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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

While Laurie Whitten doesn’t think the recent opening of MGM Springfield, a few miles north over the Massachusetts border, is a negative, neither is she convinced the incoming traffic does much for nearby Enfield, Conn. The same goes for a casino expected to open in East Windsor, Conn. in the spring of 2020.

“For the most part, casinos are pretty much on their own,” said Whitten, Enfield’s recently appointed director of Development Services. “A lot of people think if you’re across the street, you’ll get all sorts of business, but for the most part, people leave and don’t go shopping or out to eat.”

The way she sees it, any benefit to nearby towns, like Enfield, might be in housing or hotel development, as workers new to the area might be looking for somewhere to live, and casino visitors increase demand for hotel rooms. “That’s where the trickle-down would be when it comes to development.”

But Enfield isn’t looking to surrounding towns for energy, she added; instead, it’s busy creating its own — and she’s excited about the future.

Take the planned transformation of the Thompsonville neighborhood on the Connecticut River, with an intermodal transit center as the centerpiece of a walker-friendly village.

Part of this effort is a river-access project to be funded through a $3.4 million Federal Highway Administration grant. The bulk of the money is being used for riverfront improvements, including the construction of a biking and walking path from Freshwater Pond to the riverfront.

In addition, last year, Eversource signed an access agreement with the town to allow environmental site assessment work to be done to determine the extent of contamination on its North River Street property near the station. TRC Solutions is under contract to perform the work.

Depending on the results of that survey, if the site needs to be remediated or capped, the transit center could be looking at a three- to five-year timeline. In the meantime, the state will build a basic rail station, with an elevated, double-tracked platform on each side. Later on, the town will build in some parking, bus facilities, and outdoor recreation, including walking trails and overlook areas so people can enjoy the view of the river.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $33.40
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.40
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

“There are a lot of different things happening down there,” Whitten said. “We’re certainly working toward being prepared for a new train station and focusing on some adapted reuse of dilapidated buildings down there. We will also be adopting new regulations for downtown Thompsonville, promoting mixed use and higher densities in that area.”

Meanwhile, a Complete Streets plan with new bike paths is under consideration, and renovations at the former St. Adalbert School, which stood vacant for 12 years, are almost complete as developer William Bellock turns it into an apartment building with 20 one-bedroom units, less than a quarter-mile from Town Hall.

“When you’re developing transit-oriented development, the idea is to create higher density,” Whitten said. “Millennials, especially, like to live someplace where they don’t need a car. With high density, they can walk to the train station or ride a bike.”

Moving In

Speaking of housing, development in that sector is on the rise, Whitten noted. “We have some high-end apartments under construction on the north end, and we just adopted some new regulations to allow apartments in transition zones along the I-91 corridor — that would be the transition between commercial, industrial, and residential.”

Meanwhile, a design-district overlay was approved for the Hazardville area of town to promote some historic-style achitecture and mixed use, Whitten said. “We’re also working with developers about the reuse or expansion of some of the larger buildings in downtown, and we just approved a large industrial warehouse distribution center on the south end of King Street, in Metro Park North.”

Enfield has seen an influx of manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution businesses over the past few years, which is a positive for a town that continues to diversify away from its traditional reputation as a retail center. The corridors of Routes 220 and 190, bordering Enfield Square Mall, continue to be a bustling mix of restaurants and retail, but the mall itself, heavily buffeted by store departures over the past decade, doesn’t draw nearly the traffic it used to.

An example is Panera Bread, which was recently approved for an outbuilding in the nearby Home Depot plaza — but will be leaving the mall to get there.

“We’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

Still, Enfield’s growth in the manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution sectors, as well as a strong uptick in small and sole-proprietor businesses over the past few years — reflecting an entrepreneurial wave the entire region has experienced — remain positive signs.

So are community-building events like the popular Enfield Regional Farmers Market, which runs every Wednesday from July through mid-October, featuring farm-fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan goods, musical entertainment, and a food truck.

Meanwhile, the Thompsonville Community Garden, established a decade ago by the town of Enfield, the University of Connecticut Master Gardener Program, and a grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, has been a popular program as well.

The garden features 50 raised garden beds, which are rented for the planting season; the rental includes use of tools, seeds, starter plants, compost, water, and educational sessions — and a sense of community for Enfield gardeners who want to grow their own organic vegetables.

Location, Location, Location

Organic growth is something Whitten would like to see on a town-wide basis, of course, noting that Enfield is an attractive location for a number of reasons, including its location between Boston and New York, along I-91, and close to Bradley Airport. “I think there’s a lot of potential in our location,” she told BusinessWest.

That said, she called Enfield a town in transition in some ways, especially when it comes to economic development. “We have a lot of new members on the Town Council, and there’s been a complete reorganization of the Land Use Department. They lose a lot of their top people, so we’re trying to get reorganized and get some good people in there and work as a team.”

Meanwhile, “we’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

And the development potential is there, she added, pointing again to Enfield’s surplus of available land and possible reuse sites. To that end, officials will be looking at establishing some tax-abatement policies to help businesses access some of those opportunities. “We’re going to be here to help them through the process.”

With the Thompsonville transit center on the horizon and the town continuing to leverage its location and amenities, this community that lies between what will eventually be two casinos is betting big on its future as a business and lifestyle destination.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight: Wilbraham

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith say they’d like to see more civic participation in policy discussions and planning town events.

Being pro-business, Jeff Smith says, doesn’t mean letting just any business set up shop in Wilbraham — but it does mean giving every business a fair shake.

Take, for example, Iron Duke Brewing, which is moving to town after a successful but eventually contentious stay at the Ludlow Mills. Because Wilbraham had no zoning for microbrew and brewpub establishments, the town’s Economic Development Initiative Steering Committee (EDICS) recommended a zoning change that eased the path for not just Iron Duke, but also Catch 22 Brewing, which is setting up shop at the former Dana’s Grillroom on Boston Road.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do,” said Smith, the town’s Planning Board chairman, giving one example of how a zoning change can have effects beyond its initial motivation.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22 Brewing] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do.”

“When somebody comes into town and is interested in locating a business here and we don’t have specific zoning for it,” he added, “the Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the town itself take a hard look at the zoning and say, ‘is this the type of operation we’d like to see here? Maybe we should put zoning in place, and we can pitch it to the town, and if it’s not appropriate and the town agrees, they can vote accordingly at town meeting.’”

The same thing happened when the town lifted a long-time moratorium on new gas stations. As soon as that happened, Cumberland Farms bought some real estate in Post Office Park along Boston Road, with plans to open a 24-hour facility.

“We tried to have some foresight,” Smith told BusinessWest, adding that the Route 20 corridor used to have five gas stations, but that number had shrunk to two since the moratorium went into effect. “We said, ‘OK, why don’t we allow gas stations?’ It was something a previous Planning Board had put it in, but we said, ‘why? Things have changed. Maybe this is a good time to take a look at this.’ And as soon as we did, Cumberland Farms came in and located here.”

Bob Boilard, who chairs Wilbraham’s three-member Board of Selectmen, said he’s not an advocate of locking up decent, buildable land in perpetuity, or keeping out entire classes of businesses for no reason.

“There’s got to be a common-sense approach,” he said. “There are people in town that would say, ‘let’s stop now. No more building in Wilbraham.’ But you can’t do that. You have to have a tax base and controlled growth to support the town. It’s a balancing act. Open space is great, and we do a great job with that, but we have to consider each individual thing that comes before us.”

Smith added that town officials try to be both reactive and proactive, recognizing current needs but also anticipating future ones. “We want more businesses and more enterprises to locate here in our business district.”

Open for Business

Boilard said the town has worked in recent years to streamline the process for businesses to set up shop there.

“Planning and Zoning have done a great job adjusting things to make it easier for businesses to come in, and when they do come in, they complement us on the ease of communication, the ease of getting things done,” he said. “We don’t put up brick walls every so many feet for these guys; we try to make it as easy as possible to come in and do business in Wilbraham.”

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.64
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

The nine-member EDICS has been integral to that effort, Smith said. “Let’s say you’re XYZ Inc., and you want to locate your business in Wilbraham. What do you do? What’s your first step? Where do you go? How do you know if there’s zoning for your business?”

One project the group wants to tackle is creating a comprehensive section on the town’s website to answer all those questions.

“They’re proposing updating the website to a more modern platform that’s more user-friendly, and then adding a business or a ‘locating your business here’ page that would essentially have a checklist: the first step is to talk to this person, here’s their phone number, here’s their e-mail.

“That way, people come in prepared,” he went on. “As a member of town government, we hate to have somebody come in unprepared and then have to tell them, ‘hey, you’re going to have to come back to the next meeting, and that’s a month away.’ So if they can get a lot of questions answered and come prepared, it’s smoother for everybody.”

The committee is also looking into creating marketing materials, both online and in print, outlining what Wilbraham has to offer — such as its access to rail and a single tax rate — that make it appealing to locate a business here.

Not every development proposal has gone according to plan. A recent effort to allow a mixed-use development in the town center, in the area of Main and Springfield streets, failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes.

“It’s a very sensitive area,” Smith said. “One thing I’ve learned in my six years on the Planning Board is that people are very hesitant to change. In the long run, I think we take our time in this town and we do things right, and the end result is good. But in the beginning, there’s an air of skepticism toward changing something — which I don’t think is a bad thing.”

But it can be tricky, he went on, when a developer wants to move forward with a proposal that could create added energy in the center, especially when other mixed-use facilities, grandfathered in when the town put a hold on others like it, already exist.

“People understand there’s some vacant buildings there, and we could make changes that would probably make them not vacant and make it more vibrant,” he explained, “but I think there’s a fear that would be a change they may not like. So we have to tread lightly and move carefully with the center of town and make sure we get as much input from the people of the town as possible.”

In the end, he said, town officials didn’t do the best job conveying why such a development would be a positive. “It was a close vote, which is good because there are a lot of people in favor of it, but at the same time it tells me we have more work to do.”

Changing Times

It’s a challenge, Boilard said, to build a more vibrant town in an age when people’s lifestyles have been altered by technology, declining school enrollment, and a host of other factors. “The generations are changing, and society changes, and that happens everywhere.”

For example, Smith said, the Boston Road business corridor was originally built around retail, but bricks-and-mortar retail establishments struggle in the age of Amazon, and the concept of what a downtown or business center looks like today has shifted immeasurably since the 1970s, or even the 1990s.

“When I was a kid, I would get on my bicycle — I lived near Mile Tree School — and I could drive to the center of town. My dentist was there, Louis & Clark filled all of our prescriptions, the gas station would fix your car or come jump your car in your driveway, my pediatrician was right on the road there, the post office was there, and the village store was there, selling sandwiches and stuff. Everything you needed was there.”

Today, he went on, “you don’t see as many kids out riding their bikes. Those things that I mentioned aren’t really there in one convenient package. Things are different. So we’re trying to put in or modify zoning, potentially bringing some mixed-use components or do something to revitalize those areas, and it’s tough to balance that with … I don’t want to say a fear of change, but there’s an apprehension toward change in the wrong direction.”

Boilard said Wilbraham remains an attractive destination for new residents, with a well-run and well-regarded school system, although real estate in town can be pricey. “It can be hard for new families to come in and be able to afford Wilbraham. I wish we could have an impact on that, but it’s the way economics and demographics are.”

That said, several new subdivisions have gone up in recent years, with a trend toward modestly sized houses, which are selling faster than larger homes, and developers are designing projects accordingly, Smith said.

“Residential growth, in my time here, has been pretty consistent — I would say slow but always moving in the right direction,” he explained. “There’s not a ton of available land in town. The last subdivision to go in was an old farm that was in a family for a long time, and it wasn’t being used as a farm anymore. So a developer purchased it and divided it up and put in a subdivision.”

Compared to other towns in the area, he went on, Wilbraham does a good job of protecting and managing open-space and recreation parcels. “Every time a parcel is brought to the town to be purchased or donated as open space, the town is seemingly in favor of those purchases.”

But controlled growth is the goal, he added, and a balance must be struck between commerce and open space. “There’s a tax base that has to be built, and we try to build it with as much business as we can. We’ve turned down pieces of open space offered to the town — ‘no, we’re all set; put it on the open market, develop the property and get some tax revenue going.’”

Getting to Know You

One area Wilbraham does need to improve, both Boilard and Smith said, is in the area of volunteerism and civic involvement.

“Town events are well-attended, and that’s great,” Smith said, citing examples like the Spec Pond fishing derby, the Run for Rice’s 5K, the Thursday night concert series, the revamped Peach Blossom Festival, and the Christmas tree lighting. “But I would love to see more participation in the planning.”

Boilard agreed. “People complain we don’t have an event, but nobody wants to volunteer to run it. It’s always the same core people stepping up to volunteer,” he said, adding that this trend applies to town-meeting attendance as well.

For example, a recent public hearing on raising the minimum smoking age in town to 21 drew mainly support from the residents in attendance. “Then the phone calls started rolling in — ‘I can shoot a bullet in the Army at 18; why are you doing this?’ I said, ‘where were you Monday night? Why didn’t you come in and talk to us?’”

Smith called the numbers at town meetings “painful” — particularly considering the work that officials put into preparing for them. “I like it when there’s an angry mob in here. That’s good. We want some feedback. But participation could be better.”

After all, he and Boilard said, engaged residents are informed residents, all the better equipped to steer Wilbraham into its next phase of controlled growth.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers, and in collaboration, when it comes to promoting a city and its region.

As executive director of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, Moe Belliveau has a good view of what has become one of the region’s more unique and energetic small cities.

“There’s a lot of great stuff here, different stuff,” she told BusinessWest. “I think Easthampton has a very eclectic flavor to it, and that just continues to grow. I believe the community really enjoys that about itself and embraces that part of themselves, and helps to nurture that. It’s lovely to be a part of that.”

From its well-established arts culture to its rehabilitated mill complexes to its walkable, dog-friendly downtown, she said Easthampton is, quite simply, a place residents and businesses are happy to call home. “We even have a pond in the middle of our city — who else has that?”

It’s also a community where a raft of businesses have launched recently — many of them catering to leisure time and quality of life, like arts establishment #LOCAL Gallery; restaurants like Daily Operation, a casual eatery, and Kisara, a Japanese and Korean barbecue; and additions to Eastworks like Prodigy Minigolf and Gameroom, the Coffee Mill, and Puzzled Escape Games.

“I like to say that Easthampton’s hip, cool, wow, and now — as is its chamber,” said Belliveau, who arrived to lead the body four years ago after a stint with the Westfield Business Improvement District. Since then, she has been leading a shift from simply organizing events to a more holistic, collaborative approach that brings value to chamber members and creates more vibrancy in the town’s business community.

In short, the chamber has become not only more member- and community-focused, through events like ‘listening lunches’ with area businesses, but also more collaborative with other area communities and their chambers.

“We’ve continued with our listening-lunch program because it’s a good opportunity for us to hear not only what people like, but what people are perhaps yearning for in their chamber, and how we might be able to do things differently — or even to be made aware of things we might not know about. It’s helpful.”

One development from those sessions was the chamber’s universal gift card, which is redeemable at dozens of area businesses. “The chamber gift card was a direct development from that collaboration, and that continues to grow; it’s really popular,” Belliveau said. “I’m very excited and very proud of that.”

It’s one way Easthampton’s is creating energy and buzz in its growing business community — and it’s far from the only way.

Regional Approach

Take, for example, a new partnership with the Amherst Area and Greater Northampton chambers, called the Hampshire Regional Tourism Council. Among its first accomplishments was the publication last September of the first Hampshire County Tourism Guide, a colorful, comprehensive compendium of the three communities’ restaurants and hospitality businesses, tourist attractions, recreational opportunties, shopping and wellness options, and more.

“I’m really very proud of this; I don’t know how many tourism guides actually have this look and feel,” Belliveau said. “As Easthampton continues to grow into — or already is — a destination city, it’s a really great tool that highlights who we are, what we do, and why we do it.”

The concept behind the three-city collaboration is that Easthampton, Northampton, and Amherst are all known for arts and culture, food, and a generally eclectic mix of businesses that both serve residents and draw tourists — but they’re different from each other in many ways, too, and by promoting themselves as one mini-region, the hope is that all will benefit.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $16.00
Commercial Tax Rate: $16.00
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., Williston Northampton School; National Nonwovens Co.
*Latest information available

“Don’t we all have our own flavor?” she asked rhetorically. “Yet, we add to each other’s energy and strengths, and we work quite well together. We enjoy partnering, and we do it quite often during the year. We’re looking to publish our second edition this coming September, so we’re currently pulling that together.”

Such collaborations, Belliveau said, have always been important to her. “I feel like we all have our own voice and our own character and identity, but I think when we come together, we add value for our members, and there’s strength in numbers.”

Another example is “The Art of Risk,” a women’s leadership conference the Greater Easthampton Chamber presented last fall in collaboration with the Greater Holyoke Chamber. It featured keynote speaker Angela Lussier, founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, a business devoted to helping women find their voice.

“That event was a sold-out success, so we’re looking to do that again,” Belliveau said, referring to the second annual conference, slated for Sept. 28 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, featuring keynoter Valerie Young, an author and public speaker who’s also an expert on the impostor syndrome, a common psychological pattern that breeds doubt and fear in potential leaders, and keeps them from realizing their potential.

The event will also feature morning breakout sessions in “The Art of Self-promotion,” “The Art of Leadership,” “The Art of Balance,” and “The Art of Storytelling,” followed by an afternoon panel featuring local women sharing personal stories of personal or professional risk.

Other workshops organized by the chamber, both alone and in collaboration with other groups, have convinced Belliveau there’s an appetite for such outreaches, especially those that are interactive in design.

“It’s really helped me to see what kinds of information the business community finds helpful. It’s not just sitting all day listening, but adding tools to their toolbox,” she told BusinessWest.

“I like to say it’s not your grandfather’s chamber anymore,” she went on. “What’s really very exciting to me, in addition to these events, is the relationship that we’ve been able to foster and nurture with the city. We value them, and they value us as contributing partners to the economic-development team. So that’s been pretty exciting.”

Art of the Matter

Even the city’s cultural events reflect this desire for collaboration. For example, #LOCAL Gallery will open a new exhibit on July 14. The 12 artists displaying their works in “An Excursion in Color,” organized and curated with the help of color consultant Amy Woolf, will be joined by Prindle Music School owner Dan Prindle and musical guests to provide entertainment. Meanwhile, flowers from Passalongs Farm & Florist will add more aesthetic appeal to the event.

“There’s a lot of great partnerships, a lot of great collaborations going on,” Belliveau said. “A lot of nonprofits like to collaborate and work together, from the schools to the arts community. I really enjoy being a part of that.”

The city also continues see a continued reuse of old mill buildings — as one example, Erin Witmer opened the Boylston Rooms, a quirky meeting and event space, in the Keystone building on Pleasant Street last year. Meanwhile, Easthampton’s three breweries — Fort Hill, Abandoned Building, and New City — continue to grow, while Valley Paddler, launched last year, has been a success offering paddleboats for use on Nashawannuck Pond.

An eclectic mix? For sure. Bealliveau says Easthampton is a community that continues to attract residents and businesses to its navigability, the services offered by a wide range of small businesses, its focus on the arts as an economic driver, and much more. And she plans to continue bringing as many of those entities together as she can.

“Nobody needs to be out in front, if that makes any sense,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re all running in the same race. Actually, it’s not even a race. The goal is the same, and we all have our different perspectives on that, which just makes the endgame all the richer. And I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. It’s exciting.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]