistant vice president, Operations. She is responsible for managing the operations staff including loan and deposit operations and the bank’s call center.

Kim Merritt

A. Rima Dael has been named the Administrative Director for the Woronoco Savings Charitable Foundation, based in Westfield. She will be responsible for administering the grants program of the Foundation. The Foundation supports education and youth development, health and human services, cultural activities, humanities, and public and civic projects.

•••••

Lynn F. Boscher, owner of the Travel Bureau in Westfield for more than 30 years, was recently appointed Executive Director/Affiliate Coordinator for the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce. He is responsible for managing the Chamber, and supporting and enhancing the economic health of the Westfield business community. A resident of Westfield since 1967, Boscher is a former city councilor, and served as president of the Westfield Rotary Club, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Westfield, and St. Mary’s PTO. He has also played an active role with the Westfield Area Drug Council, Westfield Community Development Corporation, and City of Westfield’s Planning Board.

•••••

Michael P. D’Amour has been named Fresh Foods Director for Big Y Foods, Inc. in Springfield. The position was created to further the company’s emphasis on high quality fresh products. D’Amour will be responsible for sales and marketing for the produce, floral, deli, bakery, food service, seafood and meat departments. In addition to developing a long-term fresh food strategy for the company, he will be responsible for all aspects related to these departments including financials, training and development, merchandising and advertising.

•••••

Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. of Holyoke and Greenfield announced the following:
• Kelly A. Druzisky has completed the requirements to obtain her Certified Public Accountants (CPA) license. She has also been promoted to Senior Associate;
• Deb Kaylor, CPA, has been promoted to Senior Manager;
• Yong No, CPA, has been promoted to Senior Manager;
• Kristi Reale, CPA, has been promoted to Manager;
• Catherine West, CPA, has been promoted to Manager;
• Jamie Naughton has been promoted to Senior Associate;
• Maureen M. Hogarty has joined the firm as an Associate;
• Emily S. Bassett has begun a 10-week internship at the firm, and
• Karen Cheng has begun a 10-week internship at the firm.

•••••

Sue Rheaume of Landmark Realtors in Hampden has earned the designation of Graduate Realtor Institute by the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

•••••

Matthew B. Hedenberg has been named Informational Technology Manager for OFS in Sturbridge.

•••••

Benefits Consulting Group, LLC in Holyoke announced the following:
• Susan R. Retchin has completed the certification process through the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries to earn her designation of Qualified 401(K) Administrator (QKA), and
• Steve C. Vernale has completed the certification process through the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries to earn his designation of Qualified 401(K) Administrator (QKA).

•••••

James A. Russell, Chief Executive of American Exterminating Co. of Springfield, will receive the Barlett W. Eldridge Award from the New England Pest Management Association. Russell’s grandfather, Abraham Russell, started the company in 1913. His father, Mathew Russell, also operated the business and now his son, Robert Russell, is active in the daily operations.

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An historic neighborhood named for three streets that intersect to create a busy commercial district has seen highlights and lowlights over the past 50 years, but one organization is poised to shed new light on the X, through collaborative, arts-centered initiatives.

Springfield residents: try giving someone from out of town directions to Forest Park without using the term ‘the X.’

It’s not easy.
The historic landmark, which typically refers to the intersection of Sumner Ave., Dickinson, and Belmont streets and the surrounding area, has long been a center of commercial activity in Springfield and something of a source of pride for locals. We know why it has its distinctive name. We know to look both ways – twice – when driving through.

But there is a group of people who want the X to mean much more.

The X Main Street Corp., named as such due to its involvement in the federal ‘Main Street’ program for commercial district improvement and consisting of residents, business owners, and civic leaders, want the X to live up to its hip name, and are working to create a new hot spot in Western Mass.

The X, specifically, is a commercial district within the Forest Park neighborhood of Springfield, which some call a city within a city, due to its rich history, diverse ethnic and economic make-up, and its distinction as home to 25,000 of Springfield’s residents. But in the past, it has been known more for its flavor than its demographics.

Lyn Nolan, executive director of the X Main Street Corp., remembers a time when the area was bustling with shoppers, and the shops and restaurants were as unique as they were prosperous.

“Blake’s department store was a hub of activity,” she said, harkening back to her first year as a Springfield resident in 1980. “And there were specialty clothing stores, fantastic restaurants, a movie house where the Walgreens is now … it was definitely a ‘Northampton kind of place.’”

Even today, she continued, the X includes some of the city’s brightest gems – distinctive restaurants, unique clothiers, and a smattering of successful niche businesses.

It’s also home to a number of popular seasonal events, including the Farmer’s Market at the X, now entering its ninth year, and the annual Boar’s Head Festival, a medieval fair of sorts held at Trinity United Methodist Church. And year-round, several community organizations based at the X and within Forest Park work toward a number of goals, all aimed at bettering the neighborhood.

In addition to the non-profit X Main Street Corp., the Forest Park Partnership and Forest Park Civic Association are also active, as are neighborhood councils such as the La Broad and Avalon councils, centered on quality of life and crime-reduction issues, and the for-profit Concerned Citizens for Springfield, which focuses much of its time in the Forest Park neighborhood.

Still, the spark that once defined a crossroads has dimmed somewhat, now lacking many of those one-of-a-kind storefronts and the neighborly feel that Nolan remembers.

“There was some flight in terms of residents,” she said, “and malls happened. That had a huge impact on the commercial success of many small businesses that once thrived here.”

The X Main Street Corp. has been focused on re-lighting the fire at the X for the past decade. But one overriding theme has emerged within all of the X Main Street Corp.’s initiatives for 2006, which its members hope will help fan the flames: the creation and promotion of a cohesive arts and entertainment-based culture at the X – one that starts internally with X Main Street’s own efforts, and extends to other groups, residents, and, most importantly, other businesses.

They’ve Made a FoPa

The overall mission of the corporation, Nolan said, is to spearhead ongoing development projects within the X commercial district, and to promote those improvements in partnership with other community organizations and businesses in the Forest Park area.

“There is a lot of overlap between the different groups,” she said. “Some people work with all of them. We work with each other, not against.”

The renewed focus on arts and culture is one she also hopes will resonate within those other organizations, as one answer to many issues ranging from decreasing home ownership to lagging interest in commercial real estate.

Although Nolan said the commercial landscape at the X has seen some improvement in the past few years, and is showing signs of a continued climb, the business make-up has changed somewhat since its heyday.

“Economic development in the X commercial district is stable,” Nolan said. “We’re at a 92% capacity in the area. But, for example, we have four dollar stores. We definitely need some diversification.”

Essentially, the X Main Street Corp. hopes to cultivate a climate at the X that will ripple throughout its parent neighborhood of Forest Park. There’s business sense to it, Nolan said – the arts have been proven in other communities, including neighboring Northampton and Amherst, to serve as effective economic drivers – but there are also some intriguing marketing opportunities to be had.

Brian Hale, vice president of the X Main Street Corp. Board of Directors and Chair of the Bing Arts Center Committee (more on that later), said working toward a stronger arts and entertainment scene at the X could start with creating a buzz – a move that, among other things, is more economical than most.

“The X is the hub of Forest Park,” he said. “Or, as we’d like to start calling it, FoPa.”
Borrowed from similar nicknames such as New York’s Soho (‘south of Houston street’) neighborhood, or, more regionally, Noho, the abbreviation often given to Northampton, ‘FoPa’ is a small, simple way to start branding the neighborhood as well as its cultural attributes.

And the play on words isn’t an accident.

“A booming arts community in Springfield? Some might call the suggestion a faux pas,” Hale joked. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned as Springfield residents, it’s that you have to have a sense of humor.”

It’s important to note, though, that the X Main Street Corp. doesn’t just brainstorm catchy nicknames for the neighborhood. Rather, the organization is actively involved with a number of real estate improvement ventures, serves as an advocacy group for zoning, legislative, and public safety policies, and is one of the X’s primary grant-writing entities, forever in search of funds to keep various projects and business ventures going. The corporation is partially funded by a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant, but gleans much of its funding from local, state, and national grants and loans.

The organization also works with the city to enforce some code regulations at the X, which is designated an overlay district (a zoning change X Main Street kick-started), and as such, requires businesses to meet or exceed certain aesthetic requirements.
Signage must meet a certain quality threshold, for instance – backlit plastic signs are prohibited as are unframed, aluminum placards.

That aspect of the corporation’s duties can both help and hinder its relationship with X merchants, Nolan said. It allows for greater contact with businesses, but can also turn X Main Street into the “sign police.”

“We don’t want all the businesses to look the same,” she said, “but we want to achieve a certain level of quality, a certain look. The main goal of X Main Street is to increase arts and culture in the X commercial district, and the look of the businesses is one part of that. It’s what will make the most sense in terms of diversifying the area and bringing in more great businesses as well as visitors.”

Bought-A-Bing

As another part of that focus, the corporation soon hopes to make its new headquarters the historic Bing Theatre, which it purchased in 2003. The property, now known as the Bing Arts Center, has been vacant for years but is seeing some new activity: the X Main Street Corporation and the Bing Arts Center Committee, a group of concerned citizens and business owners committed to arts, culture, and entertainment endeavors in Springfield, are in the process of renovating the building to create a combination art gallery, community center, and, eventually, a movie theater and performance venue.

Hale said re-opening the cinema itself represents the last step in a long process, but he hopes to see the other components of the arts center fall into place within the next two years.

“The Bing represents exactly what we want to see more of at the X, in Forest Park, and across the city, and that is investing in the arts and culture as a primary economic driver,” he said, adding that he sees arts, culture, and entertainment investments as the logical choice in a city that is still struggling in most other sectors and is in dire need of some good news.

“Frankly, I think it’s the city’s only choice. Historically, Springfield has been a manufacturing center, but that’s long gone,” he told BusinessWest. “We need to face that, and work to get people into this city to spend their money, plain and simple. How do we do that? By having some cool things going on.”

The Bing actually sits on the periphery of the X, but Nolan agreed with Hale that it represents the heart and soul of the organization’s work.

“Creating an arts center at the Bing is a perfect example of how the arts can serve as a way to engage the entire community,” she said. “We want to see things going on constantly in that building, creating a buzz and at the same time opening up the arts to a whole new audience.”

Hale added that it’s important to sell that point, especially to X merchants, many of whom are struggling to make their ventures work.

“The arts might be one of the only economic drivers in which we can say you can put a little in, and gain a lot,” he said. “At the Bing Arts Center we’ll be able to hold art shows and performances, after school programs, fundraisers, sell artwork … the possibilities are endless. Merchants can do much of the same on many levels, and we want to work with them to increase their own profits for the overall good of the area.”

Blue Moon Coffee Roasters, Hale offered as an example, has already seen some success with just such an initiative. Located across the street from the Bing, the coffee, bean, and gift shop expanded its retail component recently to include an art glass gallery, and in December, owner Dan Higgins reported that sales of the artwork represented 30% of his total receipts.

“We need to reach a certain critical mass before people are going to notice this,” said Hale, “but we can start by marketing ourselves as an arts-oriented neighborhood, and a big part of the neighborhood is the businesses at the X.”

Turnip Turn-out

But it’s not just the Bing that’s getting attention from X Main Street, and the other organizations at the X and in Forest Park. The annual Farmers’ Market at the X, a Forest Park staple for nearly a decade, will be expanding its scope in 2006, welcoming artisans to the ranks of fresh produce, meat, whole foods, plant, and flower businesses, in order to add a new dimension to the event as well as a venue for artists and craftspeople.

“We want to work closely with artisans to give them a unique venue to show their work, but we’re also trying to move with the times,” Nolan explained, adding that the event is also moving from its spot near the Goodwill Shoppes to the Trinity church parking lot, visible from Sumner Ave. “Farmers’ markets in general are starting to suffer in New England – in the past, they were held specifically for farmers.”

But with a changing landscape must come a change in the event, she said.

“Adding arts and crafts to the market will add to the overall arts and culture thrust in the X commercial district, and give the market a shot in the arm.”

It’s also another way to capitalize on an already well-known event at the X for the benefit of local businesses.

Belle Rita Novak, manager of the Farmers’ Market at the X and a member of the Forest Park Civic Association and the X Main Street Corp. Board of Directors, said she has already seen the positive effect the market can have on surrounding merchants.

“Many patrons shop at the X while they are in the area for the market,” she said. “Throughout the country, farmers’ markets in urban areas are economic engines for the businesses nearby.”

Novak added that increased cooperation with X business owners would likely create a positive ripple effect in the district.

“I think that we have a strong X Main Street board now, but we need more input from the business and property owners at the X,” she said. “After all, if the X improves, it benefits everyone, including residents in the neighborhood.

“The X looks much better than it did 10 years ago,” she continued, “but if it doesn’t continue to improve I fear that it could backslide very easily. We are in this together, merchants, property owners, and residents. If we want a nice, clean business district then we all have to do our part.”

New Direction Home

Hale agreed with Novak that continued partnerships are the keys to spurring further arts-related initiatives, as well as projects aimed at the overall health of the commercial district.

“In order to revitalize any commercial district, there needs to be a certain camaraderie,” he said. “We can’t just start walking into stores and asking for money. We need to sell them on the arts and culture premise, and show them how it can benefit their businesses … and in turn, their businesses will benefit the entire area.”

And the members of the X Main Street Corp. will be keeping an ear close to the ground, listening for the sound of success – someone asking for directions to FoPa.
It’s easy to find – just start at the X.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
What’s Next for Springfield’s Riverfront?
Springfield Technical Community College

Evan Dobelle, left, seen here with Springfield Technical Community College President Ira Rubenzahl, says “eds and meds” are the future of the New England economy.

While the process of selecting a developer for the old Basketball Hall of Fame continues, a development team has forwarded what it calls a “bridge-to-bridge” plan for the riverfront that includes several challenged properties, including the old Hall, the long-idle York Street Jail, and the underutilized Riverfront Park site. Just what will develop, however, and when, are still very big questions.

Tim Mulcahey says it all started with idle talk about building a facility for a CYO basketball program on a parcel near the former York Street jail.

That is how the ball started rolling toward formulation of an ambitious, still-evolving venture for Springfield’s riverfront. For now, it’s being called the “bridge-to-bridge” plan, said Mulcahey, a Longmeadow real estate developer, who has partnered with Dennis Serna, a Connecticut-based developer, and created an entity called the Connecticut Riverfront Development Corp.

The CRDC is currently looking at several pieces of property along a roughly mile-and-a-half long stretch between the South End and Memorial Bridges. These include the long-vacant prison, the former Basketball Hall of Fame, and a little-used recreational area called Riverfront Park.

The proposed CYO basketball facility was long ago put on the shelf, said Mulcahey, the long-time director of that youth program. But he, Serna, and some other players have moved on to bigger and hopefully better ventures.

They have joined forces with the Springfield Business Development Corp. (SBDC) in a proposal for the old Basketball Hall of Fame site that combines several elements, including a public market, a restaurant and some retail. That plan is one of two considered finalists for re-use of the old Hall, which has been closed and unused for three years.

Meanwhile, the CRDC is in the exploratory stage of a project to locate a hotel on the Riverfront Park site. The partners have signed a letter of intent with the city that gives them, in essence, an exclusive window of opportunity for that parcel.

They’ll have roughly the next three months to finalize plans for what Mulcahey describes as a “destination hotel.” Should a concrete proposal come forward, the city would then have 45 days to look it over and decide whether it earns a thumbs-up.

As for the old jail, Serna said several possible uses have been considered, and more are being formulated. For now, though, the jail is at least third on the to-do list for the real estate between the two bridges.

“We started with the jail, and will probably still do something with that site,” he explained, “but as it worked out, the focus went north of the jail, because opportunities presented themselves there first.”

Both Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan and David Panagore, deputy executive director of the Springfield Finance Control Board, welcomed the CRDC’s initial plans for the riverfront, but cautioned that they have been ‘ and will continue to be ‘ closely scrutinized to ensure that they are both feasible and compatible with other economic development initiatives.

“We’re not going to hand over development rates on a speculative basis,” said Panagore, who is now leading the city’s economic development efforts. “We’re not going to give someone those rights for two years and say, ‘go come up with a plan.’ We’ll hand over development rights when there are viable projects.”

Ryan concurred, but said the level of interest in various riverfront parcels, especially the old Hall site, is cause for optimism. “It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen actual competition for development of that area,” he said. “Lately, most all of the development has come from the public sector; this a welcome turn-about.”

Mulcaheny and Serna acknowledged that they are not big players when it comes to real state development. Their goals ‘ much easier to enunciate than their plans ‘ are merely to develop (or redevelop, as the case may be) an untapped asset in the riverfront, and give a beleagured city a boost.

“We want to do something that will hope move Springfield forward,” said Mulcahey. “We’re part of this community, we’re involved in it, and we want to see it prosper.”

BusinessWest looks this issue at how this unique partnership plans to go about that assignment.

Money in the Bank

As they talked about CRDC’s preliminary plans for the riverfront, Serna and Mulcahey were long on optimism but short on specifics, especially with regard to potential pricetags.

“The riverfront should be a crown jewel, it should be a real destination,” said Mulcahey, noting quickly that details of many components of the bridge-to-bridge project cannot be revealed due to various confidentiality agreements ‘ and also because some of the plans are still quite vague.

What is known is that CRDC is moving forward on at least two of the three (or more) phases of its broad riverfront development initiative. More will certainly be known by the end of this year or early next, said Mulcahey, noting that a developer should be chosen by then for the old Hall, and he and Serna will know if they can clear the many hurdles standing in the way of the hotel project (more on that later).

As for how the bridge-to-bridge concept ‘ and its first phase, the hotel ‘ came together, said Serna, it was a case of getting some unique perspective on the riverfront; in other words, a look from someone who doesn’t see it every day.

“They walked that entire length of riverfront, from the jail to the bridge, and simply fell in love with that park site,” he explained, referring to a hotel-building entity he chose not to name.“They said, ‘this is where we’d like to be.’”

Getting them there will be the mission for some unlikely partners who have some experience in construction and real estate development, but certainly nothing on the scale of Springfield’s riverfront.

Mulcahey’s resume includes a variety of work in property development. He worked for Ohio-based Dairy Mart as a project supervisor and manager, and helped select and develop many sites in the Northeast and Midwest. Later, he worked as a project manager for a New York-based businessman, Andrew Stone, who developed a number of office buildings, industrial parks, and other ventures in Connecticut. From there, Mulcahey developed a project in Boston called First Atheneum Street, a large office project, before joining a Hartford-based real estate development firm.

Serna, meanwhile, also has a background in commercial real estate development. He started in Stamford, Conn., and later relocated to Manhattan, where he worked on several projects, before joining Starwood Capital Group. Based in Greenwich, Conn., SCG is a multi-faceted real estate group that specializes in hotels, among other things.

While the two partners would not identify the hotel-building entity they are currently working with, they have been linked in some published reports with Atlantabased Nylo LLC, a company launching a chain of small hotels with loft-style rooms.

Mulcahey would say only that what is being considered for the riverfront site is a new concept, especially in this market, and would be classified as a destination hotel.

While the Riverfront Park location offers sweeping views of the river and the historic Memorial Bridge, it is challenged in many ways. For starters, it is separated from West Columbus Avenue by a wide set of railroad tracks, used primarily by Amtrak for commuter runs.

This logistical concern has limited use of the park, said Ryan, noting that while the property is used as a park, it is not designated as ‘park land,’ an important distinction because the latter would pose a much larger obstacle to development. Creating access to the proposed hotel ‘ either over or under the railroad tracks ‘ will be one of the main questions to be answered during CRDC’s 135-day window for devising plans for the site, said Serna, noting that the partners have become convinced that there is a need for additional hotel rooms in the city.

A market demand study for Springfield, conducted by the Boston-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, revealed as much. It said that a growing inventory of tourist attractions and completion of the MassMutual Center should increase demand to the point where greater supply is necessary.

However, the report’s authors concluded that downtown, rather than the riverfront, would be the better location for such a hotel.

“Although both areas are viable options for new hotel development, the benefits of a downtown hotel outweigh the riverfront,” the report stated. “Furthermore, a downtown location would provide more benefit to the MassMutual Center, which is strategically important to future growth in Springfield.”

Mulcahey acknowledged the report’s findings, but told BusinessWest that the Riverfront Park hotel, as currently conceptualized, could become an effective link between downtown and the riverfront and accentuate current efforts to enhance the State Street corridor. “It could become a great asset for Springfield.”

Going Through Hoops

As could a new development on the old Basketball Hall of Fame site, which became the “second race,” as Mulcahey called it, that the CRDC found itself in.

Indeed, as they were conceptualizing the hotel project, the two partners also became involved in the ongoing effort to develop the old Hall, a project being overseen by the Springfield Riverfront Development Corp. (SRDC), the real estate arm of the Hall of Fame.

The SRDC has spent the past year or so hearing and weighing proposals on the old Hall. Among them is a plan conceptualized by the Springfield Business Development Corp. that centers around a public market, similar in many ways to the Portland (Me.)Public Market, which opened in 1998 and has had a strong impact on that region’s economy.

Other proposals have included a fitness and sports complex, proposed by East Longmeadow developer Peter Pappas and a restaurant/retail mix forwarded by CRDC. That latter proposal has now been merged with the public market concept, said Mulcahey, noting that it and the Pappas complex are under what is considered final review by the SRDC.

“We took the public market project and we enhanced it,” said Mulcahey, adding that as it sits now (and few details were revealed) the plan calls for demolishing the old Hall and constructing a new building that would house the market, a restaurant, and several retail components in a facility to be built through a mix of public and private funds.

SBDC Director Michael Graney would say only that the development of the old Hall is a “process,” one that is ongoing, and with no firm timetable, although he expects a developer will be named soon.

Regardless of who that is, the CRDC will press ahead with other components of its ‘bridge-to-bridge’ proposal, said Mulcahey, noting that there are other parcels, including the jail, to be considered.

Like others, he said the jail site offers promise, but its design limits what can be done with it. “That’s a challenging building, but there are opportunities for things to happen there.”

Panagore agreed, and said there is a strong possibility that all or major portions of the building will have to be razed if development is going to occur on that site. When asked if the city, and specifically the Economic Development Department would prefer one developer for the riverfront or a group of different teams, Panagore said the most important element is the quality of the proposals, not who is making them.

“We’re looking for viable projects, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We’ve seen enough master plans on the riverfront, we don’t need to see any more. What we need are sound, doable projects that make sense for the city.”

Channeling Resources

Whether the CRDC’s concepts fall into that category remains to be seen.

For now, the partners have a window in which to work on phase one of their initiative, while also focusing on other parcels to the south.

If their ‘bridge-to-bridge’ vision can be realized, then the days of talking about the riverfront’s great potential will finally be in the past.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
Surge in New Development Shows Changing Attitudes About Chicopee
Chicopee construction

Chicopee construction

The notation on the latest construction -activities report for the city of Chicopee says it all.

Next to a listing for a planned, 2,000-square-foot Starbucks cafÈ to be built near the PeoplesBank ATM on Memorial Drive it says, No Longer a Rumor.

While the actual facility hasn’t been built — no groundbreaking has even been scheduled — Starbucks’ latest Western Mass. site appears to be fact, says City Planner Kate Brown, and this says something about Chicopee and Memorial Drive.

"There’s an interesting juxtaposition there," Brown told BusinessWest. "You have Wal-Mart on one side of the street, and a $5 cup of coffee on the other side. I’m not really sure what that says, but I think it means that Chicopee and Memorial Drive have what a lot of national retailers are looking for.

"I think it means that people are now looking past the income statistics," she continued, noting that, until now, most national chains have looked past Chicopee, presumably because its demographics were not attractive enough. "People are getting past the numbers and seeing the opportunities that exist here."

Bill McCabe agrees.

He’s a project manager with CBL & Associates Properties Inc., a Tennessee-based, publicly held real estate investment trust (REIT) with more than 70 million square feet of retail property in its portfolio. The company spent more than three years in tough negotiations to wrest a large portion of the former Fairfield Mall property from the Pennsylvania-based REIT Preit-Rubin Inc., and finally prevailed early last year.

CBL is now constructing what is being called the first phase of new retail development in the old mall site. Four national chains — Staples, Marshall’s, Sleepy’s, and iParty — will occupy a 75,000-square-foot facility, while additional retail is being planned.

"This really fit in our portfolio … the location is fantastic — the turnpike exit is right there — and Memorial Drive gets a significant volume of traffic," said McCabe, who noted that the presence of Wal-Mart and Home Depot have prompted many other retailers to give Chicopee a hard look.

Mayor Richard Goyette calls it a "domino effect."

He said that as more national retailers come to Memorial Drive, the traffic count on the street goes higher, which, in turn, prompts more retail, and a continuation of that cycle. The phenomenon can be seen not only in new ventures, but the expansion and renovation of existing businesses, he said.

"I see a lot of momentum on Memorial Drive … there’s a lot happening, and that only draws more interest in that area," he said. "It’s exciting to watch things unfold."

And as development continues on Memorial Drive, attention is also being paid to infrastructure, said Goyette, noting that work is being done to ease access into the new retail complex at the former mall site and to accommodate the increased traffic on roads leading to the area.

We expect to be drawing people from a much wider area than we have," said Goyette, who told BusinessWest that city officials want to make Memorial Drive a destination, not a place people want to avoid.

What’s in Store?

A further look at Chicopee’s latest construction activities report, which includes projects in all phases — conceptual, planned, permitted, under construction, and completed — and also lists development opportunites, reveals the extent of activity on this street framed by the turnpike and Westover Air Force Base.

In addition to the four big boxes under construction at the former mall site, which was demolished in 2002, an Applebee’s restaurant is planned for the north side of that complex, near the Wal-Mart entrance drive. Meanwhile, CBL is moving ahead with phase 2 of its plans for the former mall property, with several more retailers planned for another 70,000 square feet of space.

And then, there’s the Starbucks, which is planned for a site just off the turnpike exit, in the so-called BJ’s plaza, a development that also includes Big Y and sits adjacent to a Stop & Shop, a recently opened Hampton Inn, a Bank of America branch, and the aformentioned ATM.

There are a number of other projects in the planning stages, and several developments that have been completed, including:

• A planned 8,500-square-foot expansion project at Curry Honda;

• Preliminary plans for Bob Pion Pontiac to expand into the former Admiral DW’s restaurant next door;

• Ongoing faÁade improvements at the Price Rite plaza, including paving and a new roof;

• Planned relocation of the Ocean State Job Lot at the front of the Fairfield Mall site to the site of the former Ames store in a plaza further north on Memorial Drive;

• Construction of a new Auto Zone at the site of the former Ponderosa restaurant;

• Rehabilitation of a former bank branch building into the new home of the Freedom Credit Union;

• Demolition of the Pizza Hut restaurant near the front of the former mall and construction of a Ninety Nine restaurant; and

• Construction of "The Arbors Kids" day care and summer sports adjacent to an existing assisting living facility.

The list goes on, said Brown, noting the sum of the development projects and their diversity show that Chicopee, and specifically Memorial Drive, is becoming an increasingly popular site for retailers of all kinds.

Why? The need for some national chains like Home Depot and Wal-Mart to penetrate and then saturate new geographic areas certainly has something to do with it, she said. But location, location, location, — the credo of the commercial real estate realm — is also a big factor, as are changing attitudes about the city itself.

For decades, the national chains seemingly ignored Chicopee, said Brown, opting instead for the Holyoke Mall area, Boston Road in Springfield, Riverdale Road in West Springfield, Route 20 in Westfield, or Route 9 in Hadley.

What few retailers the city could attract were mostly discount shops like Bradlee’s, Ames, and Caldor’s, which all fell victim to Wal-Mart and other national giants. The situation was so bad that Brown, when asked if the arrival of Wal-Mart had an adverse effect on existing retailers, said, "there was hardly anyone left to be devastated."

Thinking Outside the (Big) Box

That scene is changing, with the arrival of Home Depot and Wal-Mart, the current construction of the four additional big boxes, and the promise of more development up and down the street, said Brown, who told BusinessWest that the surge in development on Memorial Drive began in the late ’90s, and was greatly accelerated by the ultimate demise of the Fairfield Mall.

Opened in 1974, the mall enjoyed some early success with a mix of discount anchors and several local businesses in its main concourse. Eventually, however, it couldn’t compete with larger area malls, especially nearby Holyoke, and as the discount stores failed and traffic to the mall steadily decreased, its fate was sealed.

The de-malling of the site — a term used by development professionals to describe the process of retrofitting a parcel for development — started in late 2000, and was slowed by a sluggish economy and a complicated ownership situation. At the time, the property was held by three concerns, all with different agendas and priorities.

The property still has three owners, but they appear to be on the same page. Home Depot owns its parcel, formerly the site of the Caldor’s store, New York-based Vornado Realty Trust holds the parcel on which the Wal-Mart was built, and CBL owns the former mall concourse area and most of the parking lot.

It was the arrival of Home Depot, which began construction in 2001 and opened in August of 2002, that got the ball rolling, said McCabe, adding that the start of construction on the 139,000-square-foot Wal-Mart provided additional momentum — and vast potential.

It was a combination of location and potential that attracted CBL, which primarily owns regional malls that are the dominant retail facility in middle-market acres.

The 22-acre portion of the former Fairfield Mall site is one of many acquisitions CBL has made in the past year. Others include the 1.2 million-square-foot Mall del Norte in Laredo, Texas, the 991,000-square-foot Northpark Mall in Joplin, Mo., and the 1.1 million-square-foot Monroeville Mall just outside Pittsburgh.

The Chicopee purchase is much smaller in scale, said McCabe, who works in the company’s Boston office, but it is an important addition to the portfolio. And he believes the company’s track record with many national retailers, coupled with the site’s location and other amenities, bode well for the future.

"We wouldn’t have gone into this if we didn’t have the retailers on board," he explained. "One of the nice things about being a national company is that we have very good relationships with a number of different retailers. If we didn’t think this made sense for them, we wouldn’t have gone forward with this property.

"We feel comfortable with the location," he continued, "and with Chicopee."

McCabe couldn’t reveal to BusinessWest the names of retailers who are close to inking deals to come to the former mall site, but he said several contracts are pending for storefronts that will be between 1,600 and 12,000 square feet.

He expects a mix of local and national stores, and said Home Depot and especially Wal-Mart are companies that attract other retailers.

"We have a number of Wal-Marts in other shopping centers we own, and they’re fantastic for business," he explained. "A lot of other retailers see the traffic that Wal-Mart generates and they want to be a part of that."

With Wal-Mart and the mix of other retailers to occupy the site, the former mall complex will be drawing shoppers from at least a 10-mile radius and perhaps more, said McCabe, noting that there are several projects planned to accommodate the higher traffic volume.

Additional turning lanes will be created at the former mall site to allow easy access, said Goyette. Meanwhile, the city will undertake a project to widen Fuller Road, which connects Memorial Drive with Route 291, and another to facilitate movement on Sheradon Street, which runs behind the former mall complex.

Progress — Down the Road

Returning to the subject of demographics and income statistics, Brown said, "if we had Longmeadow’s numbers, this resurgence on Memorial Drive would have happened a long time ago."

The fact that it’s happening now is evidence that attitudes about the statistics are changing — and that perhaps the most important stat is that there is now a Wal-Mart at 545 Memorial Dr.

While the reasons for the burst of activity on the street can be debated, what can’t be is the notion that the area is now a real destination.

As with the planned Starbucks cafÈ, the emergence of Memorial Drive is no longer a rumor.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
Like the company he leads, Tom Dennis is successful, but decidedly low-key. His engineering firm, The Dennis Group, offers planning, architectural, process engineering, and construction management services to the food and beverage industries, and is among the world’s leaders in that highly competitive field. Meanwhile, Dennis and a partner have become successful players in the Springfield real estate market, having purchased and renovated several landmark office buildings. Getting him to talk about these successful ventures is difficult, however — he’d rather spend his time tending to his often-demanding clients.

It’s a script right out of central casting — a storyline that must have been written by the regional economic development commission. Tom Dennis is a local guy — he’s from Feeding Hills. After graduating from college with a degree in Engineering, he went to work in Boston. When he grew frustrated with the path his employer was on and made the decision to start his own venture, he came ëhome’ to do it, because he liked the area, and the cost of doing business was much cheaper than it was inside Route 128. And he really liked the airport that was only a few miles down the road in Windsor Locks, one that you could get in and out of without losing half a day.

He started in the attic of his home on Fairfield Street in Springfield, and eventually bought a struggling downtown landmark, Harrison Place, renovated it, and put his offices there. His company, The Dennis Group, which designs food-processing facilities and counts a number of Fortune 500 companies on its client list, doesn’t do much business locally and could be located anywhere. But Dennis — and those who have helped him build this venture — want it here.

He even lives in Springfield.

Yes, it’s a story that Allan Blair and other leaders at the EDC could turn into a promotional piece as they try to market the Pioneer Valley and the Knowledge Corridor. But it’s a story you almost have to pry out of Dennis.

Like the company itself, he is very low-key. His venture now employs more than 100 people, 70 in Springfield, and has four offices scattered across the country. But because of the unique nature of its work and the quiet nature of its leader, it flies under the radar screen. Also low-key are his real estate ventures. Dennis and a partner, William Stotler, have bought and renovated a number of Springfield office buildings, including Harrison Place (later sold to the Picknelly family) and the former Wesson Hospital. Dennis is quite active in his real estate pursuits and takes great pride in those ventures — there’s a framed picture of Harrison Place on his credenza — but he says he directs most of his energy to The Dennis Group and its continued growth.

"This business is my first priority," he said. "There are a lot of hardworking, performance-oriented people who deserve nothing less than that from me."

Dennis will give you that same answer when you ask about community involvement and participation with area non-profits and various development groups. He’d love to — but at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, he’s focusing on his clients and how to provide them quality service and, most importantly, value.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest, Dennis, the subject of this month’s CEO Profile, was interrupted several times by calls from customers and potential customers. "It’s the nature of the business," he said at one juncture. "I’m here for my customers."

In a wide-ranging but fast-moving interview, Dennis talked about how he has blueprinted success for his company — although he rarely uses the word ëI.’ He credits a group of young, entrepreneurial-minded engineers — many of whom are now partners in this venture — with the firm’s steady growth over the years.

"Our guideline here has been to hire anyone who will make this a better company," he explained. "We know that if we have the right talent within our organization and create an environment that lets individuals apply their craft, then work will come our way, and it has."

Progress, by Design

Dennis, 48, told BusinessWest that he had no intention of putting his name on the company that he started in the fall of 1987. Several possibilities — most of which he can’t remember — didn’t pass muster with the state Secretary of State’s office (they were too close to existing business names), so he eventually settled on The Dennis Group — only it wasn’t really a group, just Dennis and some engineers he subcontracted work to.

He knew there would be a group, though, and that quiet confidence is part of his business philosophy and management style.

As a youth, Dennis was drawn to mathematics and science, and at Rutgers University, he earned degrees in Chemical Engineering and Biology. The biotechnology field was still in its developmental stages at that time, he said, so he focused his attention on project engineering. He eventually took a job with a Boston-area construction management company called Carlson Associates, and worked on a number of projects in this country and overseas, many in the food-processing industry.

"I was really attracted to project management work — taking an assignment from start to finish," he said. "As project manager, you get your arms around a whole project and understand it from the inside out, which to me was fulfilling and appealing."

He enjoyed the work and living in Boston, but when Carlson was bought by a French conglomerate, he would soon decide to make the shift from employee to entrepreneur, although he is still not really comfortable with the latter term.

"The French company sent a bunch of accountants over to run a design and construction-services business," he explained. "Very early on, I decided that this wasn’t compatible with my philosophy, so I decided to leave."

His decision to come back to Springfield was grounded in familiarity and, to a large extent, economics.

"My wife was pregnant at the time, and I knew that the cost of living was much less out here," he said. "Also, there was a major airport nearby, which was a necessity, and I thought that I might be more readily able to attract people as a startup company if I was here, as opposed to Boston, which was much more expensive."

He set up shop in his attic — "it was an old Victorian, and the attic was huge; it’s better than it sounds" — and got started only a few weeks before the stock market collapse in October of 1987. That event served to slow the start for The Dennis Group, but not for long.

Through contacts he had made earlier his career, Dennis was able to win a number of domestic projects, and he used that work to develop a reputation in the multi-billion-dollar food-processing industry and build a portfolio.

Food for Thought

Then, as now, the company had no salespeople and did comparitively little marketing, he explained, adding that its reputation for quality work and relationship-oriented approach to doing business have been its best selling tools.

"There are no salespeople Ö we rely on doing good work and having it lead to more work," he explained. "If we’re not developing relationships, we’re out of business. And if people don’t like what we’ve done, then we’re out of business as well."

Over the years, the company has undertaken more than 2,000 projects and enjoyed what Dennis calls controlled, or smart, growth, taking a conservative approach to business. Its main strength has been its diversity, he explained, noting that the firm can handle $5,000 consulting projects and also oversee $100 million new-plant-construction ventures.

The company has managed projects for some of the most recognizable names in the food industry, including Kraft, Smuckers, Dreyers, Lender’s, Dole, Sara Lee, Poland Spring, Campbell’s, and others, and some that are less well-known, such as the Haverhill, Mass.-based company Hans Kissle, a pioneer in the development of pre-packaged salads, desserts, and other deli items.

Recent projects include three plants, all more than 200,000 square feet, that the company built for Dole in Soledad, Calif., Springfield, Ohio, and Yuma, Ariz. to produce packaged salads; an 86,000-square-foot plant built for Heinz, Ireland in Dundalk, Ireland to produce frozen-ready meals; a 50,000-square-foot plant built for Stockpot Soup in Woodinville, Wash.; and another plant for Dole in Hulsingborg, Sweden.

"We’re efficient and very flexible, so we can handle all-sized projects," he said, noting that the firm will design and build 1 million square feet of production and warehouse facilities a year. "That diversity is very helpful to us."

This is a highly competitive industry, said Dennis, adding that competition comes from firms as large as Bechtel and as small as a two- or three-person local construction company.

Over the years, the size and scope of projects has varied, from plant design to creation of new packaging processes, said Dennis, noting that the wide geographic range of the firm has necessitated creation of another large office in Salt Lake City and smaller facilities in Toronto and San Diego.

The headquarters will remain in Springfield, however, he said, because the Pioneer Valley, with its many amenities, is a large asset for the company. "There’s a quality of life here that I enjoy and everyone here enjoys."

Dennis returned repeatedly to the subject of Bradley Airport, and said that for a business owner who spends as much time in the air as he does — 50 trips a year by his count — it is an invaluable resource.

"Logan is better now than it used to be, but it’s still hard to fly in and out of," he explained. "Some people may not realize it, but Bradley is a great asset for companies in this region."

As he talked about the firm and its consistent growth, Dennis focused consistently on the word Group in the company’s name. "There are a lot of people who are responsible for the success of this company Ö I didn’t do this myself."

Dennis told BusinessWest that, while he was sole owner at one time, he has made long-term associates partners, in a structure similar to that used by most law firms.

"There’s not a lot of vertical growth in this company," he explained. "So where people grow is in responsibility, the opportunity to become a partner and have some ownership in the firm."

Governance is shared, he said, adding that there is little of what he would call ëmanagement’ in his day-to-day activities.

"Maybe what makes us work is that we don’t have any management," he said. "What we do have is a lot of talented people. We have an administrative group, and we’re very structured in our projects, but we have none of the traditional management layers."

When asked for his own job description, Dennis said he still leads a number of projects himself, and will continue to do so.

"Last year, for example, I ran three projects, and I use that format to train people, improve our systems, develop relationships with our clients, and help grow the talent here," he said. "I could never be a full-time administrator; first of all, I don’t think I’d be very good at it, and second, I get a lot of fulfillment out of what we do."

Dennis’s approach to business — a blend of passion and conservatism — is mirrored by his philosophy with regard to commercial real estate.

He told BusinessWest that he has a fondness for old buildings, and has collaborated with Stolter to purchase several of them in downtown Springfield, including the Stearns Building, the former W.F. Young building on Lyman Street, and the old Wesson Hospital, which the partners are converting into a center for technology-based ventures.

His favorite project, however, was Harrison Place, the 10-story downtown office tower that was half-vacant and in very poor condition when the partners bought it in 1995. The two made a major investment in the property, and Dennis took the first two floors and the basement for his engineering firm.

"I really like this building, and we really enjoy being here," he said, noting that he had to be talked into selling the property, now named the Bank of Western Mass. Building, to the Picknelly group in 1999. "There’s some history here."

Producing Results

Thinking back to those early days in his attic on Fairfield Street, Dennis said he couldn’t have predicted then that his company would grow to its current size and stature.

But he knew he had the necessary ingredients for a successful venture. Listing them again, he mentioned people, location, diversity, and a firm focus on quality and price — "those are the keys to any business."

Putting that package together has provided Dennis with a career that’s been rewarding on a number of levels. And it’s given the Pioneer Valley’s economic development leaders a script they would like others to follow — a true blueprint for success.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]