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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany have presided over many grand openings in downtown Amherst in recent months, testimony to the community’s comeback from the pandemic.

 

If business openings are any indication, Amherst is poised for a strong rebound from a pandemic that has been very rough on its mostly tourism-and-hospitality-based economy.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) said that, by the end of August by her estimation, at least 13 new businesses will have opened in downtown Amherst.

“We’re watching a lift that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Gould, who shares office space with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and its executive director, Claudia Pazmany.

The two women and their organizations are working together along with town officials to drive economic empowerment and development for Amherst, and, as recent events demonstrate, it’s working.

Pazmany has presided over 10 ribbon cuttings over the past few months and her calendar has plenty more of these celebrations scheduled in the coming weeks and months.

“Many of these businesses opened during the pandemic and now want to celebrate because they have lasted and even grown their businesses,” Pazmany told BusinessWest.

All this activity in Amherst represents a strong comeback of sorts from the many side-effects of the pandemic. As the community where UMass Amherst and Amherst College are located, it has been described as the quintessential college town. When the pandemic hit and colleges were shut down, the economic impact was abrupt and severe.

“Overnight, nearly 50,000 people left the area,” Gould recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

One way to get an idea of the economic impact colleges have on the town is to look at the number of undergraduate students there. But Gould pointed out that the real impact of students on a town must include all the people who support them, like faculty, staff, and even all the friends and parents who visit the students. When the pandemic hit and campuses were abandoned, Amherst experienced what life would look like without its colleges.

Paul Bockelman

Paul Bockelman says housing is just one of many priorities that have emerged in discussions about how to best spend ARPA funds.

“Once everyone left, our businesses ran at 20% to 30% capacity— and that’s not sustainable,” Gould said. To put it another way, business was off 70% to 80%. “Having the colleges open and the students back fills my heart with joy.”

As noted, these students — and all those who support them or might come to visit them — will see a number of new businesses, especially in the downtown area. That list includes the much-anticipated Drake performance venue, which opened its doors late last month. The Drake meets a long-recognized need for a live-performance venue and it is expected to bring people to Amherst from across this region and well beyond, said Gould, adding that it will likely be a catalyst for more new businesses.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses. In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

But the Drake is far from the only addition to the landscape, she noted, adding that there are new restaurants, retail shops, and more, bringing an ever-more-eclectic mix of businesses to downtown that will make that area more of a destination.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on Amherst, which was hit very hard by the pandemic, but is moving on from that two-year nightmare is every way imaginable.

 

On the Town

As part of the effort to bring Amherst out of the COVID era, the Chamber and BID began a campaign to promote Amherst as a destination titled “What’s Next? Amherst Area.”

Pazmany explained that this campaign promotes the quality of life in Amherst and surrounding areas.

“We focus on three things: the outdoor adventures available here, our iconic cultural institutions — think colleges and the Emily Dickenson Museum — and the ability to have a global dining experience among our restaurants,” she said.

Global dining is more than hyperbole, as downtown Amherst lists 43 restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world. Each one has an intriguing story.

Indeed, Antonio Marquez moved from Guadalajara, Mexico to Amherst because his wife’s family lives there. As he researched where to open his restaurant, Mexcalito Taco Bar, Marquez considered several towns in the Pioneer Valley and credits destiny for making Amherst his choice.

“This is the best spot for us because we have a family connection here and we like the fact that Amherst is a university community,” Marquez said.

While Mexcalito was ready for business prior to the pandemic, Marquez held off when the world shut down and decided instead to open in July 2021. Now 10 months in business, Marquez said his goal with Mexcalito is for customers to learn something new about Mexican culture through the eatery’s food and drinks.

“When people come in, they feel a different ambience, hear different music,” Marquez said. “We’re looking to do more with sophisticated Mexican cuisine and we will be adding 20 new drinks to our cocktail menu.”

He added that Amherst is the right place for Mexcalito and appreciates his relationship with the town. “We’re feeling like we fit here, it’s pretty cool.”

The broad goal moving forward is create more of these ‘fits,’ said Gould and Pazmany, noting that the Drake is another intriguing example.

That facility fills the need for a music venue for downtown, said Gould, adding that her mindset as she tries to help bring other new businesses to the town is to meet other identified needs.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses,” Gould said. “In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

That strategy is reflected in the 13 businesses that are opening in the next few months. Among the businesses Gould hopes to see are a fish market, a brewery, and a breakfast/lunch café.

“I have a list of businesses Amherst needs,” Gould said. “We don’t have them yet, but we’re working on it.”

 

House Money

While the business community is rebounding from COVID, the real estate boom that began during the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down in Amherst.

An outdated perception of Amherst is that only college students and retirees lived there, said Pazmany, adding that these days, when a house goes up for sale real estate agents are bombarded with at least a dozen cash offers, all above the asking price.

“Because the pandemic has allowed a number of people to work from anywhere, many are choosing Amherst for the quality of life it offers,” Pazmany said. “One realtor told me most of her clients are people who grew up here and are returning.”

In a good news/bad news twist, UMass and Amherst College are contributing to the housing shortage as both keep moving up academic ranking lists.

“We’re seeing people from literally all over the world who want to do their post-graduate work at UMass,” Gould said. “That means they need somewhere to live.”

And the town intends to use some the $9.8 million it has received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to help such people find a place. Indeed, $2 million has been earmarked to begin to address some of the affordable housing concerns in the community.

Housing was just one of many priorities identified by the town as it went about gathering information and soliciting opinions on how to spend ARPA monies, said Paul Bockelman, town administrator, adding that the public and key stakeholders identified 17 different areas to address.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

With the projects finalized this past November, Bockelman reported progress in using the ARPA funds in areas such as filling firefighter and paramedic positions, as well as adding a position in public health. The ARPA funds also included a $750,000 allocation for economic development, specifically to support the creation of the Drake.

As for other developments in town, a $36 million project is underway to renovate and expand the historic Jones Library. Plans call for maintaining the stone exterior while adding space and making it one of the most environmentally efficient buildings in town.

Not far from Jones Library, the Emily Dickenson Museum has a $6 million renovation underway. When the museum re-opens later this year, it will display a collection of period furniture and costumes used in the Apple TV series Dickenson. The show’s producers bought actual period pieces for the show and offered them to the museum at the end of the series shooting.

“The TV show has brought Emily Dickenson to a whole new generation who are now obsessed with her,” Gould said.

For all the good things happening, both Gould and Pazmany admit that Amherst’s business community faces the same challenges every municipality faces, from supply chain issues to inflation to the ongoing workforce crisis.

“As restaurants are still staffing up, they are doing what they can, even if it means reduced hours instead of being open all the time,” Pazmany said. “As they are working through it, we’re asking everyone be patient during these times.”

While outdoor dining saved many restaurants from going under, Gould pointed out that most outdoor set-ups were thrown together with a few jersey barriers and no budget. The BID has received a grant to run a pilot program with several restaurants to show what outdoor dining looks like when it’s done right.

“If we can show the community how this looks when it’s done properly, we can encourage more permanent outdoor dining destinations,” said Gould.

One more challenge, she noted, involves encouraging people to set aside the “add to cart” option of having everything delivered. Instead, she suggested that consumers go out and meet a shopkeeper.

“You can walk into a store and make a human connection,” Gould said. “Amazon was a safety net when we needed it but we can now go down the street to browse.”

 

The Bottom Line

Pazmany added that a new breed of entrepreneurs is opening shops in Amherst.

“There’s a revival of people who want to be business owners,” she said. “They are proud to be here and eager to help.”

Both women look forward to the positive changes that are taking shape in the next couple of years.

“When I think of Amherst in 2023 and 2024, I see a new way of life that is refreshed and yet remains historic,” Gould said. “We do everything we can to keep the town beautiful, but it needs a face lift, and we’re excited because it’s about to happen.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise says Palmer has looked into several family-friendly attractions to draw more people to town.

Three years ago, when Ryan McNutt took the job as Palmer’s town manager, he observed that, when people entered town from Mass Pike exit 8 (now exit 63), they encountered a Big Y World Class Market, a McDonald’s, a couple of other businesses, and lots of empty parcels all around them on Thorndike Street.

“You don’t typically see this near a turnpike exit; it’s usually built out with commercial real estate,” he said, adding that town residents — and those passing through — may soon see the landscape change in a meaningful way.

Indeed, McNutt has been working with other town officials and with landowners to take advantage of the considerable opportunities these empty lots present.

“The landowners have met with several national chains, and I can now share that one of the projects will be a Starbucks coffee shop,” he said.

Linda Leduc, the town planner and Economic Development director, is working on finding a retail tenant and a sit-down restaurant to join the planned Starbucks. She said turning these chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses gives a big boost to Palmer residents.

“Just seeing the cleanup happen on two of the lots we’re developing is getting people excited,” she added.

Far from a scattershot approach, these commercial developments are part of a master plan the town compiled and published at the end of 2020. McNutt said this is the first master plan for Palmer since 1975.

“We had an amazing amount of public input on the plan,” he noted. “When you put the meetings on Zoom, more people show up.”

The plan addresses commercial, residential, and protected open space in Palmer. McNutt said it helps prioritize the “low-hanging fruit” where the town should put its energy now, as well as projects that can be done later. The master plan lists 20 underdeveloped sites in Palmer, 12 of which are in the process of being developed or close to that point.

“Instead of getting off the pike and just driving through, there are going to be lots of opportunities for people to stop and spend money in Palmer,” Leduc said.

 

Right Place, Right Time?

One significant potential development area is known as ‘the hill.’

As drivers exit from the turnpike, they are immediately confronted by a large hill at the end of the exit ramp. On top of the hill are nearly 100 acres of land available for development. The hill was once the proposed site for a casino until voters in Palmer rejected those plans. Recently, the Town Council approved a zone change that made an adjacent 78-acre parcel available for business use and further incentivize a large-scale project for the land.

“We’ve always seen interest in development of the hill,” said McNutt, adding that there is optimism that interest may soon turn into progress and some recognized needs met.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer. The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

One priority residents have shared with him involves bringing another supermarket to Palmer. Big Y has been a stalwart in town for many years and has contributed to various community efforts.

“Big Y is a great company, and they are a great partner, but residents would like to have some other options,” McNutt said. “It’s what I’m hearing the most from people in Palmer.”

Closer to downtown, a recent zone change to the former Converse Middle School has drawn both interest and concern. Andrew Surprise, CEO of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce, said the more business-friendly zone change has drawn interest from a company that would convert the school to an Esports Arena, where video-game players of all levels could compete against others.

“In the New England area, there’s really nothing like this,” said Surprise. “There are some at colleges like UMass Amherst, but those are geared to students on campus rather than the general public.”

The Esports Arena is one of several ideas to bring family-friendly attractions to Palmer. According to Surprise, the town has looked into a water park, a trampoline park, and other attractions.

Linda Leduc

Linda Leduc says turning chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses is a development priority.

“I believe the town will do a feasibility study at some point for the Esports idea as there’s still much to do to make sure the residents approve of it or any other proposed use,” he said.

Through a MassDevelopment program know as the Transformative Development Initiative, Surprise is working on other ways to attract businesses to Palmer. The Vacant Downtown Storefront Program is one that may have some promise for the downtown area. “It provides grant funding for a business to renovate a storefront if they plan to open there,” he explained.

Meanwhile, as interest in more retail grows, another aspect of the town’s economy, tourism and hospitality, is poised for a resurgence after two long years of the pandemic.

Indeed, for the past two years, Surprise has held off publishing the chamber’s tourism guide and visitors directory. The pandemic led to frequent changes and cancellations to event schedules, making publishing the guide seem futile.

Businesses are now contacting Surprise because they want to get their names and events out to the public once again. The new guide is scheduled to be complete by early May and available to the crowds attending the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in mid-May.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer,” he said. “The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

Speaking of breweries, Surprise said Palmer and other towns in the chamber are looking to host a brewery in their community.

“Even though there are lots of breweries in the general area, we have our eyes open for anyone who wants to open a brewery to see if we can help them with any incentives,” he noted.

 

Bridges to the Future

To make Palmer more economically viable, the master plan suggests ensuring proper infrastructure is in place. Two main bridges in town, located on Church Street and Main Street, are both in need of replacing. MassDOT closed the Church Street Bridge in 2019 while the Main Street bridge had minor repairs which will keep it safe for vehicular traffic. The town will soon erect a truss bridge to use while a new Church Street bridge is built.

“The state said it will use some of their infrastructure funding to fully replace the Church Street bridge, but that could take up to five years,” McNutt said. “The truss bridge allows us to keep the bridge open to traffic.”

In MassDOT terms, the Main Street bridge is not in imminent danger, but the town does need to replace it in the future. McNutt said the plan right now is to use the truss bridge on Church Street, then move it to Main Street once the permanent Church Street bridge is complete.

With passage of the federal infrastructure bill, McNutt remains optimistic about the proposed east-west rail proposal across Massachusetts. Currently, the state has three alternative configurations for the rail project, with a stop in Palmer included in all three. McNutt said he’s hopeful that remains the case and looks forward to talking with the state once it is ready to proceed.

“Obviously, this would be transformative for Palmer,” he said, adding that a rail stop will serve to make the town an even more attractive option for new retail and hospitality-related businesses.

Nearly two-thirds of housing in Palmer consists of single-family homes, higher than the state and county averages of just below 60%. McNutt said town leaders are working to attract more permanent housing development for the community.

To that end, work will soon begin on a 200-cottage development at Forest Lake. The plan calls for seasonal cottages that will have water and sewer services. McNutt estimates that, when complete, the cottages will add nearly $800,000 to the tax base in Palmer.

On the other side of Forest Lake, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game plans to build a new boat launch, parking lot, and ADA-accessible fishing pier so people of all abilities can enjoy the water. McNutt estimates the state project and the cottages are about two years away from completion.

“I feel like we’re finally getting to the point where Palmer is going to see lots of great things happening that residents and visitors will be able to enjoy,” Leduc said.

 

 

Bottom Line

Everywhere he goes in town, McNutt carries a copy of the economic-development chapter of the master plan.

“This way, when someone has a question about what we’re doing, I can show them in the plan how we want to create destination locations for them and for folks who have never been here,” he said.

With the proposed east-west rail and a lower cost of living compared to Eastern Mass., McNutt believes Palmer has the right location at the right time, and can take a meaningful step forward in terms of growth and prosperity.

“We’re going to position Palmer as an attractive place to live,” he said, adding that it can, and hopefully will, also become an attractive place for businesses of all kinds to plant roots.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says Main Street will undergo much change over the next five years.

When it comes to her city, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner takes the long view.

“In five years or less,” she said, “you will not recognize Main Street in Greenfield because so many good things will be happening.”

Two notable projects in the works involve the building of a new, $20 million library on the east end of Main Street and a new, $18 million fire station on the west end.

“These two big investments at each end of Main Street show the city’s commitment to making Greenfield a desirable place to do business,” Wedegartner said.

That commitment also includes a $5 million project to address parking on Main Street. Right now, the street has a mix of angled as well as parallel parking. When complete, Main Street will have all parallel parking and a bike lane.

“Businesses are rightly concerned about the disruption from the work, but we have lots of parking downtown, so their shops will still be accessible,” the mayor said.

Danielle Letourneau, Wedegartner’s chief of staff, said the plan is to modernize more than the parking.

“During the redesign of Main Street, we want to replace the old pipes and infrastructure under the pavement,” Letourneau said. “That way, the redesign will get a couple things done with only one disruption.”

The street project is expected to begin in the fall, Wedegartner said. “By making investments above ground and on the infrastructure below ground, we are showing that we believe in the future of Greenfield and of our downtown.”

In 2021, Greenfield was one of 125 communities in Massachusetts that took part in the state-sponsored Rapid Recovery Plan (RRP), a program designed to help local economies recover from the impact of COVID-19. Based on input from city officials and businesses, the state put together a formal plan for Greenfield titled “The Deliberate Downtown.”

While noting the downtown area is “very walkable” and has solid entertainment anchors, the report also pointed out that Greenfield took a bigger economic hit from COVID than other communities. According to the plan document, more than 70% of downtown businesses said they lost money in 2020 and in 2021, and two-thirds said they were still far behind their pre-COVID levels of business.

“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to. Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”

Foot traffic also suffered as 97% of the local merchants said fewer people visited their businesses. MJ Adams, the city’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the community is in many ways a place of necessity because it serves as a hub for Franklin County and attracts people in from surrounding towns for the YMCA, the John W. Olver Transit Center, and other regional assets.

“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to,” Adams said. “Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”

One idea to bring more people downtown involved blocking Court Square in front of City Hall to create a pedestrian-friendly area with the adjacent town common. Tried for the first time last year, the effort was framed by Wedegartner as a pilot project that received positive reviews from people who enjoyed the weekly farmer’s market as well as the opportunity to relax at bistro tables and Adirondack chairs with eats from nearby food trucks. The only negative feedback came from some residents who couldn’t find parking near City Hall.

“We learned that people who have lived here for years did not know we have an accessible parking lot behind City Hall,” Wedegartner said. “This year, we’ll adjust the plan to make sure people know about all our parking.”

City staff spent so much energy to establish the space last year, they couldn’t give much thought to what programs could be offered there, Adams noted. “This year, we’re doing it the other way around. Now that people have seen the space, they are asking us when they can use it this year.”

 

Out and About

Indeed, a public open space was among the recommendations from the “Deliberate Downtown” report, which suggested this would be a good way to encourage more foot traffic downtown. According to Letourneau, this is not the first time the open-space idea has been suggested.

“We found plans from previous administrations that discussed closing off the Court Square area dating as far back as 1985,” she said.

The Court Square space now operates from May to November, and once she can find the budget for it, Wedegartner wants to redesign the area, incorporating the town common into a permanent pedestrian space.

Steve Capshaw says VSS Inc. may look to hire 50 more workers soon

Steve Capshaw says VSS Inc. may look to hire 50 more workers soon, and has found a solid pool of talent in the Greenfield area.

Outdoor dining will also return as the weather gets warmer. When the governor relaxed outdoor-dining restrictions at the height of the pandemic, the idea was to help restaurants generate some business during warm-weather months. That special order ended this week, on April 1, but cities and towns across the state have sought variances to continue the program through 2022.

While not all restaurants took advantage of outdoor seating, Wedegartner said, it was a popular option with many people. “We will be doing some version of outdoor dining again this year.”

An ongoing challenge for the mayor and her staff involves two prominent vacancies in Greenfield. The First National Bank building overlooks the town common and has been empty for several years. Efforts to reconfigure the space as a cultural venue were abandoned recently because several entertainment and cultural venues, such as Hawks & Reed, the Shea Theatre, and other spots no longer make the bank building feasible.

“We are putting together an RFP to see if a private developer might have an idea for that space,” Adams said. “It’s an important project for the city to get something in the former bank building.”

Wilson’s Department Store once dominated Main Street but now stands as a prominent downtown vacancy. The nearby Green Fields Market has been considering an expansion into Wilson’s, but it hasn’t yet happened. Wedegartner called the situation an ongoing conversation that’s still in progress.

“Their move into Wilson’s will be wonderful if it can happen,” she said.

 

Manufacturing Progress

Advanced manufacturing is one area where Greenfield has seen steady growth. Wedegartner pointed to Bete Fog Nozzle and especially VSS Inc. as significant companies to the city and surrounding communities.

Once known as Valley Steel Stamp, VSS has transitioned into high-tolerance machine services for the aerospace and defense industries. Steve Capshaw, president of VSS, said the company has grown over the last 10 years from $2 million in annual sales to $40 million.

MJ Adams in front of Court Square

MJ Adams in front of Court Square, which will be a pedestrian area again this summer.

“We’re looking to increase sales another 50% next year,” Capshaw said, adding that the three- to five-year plan is to become a premier advanced manufacturer and assembler for the aerospace industry. VSS customers include Pratt and Whitney and Raytheon Missiles, as well as manufacturing key parts for F-15 and F-35 fighter jets.

Demand for his company’s services remains strong as many of his customers are “re-shoring” or having components made here in the U.S. once again. As Capshaw pointed out, COVID exposed supply-chain issues and unrealized cost savings companies thought they were going to get when they moved production overseas.

“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained. With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”

“Our customers are making this shift for cost and strategic purposes,” he said. “Looking ahead, we see very strong demand for U..S-made precision machine services.”

With 135 employees currently at VSS, Capshaw would like to hire at least 50 more people this year just based on current business. Because his company uses computer numerical control (CNC) machining — pre-programmed software dictates the movement of the factory tools — Capshaw understands that he must build his workforce through training.

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.32
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.32
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained,” he said. “With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”

With a predicted need of several hundred more employees in the coming years, he said the search for new workers will encompass a 20-mile radius around Greenfield to “build on what has already made us successful.”

Despite the tight labor market, Capshaw welcomes the challenge. “We like competing for labor. It makes all companies do better, and I don’t see it going away.”

Back in 2010, VSS moved into a 22,000-square-foot facility in Greenfield Industrial Park. After several additions to the site, VSS now occupies 45,000 square feet and is looking to expand.

“Right now, we’re working with the city to find a local place we can buy or a site where we can build an additional facility,” Capshaw said. “We will keep what we have and look to add more space for manufacturing.” He also credited Greenfield officials for all their help in the company’s expansion.

With a new library taking shape, a new Fire Department about to break ground this spring, and a growing advanced-technology manufacturing sector, Greenfield is well on its way to realizing Wedegartner’s vision of transforming the city for the near and distant future.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal says the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce’s move to Deerfield will include a visitor center.

 

By Mark Morris

 

Deerfield is one busy town these days.

Residents there are engaged in 22 different boards and committees planning several ambitious projects to better the town. Still, while all that activity is admirable, it also invites confusion if anyone feels out of the loop.

A group of 15 residents who serve on several boards and committees in Deerfield were aware of the potential pitfalls and formed the Connecting Community Initiative (CCI) to improve communication among the various committees and with municipal officials. Denise Mason, chair of the CCI, said the initiative came about after increasing frustration among members of several boards and committees.

“Because we are all volunteers, people often don’t have the time to stay on top of activities that fall outside of their committee work,” Mason said. “We created the CCI to eliminate the silos in town so we can keep all our projects moving forward.”

The initiative started in November, with the group meeting eight times since then. Mason said they’ve been successful so far with keeping people informed and projects on track.

One big project involves renovating and repurposing the former Deerfield Grammar School to house the municipal offices. Part of the plan also calls for building an addition on the back of the building, where the town’s senior center would be located.

“These projects are part of a bigger objective, which is to create a walkable town campus in Deerfield,” Mason said, explaining that 45% of residents are over age 45.

Kayce Warren, Deerfield town administrator, strongly supports these plans and intends to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to develop a municipal parking lot centrally located in town.

“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community. With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”

“If there’s parking, people will come,” she said. “We’re looking to create a campus that provides walking access to the municipal offices, the senior center, and other resources, such as a small market and a bank.”

The walkable community idea doesn’t stop at the center of town. Work has begun on a municipal park on North Main Street, located past Frontier Regional School. Warren would like to see sidewalks extend from the center of town to the park, nearly two miles up the road.

“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community,” she said. “With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”

 

Location, Location, Location

Deerfield’s location along the Interstate 91 corridor makes it easily accessible from all directions. Many in town are hopeful the new Treehouse Brewery that opened in the former Channing Bete building will be a catalyst for drawing people to town. In her meetings with the brewery, Mason said Treehouse is cautiously developing its Deerfield location in three phases.

“Right now, they are working on the second phase, which calls for construction of a pavilion to stage outdoor concerts,” Mason said. “Once that’s up and running, hopefully this year, there is a big potential for other businesses to benefit as well.”

Among those businesses, Yankee Candle will likely benefit, as it has always been a big tourism draw for Deerfield. As Yankee and Treehouse are located close to each other on Route 10, Warren is hopeful they will create a working relationship to bring even more people to Deerfield.

It would surprise no one if the two entities were brought together by Diana Szynal. The executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce recently moved the organization from downtown Greenfield to Historic Deerfield. She said the move makes perfect sense because, prior to COVID-19, Historic Deerfield traditionally drew nearly 20,000 visitors a year.

“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources.”

“We will be opening a visitor center, which will allow us to promote all the attractions in Deerfield and surrounding towns,” Szynal said. The chamber’s former visitor center was located in a corner of the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Greenfield, a location she said was never worthy of Franklin County. “With the visitor center in Historic Deerfield, thousands more people will be able to learn about all the fun things to do in Franklin County.”

While Szynal and her staff are still settling in from the move, which occurred in mid-January, their focus is on having the visitor center ready to go when Historic Deerfield begins its season on April 16.

Jesse Vanek, vice president of Development and Communications for Historic Deerfield, said 2022 is a tremendous opportunity to welcome back large crowds to the outdoor museum that depicts life in 18th-century New England. “Historic Deerfield is such a special place, and we’re hoping to see our in-person visits get back to pre-COVID levels.”

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $15.17
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.17
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

Every year, the museum runs a full schedule of programs for visitors. Beginning in the spring, programs will range from Sheep on the Street, which explores heritage breed sheep and the role of wool processing in New England’s history, to a Summer Evening Stroll held on July 3 and themed on Deerfield during the American Revolution.

 

COVID and the winter season inspired Historic Deerfield to expand its program offerings online through virtual sessions. As a result, the museum now reaches audiences around the world. The winter lecture series included relevant topics such as understanding climate change from a historical perspective.

“We are fascinated with the response to our virtual programming,” Vanek said. “I believe it helps entice people to come visit us, which is good for our organization, the town, and the region.”

 

Out in the Open

Szynal has learned that people will travel long distances to take part many of the outdoor activities in Deerfield and Franklin County.

“We were shocked to learn how robust fly fishing is here,” she said. Indeed, whether casting a line into the Deerfield River or rafting in Charlemont, outdoor activities are a true resource for the area and bring in people who often stay for several days.

“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources,” she said.

Warren is thrilled that Szynal and the chamber are now part of Deerfield.

“Diana has great ideas, and I think she can help us keep Historic Deerfield connected to the rest of the community,” Warren said, adding that, in a perfect world, Deerfield would provide more incentives for tourism, but ongoing infrastructure projects have stretched budgets to their limits.

Located between the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, the town faces constant challenges with stormwater runoff and flooding issues. Bloody Brook, which also runs through town, maintains a higher-than-normal water table.

“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the tow. They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”

Deerfield was one of the first communities to qualify for the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program. MVP grants are awarded to cities and towns that build climate-change resilience into all their infrastructure plans. Warren explained that type of thinking applies to every project in town, from simple tree boxes designed for better stormwater management to larger projects like the school repurposing and sidewalk additions.

“We are linking everything together in terms of managing water issues, and we’ve set our sights on staying on top of this for the next 50 to 100 years,” Mason said.

As Deerfield’s many projects move forward with Mason and the CCI keeping them on track, Warren took a minute to appreciate the situation.

“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the town,” she said. “They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Holyoke Looks to Build on the Momentum from Cannabis, Entrepreneurship

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says there are many cannabis-related businesses now operating in Holyoke, and many more in the pipeline.

Joshua Garcia, Holyoke’s first Puerto Rican mayor and a lifelong resident of this historic community, says that, in many respects, history is repeating itself in the city.

Elaborating, he said that for the better part of a century, the paper and textile mills on the canals were a symbol of strength, a source of jobs, and, in many ways, the city’s identity (see Sidebar here)

It wasn’t that way through the latter half of the 20th century as most of the mills went south, and into the 21st century, he went on, but it’s becoming that way again, largely because of the booming cannabis industry that is breathing new life into those long-vacant mills.

“Those mills were the economic anchor,” he said. “And it’s interesting to see history repeat itself; but instead of the Paper City, there’s now this ‘Rolling Paper City’ interest. Although it’s a different industry … the impact is the same.”

Indeed, cannabis is changing the landscape in Holyoke, figuratively if not literally, although that, too. Aaron Vega, director of Planning & Economic Development in Holyoke and a former state representative, said there are now eight cannabis operations doing business in Holyoke, and several dozen more in various stages of development.

Just as important as the number of ventures is the broad diversity on display, he said, noting that the city boasts several cultivating operations, dispensaries, a testing lab, and more.

“We continue to see cannabis interest and cannabis companies opening,” said Vega. “There’s a lot in the pipeline.”

But while the emergence of a cannabis cluster in Holyoke — similar to what is happening with biotech in Worcester in many respects — has been impressive, there is much more to what most would call a resurgence in this city than one industry. There has been a surge in entrepreneurship that has brought many new businesses to High Street and other streets. There have been several new restaurants, for example, despite the toll the pandemic has taken on that sector, but many other kinds of ventures as well, said Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses.”

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses,” she said, noting that her ceremonial scissors have been given a workout. She credits the pandemic and the manner in which it has prompted introspection and, for many, a desire for something different and hopefully more fulfilling than their 9-5 job, as being a catalyst for some of this activity.

Tessa Murphy Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke and now also at-large City Councilor — she was elected last November — agreed.

She said the pandemic has helped fuel interest in entrepreneurship across the board, meaning people of all ages and demographic groups. EforAll has been expanding and evolving in ongoing efforts to meet the needs of such individuals, she said, adding that it is now staging its 12th and 13th cohorts of aspiring entrepreneurs, one for English-speaking candidates, and one for Spanish. It is also adding a new program, called E-Forever, a resource for those who are already in business rather than trying to get off the ground.

But beyond COVID, this surge in entrepreneurship is also being fueled by Holyoke’s emergence as a landing spot for those looking for affordability, diversity, a growing cultural economy, and a chance to do something they may not be able to do in a larger, far more expensive municipality.

People like Jay Candelario, who grew up in the city, moved to New York, but eventually returned. Battling heavy doubts and some long odds, he took an historic home on Dwight Street that had been damaged in a lightning strike, and converted it into Jay’s Bed & Breakfast.

Opened in 2016, the facility has certainly been challenged by the pandemic, but it has hung on, through diversification into catering and events, and Candelario’s persistence and belief in not only himself and his concept, but Holyoke itself (more on that, later).

Jay Candelario

Jay Candelario, seen here at the grand staircase at his B&B on Dwight Street, says Holyoke is staging a resurgence and attracting many new residents and businesses.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke and the many forces that are shaping progress in the city and, as the mayor noted, enabling history to repeat itself.

 

On a Roll

While there are many developments in Holyoke from a business perspective, cannabis continues to be the story.

And as Vega said, it’s one that involves a large number of businesses, diversity of ventures, and large supply of potential new initiatives in the pipeline.

Providing a quick snapshot of the cannabis cluster in Holyoke, which has a popular destination because of its cheap electricity, location near major interstates, and large supply of old mill buildings, Vega said there are now more than 500 people working within the industry in Holyoke, many of whom have graduated from cannabis programs at area colleges (see related story, page 35), and many different kinds of facilities, from cultivation and manufacturing operations., to dispensaries, to a testing facility, Analytics Labs, which opened last year, on Appleton Street. It’s the first operation of its kind in Western Mass., and provides a vital service to businesses that are required to submit the cannabis to independent labs that run a number of tests, for potency, solvents, pesticides, pathogenic microbes, and more.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year,” said Vega.

But there are still many challenges facing those looking to enter this industry, especially the smaller ventures, he went on.

“I think there’s still a lot of challenges for these companies to get their financing,” said Vega. “The MSOs — the multi-state operators — are able to set up shop more easily than the locally owned companies, but they are starting to come to fruition.”

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke, took her involvement in the city to a higher plane with election to the City Council last fall.

One development that may help some of these businesses get over the hump — and help Holyoke as well — is the creation of what Vega called an “incubator” for cannabis businesses in the old National Blank Book property on Cabot Street. There, many smaller businesses are getting support to break into the business and overcome the many hurdles — from financing to licensing to building a workforce — to opening the doors to a new cannabis business.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Vega, adding that there are a number of smaller enterprises occupying spaces in the facility and trying to move ventures forward.

Looking ahead, both Vega and Garcia said that one challenge — and opportunity — for the city is to promote the development of support businesses for the cannabis sector.

Elaborating, Vega said that these businesses must now order lighting, raw materials, and other products from companies on the other side of the country, and would certainly prefer to be able to source them locally.

“They all agree; there could be substantial savings if they didn’t have to order their products from Texas and Florida,” he told BusinessWest. “And we also like to think about the bigger picture — if we get those kinds of companies to land here in Western Mass., not just Holyoke, but Western Mass., there could be tremendous opportunities for the region.”

Elaborating, he said several neighboring states have either already legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so, and having support businesses that can provide lighting and products in Massachusetts, as opposed to Texas, could facilitate efforts to make this area a hub, not just for Massachusetts, but for all of New England.

 

Getting Down to Business

Murphy-Romboletti said she first started thinking about running for City Council two years ago. A former city employee — she worked in the mayor’s office and, later, the Office of Planning & Economic Development — she said she has always wanted to be involved with the community and knew that the Council was where one could make an impact — on the city, but also its business community.

After consulting with her bosses with EforAll, a national organization with several locations in the Bay State, including two in Western Mass., and getting their blessing, she threw her hat into the ring. She’s only been on the job a few months now, and has spent most of that time reaching out to department heads and talking with them about what they need for their offices to run better and more effectively.

From an economic development perspective, she said she has long understood the Council’s impact on business. “It has the ability to slow down process or speed up process on things,” she said. “And I think permitting, in and of itself, within our local government, is confusing and not always as necessary as it needs to be, and that’s one of the reasons why I ran.”

Elaborating, and without actually using the phrase, she said one of her goals is to help make the city more business-friendly, and especially at a time when there is so much interest in entrepreneurship — both within the cannabis sector but also well beyond it.

Which … brings her back to her day job. EforAll is seeing growing numbers of applications for its cohorts, she said, adding there are 22 participants in the current sessions. The pandemic has brought a regrettable halt to most in-person learning opportunities (although she’s hoping that might change soon), but the agency is carrying on through Zoom.

A number of graduates have gone on to open businesses, many in the downtown area, she said, adding that the ongoing needs of these ventures prompted the creation of E-Forever.

Undertaken in conjunction with Entrepreneurs Forever, the new group is a “resource for those who have gone through the program and are currently in business, rather than those who are just getting started,” she explained.

“These businesses are generating revenue, and they have unique challenges,” she went on, adding that this group of perhaps 8-10 entrepreneurs will meet once a month, share information, and troubleshoot. “The entrepreneurs pick what they want to work on; it’s like having an accountability group that meets each month to support whatever challenges you’re having as an existing business owner.”

The broad goal, she said, is to enable more businesses to weather the many storms they will face as they mature and grow and stay in business, preferably in Holyoke.

A good deal of resilience has already been on display, said Jordan, adding that she couldn’t think of a single business in the city that closed during the pandemic, and, meanwhile, as she noted, many new ones have been opening.

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber, says the pandemic has helped create a surge of entrepreneurship in the city and a number of new businesses.

“It’s been remarkable to see the perseverance the community has to see Holyoke thrive,” she said, adding that while existing businesses, often with help in the form of local, state, and federal grants, have found what it takes to survive the pandemic, COVID has inspired many others to join their ranks in the business community.

“People began to prioritize not only their personal life and their personal interests, but also their mental health and well-being,” she explained. “And many found that what they wanted was more work-life balance and flexible schedules. And that’s where entrepreneurship came into play … with people finding their true selves, what their purpose is, and what they want their purpose to be; the pandemic really shook things up in that sense.”

She said the roster of new businesses includes restaurants, like Crave, El Paradiso Colombiano, and the Avalon Café, and several cannabis-related businesses, but also a few boutiques. And, as noted, most are in the heart of downtown, bringing many formerly dormant spaces to life.

 

Rooms with a View

That historic home on Dwight Street that Jay Candelario found was more than dormant.

It needed considerable work inside and out, he told BusinessWest, adding that while most were more than willing to consider the property known to most as the Moriarty mansion and ultimately pass, he decided to take a chance.

“I’m a risk taker,” said Candelario, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Holyoke and then Amherst, and moved to New York City as an adult. “And you would have to be a risk taker to take this on.”

Those sentiments reflected more than the condition of the Queen Anne Victorian; they also referenced the time of this acquisition (2009, the height of the Great Recession) and the seemingly long odds against creating a successful B&B in downtown Holyoke.

But Candelario was able to look past the challenges and the doubters and see opportunity. It’s taken a while for the vision to become reality, and the pandemic has certainly put more hurdles in front of him — he admits to coming close to packing it in and moving on to something else — but Candelario, like many business owners in Holyoke, has persevered.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year.”

As he gave BusinessWest a tour and pointed out rooms bearing the names of places he’s visited in and lived in — ‘Brazil,’ ‘New York,’ ‘Puerto Rico,’ and ‘Holyoke,’ among others — Candelario said business has been steady if unspectacular, with guests ranging from traveling nurses, to executives for Coca Cola, to “emergencies” in the form of needed beds for those being helped by the nonprofits Roca Holyoke and Women’s Shelter Companeras, now Alianza. Over the years, though, he’s been able to draw guests visiting area colleges, individuals in town on business, and those attending the St. Patrick’s Day parade and road race. His audience is those who want something different than the run-of-the-mill hotel room.

Shut down for the better part of a year by the pandemic starting in March, 2020, he said he’s been able to keep his dream alive by diversifying and expanding his operation into catering and the hosting of events ranging from baby showers to family reunions to nonprofit retreats.

While reflecting on his business and where he can take it, Candelario also ruminated on Holyoke, its present and its future. And he drew many comparisons to the Bronx, another diverse community he believes is also misunderstood and underappreciated. He lived there for some time, and was originally planning to open a B&B near Yankee Stadium until the economic downturn in 2008 scuttled those plans.

“The Bronx and Holyoke have a lot in common,” he said. “It’s the inner city, working class, different cultures; they’re melting pots that many people just don’t appreciate for all that they are.”

Beyond these qualities, the city boasts location and affordability, two important factors in these changing times.

“Holyoke is very affordable for those people who are starting off,” he explained. “They can get better housing for the buck. And if you want to work in Northampton, it’s 10 to 15 minutes away; Springfield is 10 to 15 minutes away; Agawam is 10-15 minutes away.

“I see Holyoke as a very progressive, very upwardly mobile city,” he went on. “You have people from many different areas coming here, not just locally, but from around the country. I run into people from Chicago who moved here, and Florida, California, New York City, and Boston. They come here because they see opportunities. People see the same thing that I see.”

 

View to the Future

Candelario said he assigned the name ‘Holyoke’ to one particular room at his B&B because, if one looks closely, he or she can see City Hall from one of the windows.

As he surveys the scene, though, he sees more than that iconic structure. Much more.

He sees a city that is putting its recent, not so glorious, past, behind it, and becoming something else: a destination of sorts, for travelers, but especially residents seeking affordability and quality of life, and businesses looking for a solid spot to land.

This is what Mayor Garcia had in mind when he said that history is repeating itself in Holyoke, and not just when it comes to the mills as a symbol of jobs and economic might.

Indeed, Holyoke’s past, as an ethnically diverse center of business and culture, is also its future.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Robin Wozniak says the chamber’s grant program is part of a broader effort

Robin Wozniak says the chamber’s grant program is part of a broader effort to expand and diversify its support programs for businesses.

Like most area communities, Agawam continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, while also making plans for the day when it is history.

That sentiment applies to the business community, the school system, infrastructure projects, and the local chamber.

“As we find our way back to a normal life, we are also trying to help people find new opportunities for success going forward,” said Robin Wozniak, executive director of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce (WRC), as she talked about the present and the matter of preparing for the future. “These are times when we are all learning and growing together.”

With that statement, she summed up the sentiments of many in this community of roughly 29,000, which, like most area cities and towns, has suffered greatly through the pandemic, but has also seen COVID yield some opportunities, which have come in many forms.

These include American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, which the city plans to use mostly on infrastructure projects (more on that later), some new businesses, and even an acceleration of the timetable for reconstructing the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam with West Springfield. The bridge work was to be completed later this year, but wrapped up more than six months ago, due in large part to a $1.5 million bonus from the state to incentivize the general contractor, Northern Builders, to get the work done sooner.

But gaining the roughly four weeks on what would have been shutdown time if the 2020 Big E had not been canceled certainly helped in those efforts.

The bridge project was undertaken to improve traffic flow in and out of the city and, ultimately, spawn new business opportunities in that section of the community, Mayor William Sapelli said. Time will tell what ultimately transpires, but already there are plans to develop a large vacant lot just over the bridge and a block from City Hall.

Colvest Group purchased the property several years ago, used it to park cars during the Big E, and leased it to the contractors as a staging area for the bridge-reconstruction work. Soon, it will advance plans to develop the property into three business parcels, including an office building and a Starbucks location.

“We could get a new roof and a good boiler and better windows, but the facility will still not be appropriate to meet our education needs for the 21st century.”

As for the chamber, it plans to step up its support of small businesses impacted by the pandemic through a grant program, Wozniak noted, adding that the WRC plans to begin awarding business grants starting in June and extend them through the end of the year.

“We’re planning to announce five $1,000 grants at our annual meeting in June and continue awarding grants into the summer and fall,” she said. “We’re excited to start the application process.”

 

Getting Down to Business

Before he became mayor in 2018, Sapelli was the long-time school superintendent in Agawam. And while his list of responsibilities is now much broader, the schools remain a primary focus.

And among the many issues to be addressed is the city’s high school.

A recent assessment of Agawam High School recommended $26 million in repairs to the building. Since 2002, the town has applied to the Massachuetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for consideration of a new high school. The MSBA looks at building conditions, as well as demographics and population trends, as part of its approval process.

While Sapelli has seen West Springfield, Chicopee, and Longmeadow all build new high schools, he’s encouraged because those projects actually help move Agawam up the list.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is putting federal money to good use on everything from infrastructure to small-business support.

“One reason we’ve been overlooked was all the investments we’ve made over the years to maintain the building,” he said. Rather than continue to spend on the current high school — built in 1955 — he favors new construction.

“We could get a new roof and a good boiler and better windows, but the facility will still not be appropriate to meet our education needs for the 21st century,” he went on. If approved, the new school would be built on the practice fields adjacent to the current building.

A few years back, a new high-school building was proposed for the former Tuckahoe Turf Farm located near Route 187 and South Westfield Street. Now owned by the city, the 300-acre parcel will be developed into a passive recreation park for Agawam. Construction will begin in the spring to provide roads, parking areas, and access to a pond that will accommodate fishing, kayaks, and canoes.

A solar-energy installation is part of the parcel and will occupy nearly 50 acres of the land near South Westfield Street.

“The city will receive income from the solar array, which will help mitigate the costs to develop and maintain the property,” said Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development for Agawam. “The solar panels will occupy one small area of the parcel, leaving more than 200 acres for recreation and trails.”

While developing this long-vacant site, city leaders will continue to take steps to make the community more attractive for new business development.

As part of these efforts, infrastructure work is planned at the intersection of Springfield Street, North Street, and Maple Street, an area known as O’Brien’s Corner. This project, scheduled to start in the spring, will involve paving, adding curbs, and upgrading the traffic signals in the area.

Agawam received just over $8 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which Sapelli plans to use on several stormwater infrastructure projects in town. Culverts on North Street and North Westfield Street have been temporarily repaired, but the state has made it clear both areas need a permanent solution. In addition, heavy rains are causing flooding problems on Meadow Street and Leland Avenue.

“Some of the puddles are so bad, people sent us photos of their neighbors going out in kayaks,” Sapelli said, adding that the photos helped emphasize the need for fixing these storm drains. “We are using the ARPA funds for what they are intended. These are projects that need to be addressed where we did not have the funding to do so.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,692
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.11
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.58
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

Beyond infrastructure, the city is using funds from various COVID-relief efforts to help the business community. Indeed, it secured a $200,000 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) grant designed to help micro-enterprises — five or fewer employees — in Agawam.

“These grants are designed to help these small-business owners with some relief until they can open their doors again,” Strange explained. “The grants help businesses that didn’t have access to other funds to help them.”

Meanwhile, the community is looking to support its beleaguered restaurants with an ordinance that will allow outdoor dining on a permanent basis.

“In the early days of the pandemic, outdoor dining was a lifesaver,” Sapelli said. “Now, going into the third year, it’s so popular, we are proposing an ordinance to make it permanent in Agawam.”

 

Giving Back

As for the chamber, its grant program is part of a broader effort to expand and diversify its support programs for businesses. For the past two years, the chamber has put its focus on keeping members up to date on health regulations, helping them identify grants they might qualify for, and any other information to keep them going.

“The last couple years have been all uphill for many of our members,” Wozniak said. “The chamber board feels the need to start giving back to our small businesses.”

Staying connected through events has been a long-time business model for chambers of commerce. Wozniak said she has reintroduced networking events with a hybrid twist where people can attend in person or take part remotely.

“We welcome those who feel comfortable going in person, and for those not yet ready, we offer a remote option so they can log on and enjoy the whole event from the safety of their home, remote office, or wherever.”

Wozniak reported the hybrid meetings have been successful because they help bring people face-to-face.

As she mentioned earlier, these have been times when business owners have been “learning and growing together.”

These efforts will hopefully yield dividends for the day when ‘normal’ is not a goal, but a reality.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Chris Brittain

Chris Brittain says several projects in Lee, both town-funded and using ARPA aid, are moving forward.

As the pandemic enters its third year of disrupting life as we knew it, the business community in Lee continues to manage the disruptions of COVID-19 and its variants with a good degree of success. Colleen Henry attributes that to one reason.

“The local people here in Lee are strong supporters of our businesses,” said Henry, executive director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce.

Along with Lenox and Stockbridge, Lee is part of the Tri Town Health Department, which has maintained a mask mandate for all indoor spaces. One upside of the mask requirement is that it enables businesses, as well as town offices, to remain open without interruption.

That’s important, said interim Town Administrator Christopher Brittain, who has been on the job for only four months, yet has a full list of projects in the queue for this year and beyond.

Lee received an allocation of $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, which will be spread out among several projects in town. Among them are replacing water lines in a couple of areas and upgrading the municipal website to make it easier for people to conduct town business online.

“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value. We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”

All three towns in the Tri Town Health Department will contribute some of their ARPA money to fund the creation of a new food-inspector position in the department, a position certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of a national standards program.

“Obviously, we have inspectors now,” Brittain said. “The new position gives us someone to provide guidance with federal programs and reduce issues with food service and retail food vendors.”

Outside of ARPA funds, Brittain discussed several projects in the works, including paving on Main Street, with $1 million in funding approved at the last town meeting to continue that project into the summer.

Lee at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1777
Population: 5,788
Area: 27 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $13.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.65
Median Household Income: $41,566
Median Family Income: $49,630
Type of Government: Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Lee Premium Outlets; Onyx Specialty Papers; the Landing at Laurel Lake; Oak n’ Spruce Resort; Big Y
* Latest information available

One significant project Brittain hopes to see make progress this year involves the former Eagle Mill paper company. Plans to redevelop the site feature 80 units of affordable and market-rate housing, as well as several restaurant and retail stores. The $55 million project has been in the works for several years, though the official groundbreaking was held only three months ago.

“Because of COVID, the Eagle Mill project is moving slower than everyone wants it to,” Brittain said, noting that a significant next step involves six dilapidated houses near the site, which were recently purchased to be torn down. Construction on the mill complex is scheduled to roll out in two phases. “This is a big project that will take up the entire north end of Main Street.”

Additional housing in Lee would certainly be welcome, said Henry, who noted the current supply of available houses is low because sales have been so brisk. “As a result, we have a lot of new residents, and that’s kind of exciting.”

In terms of real-estate taxes, the past year brought both good news and bad news, as the town lowered the tax rate, but selling prices for homes kept boosting valuations, resulting in higher taxes anyway.

“Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”

“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value,” Brittain said. “We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”

For this year, the tax rate is $13.65 per thousand, down from $14.68 the year before. Because of higher valuations, he explained, the average tax increased by $193.

 

High Times Ahead

One industry relatively new to the tax rolls in Lee is cannabis. Right now, Canna Provisions is the only cannabis facility that’s up and running, but Brittain said the town has 14 permits for various cannabis facilities, with interested parties claiming 13 of them. Activity for future cannabis businesses includes a facility for growing on Route 102 under construction and a dispensary proposed for the former Cork and Hearth restaurant on the Lee/Lenox line.

The revenue from Canna Provisions has begun making a difference for the town. Brittain said the impact on tax revenue has made it possible for the town to consider hiring a full-time school resource officer, add streetlights in town, and begin a study on public-safety facilities.

Right now, Lee’s public-safety departments are in several buildings. The police operate out of two floors in Town Hall, the Fire Department is in an historic firehouse, and the town ambulance is located in a separate building.

“We are doing a study to see if we can consolidate public safety in one new building,” Brittain said. “Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”

An artist’s rendering of the Eagle Mill redevelopment project in Lee.

An artist’s rendering of the Eagle Mill redevelopment project in Lee.

While the study won’t happen for a while, he noted, thanks to the cannabis revenue, the town can explore its options for whether to invest in what it has or move forward with a new facility.

Before the Omicron variant of COVID hit, businesses in Lee were having a strong fall season. Henry said business was brisk. “We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”

Despite new variants of COVID and other disruptions to business, Henry noted that, because restaurants have developed strong takeout systems, they can quickly adapt and keep serving their customers.

“I’ve heard from people in Lee how grateful they were to still be able to get good food and how the restaurants worked to accommodate everyone,” she said, adding that the quick adaptation to takeout kept people employed “even though everyone still needs more workers.”

Looking ahead to other projects in town, plans are moving forward for a bike path that would run along the Housatonic River. The mile-long path would extend approximately from Big Y to Lee Bank. Brittain said it’s not certain if construction will begin this year, but the town is working with MassDOT to keep the project moving.

“We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”

Lee has also applied to become an Appalachian Trail Community. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website, when a town along the trail receives designated community status, it is considered a support asset for all who use the trail, and the conservancy encourages people to explore these communities. If accepted, Lee looks to join Western Mass. communities of Cheshire, Dalton, Great Barrington, and North Adams with the designation.

“We’ve been working with the Appalachian Trail folks, and we’re hoping Lee receives its designation by the end of the year,” Brittain said.

 

 

Seeking a Return to Normalcy

For the past two years, Lee had to cancel its annual Founders Weekend celebration — which recognizes the founding of the town back in 1777 — due to COVID concerns. Henry said people in town treat it as a fun birthday celebration, and in 2022, the town will be 245 years old.

Held on the third weekend in September, the community-wide event takes place on Main Street, which is closed to traffic to allow restaurants and other vendors to set up in the middle of the street.

“Founders Weekend always draws a huge crowd, and that’s why we were not able to hold it the last two years. It was too difficult to keep such a large gathering safe,” Henry said.

While there is no guarantee Founders Weekend will happen this year, she has it listed in her event calendar, and both she and Brittain are hopeful the event will take place in September.

“I think people are ready for a fun blowout weekend,” Henry said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

New Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra

New Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra says a redesign of Main Street is one of the city’s key issues moving forward.

 

As 2022 begins, Gina-Louise Sciarra starts the new year as Northampton’s new mayor. As she settles into the job, the city faces big opportunities and challenges, especially the constant challenge of managing COVID-19 and its variants. Even as the pandemic adapts, Sciarra said she’s confident the workers and businesses in Northampton will also adapt and keep moving forward.

“We have to help our businesses through this really difficult time and figure out what the next stage of our economy is going to look like,” Sciarra said. “We have a special downtown that we want to stay vibrant and keep it the popular destination it’s always been.”

One of the largest projects on the mayor’s agenda involves a redesign of Main Street. Northampton has a uniquely wide main artery, which Sciarra said is lovely in some ways, but it also presents safety issues.

“We’re going to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as create more green space,” she said. “The redesign will help us meet the next era of retail and commerce while keeping it a place people want to come and experience.”

Not surprisingly, the Main Street redesign has been a huge topic of conversation among downtown businesses, according to Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA). Cahillane said some of her members favor keeping the wide Main Street and making crosswalks safer, while others would like to see the street narrowed, allowing for wider sidewalks.

“I don’t think there will be a design that makes everyone happy,” Cahillane said. “At the same time, it’s important for all to understand the magnitude of impact that construction will have on downtown businesses.”

She added that she’s eager to find out if the city will support businesses during the redesign because, after two years of reduced income due to COVID, they will soon face a construction process that also hurts the bottom line.

“We’re going to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as create more green space. The redesign will help us meet the next era of retail and commerce while keeping it a place people want to come and experience.”

“I don’t think it can be publicized enough what the construction will look like and how to navigate downtown while businesses are open,” Cahillane said. “I would also like to see financial support for businesses after all they’ve had to endure.”

After years of community input on the project, Sciarra said Northampton is in line to receive nearly 25% from the state for the Main Street redesign project, and that’s enough to keep it moving toward a construction start in 2025.

“Because of the size of this project, we will also modernize the underground infrastructure during the construction period,” she said.

 

Rescue and Recovery

A more immediate task for the new mayor involves $22 million earmarked for Northampton under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Sciarra said one of her first actions will be appointing an advisory committee to determine how to best allocate the ARPA funds. She appreciates that not everyone starts a term in office with these resources.

Vince Jackson

Vince Jackson says businesses have been opening and closing in Northampton at about the same rate during the pandemic.

“It’s spectacular to have these funds, but it’s also a huge responsibility,” she said. “This money comes out of a tragic time, so I want to make sure we steward it well and get the most out of it to benefit Northampton.”

This year will also see a new municipal office with the introduction of the Department of Community Care. This new area of public safety resulted from the efforts of the Northampton Police and Review Committee appointed by previous Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and Sciarra while she was City Council president. The review committee was charged with looking at what changes should be made to improve public safety.

“Their top recommendation was to create a city department to provide an unarmed response to non-criminal calls,” Sciarra explained.

After hiring Sean Donavan as implementation director for the department in November, the next step is to set up meetings with fire and police dispatchers to figure out how calls from the public will be allocated. Sciarra noted that, because the police have been the default 24/7 responders, they have handled many calls out of their realm.

“Weary because we’re just tired of COVID and the sense that we start to make progress only to see another setback. And wary because of all the uncertainty when you try to plan ahead in this environment.”

“My goal is to bring everyone together so we can figure out how to transfer some of these calls to our new service. We have a lot to do, but it’s exciting to set up a new department,” she said, noting that the goal is to have Community Care up and running by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

From late summer through the fall, many Northampton businesses reported robust sales, some approaching 2019 numbers. In December, the rapid ascension of the Omicron variant of COVID caused the mood to change. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, explained it as people feeling “weary and wary.”

“Weary because we’re just tired of COVID and the sense that we start to make progress only to see another setback,” Jackson said. “And wary because of all the uncertainty when you try to plan ahead in this environment.”

For Jeffrey Hoess-Brooks, September and October felt like old times. Hoess-Brooks, regional managing director for the Hotel Northampton and Fairfield Suites, noted that, even when business was up, staffing levels were down — which remains an issue. On some days, the housekeeping crew could not finish their work until evening hours because they were so short-staffed.

“Everyone was pitching in to help,” Hoess-Brooks said. “I cleaned more guest rooms this summer than I have in my entire 32 years in the industry.” Still, while January and February are traditionally slow months, he remains optimistic that business and staffing will improve by spring.

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 29.571
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.89
Commercial tax rate: $17.89
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

To find ways to keep going, Cahillane said many business owners are upgrading their online shopping and ordering capabilities, while others are renovating their locations.

Despite all the challenges, Jackson remains hopeful about the coming year. He pointed out that, since the beginning of the pandemic, Northampton has seen 20 businesses close, but 20 new businesses opened during the same time. “It speaks to the resilience of the community and the example that it sets for the entrepreneurial spirit in Northampton.”

 

Raising All Boats

Meanwhile, Cahillane is busy planning her first community event for 2022, the Northampton Ice Arts Festival, scheduled for Feb. 11, featuring various ice sculptures throughout downtown.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed that we will be able to have the event, especially because it’s outside,” she said, acknowledging the uncertainty while continuing to move forward.

Outdoor dining, which Cahillane has called a lifesaver for many restaurants, remains very popular. Amit Kanoujia, general manager of India House (see story on page 25), is looking to start his outdoor seating earlier and expand it later this year because so many people have asked him to consider it. “In the early spring, our guests bring jackets, and by the fall, they are willing to wear parkas to soak in as much of the outdoor experience as they can.”

Kanoujia remarked on the spirit of cooperation he’s seen among businesses and city leaders to keep moving forward. Jackson echoed that sentiment and added that collaboration is more important now than ever before.

“At the chamber, we try to remind everyone that we are all investors in our community and in our economy,” he said. “When one succeeds, we all succeed.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says public safety and public health have been priorities of his first term.

 

Fresh off his re-election, Chicopee Mayor John Vieau said the main goal for his second term is the same when he first campaigned for the office two years ago: a focus on public safety.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important,” Vieau said.

In the mid-1980s, Chicopee bolstered its police force by hiring a large number of officers. Nearly 40 years later, the city has seen many of those officers retire from the force, while others have left due to COVID-19 concerns to pursue other careers. For Vieau, this created multiple challenges.

“Based on civil-service exams, we hired 10 replacements for our retiring officers,” he said. “Then we ran into a quagmire because at first we couldn’t send them to the police academy because it was closed during the worst of the pandemic.”

As the academy eased its mandates, those officers completed training, and Vieau has hired an additional 15 officers with the intent of bringing the police force back to full strength.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important.”

In addition to new officers, Chicopee is encouraging a new style of policing by introducing community policing at a substation on Center Street. With officers on walking beats, they are better able to make connections with people.

“This has been very successful because people are seeing the same officers who are building relationships and rapport with folks in the neighborhood,” the mayor said, adding that he’s looking to eventually bring a substation to Willimansett as well as other parts of the city.

The concern for public safety also extends to the Fire Department, which staffs two ambulances 24/7. Recently the fire chief suggested a pilot program to add a third ambulance for overnight coverage. The suggestion came about due to demand for more coverage during those hours as well as the closing of the private ambulance company that lent assistance when Chicopee ambulances were busy. The success of the pilot program will result in Chicopee adding a new ambulance along with the new fire pumper trucks that had been ordered.

“Just like with the police, we want to make sure our Fire Department has the tools they need to keep themselves and our city safe,” Vieau said.

Part of public safety includes fighting the spread of COVID-19. Chicopee received 15,000 rapid test kits from the state and has been distributing them to residents in low-income areas and at the senior center.

“Our message remains the same — we believe everyone should get vaccinated,” Vieau said.

 

Supporting Businesses

Keeping Chicopee businesses healthy also remains a priority. Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, more than 70 businesses received support. Julie Copoulos, executive director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, said her organization helped small-business owners receive more than a half-million dollars in grant money during the pandemic.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate,” Copoulos said. “Many of the small-business grants went to minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Julie Copoulos is enthusiastic about progress on development at the former Uniroyal and Facemate sites, among others.

The city will also receive $38 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Vieau has formed a committee to determine how to use that money in a way that will have a long-term impact for taxpayers in Chicopee.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate.”

“I have a smart group of people who are looking into the best way to use the ARPA funds,” he said. “We’ve also surveyed residents for their ideas on how to spend the money.”

Vieau wants to proceed with caution on how to use these one-time funds because it would be easy to spend it all in one place.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,560
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.39
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek
* Latest information available

“I could target one infrastructure project and use all that money and more,” he said. “For example, the wastewater treatment plant needs upgrades to keep up with current pollution standards, and that project alone will cost around $50 million.”

For bigger projects like this, Vieau is hopeful about Chicopee’s prospects for funding through the recently passed federal infrastructure deal. “I’m going to fight for as much of that infrastructure money as we can get,” he said.

In the meantime, the mayor shared with BusinessWest an important development regarding the former Uniroyal site. After more than a decade of investing millions of dollars in hazardous-waste cleanup at the site, by this spring, the city will begin looking for potential new owners of both the headquarters and an adjacent building on the site.

“We are all looking forward to getting the Uniroyal property back on the tax rolls,” Vieau said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we are super excited about it.”

Right now Michelin, which owns the Uniroyal brand, is completing $1.5 million in cleanup efforts at the site. Once that’s done, the mayor explained, the city will launch a request for proposals in search of prospective buyers of the property.

Because Chicopee represents a good number of manufacturers, Copoulos believes this gives the city an advantage in the years ahead. She noted that economists have pointed out that manufacturing industries have come back to pre-COVID levels while more customer-facing industries continue to have challenges.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time.”

“As a community with so many manufacturers, this can potentially give us a leg up,” she said. “Supply-chain issues will make domestic manufacturing more of a priority, and that makes me hopeful about prospects for Chicopee.”

The spring will also mark the beginning of construction for the new headquarters of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. After many years in Hatfield, the Food Bank purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park in order to expand its warehouse in a more environmentally friendly building. Selecting Chicopee was a strategic decision on a couple of fronts. The location on Carew and East Main streets gives the Food Bank easy access to major highways, and because the city is in Hampden County, where the issue of hunger and food insecurity are more severe, the organization is in a better position to address the problem.

“The Food Bank location in Chicopee will be at the hub of addressing food insecurity in Western Mass.,” Vieau said.

Dino Facente

Dino Facente says his bakery’s move from Springfield to Chicopee has been a positive one.

Anticipation is also growing for the former Facemate property in Chicopee Center. Final plans and permits are being approved for a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the former Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing will locate.

Both Vieau and Copoulos praised Singing Bridge LLC, a local developer, for leading the project because it shows a commitment to the success of Chicopee. For Copoulos, completion of the project can’t arrive soon enough.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time,” she said.

Vieau noted in particular the 102 units of housing that will be added to Chicopee Center.

“Many people want to stay in Chicopee but are looking for empty-nest housing,” he said. “Realtors have told me if more condominiums were on the market, they could immediately sell them.”

 

Stops and Starts

The city had a setback recently when the Silverbrook Group said it may not be able to develop 600 apartments in the former Cabotville Mill in the center of town, citing rising construction costs as the main culprit. Vieau remains optimistic that both the Cabotville and Lyman mills will eventually be developed for housing and other uses.

While the next step for the mills is uncertain, that hasn’t stopped Vieau from moving forward with what he called a renaissance of Chicopee’s downtown. The city received a grant to convert the old library building, adjacent to City Hall, into an incubator space for budding entrepreneurs. The first steps involve bringing the building up to compliance with current ADA regulations. Vieau would like to eventually see the cultural council or the chamber take office space there, too.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in.”

“Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, so why not start at our old library?” he wondered.

Next door to the old library, the former Rivoli Theatre has just gone up for sale. The mayor called this another space with great potential for the city.

In addition to new entrepreneurs, Chicopee still manages to attract established businesses to locate there. After decades at the Springfield Plaza, Dino Facente had been looking to move the Koffee Kup Bakery. In his words, he “stumbled on” Mickey’s Bike Shop, which had recently closed. The East Street location turned out to be the right spot to move the bakery.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in,” Facente said. He also credited Chicopee officials at all levels for making the move easy and successful.

“I’ve picked up a lot of business since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ll be staying here until I retire.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

While two major construction projects reached completion in 2021, it’s no time to slow down for Longmeadow officials, who are planning several more projects for 2022 and beyond.

In June, Department of Public Works staff moved into their new $24 million facility on Dwight Road. Town Manager Lyn Simmons said the new location provides a cleaner, safer work environment with amenities that save money for the town over time.

“The DPW now has vehicle wash bays to clean dirt and salt off their equipment as well as lifts that are appropriate for the vehicles we have,” Simmons said. “We also have covered storage for everything, which, in New England, is critical for maintaining all this expensive equipment.”

Marybeth Bergeron, who chairs the Permanent Town Building Committee, said the DPW facility has come a long way from its old location on Pondside Road. After operating out of a couple buildings constructed in the early 1930s that she described as “incredibly poor condition,” the new location improves efficiency and morale.

“Our new DPW director, Geoff McAlmond, is working to unify all the entities in Public Works, and it’s much easier to do that with all the staff and department heads in one place,” Bergeron said.

Simmons said the new facility will have a positive impact on town business beyond the DPW. “Police, fire, and other departments that have town vehicles now have a fueling facility they can use as well.”

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want.”

In early November, Simmons cut the ribbon for the new Longmeadow Adult Community Center on Maple Road. The $14 million building features plenty of space for seniors looking to take part in exercise, activities, or one of the many other programs available.

Bergeron pointed out that older residents use fewer town resources, such as the school system and even trash pickup, because their households are smaller. At the same time, their numbers are growing as more people retire every day, and they are looking to stay active and social. For all those reasons, she said many communities are investing in their elders.

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want,” she added.

Thanks to a $250,000 donation from S. Prestley Blake toward the end of his life, the center has something few such facilities have: a dedicated gymnasium at one end of the building, featuring a full court that can be used for basketball or volleyball and an elevated walking track around the perimeter. On the day BusinessWest toured, three pickleball courts were set up, with games in progress.

The new facility is located less than 100 yards away from the old adult center, which was a former elementary school at Greenwood Park. In the immediate short term, the commercial kitchen in the old center will be used by staff from Armata’s Market to prepare holiday meals for their customers after a fire in November destroyed the market, a longtime fixture in Longmeadow (see story on page 15).

Looking ahead, the former adult center may be the future home for the town municipal offices. Currently, municipal staff are located in Town Hall and the adjacent Community Hall. Town Hall offers limited space, and Simmons said bringing it into compliance with current standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be cost-prohibitive. A recent feasibility study looked at reusing the Greenwood site as combined office space for the town.

“We would move municipal employees from Town Hall and Community Hall to one location and consolidate under one roof,” Simmons said. If the plan is approved, Simmons said the town can pay for renovations to the Greenwood site out of the $4.6 million allocated to Longmeadow under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Before the town can consider re-using the former DPW site, Simmons said the first goal is to demolish the old buildings which are deemed unsafe.

“We’ve done a feasibility study to see if ground mounted solar panels would make sense for us financially,” she said. “It looks like that would be a good use, but we have a ton of work to do before it can go out to bid.” Right now, it looks like the town will tackle this project in the spring or summer of 2022.

 

Doing Their Homework

Though mask measures are still in place and students are still adjusting to daily in-person learning, Longmeadow Schools Superintendent Martin O’Shea said having students back in class full-time makes it feel more like a typical school year.

In addition to what he termed as “the ebbs and flows of the school day,” he also recognizes the town is at a crossroads when it comes to deciding the future of its two middle schools.

Glenbrook Middle School, built in 1967, and Williams Middle School, built in 1959, are two well-maintained buildings, neither of which has had any significant renovation work since they were completed. Despite all the care and maintenance, time has a way of catching up with many of core systems, and the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical infrastructure in both buildings have reached the end of their useful life. A study by Colliers Project Leaders identified more than $30 million of essential maintenance and repair issues at the two schools.

O’Shea said the Longmeadow School Committee has petitioned the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help answer the question: should Longmeadow repair the two schools or bring all the middle-school students into one new building?

“If we commit to the repairs Colliers identified, we would make critical improvements to the two schools, but we’re left with the old footprint and the old design,” he explained. “We still wouldn’t have the types of learning spaces we think would be best for students for the next 50 years.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.74
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.74
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

Working with the MSBA can be a six- or seven-year process. That’s why O’Shea believes Longmeadow is at a crossroads right now. He and others in town support building new rather than investing in the old.

“Our sense is that it would be more cost-effective and more educationally effective to build a new school,” he said, adding that modern schools are built to be fully accessible, with rich digital-learning spaces, as well as spaces for small-group support and intervention.

O’Shea recognizes many residents value having two neighborhood-based middle schools in town, but both need extensive repairs and modernization to continue to serve today’s students. One new middle school can easily accommodate the 648 students currently attending Glenbrook and Williams.

“If we combined our two middle schools under one roof, we could potentially create educational economies of scale, and the new building would reflect a more typically sized middle school,” he said. “The average middle school in Massachusetts accommodates right around 600 students.”

Unlike many communities, Longmeadow does not experience significant school-enrollment swings, but instead stays fairly steady over many years. O’Shea said that’s an important consideration when going through the MSBA process.

“The whole building project begins when MSBA engages the community in demographic studies to better understand enrollment and population trends,” he noted. “That way, they can make sure the school that is eventually built is positioned for future enrollment.”

The middle-school project represents another chapter in Longmeadow’s continued commitment to academic excellence. O’Shea said education is an important part of the town’s economic engine.

“Longmeadow places a premium on education,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s the reason people move here and why it’s a great place to raise a family.”

 

Great Outdoors

Longmeadow also prides itself on its many recreation areas. Simmons is looking to bring in a consultant to assess all swimming pools, basketball courts, playgrounds, and other sites to assess their condition. Once the town has a baseline on the needs for each area, Simmons’ goal is to have a community conversation with town departments and committees as well as with residents to identify the most pressing projects.

“We want a roadmap so we can get strategic on how we eventually fund that work and complete those projects,” she said.

With these projects and others on the horizon for Longmeadow, Bergeron acknowledged she and the Building Committee will have plenty of work ahead. “I’m looking forward to the next five to 10 years as we get some of these projects off the ground and up and running.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Bob Cressotti

Mayor Bob Cressotti says soaring real-estate activity may lead to the tough decision to re-evaluate Enfield homes and businesses.

There is no shortage of activity in development projects for Enfield.

The most significant project involves the town, with the support of state and federal officials, constructing a train-station platform in the Thompsonville section of town. The planned station will be a stop for Amtrak trains coming from Hartford and Springfield. Mayor Bob Cressotti called it a key to Enfield’s future growth.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield,” Cressotti said, noting that funding for the station will come from the infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden. In the final legislation, Connecticut is scheduled to receive $1.2 billion for roads and transit over the next five years.

When built, the station will be located just beyond Bigelow Commons, a 700-unit apartment complex that was once the Bigelow Carpet Mill. Nelson Tereso, the town’s deputy director of Economic & Community Development, said plans by the Connecticut Department of Transportation call for a covered 220-foot platform that would accommodate entrances to four train cars. As a high-level platform, passengers would be able to walk directly into the cars.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield.”

Tereso is working on a number of details for the project, among them securing a right-of-way agreement with Bigelow Commons for parking at the station. Northland, the company that owns the Commons, has indicated it supports the train-station project in Enfield.

“They’ve been very good to work with,” he noted. “In fact, many of their apartment complexes around the country are located near transportation hubs.” 

In anticipation of the train station, Tereso said the town has identified several properties within walking distance that would be ideal candidates for redevelopment. With the success of Bigelow Commons, he sees more potential for housing in that area.

On North Main Street, the Strand Theater has been closed for nearly 30 years and is slated for demolition by next summer. Next door sits the Angelo Lamanga Community Center. Tereso said the town has appropriated money for its demolition, too, but he is talking with developers to see if it’s possible to find a new use for the 27,000-square-foot building.

“We want to sell the Lamanga Center to a developer who is forward-thinking and looking ahead at the train station our town will have in a few years,” he explained. “While not as large as Bigelow, these parcels represent an opportunity to build additional market-rate apartments, especially for young professionals who are working in Hartford and Springfield.”

 

On the Home Front

According to Cressotti, demand for housing is certainly up Enfield. Since the pandemic began, nearly 2,200 property transfers have been recorded in Enfield. The rising real-estate market is leading to what he called the tough decision of re-evaluating houses and businesses in town.

“Residential property values have increased by 25% to 30% on average,” he said. “We’re going to adjust the mill rate to prevent a huge spike in the tax bills.”

With such large increases in home prices, getting families to locate to Enfield can be a challenge. Tereso talked about a first-time homebuyer program the town offers to increase purchasing power for eligible buyers. The program provides a deferred loan up to $10,000 at a 0% interest rate for first-time buyers who purchase a home in Enfield. For those who choose a home in the Thompsonville or North Thompsonville section of town, the loan is forgivable.

“This program provides the gap funding that many folks need in order to afford a mortgage,” he said, noting that starter homes in Enfield typically cost between $150,000 and $250,000. “It has especially helped younger families to buy their first home.”

With families in mind, the town is currently transforming Higgins Park from a softball field into a multi-faceted park. Plans call for expanding Higgins, as the town plans to purchase the gymnasium building that belonged to the former St. Adalbert parish that abuts the park. Cressotti said the final layout will feature walking trails, a new basketball court, a swimming pool, a splash pad, and a band shell for outdoor concerts.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now. Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

“When it’s complete, the park will have appeal to all ages, and we will be able to hold sponsored events there on a consistent basis,” he noted.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, officials tried to figure out how to keep town business operating. It so happened that a Santander Bank branch two doors down from Town Hall had recently closed and was on the market. The idea was floated to lease the former bank and use its drive-up window as a convenient and contact-free way to conduct town business during the pandemic.

“The drive-up window worked great for residents looking to apply for building permits, pick up a dog license, or pay their taxes,” Tereso said.

The town moved the entire Tax Department into the former bank and renamed it Enfield Express. The site also had enough room to locate a police substation in the rear of the building. Tereso said the town just finalized the purchase of the building, making it official that Enfield Express is here to stay.

“People love it,” he added. “We will absolutely continue the drive-up service after the pandemic is over.”

Purchasing the former bank branch also expands the amount of municipal parking and provides another entry point for the newly configured Higgins Park.

“When the Tax Department moved out of Town Hall, we turned their old space into a new conference room,” Tereso said, noting yet another benefit of creating Enfield Express.

Finding new uses for existing structures is all part of the plan in Enfield. For example, the Social Services Department recently moved from 110 High St. to the former Alcorn School, where the town’s IT Department is located, while 110 High St. is one of seven town properties Enfield has sold while it strives to efficiently use municipal space.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,626
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
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

As Tereso explained, “110 High Street was once a day-care center. We sold it to a day-care provider who will now be able to expand their presence in Enfield.”

Enfield Square, purchased by Namdar Realty in 2018, could be another candidate for redevelopment. The new owners were granted a zone change to reconfigure the mall and subdivide the parcels.

While malls all over the country are being redeveloped, Tereso believes Enfield Square’s close proximity to two I-91 exits is a big selling point for future use. He plans to survey residents on possible redevelopment options to get a read on what people would like to see at the mall.

“Whether it’s entertainment, market-rate housing, or outlet shops, all those things could be a successful way to develop the mall for new use,” he said.

 

Life in the Fast Lane

For Cressotti, life these past months has been moving fast.

In October, he won the election to be Enfield’s new mayor. On Nov. 6, he took over the position, and on Nov. 15, longtime Town Manager Christopher Bromson abruptly resigned after a heated exchange with several Town Council members.

After serving in different positions with the town since 1989, Bromson decided to retire and was recently quoted saying he is grateful to see many of the projects started during his time are now going forward. Enfield Police Chief Alaric Fox has added interim Town Manager to his job title until a new manager is hired.

Even with all that happening, Cressotti likes the direction Enfield is headed.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now,” he said. “Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

William Rosenblum

William Rosenblum says Ludlow needs to use available funds to benefit the most people and invest in the future, not just immediate needs.

This fall, two long-anticipated projects in Ludlow opened to the public, and officials say there’s more to come.

In September, the Harris Brook Elementary School on Fuller Street opened for full classes for students in grades 2-5. And in early November, the new Ludlow Senior Center officially opened on State Street. Board of Selectmen Chairman William Rosenblum said that, while Ludlow is already a desirable community, the new school and senior center make it even more so.

“We’ve addressed the bookends of our lives by investing in our children and our seniors,” Rosenblum told BusinessWest, adding that next up for this community is determining the best ways to spend $6.3 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Rosenblum said the Board of Selectmen is asking for input from town department heads and Ludlow citizens on how to spend the funds in a way that will benefit the most people in the community and act as investments for the future.

“It’s like the quote from Star Trek — ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’” he said, citing a line credited to Mr. Spock.

Rosenblum added that using the funds to make improvements and updates to existing facilities will take priority over embarking on new projects.

“For example, we’ll be upgrading the HVAC system at the safety complex,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be done, and we will most likely use ARPA funds for it.”

Ludlow Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the guidelines in spending ARPA money focus on helping public health departments and businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic. They also allow towns to address recreational areas such as community centers and parks.

“This might be an opportunity to upgrade some of the existing facilities in our parks,” he added.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town. It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Another type of project allowed by ARPA involves investments in broadband. Rosenblum said he’d like the town to explore a fiber-optic installation in Ludlow, an idea that was inspired by his work-from-home experience. During the pandemic, while he stayed connected to work through the internet, his two children also attended school online, which severely taxed his home internet capabilities.

“I learned the 19 IP addresses that were in my house, so I could shut down different devices in order to get better internet reception,” he said.

Rosenblum acknowledges that, while fiber optics certainly fits the Star Trek criteria in benefiting many people, such a move requires considerable research to see if it’s even remotely affordable for the town.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at ARPA options and other pressing matters in Ludlow, a community that has seen considerable residential growth in recent years and is now seeing business growth as well.

 

At a Crossroads

According to Rosenblum, home sales remain brisk, largely because interest rates have stayed low. Meanwhile, over the past two years, home prices in Ludlow have increased 30%, with the average list price topping out at $376,000.

While some residents are concerned about the tax rate, he pointed out that increasing home values are what leads to higher tax bills.

“When you look at tax rates in communities across Massachusetts, Ludlow is right in the middle,” he noted.

Stefancik added that some of the larger McMansion-type homes in town bring in more than $10,000 a year in taxes.

“While that may seem high, taxpayers are getting a new school and a new senior center, which are both good things for the community,” he said. “The new school might even convince a family to move here.”

As Stefancik reviewed the many activities happening through his department with BusinessWest, one interesting trend stood out. Last year, 17 homeowners applied for special permits for home-based businesses, a high-water mark for the community.

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard. The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

While it would be easy to assume the pandemic sparked this increase in home-based business permits, Stefancik said it’s a trend that actually started before COVID arrived.

“The permits range from electricians and carpenters to artists and consultants,” he noted. “Back when I started in the job, these requests might occasionally trickle in, but now it’s our most common special permit.”

This trend was certainly in evidence back in October when the Ludlow Cultural Commission held a Community Market event at Memorial Park. Grace Barone, executive director for the East of the River Chamber, an event sponsor, was impressed with the community support and the number of home-based businesses represented at the market.

Doug Stefancik

Doug Stefancik says home values have soared in Ludlow, and so has the prevalence of home-based businesses.

“I saw some wonderful business ideas, and the community market provided a great showcase for them,” Barone said. “It would not be a surprise to see some of these vendors become future storefronts in town.”

The original idea for a community market was to bring together small businesses, artists, and community organizations, according to Michelle Goncalves, chair of the Ludlow Cultural Commission. Because the pandemic’s impact hurt many small businesses, especially those in arts and culture, the event’s focus shifted to become an occasion to support these entities.

For a first-year event, Goncalves was surprised to see nearly 40 vendors reserve space. She speculated that most of the smaller vendors were home-based businesses.

“In addition to businesses that have storefronts, I would guess that many of our vendors were based at home,” she said. “For example, we had a person who makes wreaths, a photographer who uses his home for a studio, one person who sells essential oils, and another who makes charcuterie boards.”

Planning has begun to bring the community market back next fall. “We definitely want to do this again,” Goncalves said.

While the population of Ludlow has remained fairly steady over the last several years, Rosenblum noted the town is seemingly growing based on the increased activity that happens there.

“Folks in Chicopee like to say they are the crossroads of New England,” Rosenblum said. “Well, Ludlow is the crossroads of about four or five towns, too.” Indeed, from the Ludlow exit on the Mass Pike, travelers head to Granby, South Hadley, Belchertown, Palmer, Indian Orchard, Wilbraham, and other communities.

The busy Ludlow exit from the turnpike feeds into Center Street, which is part of Route 21. Even after the state completed a comprehensive upgrade of the roadway last year, traffic has never been busier.

“I think we got used to traffic during the pandemic, which was very light because people weren’t commuting to work,” Stefancik said. “Now there’s traffic all week, and it’s still busy on the weekends.”

Don’t expect traffic to lessen anytime soon because Ludlow continues to invest in its future. In 2017, town officials working with Westmass Area Development Corp. and Winn Development transformed one of the old mill buildings in the sprawling Ludlow Mills complex into Residences at Mill 10, providing 75 units of age-55-plus, mixed-income housing. In 2022, construction begins on Mill 8, the mill building with its iconic clock tower. Once complete, that project will bring an additional 95 units of senior housing to Ludlow. Town officials offered high praise both for what’s been done so far and the potential for the entire area.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town,” Stefancik said. “It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Rosenblum concurred, adding that “the mills are a long-term investment for Ludlow, and we enjoy a great partnership with the developers.”

Like Mill 10, Mill 8 will also offer mixed-income housing. Considering the mills, the new single-family houses being built, and the condominiums that exist and are under construction, Stefancik said, Ludlow gives potential residents many options on where to live.

“Looking forward,” he added, “we’re a community that can offer a wide range of housing and provide a great place to live and do business.”

 

 

Right Place, Right Time

As a selectman, Rosenblum enjoys his involvement in projects that make a positive impact on Ludlow, and he believes local politics is “where it’s at.”

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard,” he said. “The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

Mr. Spock couldn’t have said it better.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

It’s a classic small-town balancing act. As Monson leaders look forward to new infrastructure and energy projects, many residents also want to maintain a small-town feel.

But progress is important, Town Administrator Jennifer Wolowicz says. With the town about to receive $1.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and a team at Town Hall looking at ways to use those funds, she favors infrastructure projects because she believes they offer the best return on investment.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers,” Wolowicz said, adding that she is grateful the town has until 2026 to spend the ARPA funds. “That timetable allows us to be thoughtful in how we use the money.”

In April, Wolowicz was appointed full-time Town Administrator after working in the position since February in an interim capacity. When she first came on board, Town Hall was closed to the public due to COVID-19 mandates while the staff inside were busy trying to figure out how to provide the services residents needed. Some town business moved online, but many residents prefer to pay their bills in person, so Wolowicz and her staff installed drop boxes and even offered some outdoor service.

“With a little education and reassurance, we helped people figure out different ways to get business done,” she said.

These days, Town Hall is fully open. The Monson Select Board has relaxed mask mandates in general, but they are still required in schools. Wolowicz pointed out that COVID numbers have been trending lower than in the past, and currently, 56% of residents have been vaccinated.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers.”

Meanwhile, back in January, Andrew Surprise became the new CEO of the Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, which covers 15 towns in the region, including Monson. Surprise admits that, in the past, the chamber had been losing touch with local communities. To address that, he has begun reaching out to Monson businesses to establish a business civic association (BCA).

“The idea is to form a business community in Monson,” Surprise said. “With local people concentrating on the issues that are important to their business and community, it helps the chamber to better focus on ways they can help.”

Upon joining Quabaog Hills, Surprise noticed the chamber did not have strong contacts with local officials at the town or state level.

“As a former city councilor [in Westfield], I’ve seen how important it is for the chamber to have these relationships,” he said. “By connecting businesses and local officials, we can offer better value to everyone involved.”

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, is on a mission to introduce himself to businesses in Monson.

Coordinating efforts is already paying off. Surprise began working with Wolowicz on the idea of a BCA while the town was in the process of seeking a Rapid Recovery grant from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Knowing that Monson was looking to have a business organization focused on its needs, the PVPC advised Surprise and Wolowicz to make it a joint request. Surprise said the BCA will be formed no matter what, but a grant makes a more robust effort possible.

“The grant would allow a much more expansive implementation and enable us to speed up the building of the BCA,” Surprise said. “Also, the grant makes it possible for the chamber to hire a person dedicated to establishing and recruiting for BCAs in both Monson and Belchertown.”

 

Main Concerns

Much of Monson’s business community can be found right in the heart of town, so BusinessWest asked three Main Street business owners about the idea of a business civic association.

Nissa Lempart, owner of Monson Optical, said the BCA is a good idea if the goal is to reach more people outside of town. “My customers already know where we are, and they tend to keep their business in Monson.”

Richard Green, who owns Richard R. Green Insurance Agency, said that, in his experience, many people tend not to do business in town, so he believes a BCA would be a big plus for Monson.

“It would be a way for local businesses to interact more with the community while benefiting each business and the community at large,” he noted. “I think it would be fantastic.”

Bill Belanger, who has owned Belanger Jewelers for more than 30 years, called Monson a wonderful community, and he’s open to the town taking a different approach to business.

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking.”

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking,” he explained.

Part of that new thinking would allow larger franchises to do business in Monson. In 2020, residents staged a vocal rejection when Dollar General proposed a location in town.

“Dollar General might not have been the right fit for our town,” Belanger said. “But there are many other types of national businesses that would work well here.”

One example of Monson welcoming new thinking involves a 26,000-square-foot building on Route 32 where Holistic Industries runs a cannabis growing facility.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,560
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.12
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.12
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Wolowicz noted that Holistic represents a large tax base for Monson, as the town received $500,000 in tax revenues from the company in June. Holistic-grown products are sold by Liberty Cannabis retail stores in Springfield, Somerville, and Easthampton. “COVID was good for cannabis sales,” she noted.

In terms of seeking other growth for the town, Wolowicz said discussions are taking place with developers about reusing some of the older mills in town. There is also activity at the former site of the state-owned Monson Developmental Center, where several buildings are being taken down. She said some residents have questioned why the town isn’t involved in redevelopment of this parcel.

“These folks don’t understand this is state property and the cleanup is their project,” she noted. “Their plan is to bring it back to green space and hopefully give the land back to the town at some point.”

For the last year and a half Monson, has been making energy-saving improvements to schools and municipal buildings. Part of the project involves converting the current street lights to LED fixtures.

“Even Town Hall, which was built in 2014, will be getting new lighting because that’s how fast technology has changed,” Wolowicz said.

The town also works with neighboring communities on wider-ranging projects. For example, Monson has signed an agreement with Palmer and Ware to convert the town dog pound into a regional animal-control facility for use by the three communities. That project is expected to take place next year.

 

Steady On

That’s a fair amount of activity for a town whose Main Street has no traffic signals.

“There are many folks in town who are passionate about keeping it that way,” Wolowicz said, adding that she favors controlled development to keep Monson a vital community.

Belanger expressed a similar sentiment. “Encouraging more business is a way for the community to advance without losing what makes it special.”

While Monson keeps its small-town feel, there is no shortage of new business proposals landing on Wolowicz’s desk.

“We many not be a booming metropolis,” she said, “but we still have opportunities to pursue controlled development.”

Community Spotlight

Stockbridge Looks Forward, Honors Its Heritage

By Mark Morris

Town Administrator Michael Canales

Town Administrator Michael Canales says a number of municipal projects speak to Stockbridge’s progress during the pandemic.

One of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings depicts a snow-covered Main Street in Stockbridge. The painting “Home for Christmas” was intended to celebrate small towns all over America, but these days, it’s nearly impossible for modern-day photographers to recreate the artist’s vision without including a constant stream of traffic.

While that might frustrate photographers, Margaret Kerswill is encouraged by all the activity she has seen this summer and into the fall.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge,” the board president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce told BusinessWest. “It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Kerswill said the pandemic encouraged business owners to find creative ways to keep people safe while maintaining their operations — and revenues. Despite the many challenges last year, they’ve largely come back strong.

“As rules and mandates kept changing, our business owners rolled with it,” she said. “It was wonderful to see everyone rise to the top of their game.”

Tri Town Health acts as a regional health department for the towns of Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 began spreading, Tri Town Health imposed mask mandates for indoor common spaces.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge. It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Stockbridge Town Administrator Michael Canales appreciates the agency’s work to keep the community as safe as possible. As of Oct. 15, 68% of Berkshire residents are fully vaccinated, while 78% have received at least one dose.

On the job for just over a year, Canales has not yet had the chance to lead the community in the absence of a pandemic. “It will be a little difficult for me to compare what normally happens in town because I have yet to see what normal looks like,” he noted.

Children’s Chime Tower

Repair work will begin next year on the Children’s Chime Tower, a fixture since 1878.

For now, he believes longtime residents who tell him Stockbridge is starting to look normal again. Canales himself has certainly noticed the busy summer and fall seasons, and credits that in part to the return of Tanglewood, which offered a limited schedule for audiences half the size of a normal show.

“Tanglewood is an example of one of the big events that happened as a smaller event for this year,” he said.

Despite the limited schedule, Kerswill said it was important that Tanglewood held events this year. “Tanglewood is integral to the local economy. It provides so many jobs in the area and definitely brings visitors to town for dining and shopping.”

Kerswill also wanted to set the record straight for BusinessWest about “a broad misconception” that Tanglewood is located in Lenox. “The entrance is in Lenox, but nearly 85% of Tanglewood’s land is actually in Stockbridge.”

 

Change and Progress

For several years, Kerswill co-owned Mutability in Motion, a gift shop she ran with her wife, Laureen Vizza. When COVID hit, they made the decision to close the shop.

“We’re working on new endeavors, still keeping our efforts local, but in new areas,” she explained. In addition to starting a personal blog called artmeditationlife.com, Kerswill has become a licensed realtor.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy,” she said, adding that home-improvement services are also coming back strong, as evidenced by long wait times for many home projects.

In terms of municipal projects, Stockbridge added a new highway garage this past spring, though supply-chain issues caused delays in finishing it even sooner.

A current project nearing completion is the Larrywaug Bridge on Route 183. Canales expects this busy connector road will be open by the winter, with finishing touches to be completed in the spring.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy.”

Next year, repair work will begin on the Children’s Chimes Tower, a fixture in Stockbridge built in 1878. Canales said the town has approved funding to refurbish all the internal mechanisms.

“It’s a neat structure, but it needs some tender loving care,” he added. “We’re hoping to make repairs that will keep it playing for the next 50 years.”

Still relatively new in the job, Canales said it’s been exciting to learn about the rich history of Stockbridge. While people all over the world are familiar with Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the town’s mention in James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James,” there are even deeper historical references to be found which Canales said “makes it a fascinating community.”

For example, the town is working on a project to protect old-growth forests, specifically Ice Glen, a ravine in the southeast area of Stockbridge. Its name comes from the many moss-covered rocks with deep crevices that can sustain ice into the summer.

During the time he wrote Moby Dick, Herman Melville lived in Pittsfield and is said to have visited Ice Glen at least once. The Stockbridge ravine is referenced in the novel when narrator Ishmael describes Pupella, a seaside glen, as “a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen.”

These days, the town is exploring several options to protect the old-growth trees from insects that are causing damage in Ice Glen.

The Chamber of Commerce has joined the effort to help tourists find both famous and lesser-known sites in Stockbridge. As an ongoing project, it has developed and begun installing new signs to help direct people to the many attractions in town. Right now, they’ve been installed downtown, but the plan is to expand the green-and-white signs to more areas of the community.

“We want to help people get around outside the downtown area because there is a lot to see,” Kerswill said. “If someone is here only for a weekend, we want to make sure they can find all the attractions that interest them.”

 

Better Days

While the town navigates the various stages of the pandemic, Canales said he and many others are looking ahead.

“We are staying on top of things and keeping an eye on trends so that when we come out of this, Stockbridge will be in the best possible shape to return to normal, or as close as we can get to normal,” he noted.

Kerswill added that Stockbridge is a place that continues to amaze her.

“Whether we’re going through good times or difficult times, it’s a community that comes together to get things done. I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, but staffing remains a problem for businesses.

As Northampton works through the various stages of the pandemic, one term best describes any discussion about looking ahead.

“I’ve used the phrase ‘cautiously optimistic’ hundreds of times in the last several weeks, never mind the last year and a half,” said Amy Cahillane, executive director of Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) — cautious because the city reimposed mask mandates before many other communities did, and optimistic because, despite all the challenges, Northampton can point to many successes.

Janet Egelston, owner of Northampton Brewery, said the last 18 months have been an ongoing process of pivoting, adapting, and learning, adding that “we call what we’re going through ‘pandemic university.’”

Northampton enjoys a long tradition as a dining destination. With more than 100 places to eat in the city, restaurants are a key sector to Northampton’s economy. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said economic studies have shown that, when restaurants are thriving, other business sectors do, too.

“Every job a restaurant creates results in another job in the community,” he explained. “Think about a typical date night — go out for dinner, go see a show, and then maybe a drink at the end of the evening.”

That’s why the pandemic, and the business restrictions that have accompanied it, have been so disruptive to the city’s economy. And the disruptions have come in waves; earlier this spring, when vaccines became widely available and COVID-19 infection numbers began to decrease, Northampton, like many communities, was able to relax masking requirements. Once vaccination levels began to plateau and the Delta variant of the virus kicked in, infections began to trend back up.

And when the city’s Health Department found several breakthrough cases that forced a couple restaurants to close for testing and quarantine, Mayor David Narkewicz made the decision to bring back indoor mask mandates.

“We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors.”

“It’s never easy to be out front and be the first, but since we brought back masking, the communities around us have followed suit,” he said, adding that the city’s priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. “We need businesses open for customers. Otherwise, the engine that drives Northampton isn’t going to run.”

The return to wearing masks was an easy change for Egelston’s staff at Northampton Brewery.

“In the restaurant business, we often make quick adjustments,” she said. “We also have a box of masks at our entrance for customers who arrive without one.”

In 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic closed all kinds of businesses for several months, Egelston delayed her reopening until Aug. 10, the 33rd anniversary of the brewery. Even though outdoor dining has always been a part of the restaurant, with two levels of rooftop decks, she still had to retrofit the space for the times.

“We installed plexiglass barriers and socially distanced our tables outside as if we were inside. We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors,” she said, adding that all employees are vaccinated. “It’s our policy.”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic” despite 18 months of pivoting and persistent staffing challenges.

Since reopening last August, the brewery has operated at a lower capacity, not due to mandates, but because of trouble finding enough staff.

“The core staff who work here are great,” Egelston said, adding that, while there is always some amount of turnover, she hasn’t received many applications in the last several months. “That’s starting to improve, but we’re not yet ready to go to full capacity.”

 

Workforce Crunch

While the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, Cahillane said, staffing remains a challenge for most businesses.

“When everyone is hiring, it perpetuates the issue further because employers are all looking for the same people,” she noted. “They are also filling positions at every conceivable level, from dishwasher to front of house to store manager.”

Despite the staffing challenges, Jackson said most businesses in Northampton had a great summer. In talking with business owners in the restaurant, retail, and construction sectors, he said many reported success at pre-pandemic levels.

“A caterer I spoke with has 200 events booked through the end of the year,” he said. “One restaurant owner said her numbers are better than they’ve been in a long time.”

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.37
Commercial tax rate: $17.37
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

‘Summer on Strong’ was a successful effort to close an entire section of Strong Avenue to traffic and turn it into an outdoor dining pavilion shared by a few different eateries. Narkewicz credited local restaurants for suggesting and leading the effort. When ideas like this were proposed, the mayor said the city would “move mountains” to streamline the permitting process to make them happen.

“Northampton is a regional magnet for people who want to come here for entertainment, arts, dining, and the vibe of a walkable city where people like to hang out,” he noted.

The city lost businesses during the pandemic, including Silverscape Designs, which closed at the end of 2020. Despite the optics of that vacancy in the middle of downtown, Cahillane said a mix of new businesses have been opening at an encouraging pace.

“Between Northampton and Florence, we had roughly 18 businesses that left,” she noted. “And nearly 17 new places opened.”

The return of students to Smith College and campuses in the surrounding towns marked a sign of life before the pandemic. Cahillane said the students brought a needed emotional lift. “There has been a noticeable lightening and brightening downtown since the students have come back. Their return is what Northampton usually feels like in the fall.”

The return of events this summer has also provided a boost to Northampton. Cahillane said it’s satisfying to look at a calendar and see events scheduled once again. “The Arts Council held several concerts this summer, we recently started Arts Night Out, and the Jazz Festival is coming back the first weekend in October.”

Jackson is “cautiously optimistic” that momentum from the summer will continue into fall leaf-peeping season. In this area, Indigenous Peoples Weekend marks prime time for leaf peepers.

“One hotelier told me if you don’t book early for that weekend, you won’t find a place to stay,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful activities in November and December will also bring people to the city and surrounding towns.

This fall will be different for Narkewicz, as he will not seek re-election as Northampton’s mayor. Looking back on his 10 years in office, he discussed several areas in which he’s proud of his administration’s achievements, such as improving the fiscal health of the city and being one of the first communities to stand up for the important role immigration plays in the U.S.

“We stand up for equality for all our residents,” he said. “We’ve received high marks for our commitment to LGBTQ folks and have been doing more work around racial equality.”

For the next few months, he hopes to develop a blueprint for the next mayor. “My goal is to provide a map of the immediate needs and available resources, so the next administration can work with stakeholders in the community to make sure we see a strong, equitable recovery to COVID.”

 

Keep Moving Forward

Among many in Northampton, the consensus is to keep moving forward, but also stay safe.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I am eternally optimistic,” Egelston said. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to be in the restaurant business for so many years.”

Jackson said having events return to the city, sometimes in different forms, went a long way to giving people reasons to come to Northampton. “I won’t say this is a new normal, but it feels right for this moment.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities, but needs commercial and industrial development as well.

When they talk about managing their town into the future, officials in Southwick emphasize the word “balance.”

In order for the town to remain a desirable place to live, said Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer, there needs to be a combination of housing and recreation areas as well as commercial and industrial development.

“We like to point out that Southwick is a recreational community,” he noted. “We also want to make sure our zoning allows for commercial and industrial developments because the taxes they contribute will keep our town an affordable place to live.”

Russell Fox, vice chair of the Southwick Select Board, reinforced the recreational community description by pointing to the Congamond Lakes, which make up nearly 500 acres of recreational space in town. “Also, the Southwick Rail Trail has become a gem in our community, running 6.5 miles through town.”

Another big recreation activity happens at the Wick 338, the popular motocross track that hosted a national event in July and drew more than 30,000 people to Southwick.

In recent years, living at the lakes has become more desirable, and, as a result, prices for houses and lots are skyrocketing. As lake property increases in value, it also drives up the tax bill for residents there.

“I’m concerned about the retirees who have lived on the lake for years who may now have trouble staying in their homes because of the tax increases,” Fox said. “If we can attract more business to Southwick, we can help offset that tax burden.”

One company, Carvana, proposed to build a 200,000-square-foot facility off Route 10 and 202 in Southwick. Carvana is a website that allows consumers to buy used cars completely online and have them delivered to their home. The $100 million facility would have stored, repaired, and cleaned cars for delivery across the Northeast. Carvana projected the Southwick site would have employed 400 people and paid $900,000 each year in property taxes to the town.

The project was initially approved by the town’s Planning Board and Select Board, but hit a snag when a local group called Save Southwick strongly opposed the facility. In a series of public meetings, the group cited concerns about safety, traffic, and burdens on the town’s infrastructure. As the project became more controversial, Carvana withdrew its proposal this summer.

To kill the project that late in the process was frustrating for some, but Fox looks at the Carvana situation as a learning experience for everyone involved.

“It became clear from a vocal group that if a project is too big, they won’t support it,” Fox said. “Even those opposed to Carvana learned how government works, so if that encourages more civic engagement, then we’re all for it.”

Stinehart said the town is currently developing a new master plan that includes a process to allow earlier citizen input on zoning decisions to avoid episodes like Carvana in the future.

“The idea is to have these discussions sooner rather than later when we are considering a project,” he explained. “This also gives citizens an opportunity to learn more about the laws and the process of getting things done.”

 

Responding to a Crisis

When the pandemic struck last year, Southwick was still able to keep the town’s services running.

“All our departments in town continued to provide services and got us through the height of the pandemic by being flexible and adaptive,” Stinehart said.

The Town Hall building where many municipal functions are located remained open for most of the pandemic. Like towns everywhere, Southwick relied on remote online platforms like Zoom for meetings when necessary.

In March 2020, Southwick was one of the first communities to hold a town meeting outside. Because Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, Fox explained, a town meeting was held in the Southwick High School parking lot.

The west side of the Greens of Southwick

The west side of the Greens of Southwick is almost full, while homes on the east side have yet to be constructed.

“It was a special meeting with one agenda item, the decision to treat the lakes with alum,” he noted. Alum — or aluminum sulfate — is commonly used to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. “The timing was important because we had to treat the lakes by the first week of April, otherwise the alum would not be effective.”

In 2020, Stinehart noted, it was especially important to make the lakes usable. “People couldn’t wait to get outside and do something recreational, so we made sure the lakes were ready for the summer.”

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.59
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

People also spent more time in their yards, which benefited Southwick farmers. Fox said area farms sold more plants for flower beds than ever before in 2020. “Most plants sold out early because people were stuck at home and wanted to get outside to do things in their yard.”

The pandemic also delayed the full celebration of Southwick’s 250th anniversary from happening in 2020. After a kickoff event on New Year’s Eve in 2019 that brought out hundreds of residents and featured fireworks, an outdoor event in February 2020 followed, featuring ice sculptures. Then the pandemic kicked in and put further events on hold.

On Nov. 7, the actual 250th anniversary of the town’s founding, officials in Southwick arranged a call with officials in Southwick, England. That was followed by a parade that traveled through all the neighborhoods in town.

“It was a rolling parade that was well-received because people could go out their door or to the end of their street to see it,” Stinehart said. “The people in town really appreciated it.”

The 250th celebration still has one event remaining, a full parade for people to attend on Oct. 16 with fireworks later that evening at Whalley Park. Fox called the October events a “belated birthday celebration.”

Both Stinehart and Fox have been impressed with the interest in the anniversary, as more than 50 residents joined the organizing committee for the 250th celebration.

“We had a good mix of people on the committee, some who had just moved to town and others who have lived here their entire lives,” Fox said.

Stinehart quickly added, “no other committee in town has that kind of turnout.”

As the town gradually makes its way out of the pandemic, Stinehart mentioned a regional grant program undertaken with the town of Agawam to provide microlending for small businesses.

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020 to improve water quality for people clamoring to enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.

“We are encouraging small businesses that need help to apply for these grants,” he said, adding that Agawam is the lead community on the grant.

Looking forward, Stinehart hopes to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address water and sewer projects in Southwick. Fox spoke in particular about a water-pressure situation town leaders are hoping to address with the ARPA funds. He said projects like this sound like mundane details but can have real and lasting impacts on the town.

“If we address the water-pressure problem, it improves our fire-protection ability and ultimately affects homeowners’ insurance rates for residents,” Fox added.

 

Places to Call Home

The town has more new homes in the works, most notably the Greens of Southwick, where new, homes are being custom-built on each side of College Highway on the property of the former Southwick Country Club. The west side of the Greens development is nearly full, while construction on the east side has not yet begun.

Stinehart said he would like to leverage ARPA funding to increase broadband infrastructure in Southwick. In a separate effort, the town has met with Westfield Gas + Electric’s Whip City Fiber division to explore the feasibility of fiber-optic internet service for Southwick.

To address future energy savings for the town, Southwick has applied for a Massachusetts Green Community designation which would make it eligible for grant funding on a number of energy-efficient projects.

The tax rate for Southwick is scheduled to be released in the fall, and Stinehart said the goal is for a single uniform rate that will be competitive with other communities “because that’s good for business.”

Despite the issues around Carvana, Fox added, Southwick has welcomed plenty of new businesses and has seen expansion for some already there.

“By letting everyone know Southwick is open for business, we can keep this beautiful place where people want to live,” he said. “It’s all about that balance.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington has seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic.

 

On a summer Friday night in Great Barrington, Mark Pruhenski simply enjoyed the sight of dozens of diners eating outside and the sound of musicians playing from various spots around downtown.

Town manager since 2019, Pruhenski said Great Barrington is fortunate to have weathered the pandemic well. He gave much of the credit to a task force formed early on that included town staff and a strong network of partners, including Fairview Hospital, local food banks, and others who lent support.

With its location in the Berkshires, Great Barrington has long been a popular spot for second homes. During the pandemic, many people relocated to their second homes to get away from populated metro areas and work remotely. As time went on, many decided to make Great Barrington their permanent home.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area,” Pruhenski said. “Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, noted that, even at the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and cultural venues were closed, people were still looking for a place to rent or buy. She believes the consistently low COVID-19 infection rates were a strong part of the town’s appeal.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area. Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

“People from larger metro areas came to Great Barrington in droves,” Andrus said. “You could not keep a house on the market, with some sales happening in only a few hours. Others took a virtual tour and bought sight unseen.”

While admitting it’s difficult to find positives from a worldwide pandemic, Andrus said one benefit was forcing businesses in town to change the way they had been operating.

“I think we were kind of stagnant before,” she said. “Then, suddenly, our businesses had to put a lot of energy into how they could reinvent themselves.”

In addition to sit-down restaurants figuring out how to become takeout places, Andrus pointed to Robin’s Candy Shop, which could no longer allow customers to serve themselves in the shop.

“They moved the store around overnight, so now the staff gets you everything you want,” she said. “Then Robin’s quickly switched over to online sales, which is no small feat, either.”

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street.

While Great Barrington saw some stores permanently shutter their businesses during the pandemic, Andrus said COVID was not usually the main reason for closing. In some cases, the businesses that did not survive the pandemic were struggling before COVID hit. For others, the pandemic provided the opportunity for owners to change professions or retire.

“We had a huge movement of stores that was similar to musical chairs,” she said. “When a business would close and make their space available, multiple people were trying to sign up for it.”

 

Filling the Gaps

Like musical chairs, there are no empty spaces now in downtown Great Barrington. As a lifelong resident, Andrus said she’s never seen so much activity.

“In some ways, this big shift is the best thing that could have happened,” she noted. “The stores have all settled in to the right locations for what they are selling, and it has really changed the atmosphere in town.”

With retail storefronts full, the second- and third-story office spaces are also reaching full occupancy. Pruhenski hopes the current boom can address a long-term concern in town.

“We’ve always anticipated that Great Barrington would see a population decline over the next decade and beyond,” he said. “It would be great to see the influx of new residents flatten or even reverse that decline.”

While many town halls closed during the pandemic and conducted business remotely, Pruhenski said Great Barrington Town Hall closed only twice, for a month each time. Otherwise, he and his staff came in every day to keep several town projects moving forward.

In 2019, the state Department of Transportation had closed the Division Street bridge. Right now, the project is in the permitting and design phase for a new bridge, which is scheduled to open next summer.

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it.”

“Division Street is an important bridge because it links the east side of town to the west,” Pruhenski said. “It’s a shortcut everyone in town likes to use.”

In the northern part of Great Barrington, a private water company serves the village of Housatonic that has been struggling with insufficient water pressure. While Great Barrington doesn’t regulate or own the system, the town is involved to make sure residents there receive clean water and to make sure there is plenty of pressure for firefighters when they need it. Pruhenski said he and the Select Board are looking at several options, including a merger with the town’s water system.

“We were working on this during the pandemic because it has an impact on so many residents,” he noted.

After a transportation service for seniors abruptly closed, town officials took the lead to quickly revive the regional van service that now provides transportation to elderly and disabled residents in Great Barrington and five neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2020, the town launched a project to paint the downtown crosswalks as a way to recognize diversity in town. Pruhenski said the reaction by residents was more encouraging than he could have expected.

“We just did our little project, and the timing happened to be perfect that the rainbow was being used as a symbol of hope at the height of the pandemic,” he recalled. “After we painted our first crosswalks, people were encouraged to come outside to see them and take pictures with them. It’s been a fun project that’s made everyone happy.”

For 2021, the town added more rainbow crosswalks, and now the entire downtown corridor has replaced its white crosswalks with rainbows.

“People from other communities are calling us because they want rainbow crosswalks in their town,” Pruhenski said. “They are asking us how we did it and where we bought the paint. This project has been so rewarding during such a challenging time.”

For several years, Great Barrington has been pursuing projects to encourage environmental sustainability. One big step was to ban plastic water bottles in town. In return, the town has built three public water stations to make up for the bottle ban.

Another sustainability effort involves the Housatonic Community Center, a popular gym built shortly after World War II. Pruhenski said the center is used a great deal in the winter, so the town has bulked up on insulation and added LED lighting. He hopes to see big savings in energy use and operating costs for the facility.

Great Barrington also has the distinction of hosting the first retail cannabis store in Berkshire County. Theory Wellness opened January 2019 and is now one of four cannabis establishments in town. Pruhenski said sales at all four stores have been strong, and they have returned some welcome revenue to the town.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.99
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“For fiscal year 2022, we were able to use $3.5 million in cannabis revenue to offset taxes,” he noted. “Capital budget items, like new police cruisers that we normally have to borrow for, were paid for in cash thanks to the cannabis revenues.”

The town also collects 3% from cannabis stores to mitigate the negative effects of cannabis on the community. After awarding $185,000 in fiscal 2021, Pruhenski said the town will be awarding $350,000 in fiscal 2022 to five social agencies in the form of community-impact grants.

Andrus agreed that cannabis has had an overall positive impact on Great Barrington.

“Despite all the traffic cannabis brings to town, I’m surprised at how unintrusive it has been,” she said. “For people with health issues, cannabis allows them to live with much less pain.”

 

Hit the Road

When Massachusetts launched the Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program in June 2020, it was immediately popular across the state. Pruhenski called the program a “silver lining” resulting from the dark cloud of COVID. Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street to support several restaurants located there. Every Friday and Saturday night in the summer, two-thirds of the street is dedicated to outdoor dining. Pruhenski enjoys seeing Railroad Street turn into a café each weekend.

“When we started this in 2020, vaccines were not yet available, and the only way to dine out was to eat outside,” he said. “Restaurants nearby also use their outdoor space, so it creates a lively downtown experience.”

Andrus said outdoor dining on Railroad Street was a huge effort that was well worth it. “It works great, and people love it. The restaurants want to see this keep going, so they are all taking part.” The town also participates in an effort called Berkshire Busk, in which a dozen entertainers perform at different spots around downtown Great Barrington during the outdoor dining season.

Andrus said the town’s response the to pandemic reminds her of the expression, “don’t waste a good crisis.”

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it,” she added. “Because we were all kind of stagnant before the pandemic, it made us try something different.”

Pruhenski would be the first to say that Great Barrington is moving in a positive direction as more people move in, and many are locating their businesses here, too.

“School enrollments are increasing, and Main Street is busier than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time for the town.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle says she is concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, and is thus stressing the importance of public health.

 

While grateful that Easthampton is reaching the other side of COVID-19, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle understands there is still plenty of work ahead.

Even though her city came through the pandemic in better shape than many communities, she has prioritized building up the Public Health department to help the city move forward.

“We’re looking at public health as a part of public safety,” LaChapelle said. To that end, the mayor hopes to add more clinical staff to the department as well as encourage other city departments to collaborate with Public Health.

“I’m concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, from people who had COVID and survived to the mental-health aspects of it on so many people,” she went on. “In Easthampton, we need to support those with medical needs as well as mental-health needs.”

There may be some help on the way. Recently, the Center for Human Development (CHD) purchased the former Manchester Hardware store on Union Street. While CHD currently has a small presence in Easthampton, moving to the nearly 18,000-square-foot building will allow it to expand its services.

Right now, plans include outpatient mental-health counseling services for all ages and primary medical care at the site. LaChapelle said CHD could go a long way to filling the gaps in behavioral-health services in the city.

“CHD has been a good partner, and they are listening to the needs of our community members,” she said. “I feel good about what they will bring to Easthampton.”

After 125 years in business, Manchester Hardware closed its doors late last year. Owner Carol Perman had tried to sell the business to a regional hardware chain, but when that and several other possible suitors didn’t pan out, she decided to retire and just sell the building.

Some in Easthampton were critical of LaChapelle for not trying harder to locate a for-profit business at the Manchester property. Yet, “Easthampton has historically had community-based services downtown. This is not a new placement of services,” she said, noting that Manchester Hardware’s location on a public bus route helps it fit in with City Hall, the Council on Aging, and Veterans’ Services, which are all located downtown.

“As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

While there have been calls to model Northampton by pursuing a robust Main Street business district, LaChapelle said she would be negligent as mayor to try to imitate other communities and ignore her own city’s strengths. “Having centrally located services for our residents is a real strength of Easthampton, and we need to pursue those things we do well.”

The mayor’s emphasis on public health is about bringing the entire community back, she noted, especially businesses in Easthampton. “As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

 

Back on Track

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce has also worked closely with businesses to get them back on track.

“Even as COVID nears its end, business owners are trying to get their sea legs back,” said Moe Belliveau, the chamber’s executive director.

For the past 15 months, the chamber has shifted its role to become a central information resource in helping local businesses identify and apply for financial assistance during COVID.

“We sifted through all the extraneous information that comes with forms that apply to many situations,” Belliveau said. “Our members knew they could rely on us to get the right information and avoid the firehose effect of too many forms.”

In addition to securing federal grants, the chamber partnered with the city on a state economic-development project that enabled 31 businesses in Easthampton to each receive $1,500 grants.

Belliveau is currently working with the city planner on a COVID-recovery strategic plan. “There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary,” she said. “The chamber’s mission in this becomes to remain agile so we can provide help where needed and respond to opportunities when we see them.”

Like many communities, Easthampton businesses are having trouble filling open jobs. LaChapelle hopes to address this by possibly using state and federal money to subsidize local businesses so they can pay higher wages to get people back to work.

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket, is one of many intriguing developments in Easthampton.

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket with an emphasis on local and organically grown foods, is bringing lots of excitement to Easthampton. With its grand opening in July, River Valley will offer a 22,000-square-foot market to Easthampton employing 83 unionized workers with hopes of growing that number. By installing solar canopies in the parking lot and solar collectors on the roof, it produces enough power to offset the energy required to run the market, making it a net-zero building.

LaChapelle said River Valley is already inspiring the city to pursue its own energy-saving projects. “We’ll be putting solar canopies in the parking lot and on the roof of City Hall, as well as behind the Public Safety department. It won’t bring us to net zero, but it’s a good start.”

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Mountain View School, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, is nearing completion and expects to welcome middle-schoolers in January 2022, after the holiday break. LaChapelle said the plan is to move some of the younger grades into the new school next spring, and by fall 2022, all grades will be attending Mountain View.

“A couple years ago, we discussed the fear of moving young children during the school year and how disorienting that might be,” the mayor noted. “Since COVID and all the adjustments students have had to make, we no longer see that as an issue.”

Once all the students move to the new school, Easthampton will try to sell the Maple, Center, and Pepin school buildings, all of which are more than 100 years old. LaChapelle hopes to see those buildings developed into affordable housing, and the city is marketing all three schools as one project to make it more attractive to developers.

“There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary.”

“If we converted just one of these schools for affordable housing, it would be tough because it may result in only 12 units,” LaChapelle said, adding that several developers are considering the three schools as one package, and she remains optimistic that a deal might soon be in the works.

At one time, Easthampton was known for its mills. Long after they were shut down and no longer viable, the mill buildings are now a way to address economic development and to make more housing available. One Ferry Street is a project that is renovating old mill buildings into mixed-use properties featuring condominium and rental housing, as well as office space. One building, 3 Ferry, is already open, and several businesses are currently leasing space there. The next two buildings slated for renovation sit behind it and present a sort of before-and-after contrast to illustrate the potential at the site. Once complete, those two buildings, both much larger than 3 Ferry, will add more than 100 new housing units to Easthampton.

While many businesses either slowed down or shut down during the pandemic, the four cannabis dispensaries located in Easthampton continued to generate income for the city. LaChapelle is hoping to use some of that revenue for a clean-buildings initiative. With several buildings in need of new HVAC systems and some state money available, she sees this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that will benefit the city well into the future.

“It’s a big step, and, where appropriate, we could offset some of the one-time expenses with our cannabis revenues,” she added.

 

Change Agents

Belliveau said one of the strengths of Easthampton is an eclectic entrepreneurial base. Last year, the National League of Cities selected Easthampton as part of its City Innovation Ecosystem program designed to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. The city’s effort, titled Blueprint Easthampton, currently features an online resource navigator to connect entrepreneurs with everyone from suppliers to counselors to help advance their enterprises.

The Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals are also working with Blueprint Easthampton, which puts a focus on informal entrepreneurs who might not qualify for traditional grants, LaChapelle said, adding that she’s most excited about the coaching aspect of the program.

“[JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon has executive coaches — why not someone who’s making a product for sale on Etsy?” she said. Through coaching, entrepreneurs can learn how to take advantage of the many resources that are available.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people, including single parents and people of color, who are all trying to figure out how to grow,” the mayor said. “We’re giving them technical support, executive coaching, and, at the end of the program, a gift of capital to help them get ready for the next step in their venture. We just ask they register as a business in Easthampton.”

Through all its challenges, LaChapelle remains optimistic about Easthampton because she feels there is a real dialogue between the city and its residents.

“In Easthampton, you can get involved in your government and make a difference,” she said, crediting, as an example, efforts by volunteer groups who worked with the city to create open public spaces.

“Easthampton has really embraced change and the ability to evolve and grow,” Belliveau added. “In general, I’ve found people are excited about the positivity and potential that comes with change, even when it’s scary.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

For Donald Humason, the phones ringing at Westfield City Hall is a sure sign the pandemic is nearing its end.

While recognizing that some people suffered devastating personal and economic loss, Humason remains grateful that, on the whole, Westfield came through the last 14 months better than expected. He credits the team at City Hall for working tirelessly with state officials to secure grants for Westfield agencies and businesses.

“At our weekly department meetings, I would always ask if we were prepared for the eventual end of the pandemic, so we would be ready when the phones start ringing again,” the mayor said. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, I feel we are ready.”

Because construction crews continued working through the pandemic, Westfield saw progress on several infrastructure projects. In April, the main structure was installed for the Greenway Rail Trail bridge that crosses Main Street. As the trail continues through Westfield, it will be an elevated path with exit ramps that drop down to local neighborhoods and businesses. Humason expects the final phase of the trail to be complete this fall.

“This last section of the trail is taking longer because there are several overpass bridges which are more complicated to build than the pathway itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport recently broke ground for a $4.7 million taxiway project that will benefit both military and civilian air traffic. Another improvement at Barnes involves a private company looking to build three new aircraft hangars, Humason noted.

“These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Massachusetts state and federal legislators are currently on a campaign to bring the next generation F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes.

Humason said he appreciates having a fleet of F-15 fighter jets based at Barnes, but it’s worth pursuing the newer jets, too. “We are competing with several states in the Northeast to get the F-35s. We’ve modernized the base, and we’re ready to accommodate them if we are chosen.”

On the other side of the city, work has begun to replace Cowles Bridge on Route 202 that connects Westfield to Southwick. This state project marks one of the last bridges in Westfield that hasn’t yet been updated. Because the city is situated between several rivers, Humason said, Westfield is like an island in some ways because many entries into town involve crossing a bridge. He predicts Cowles Bridge will be completed in about two years.

“While it’s not a big bridge, it carries every important infrastructure in the city, so that makes it a more complex project because several utilities have to be involved in moving the structures under the bridge,” he explained.

Other projects, such as pump stations and sewer replacements, are also in the works. While these projects are not as high-profile as bridges and bike paths, they are essential, the mayor said. “These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Meanwhile, infrastructure work of a different kind — expansion of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric — continues to build momentum and become an increasingly powerful force in efforts to attract and retain businesses (and residents) in Westfield and several surrounding communities.

Tom Flaherty, general manager of the G&E, told BusinessWest there are now just under 11,000 subscribers in Westfield and 19 surrounding hilltowns, with the goal, one he considers very attainable, of reaching 15,000 within the next three years.

The high-speed internet, as well as low-cost, reliable electric service from the municipal utility, have become strong selling points for the city, said Flaherty, noting that businesses looking to relocate or expand put such services at or near the top of their list of considerations for such initiatives.

“The reliability of our electric and natural-gas infrastructures and the lower cost in comparison with other utilities — we’re more than 40% cheaper — are a huge consideration when people are coming out this way looking for houses,” he explained. “Whip City Fiber is a significant selling point when people are relocating and when businesses are relocating.”

As an example, he cited Myers Infosystems, which recently relocated from Northampton into the site of the former Piccolo’s restaurant on Elm Street, and cited energy costs and high-speed internet as key considerations in that decision.

 

Survive and Thrive

Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the businesses in Westfield were able to stay open last year because they quickly adapted once the pandemic hit. In particular, he pointed to the adjustment restaurants made last June when they were able to offer outdoor dining.

“They figured it out and made outdoor dining another feature they could offer,” Oulette said. “It was successful and allowed them to keep their doors open.”

With only a few chain restaurants in the city, Oulette said local restaurants are able to promote their individual personalities and offer many different experiences. That environment also encourages other types of small businesses to locate in Westfield.

Mayor Donald Humason

Mayor Donald Humason said the city was successful meeting the needs of residents, students, and seniors during the pandemic, and will now put more focus on business needs.

Humason told the story of three new businesses that opened in April on School Street. Hilltown Chic (small gifts, candles, etc.), Be Bella Boutique (clothing), and Boho Hair Studio are all women-owned businesses. The owners got together and decided to hold their grand openings on the same day.

“We went right down the street and cut the ribbon in front of each shop,” Humason said. “It felt like a street carnival, and the businesses all received extra publicity for it.”

Speaking of new businesses, Westfield has granted four licenses for cannabis dispensaries. Only one, Cannabis Connection, is currently open, with the others at various stages of getting ready to open.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket,” Humason said.

As businesses pick up their activity, he added, they will need more workers — and, like everywhere else, Westfield has far more job openings than candidates.

In May, Mestek joined with the chamber and about a dozen other businesses and held a job fair in the field across from Mestek, with each exhibitor setting up a tent to speak with interested job seekers.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket.”

The idea for the job fair started with Peter Letendre, plant manager at Mestek, which manufactures HVAC equipment and performs metal fabrication for other industries. The company had recently acquired its main competitor and was relocating the operation from Long Island to Westfield, bringing 60 to 70 new manufacturing positions along with the move. Traditional recruiting wasn’t working to fill those jobs, so Letendre had to look at other ways to find people.

“I’m on the board at the chamber and began talking with other members about holding a job fair,” he said. “That way, we could all help each other by attracting candidates for our respective companies.”

In addition to Mestek, exhibitors included Six Flags of New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Northwestern Mutual, and several others. A few weeks after the job fair, Letendre reported that Mestek had hired about 15 employees, with another 10 in the process of coming on board.

Many of the positions offered by the job-fair exhibitors offered starting pay that was higher than minimum wage. For instance, Letendre said, the entry-level starting rate at Mestek is $15.50 an hour, and after 90 days, if the employee performs well and demonstrates good attendance, the pay increases to $16. As they acquire more skills, their wage can rapidly increase from there.

From working with sheet metal to assembling HVAC units and warehouse work, Letendre said Mestek offers lots of opportunity for growth. “You can start off in manufacturing, then keep improving your skills and build a solid career here.”

Plans are underway for a second job fair at the end of the summer. While many would-be job seekers are currently receiving supplemental unemployment benefits, that program ends in September, Oulette noted. “Right now, there are lots of companies looking to hire above minimum wage, so my one message to job seekers is, don’t wait until the fall when the unemployment benefits end, because there will be much more competition.”

While he is the new executive director of the chamber, Oulette is no stranger to Westfield. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America Western Massachusetts Council for five years and was president of the Rotary Club of Westfield in 2019 and 2020. He accepted a director of Development position for the Boy Scouts in 2020 that had him spending several days a week in New Hampshire. When the pandemic kept him at home, he wanted to stay in Western Mass. and accepted the chamber position in April.

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette is no stranger to civic life in Westfield, including service with the Boy Scouts and the Rotary.

Oulette is the first to admit he had to “fill some big shoes” following Kate Phelon, who retired in September after 12 years leading the chamber. He appreciates how welcoming everyone has been as he transitions into the new post.

“It’s just like starting any new job where information is coming at you like you’re drinking from a firehose,” he said with a laugh.

 

Back to Business

Flaherty, like Oulette, is optimistic about the city’s prospects for continued residential and commercial growth, noting that it has a number of strong selling points, including location, strong schools and neighborhoods, and, as mentioned earlier, lower-cost energy and an expanding fiber-optic network.

And this expansion may soon take Whip City Fiber well beyond the city’s borders, he said, adding that the utility is in discussions with West Springfield about a pilot program to bring high-speed internet service to areas of that city as it advances plans to build a town-owned internet utility in partnership with Westfield G&E.

“We’re looking at four potential pilot areas that would be installed over the next year while the city goes through the process for the community to become a municipal light plant, or MLP,” he explained, adding that expansion into the neighboring city could eventually bring another 13,000 subscribers to the service.

Meanwhile, there are preliminary talks about taking the service to other communities as well, Flaherty said.

“There’s a good level of trust concerning our product and our capabilities — we have all the infrastructure, we have the billing system, we have the customer in place, we have the utility capabilities, the bucket trucks, and the line personnel,” he noted, adding that the company is well-positioned for continued growth.

As is Westfield itself. Oulette and Humason are grateful the city was not forced to confront big job losses or high numbers of business closings. Despite the pandemic, the mayor noted, Westfield kept moving forward.

“While our schools faced issues of whether they were going to hold classes remotely or in-person, we still continued with education,” he said. “We were still able to serve our senior citizens even though we couldn’t meet at the Council on Aging. We were also able to keep our infrastructure projects moving despite the pandemic.”

Humason added that, because Westfield has taken care of residents, schools, and seniors, he now looks forward to giving more attention to expanding businesses in the city. “I’ve said this since the day I was sworn into office: Westfield is open for business.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says businesses in town, including her own, Berkshire Hills Music Academy, are anxious to ramp up operations as the economy reopens.

 

For Mike Sullivan, the past 15 months have been a learning experience on many levels.

As town administrator in South Hadley, Sullivan has learned just how essential online payment systems and Zoom meetings have become for residents who need to do business with the town.

“As we make more access points available to the public, we’ve seen participation in government increase,” Sullivan said, adding that, while many people are looking forward to meeting in person again, Zoom is also here to stay.

The pandemic also taught him about the efficiencies of running Town Hall. By limiting in-person visits to appointment only, staff have been able to more efficiently get business done. Going forward, he looks to follow a model other towns have adopted of limiting hours or closing to the public one day a week.

“There are multiple ways to take care of business,” Sullivan said. “I appreciate that some people have complicated business they need to conduct in person, and we will accommodate them. When residents use online platforms or even ‘snail mail’ instead of visiting Town Hall, it saves money for the town and for everyone’s individual taxes.”

Sullivan made plenty of adjustments to keep South Hadley moving forward during the pandemic. Attendees to last year’s town meeting, for example, never left their cars.

“People tuned into the discussion over their car radios, just like an old drive-in movie,” he said. A similar drive-in town meeting is planned for this year, but there will also be a seating area for those who feel safe enough to leave their cars. “We’re looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Michelle Theroux, president of the South Hadley and Granby Chamber of Commerce, said one indication of a return to normalcy is the “we’re hiring” signs around town. She acknowledges there are many factors why people are not immediately returning to work, but even with recruitment issues, the signs represent a positive step.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce,” she said.

As the end of the pandemic nears, Theroux credits the South Hadley community for its support of small business. From restaurant takeout orders to holiday shopping, it was local people who provided enough support so that no chamber-member businesses permanently closed due to the pandemic.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive,” she said. “It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Because small business is such an essential part of South Hadley, banks in town worked with the chamber to secure Paycheck Protection Program funds for businesses in town. In addition, the chamber recently partnered with the Northampton chamber and the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism to secure $20,000 in state grants.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce.”

The chamber also spread the word among its members on how they could help each other, as well as support businesses that are not necessarily top of mind.

“If you look at the South Hadley Commons, we all think of the great restaurants there,” Theroux said. “The Commons also has a movie theater and a number of small boutiques that offer unique and personalized items you can’t find at a big-box store.”

 

Forward Momentum

One key project that kept going during the pandemic involves the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza. At one time the site of a Big Y supermarket, the parcel now features various retail stores anchored by Rocky’s Hardware. The site has been approved for a 60-unit, mixed-income apartment complex that will occupy three acres in the back of the parcel.

“Way Finders of Springfield is running the housing-complex project, and they are waiting for federal funding to come through before they break ground,” Sullivan said.

Theroux is excited about the project because it provides a glimpse at the future of development.

“At Woodlawn, you have a multi-use site with different types of businesses and living options all in one central location,” she said, while predicting that the entire area surrounding Woodlawn will see a revitalization over the next several years. As one example, Northampton Cooperative Bank and PeoplesBank have recently opened branches in or near the Woodlawn Plaza.

Sullivan also pointed with pride to the new senior center on Dayton Street, which is scheduled to open June 30.

“We were able to successfully build the senior center during the pandemic, and the costs were below the estimated bids,” he said. “Even with increases in some of the materials, we will still come in nearly $700,000 under the original estimate.”

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $19.46 (Fire District 1); $19.80 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

Six years ago, Mohawk Paper opened a plant in South Hadley to great fanfare and optimism for a long relationship with the community. Last year, in pursuit of more favorable taxes and incentives, the company closed its operations in South Hadley and moved to Ohio.

As tough as it was to see Mohawk pack up and leave, Sullivan noted that E Ink, the company located across Gaylord Street from the former Mohawk plant, has good news moving forward. “E Ink is planning to double in size because they have a new product line coming out.”

E Ink makes the agent used in tablets like the Amazon Kindle, which allows an electronic page to read like a physical book. In addition to tablets, E Ink screens are used in a variety of applications ranging from signage at MBTA stations and international airports to retail price signs.

On top of contributing as a successful company, Sullivan noted that E Ink is a strong supporter of community projects and events in South Hadley.

Meanwhile, the Ledges Golf Club, owned by the town and a financial drag for many years, is on its way to performing at par. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, golf courses across the state were mandated to stay closed for several weeks. Sullivan called the lost months a “kick in the shins” because, once it opened, the Ledges did brisk business all season and came close to hitting a break-even point.

“This year, we made $200,000 in revenue in just March and April,” Sullivan said. “By the end of the fiscal year next June, we think the Ledges will break even.”

In addition to her duties as chamber president, Theroux’s full time job is executive director of Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), a music-infused program that helps young adults with special needs to expand their social, vocational, and life skills. Before the pandemic, BHMA employed just over 100 people. Though it normally offers both residential and day programs, state mandates forced BHMA to quickly shift to remote classes for its day students. After furloughs and layoffs due to the new mandates, 64 staff remain.

“Our current state is a hybrid model where we have about 40% of our day students back on campus, with the rest joining us by remote,” Theroux said. “Once we can fully reopen, we’d like to staff up to where we were before the pandemic.”

Looking ahead to the fall, she wasn’t sure what to expect for new enrollments, but was pleasantly surprised to see strong numbers for BHMA’s incoming class.

“Once their loved one is vaccinated, many families are all in on our program, and that’s a huge positive for us,” Theroux said. “Three months ago, I would not have been as confident about what next year would look like.”

 

Back to School

After more than a year of remote learning, Mount Holyoke College students have begun to return to campus. While remote learning is still available, many have indicated they plan to return to campus in the fall.

“The presence of Mount Holyoke students back on campus will provide a real boost to South Hadley feeling normal again,” Theroux said.

Sullivan is on the move, too. After a long career of public service, he has announced he will retire in June. Looking back, he points to a number of projects he’s helped shepherd to success. One area of particular pride is the progress South Hadley has made in hiring a more diverse workforce. As an example, he mentioned Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen, who recently joined South Hadley’s force after several years in Amherst.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive. It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Sullivan in only one of South Hadley’s leaders who are moving on. Planning Director Richard Harris is also retiring, and the superintendent of schools left in December to pursue another professional path.

While grateful for their service to the town, Theroux sees this as a time for South Hadley to bring new faces into leadership roles.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, I’m optimistic about the future and a new era of leadership for our town,” she said, adding that she looks forward to people once again enjoying all that South Hadley has to offer.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop, making it an oft-discussed part of conversations about expanded east-west rail.

As the nation recovers from a year of dealing with COVID-19, Palmer Town Manger Ryan McNutt looks to the future with optimism.

While larger cities had to contend with high COVID infection numbers and revenue losses from business taxes, Palmer maintained low infection numbers and relies more on residential taxes, which remained stable.

These days, as many people in the larger metropolitan areas work from home, there is no certainty they will return to five days a week in the office. That dynamic, McNutt believes, gives Palmer a real opportunity. With the average home price in Palmer at $191,000 compared to the Greater Boston area average of more than a half-million dollars, he wants to take advantage of this moment.

“The ability to start a family and work toward the American dream is much more difficult to afford in the Greater Boston area and much easier in our area,” he told BusinessWest. “We may see a change in working conditions where office workers spend up to four days a week at home, which would allow them to live in Western Mass. and take advantage of our affordability.”

McNutt is creating a marketing plan to reach out to the Boston area as well as other densely populated urban areas to promote the value and quality of life available in Palmer and surrounding areas.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario.”

One huge boon for Palmer in this regard would be the proposed east-west rail project. The plan to offer passenger rail service from Pittsfield to Boston has been included in the federal infrastructure plan about to go to Congress. McNutt said east-west rail would be transformative for his town.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario,” he said. Though many steps remain before the plan wins approval and comes to fruition, town planners are looking to identify the right location, and they want to make sure it’s shovel-ready.

“I want to be so ready that, if we were told they could helicopter in a train station and drop it where a site was selected, we want to be ready for that helicopter,” he said.

 

Engine of Opportunity

The economic potential of a train stop in Palmer is not lost on Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabog Hills Chamber of Commerce. On the job since January, Surprise looks to help chamber members increase their engagement with state and local officials, as well as identify economic programs to benefit the area.

He has already begun working on a grant for downtown Palmer through the Transformative Development Initiative, a MassDevelopment program. The grant provides incentives for businesses to locate in condensed areas, like downtown settings, that are walkable.

“That’s a positive for us because Palmer’s downtown is very walkable,” Surprise said.

He is also applying to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to have downtown Palmer designated as a cultural district. In addition to being a walkable area, a community must show it hosts arts and cultural events on a regular basis.

Surprise admits these projects will take several years to be successful, but the effort would be worth it. “A well-developed and vibrant downtown will help us bring in other businesses.”

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise

“Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

As part of his outreach to local officials, he reminds them of Palmer’s tradition and continued relevance as a manufacturing town.

“There has been a lot of talk on the national level about restoring manufacturing jobs,” he said, adding that communities like Palmer that have plenty of available land could be attractive to Boston-area high-tech companies looking for manufacturing space. “Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

The chamber recently conducted a survey among its members to find out how they weathered the pandemic. Results so far show that two-thirds of businesses have been able to avoid employee layoffs. By finding alternatives such as reducing hours, many avoided having to reduce their staffs.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.63; Three Rivers, $23.28; Bondsville, $23.67; Thorndike, $23.62
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

“We conducted the survey to learn what types of services the chamber could offer to help businesses find success going forward,” Surprise said, noting that these are only preliminary results, as all surveys have not yet been returned.

As a first step, the chamber is planning a number of seminars for small businesses to help them increase foot traffic and bring in new customers through approaches such as digital marketing.

“Many small businesses are not familiar with digital or social media marketing, and it’s really a necessary tool in the 21st century,” he noted.

 

On the Right Track

McNutt is hopeful some kind of infrastructure package passes Congress because, like municipal leaders all over the country, he faces big projects that need attention.

“There are 47,000 deficient bridges in the U.S., including the nine that are in Palmer,” he said.

But for a small community, he added, taking on a big infrastructure project is a heavy lift, and Palmer has been working with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal to secure funding for at least two bridges, on Main Street and Church Street, which need the most attention.

One project that could add significantly to the town tax revenues involves building 300 seasonal cottages on Forest Lake. McNutt is excited about the potential for this project.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

“Right now the cottages are planned for warm-weather use and would bring plenty of folks in to stay in town,” he said. “They will most likely go to local restaurants and make other purchases, so we could see a real economic multiplier effect from this project.”

Palmer has also agreed to be a host community for the cannabis industry. Two retail sites and two cultivation businesses have run into delays to start their enterprises, but McNutt blames COVID for the slowdown.

“The Cannabis Control Commission held fewer meetings than they normally would, and site visits were more difficult to do,” he explained. “In short, everything in the regulatory environment was just harder to do during the pandemic.” He feels confident at least one site will be up and running this year or early in 2022.

As the number of people vaccinated increases and COVID concerns decrease, he believes the opportunity is now for Palmer and surrounding towns.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

McNutt noted that people can still pursue the American dream by locating to Palmer because, in addition to its natural surroundings, the town has easy access to metropolitan areas. In short, he said, “we have the best of both worlds.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tyler Saremi

Tyler Saremi sees potential in West Springfield’s downtown, and is taking steps to inject some economic vibrancy.

When Tyler Saremi looks at what is considered downtown West Springfield — the Elm Street/Park Street area — he doesn’t see Northampton or West Hartford.

But he can easily imagine a day when that section of this city that still calls itself a town can attain something approaching a level of vibrancy and an eclectic mix of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, that define those communities.

And he’s doing his best to bring that day closer. Indeed, the multi-faceted business run by his family that he serves as vice president, Saremi LLP, acquired 95 Elm St. — known to most as the United Bank building because it was the main tenant for many years — with the goal of … well, turning back the clock in many respects.

The century-old building has, over the decades, been home to cafés, restaurants, a grocery store, banks, and other types of retail, said Saremi, adding that it has always been a destination, and the broad goal with this project is to make it one again. Thus, it has been rebranded as Town Common.

Already, Tandem Bagel, the Hadley-based company with locations there and also in Easthampton and Northampton, will soon occupy space where bank-teller windows have stood on the first floor; the target date for opening is July. Meanwhile, at the other end of the first floor, Saremi pointed to the place where intends to put a restaurant. He said two other leases have been signed, and several more are pending.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back,” he said. “Our main intention is a café and a restaurant on the first floor; whether we have to open a restaurant ourselves or partner with someone, we don’t care. That’s part of our commitment to West Springfield — it needs a café, and it needs a restaurant, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up.”

The redevelopment of 95 Elm St. is just one of the intriguing stories unfolding in West Springfield, a community that is, like many others, trying to rebound from a pandemic that has taken a huge toll on hospitality-related businesses. And West Side, as it’s called, has many of them, said Mayor Will Reichelt, who counted 20 hotels and motels and a number of restaurants in his community.

But the biggest business in that sector, obviously, is the Big E, which is responsible for filling many those hotels, motels, and restaurants, not just during the 17 days of the annual fair, but almost year-round, as that venue hosts a number of shows centered on everything from horses to toy railroads; dogs to guns and knives.

The Big E has been mostly empty and silent since the pandemic arrived a year ago, and while the outlook for 2021 is more promising, there remains a huge number of unknows, especially with regard to the fair, a situation that Big E President and CEO Gene Cassidy summed up this way:

“It’s like you’re navigating your way down a dark alleyway; you don’t know what’s in front of you — if there’s suddenly going to be a crack in the pavement or if you’re going to walk into a dumpster,” he said, using that phrase to indicate how difficult it is to plan when the rules keep changing, often without much, if any, notice. “Our goal, simply, is to plan to produce a product that people are going to enjoy.”

Cassidy is quite confident there will be a Big E this September — he just doesn’t how many people will be allowed to attend. He doesn’t think it will be full capacity, as in 100,000 people on a weekend day, as in fairs past. Instead, he’s expecting some percentage of that number, which won’t be ideal, but certainly better than last year.

And while most of his energy and attention is still focused on this year’s fair, he said he’s spending a good amount of time lobbying officials to understand the importance of fairs and live events in general, and to help ensure the long-term survival of such institutions, something he believes is now imperiled.

Overall, though, he’s optimistic about the rest of 2021.

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all, and he’s moving forward with planning after having to cancel the 2020 fair.

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up,” he said, noting that various expert projections of herd immunity by fall or even sooner are encouraging, even as innumerable challenges and question marks loom.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes a hard look at West Side and its efforts to become even more of a destination, even as its business community continues to battle COVID-19 and all the challenges it has brought.

 

Road to Progress

Reichelt, now wrapping up his second term in office, with plans to seek a third, said he can’t find too many silver linings from the pandemic and all the havoc it caused in 2020.

But he can find at least one — acceleration of the process to replace the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects his city with Agawam. The bridge project, which commenced two years ago, has to pause during the 17-day run of the Big E, he explained, adding that work actually comes to a halt for three weeks or more because of logistical concerns.

Obviously, that didn’t happen in 2020, he went on, adding that a project that was due to be completed this summer will now be done by spring.

“The work is way ahead of schedule,” he said. “Without the Big E, they probably gained a month of working time, and that will certainly help out on the back end.”

The broad mission moving forward is to get more people to travel over that bridge and other thoroughfares into West Side, said Reichelt, adding that the city has always considered itself at the crossroads of this region — I-91 and the turnpike connect there, and Route 5 runs through it as well. This location has long been a huge asset, one that paved the way, if you will, for major retailers and car dealers alike to populate Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue. It has also brought visitors to the community not only for the Big E and shows on its grounds, but for myriad other tourism- and business-related functions, from leaf peeping to the semiannual EASTEC trade show.

The ongoing goal is to continually take advantage of this asset, build on the foundation that’s been laid, and try to spread the vibrancy to other areas of the city.

Which brings us back to Elm Street, Town Common, and the huge ‘Under New Management’ banner now adorning it.

As he gave BusinessWest a tour, Saremi pointed out the spot where Tandem Bagel would go, then did the same with the restaurant. Venturing to the second floor, much of which is now occupied by Saremi LLP, he showed where a number of smaller spaces, individual offices, and even co-working space might be carved out.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

Later, he pointed out one of the huge windows to the traffic — specifically, the juncture of Route 20 and Elm Street.

“This intersection has so much traffic … we need to get people to stop here in downtown West Side, get out, walk around, go to some shops, get something to eat — that’s how I see it,” he noted, adding that there are already some attractions there, including the Celery Stalk restaurant, a legendary luncheon stop; as well as bNapoli restaurant and the Majestic Theater. The broad goal is to build on that critical mass, he said, noting that clusters of eateries and entertainment venues have been the formula for success in Northampton, West Hartford, and other communities.

Reichelt concurred, and told BusinessWest the city is always striving to build on its already-impressive portfolio of retail- and hospitality-related businesses — and also fill in some spots that are less vibrant than others.

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says initiatives like a new economic recovery director and a series of infrastructure plans will help keep West Springfield on the right track.

As an example, he pointed to Riverdale Street, which actually has two distinct sections, if you will. There’s the one south of I-91, which is thriving and always has, said the mayor, who worked at the Donut Dip on that throughfare in his youth and thus speaks from experience. Then there’s the stretch north of the highway, which, while still vibrant by most measures, has some vacancies and, in general, is underperforming.

Reichelt said the city will look to help address this situation, and other business and economic-development issues in the city, through the hiring, at least on a temporary basis, of what’s being called an ‘economic recovery director.’

“The goal with this new position is to build better business relationships in the community, help with business retention, and focus on some of the underutilized areas, like the north-of-91 section of Riverdale,” he explained.

Already, there are signs of progress, he said, noting the reopened White Hut, the expansion of Calabrese Market on Park Street, and the sale of the former Hofbrahaus property to the owner of the Hangar Pub and Grill and growing ‘Wings Over’ stable of restaurants, among other positive developments.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Meanwhile, a number of infrastructure plans now in place are designed to improve traffic flow and, ultimately, promote more vibrancy in the city. First up is Park Street, he said, adding that it is being repaved and steps are being taken to taken to make the commons more accessible and safer to use. Those plans include what the mayor called a mile-long loop or walking and biking trail around the green space.

Elm Street will follow, he went on, adding that this will be a multi-faceted initiative designed to beautify the area, add more parking, redesign the intersection of Elm Street and Route 20, and allow people to make more and better use of the green space there.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this project is in the design phase and should commence in 2022. Likewise, a huge, $25 million project to improve traffic flow on Memorial Avenue will take place that same year.

 

Fair Assessment

Sitting in the large conference room in the Big E’s administration building, Cassidy reflected on what has been an ultra-challenging 12 months for this regional institution — and what lies ahead, to the extent that he could, obviously.

He said every aspect of this enterprise — from the annual fall fair to the year-round shows that draw visitors from across the Northeast, to the restaurant on the grounds, Storrowton Tavern — have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

And the hurt is still being felt. The shows slated for weekends in January and February were all canceled, he said, with some, including the huge Western Mass. Home & Garden Show, moved back on the calendar, in this case to August.

The Big E has received some support — nearly $1 million in the first round of PPP, with an application in for the second round of funding. There have been some cutbacks — the workforce has been trimmed from 30 full-time employees to 25 — and those who are left have found themselves with … let’s call them broadened job descriptions.

“Those of us who are still here have had to do jobs we’ve never had to before,” he noted, adding that such tasks include everything from directing traffic for the few events that have been staged to making sure the buildings on the grounds are secure. “Everyone has had to pitch in.”

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.90
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.49
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

As for the last three quarters of 2021, Cassidy said there are certainly some signs of optimism with his industry. For example, the Canadian government recently gave the green light for the popular Calgary Stampede to take place in June. Meanwhile, the Pasco County Fair in Florida was recently staged, albeit with a number of restrictions and safety precautions in place.

Cassidy took it in while on a trip to Tampa for ‘Florida Week’ and a number of trade association meetings that were staged in-person, which is significant in and of itself, he noted, adding that the main topic of conversation, obviously, was how to stage events safely.

“Interestingly, at the Pasco County Fair, we were there on a Tuesday night, it was chilly, but the fair manager indicated that attendance actually exceeded what it was last year, and he attributed that to the fact that people want to get out,” he recalled. “They want to resume ‘normal,’ and that’s in a state where businesses have been open and Main Street is open.”

But while he can look ahead and try to plan, there are too many question marks to do the latter with any amount of efficacy. These question marks surround everything from what the attendance restrictions will be to whether — and under what conditions — the state buildings can open, to whether individuals and families will be willing to come back out and be part of a mass gathering on the midway or one of the concert venues.

The major consideration is what will be permitted for attendance, said Cassidy, adding that it’s a simple but troubling fact that the costs of operating the fair will be roughly the same whether it’s at full capacity, 50%, or some other number. But the bottom line is that a smaller fair, attendance-wise, is certainly preferable to no fair at all.

“It costs the same to produce the fair for 1.6 million people as it does to produce the fair for one,” he said. “Our staff is preparing a conventional Big E and will try to deliver the product we’re known for.”

Cassidy believes that, as he saw in Florida, there will a significant amount of pent-up demand and that people will want to return to the fairgrounds.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Reichelt agreed, and said the return of the fair this fall, even a smaller fair, will help the region’s economy and, specifically, many of those hospitality-related businesses that have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

“Having it happen will be good, not only for the Big E, but for the region to bring back that sense of normalcy,” he noted. “And it will be helpful for businesses in the area as they start to recover from all this.”

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says a heavy focus on outdoor experiences last year helped Lenox weather the economic impact of the pandemic.

For the past year, the town of Lenox showed what happens when uncertainty meets a can-do attitude.

Despite the formidable challenges of COVID-19, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said, Lenox residents and businesses have been remarkably resilient.

“Throughout the pandemic, our residents demonstrated how much they love our town,” Ketchen said. “They make their homes here, and our businesses are invested in their customers and their community.”

What began as a normal year of planning events at the Lenox Chamber of Commerce was suddenly derailed in March. Once they realized the pandemic was going to last more than a couple months, Executive Director Jennifer Nacht said, chamber members and town officials quickly met to put together a plan to salvage at least some activity for Lenox.

“We went through each season and developed a general outline of things we could do,” Nacht said. “Even though we did not know what the year was going to look like, we were able to turn around some great activities.”

Like many towns, Lenox encouraged restaurants to offer tented outdoor dining and allowed them to expand outdoor seating into public parking spaces. The town also added covered dining terraces in public spaces around town.

“The select board lifted alcohol restrictions so people could bring a bottle of wine to Lilac Park, for example, where we had set up a dining terrace,” Nacht said.

“You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

Some developments last spring were rough. In May, the town learned that, due to COVID-19 concerns, Tanglewood had canceled its 2020 season. For some perspective on the importance of Lenox’s largest summer attraction, a Williams College study in 2017 estimated the economic impact of Tanglewood to Berkshire County and Western Mass. at nearly $103 million annually.

Because they didn’t know what to expect when Tanglewood called off its season, Nacht said everyone concentrated their efforts on making Lenox a welcome and inviting place. Outdoor dining was a first step that helped to establish a more vibrant atmosphere, and it inspired further activities.

For example, the Lenox Cultural District and the chamber organized Lenox Loves Music, an initiative that featured live music performed at the Church Street Dining Terrace for seven straight Sundays in August and September. It was a hit.

“Because we were able to turn on a dime and get everything set up, we were able to make the outside experience fun,” Nacht said. “As a result, we were better able to weather the financial impact of the pandemic.”

 

Hit the Road

If entry points to walking and biking trails are any indication, Ketchen said the pandemic helped many people discover the town’s outdoor attractions for the first time. “You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

For more than 40 years, Lenox has held Apple Squeeze, a harvest celebration that takes over much of the downtown area with 150 food and craft vendors. The event was canceled for 2020 because of concerns that, even with restrictions, too many people would gather, leading to unsafe crowd sizes.

Lenox Loves Music

Lenox Loves Music was a hit during a time when live music was in short supply.

As an alternative, the chamber and American Arts Marketing developed the Lenox Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when the Apple Squeeze would have taken place. Forty artists set up in different areas around town in ‘artist villages,’ which were arranged so no more than 50 people could be in one area at a time. Foot-traffic flow was also designed to keep people moving through the exhibits.

Nacht said the Art Walk received great feedback, and the artists involved loved exhibiting their work. The event also led to phone calls from event organizers from several Eastern Mass. towns who wanted to know how to stage a similar event.

The old adage about necessity being the mother of invention definitely has proven true for Lenox. “We just tried some different things that we probably would have never attempted, or done so quickly, had it not been for the pandemic,” Nacht said.

In the beginning of the summer, traffic in town was about half of what it would be during a normal season. As the weather became warmer and travel restrictions eased around the state, both traffic and business picked up.

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way,” Nacht said, adding that good weather in the summer and fall extended the outdoor season nearly to Thanksgiving.

While lodging in the area was restricted by the number of rooms that could be offered, she noted, from September through November, inn and hotel rooms were booked to the capacity they were allowed.

As the owner of the Scoop, a Lenox ice-cream store, Nacht was one of many business owners forced to move customer interactions outdoors. She found a fun way to adjust.

“We did it sort of Cape Cod style, where people order at one window and pick up their ice cream at a second window,” she explained, adding that, while 2020 was not as successful as previous years, the Scoop still saw steady business throughout its season. Even non-food stores, inspired by all the outdoor activity, set up tents in front of their shops to add to the vitality.

In a normal year, Lenox Winterland is a tradition to kick off the holiday season that features a tree-lighting ceremony and Santa Claus meeting with children. In this very-not-normal year, Winterland was forced to cancel.

Instead of losing their holiday spirit, however, the Cultural District and chamber presented a creative alternative. Local businesses and artists teamed up to decorate 30 Christmas trees, which were displayed in a tree walk through town. Nacht said the inaugural Holiday Tree Walk was so well-received, plans are in the works to expand and make it an annual event.

“Despite the obstacles of COVID, we had a decent tourism business,” she said. “We’ll continue to offer more fun events to keep the vibrancy of the town going and improving.”

 

Passing the Test

Lenox has always been proud of its cultural amenities, such as Tanglewood, Edith Wharton’s house at the Mount, Shakespeare and Co., and others. As those were scaled back, Ketchen said, the town’s outdoor amenities gained exposure they might not have otherwise.

“Once we are allowed to enjoy our cultural institutions to their fullest again, people will also have more awareness of all the recreational opportunities Lenox has,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a big positive for us as we look to the future.”

While Nacht hopes to see Tanglewood up and running, at least in some form, in 2021, she admits the past year was quite the learning experience. “We are so dependent on Tanglewood, it was an interesting test to see what we could do without Tanglewood there.”

Despite the challenges put on municipal budgets, Ketchen said Lenox was able to pursue several modest infrastructure projects in 2020, such as maintaining roads and public-utility infrastructure. “When folks are ready to come to Lenox for the recreation and the culture, the public utilities and infrastructure will be waiting for them.”

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way.”

In short, Lenox is not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, it’s finding ways to come out stronger on the other side. Indeed, when this community, which depends on cultural tourism, was challenged to find creative solutions to stay afloat, it answered the call. Nacht credited Lenox businesses for making quick and significant adjustments in their operations.

“It was really inspiring to see our businesses make the best out of a not-so-great situation,” she said. “It says a lot about their commitment to our town.”

Undaunted by the near future, Nacht noted several businesses are planning for April openings. And she looks forward to the new year knowing that Lenox can present all the outdoor events that worked well in 2020.

“With knowledge, you just learn to do things better, and we learned a lot last year,” she added. “Once the tulips come out, that’s when we start to see everything come alive again.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

As the world looks to generate energy from different sources and reduce waste, a new facility just opened in Agawam that contributes to both efforts.

What looks like a plain green building on Main Street is actually a plant that converts food waste into natural gas and fertilizer. Vanguard Renewables, based in Wellesley, approached Agawam Mayor William Sapelli about locating an organics-recovery facility in Agawam. After addressing some initial concerns about truck traffic and potential odor from the plant, the town gave the go-ahead.

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this,” Sapelli said, noting that this is only the second plant of its type in Massachusetts.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say the nearby Hood dairy plant has a pallet of yogurt that does not meet specifications or has expired. Hood can bring that pallet to the Agawam facility, where large extracting machines separate the packaging from the yogurt. The packaging gets bundled and brought to a recycling facility, while the yogurt is mixed with other food waste and water. This forms a slurry, which is then delivered by tanker truck to an anerobic digester, a large, dome-shaped structure. (The closest digesters to Agawam are located on farms in Deerfield and Hadley.)

The slurry is mixed with farm-animal waste in the digester, where two things happen. First, biogas rises from the mix and gets converted to renewable natural gas for heating and cooling. Then, the remains of the slurry, known as digestate, are used as low-carbon fertilizer for area farmers.

“In the past, all this waste was incinerated or dumped into a landfill, but now it’s being turned into energy and fertilizer,” Sapelli said, calling the process “amazing.” As the Agawam facility ramps up to full capacity, it will be able to process 250 tons of food waste per day, according to Vanguard.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this.”

That’s just one project that has Agawam officials excited as they move past a challenging 2020 for all municipalities. While the pandemic is still a daily reality, they say this town is focused on growth as a new year dawns.

 

Bridge to Tomorrow

For the past couple of years, the largest infrastructure project in Agawam has been the rebuilding of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge connecting Agawam and West Springfield. The original completion date was scheduled for May 2022. After Sapelli met with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to incentivize the project contractor, Northern Construction, to work overtime and weekends to shorten the deadline, the date was moved to August 2021.

Once the pandemic hit and fewer people were out and about, bridge construction accelerated further. Favorable weather, as well as lighter traffic from both vehicles and pedestrians, allowed crews to get more done every day. Then, the Big E canceled its 2020 fair.

“By contract, the crews had to stop work during the Big E,” Sapelli said. “When the fair was canceled this fall, it gave them an extra 17 days to work on the bridge.” While noting that he is not putting pressure on the construction crews, he predicted the bridge may now be completed by June 2021.

The mayor is also pleased that many of the headaches and traffic jams that usually occur with a major construction project have not materialized. “It’s been a great project,” he said. “You don’t hear a mayor say that very often.”

Like every community, Agawam has had to deal with COVID-19. In fact, the mayor himself had a false alarm after testing positive on a quick test. After going into self-quarantine for several days and not experiencing any symptoms, he took a PCR test (referred to as the ‘gold standard’ of COVID testing), which revealed he had never been infected with coronavirus.

the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June

With the pandemic reducing traffic and accelerating the pace of work last year, the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June.

“I asked if I was asymptomatic or if I’d had it a week before, and the answer to both was, ‘no, it was a false positive,’” he said.

While state mandates have limited public access to Town Hall, Sapelli explained that, even if it were open to the public, the building’s layout just doesn’t work well with COVID-19 mandates.

“For example, the public area in the Collector of Taxes office measures about five feet by eight feet,” Sapelli said. “With social distancing, that means no more than one person can stand there; anyone else would have to wait in the hall, which is also cramped.”

Still, with an emphasis on safety first, Sapelli said Town Hall is open for business for anyone who calls ahead for an appointment.

In order to reduce COVID-19 risks and still encourage in-person education, Agawam’s public schools have adopted a hybrid model. Students whose last names begin with the letters A-K attend class on Monday and Tuesday, while those with L-Z last names attend Thursday and Friday. On the three days they are not scheduled in person, students attend class remotely.

The Department of Health and the superintendent of schools are employing the hybrid model as long as COVID-19 cases within the education community remain low compared to the community as a whole. As a former Agawam school superintendent, Sapelli supports this direction.

“The hybrid approach has been working for Agawam. First, we’re making sure everyone is safe so we can get our students in front of teachers,” he said, adding that parents who are uncomfortable with the hybrid model may choose remote learning full-time.

Bars and restaurants everywhere have greatly suffered during the pandemic from mandated closings, limited seating, and other restrictions. To support those businesses in Agawam, the City Council and the mayor have co-sponsored a resolution to waive the $1,500 liquor-license fee in 2021 for all bars, restaurants, and banquet halls.

“We recognize they’ve lost a lot of revenue and have not been able to host the types of events and gatherings they normally do,” Sapelli said. “Waiving the fee is one thing we can do during the pandemic to help local businesses in these tough times.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

The fee waiver is just one of the ways the City Council and the mayor are working together to help local businesses, he added. “We are business-friendly. When a new business wants to locate in Agawam, we try to expedite the permitting process by having a team meeting that includes everyone from our fire and police departments to the health inspectors and building inspectors. They all meet together with the business owner, so it becomes one-stop shopping.”

 

House Calls

That cooperative attitude makes life easier for Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development in Agawam, who told BusinessWest about several projects in the area of South Westfield Street in the Feeding Hills section of town. One of the most anticipated projects is the Villas at Pine Crossing, an over-55 community that will add 44 units of senior housing to the market.

“Our office frequently gets calls from residents who are looking to downsize, but they want to stay in Agawam,” Strange said. “The designs at the Villas are more friendly for an aging population, something that is desperately needed in Agawam and everywhere else.”

He said he’s grateful the developer chose Agawam for the Villas, and welcomes similar projects. “We’re hoping this will trigger future developments for 55-plus communities in Agawam.”

The land parcel that was once the Tuckahoe Turf Farm sits adjacent to the Villas at Pine Crossing. After years of considering new uses for the property, Agawam officials are now looking at a solar-energy installation for part of the site. “The revenue from the solar field will allow us to develop the rest of the property for recreational uses, such as walking trails and such,” Sapelli said.

Agawam also completed a project in 2020 to convert all its streetlights to LED fixtures, which emit brighter light but also help the city reap potential savings of $220,000 every year. “Agawam is looking to save about $100,000 per year in energy costs and nearly $120,000 per year in streetlight maintenance,” Strange said.

During construction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, crews are using two desirable land parcels to stage and store equipment. Once the bridge is complete, those two parcels will be available for development as well.

“To be clear, as exciting as it is to market prime commercial sites, the new bridge will have an impact on the town that goes well beyond those two parcels,” Strange said.

All of which promises a brighter future for Agawam — literally and figuratively.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tom Bernard says myriad entities in North Adams, from restaurants to municipal offices to MCLA, have had to do business differently this year.

The last time BusinessWest spoke with Mayor Thomas Bernard for the Community Spotlight, about a year ago, he was talking up the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which was hatched in 2011 and is revisited regularly.

At a public information session last year, city leaders discussed the plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — and some specifics of what’s happening in each.

But 2020 has been about reacting as much as planning — though Bernard says communities need to do both, even during a pandemic.

“I look at my wonderfully organized and beautifully color-coded and phased planning documents from January and February, and I think about our February staff meeting where we discussed this COVID thing — ‘what could this mean for us?’” he recalled. “It’s been such a difficult year, but I can still point to some really great signs of progress.”

That includes continued movement toward adaptive reuse of old mill space, plans to renovate 67-year-old Greylock Elementary School, and a regional housing-production study that uncovered a need for more affordable housing, but more market-rate housing as well.

That said, it’s been a tough year for many businesses, too.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive.”

“Everyone has been struggling,” the mayor said. “Our restaurants did a terrific job early on in making the pivot to curbside and delivery, and they did fairly well when the weather was nice, and then a lot of them got really creative in how to expand their outdoor dining. The city and the licensing board tried to be as friendly and accommodating and make it as easy as possible for people,” Bernard noted, adding, of course, that winter will pose new hardships.

Municipal business continued apace as well, albeit sometimes with a creative, socially distanced flair.

For example, “as part of our property-disposition strategy, we did an auction of city properties, and we did it down at the municipal ballfield. There was plenty of space in the bleachers and stands for bidders, and the auctioneer was out on the field, taking bids. We brought people back to City Hall, one at a time, to do the paperwork. We went nine for 10 on properties we put up for auction.”

 

The Old College Try

Another success story took place at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) — simply because it made it through a semester of on-campus learning with no major COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We heard loud and clear that the campus experience is important,” said Gina Puc, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, noting, of course, that it’s a somewhat different experience than usual, with students alternating between the classroom and online learning in their residence halls, while only 550 of the 1,225 enrolled students this fall were on campus, all in single rooms.

“And it worked — our positivity rate was 10 times lower than the state’s,” she said. “We made it through the entire semester without having to alter our plans. The students were the main reason we were able to stay the course. We had incredible adherence to all the social-distancing and health and safety guidelines in place.”

The testing program was so successful, in fact, that MCLA was able to donate 130 leftover COVID tests to the city’s public schools, to perform asymptomatic testing on teachers and staff.

“They did such a great job with their testing program,” Bernard added. “Their positivity stayed low, contact tracing was good, and it helped that they were out before the holidays, so Thanksgiving didn’t play into it.”

Enrollment was down about 20%, but mostly among first-year students, reflecting a nationwide trend. “The 2020 high-school graduates didn’t even get their own graduation ceremonies, and it certainly disrupted their college plans,” Puc said.

But she’s confident the college will build off its unusual, but encouraging, fall semester and continue to attract students to North Adams. “We have an incredible combination of beauty and the kinds of cultural amenities usually found in urban areas,” she said.

Students studying the arts have plenty of local institutions at which to intern, but the college’s STEM center and the addition of a radiologic technology program in the health sciences reflect the regional growth of careers in those fields, as reflected by big players like General Dynamics, the Berkshire Innovation Center, and Berkshire Health Systems, and a host of smaller companies.

Tourism is a critical industry in North Adams as well, and visitor numbers were certainly down in 2020 overall, Bernard said, although MASS MoCA had a successful reopening and continues to do well. “The big advantage they have is space — you can be there in a socially distanced way. But, still, fewer people have come through this year.”

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

The exception is outdoor recreation, which has thrived across the Berkshires this year.

“As much as we’ve done incredible work because of our location, because of MASS MoCA and Williamstown Theatre Festival and Williams College and Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre and all these tremendous cultural resources, we don’t always appreciate how gorgeous it is out here,” Bernard said. “But, for a lot of people, that’s a huge draw.”

While the number of people visiting for foliage season may have been down from past years, he said he drove around the iconic Route 2 hairpin turn on a number of occasions, and always saw people stopping to take photos.

“Again, what a great, socially distanced way to appreciate the nature of the Berkshires in a year when you can’t engage in the area as fully as you might otherwise,” he said. “You can still get in the car, a motorcycle, or take a bike ride, and see it all. We know there’s demand for that.”

 

Hit the Road

He belives tourism in and around North Adams should rebound fine post-pandemic — if only because people’s dollars go further here, because of the mix of reasonably priced attractions and no-cost nature.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive,” he said.

As part of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the city recently landed some funding for a comprehensive mapping and marketing effort of its trail systems. “It’s for people who want to visit, maybe go to a museum, have a good meal, stay a few days as tourists, but then they want to get out on the trails.”

Add it all up, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021.

“I’m bullish and optimistic about what spring and summer could bring,” Bernard went on. “I think there will still be caution, I think there will be wariness, but I think there’s also pent-up demand, too, and people will think about where they want to go and what they want to do.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

the new Ludlow Senior Center

Depending on how the pandemic progresses, the new Ludlow Senior Center could begin hosting some indoor programs by February.

 

Despite the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, the town of Ludlow keeps building and improving.

As coronavirus rates continue to rise across Massachusetts, Manuel Silva, chairman of the Ludlow Board of Selectmen, said officials in town are closely monitoring the number of cases there.

A long-time selectman who served an earlier term as chairman, Silva said the pandemic has brought more challenges than a typical year. Like most places, Ludlow Town Hall is closed to the general public except by appointment. Silva said some town functions, such as the town clerk and tax collector’s offices, are conducting limited public business from the rear of the building, where they can offer service through a window. “It almost looks like an ice-cream stand,” he said with a laugh.

While Ludlow Mills features several ongoing projects (more on that later), Silva wanted to talk to BusinessWest about a few prominent municipal projects that are nearing completion.

For example, construction on Harris Brook Elementary School is progressing, with a good chance that students will begin attending next fall. Harris Brook is being built to replace Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, with the new school located on what used to be playing fields for the adjacent Chapin School.

It’s possible the old buildings may be repurposed and given a second life, Silva said. “We are looking at doing a study on both Chapin and Veterans Park to see what other use the town might have for them.”

He and other town officials are scheduled to tour Harris Brook and inspect the progress that’s been made on it. Once the new school is complete, Ludlow will receive reimbursement from the state for nearly half the cost of the $60 million project.

Another project nearing completion involves road improvements to Center Street, a main artery in Ludlow. Because the street is also part of Route 21, a state highway, the Commonwealth paid for most of the $5.6 million in improvements.

Harris Brook Elementary School

Construction continues on Harris Brook Elementary School, which will replace both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools.

Perhaps no one in Ludlow is more enthusiastically looking forward to opening the new Ludlow Senior Center than Jodi Zepke. As director of the Council on Aging, she and her staff plan to move out of the basement of the former high school on Chestnut Street and into the new building on State Street. While staff will be taking occupancy of the new building in mid-December, the Senior Center will remain closed to the public because of COVID-19 concerns, a situation that Zepke said poses both pros and cons.

“We’re excited to get into the building. It will give the staff an opportunity to get comfortable in their new surroundings before we have seniors come back,” she said. “At the same time, we know how excited everyone is to visit the new building as soon as they can.”

In what she called a “perfect world” scenario, the Senior Center could begin hosting some of Council on Aging programs indoors at the new facility in February. Throughout the warmer months, the council’s popular exercise and social programs were held outdoors at the park adjacent to the current senior center. As the weather became colder at the end of October, the outdoor programs wrapped up for the season.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart.”

“The outdoor programming was a great opportunity for people to see each other, get out of the house, and do some exercising,” Zepke said, noting that said groups took part in yoga, tai chi, and discussion groups, all socially distanced. Several of the exercise programs are available on local cable-access TV. While the broadcasts can help keep people active, she recognizes that people still need the socialization such programs provide for seniors in town.

“The most important thing is to remain connected to people, otherwise the social isolation is terrible,” she said. “We’re pushing for at least some indoor programming because we’re already seeing the mental-health effects of staying home all the time.”

Before COVID-19, the Senior Center hosted a popular daily lunch program. When coronavirus hit and it was no longer possible to bring people to the center, Zepke said her staff switched gears overnight and converted the daily lunch to a thrice-weekly grab-and-go meal where people drive up and receive a box lunch from center staff who are dressed in appropriate PPE. Zepke calls it one of the best things her organization has done since the pandemic hit.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.62
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

“It’s an opportunity for us to see people and take a few minutes to chat with them,” she said. “It’s the highlight of my day.”

 

Milling About

One of the brightest spots in Ludlow’s economic development for the last several years has been the redevelopment of a series of old mills located on the banks of the Chicopee River. The Westmass Area Development Corp. owns the mills and works closely with the town to bring new vitality to the entire area. Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the partnership between Ludlow and Westmass is a win-win.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart,” he said. “Instead, they are developing state-of-the-art projects that enhance the whole State Street corridor.”

Notable tenants in the mill project include businesses such as Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts and Iron Duke Brewing, but Stefancik also pointed to a successful housing development known as Residences at Mill 10, which added 75 units of senior housing to Ludlow when it opened in 2017.

Looking forward, plans are in the works to develop the clock tower, also known as Mill Building 8. WinnDevelopment, builder of Residences at Mill 10, has proposed a plan for 95 units of senior housing in the building, with 48,000 square feet on the first floor dedicated to retail space. Stefancik said the project is in the early stages, and the next steps include site-plan approval and a public hearing.

“We’re fortunate that WinnDevelopment is coming back to work on Mill Building 8 because their work is first-rate,” he said. “They completed Residences at Mill 10 three years ago, and since its opening, it has been wildly successful.”

As more residents move to the area, Stefancik said the Ludlow Riverwalk, located behind the mill complex, is growing in popularity. “It’s becoming a walkable neighborhood area, and we like to see that.”

Earlier this year, a key infrastructure component in the redevelopment of the mills was approved. The Riverside Drive project is a proposed roadway that replaces an old access road in the mill complex. The project is currently out for bid, with construction expected to start next year on 4,130 feet of roadway that runs through the mill complex from East Street to First Avenue. When complete, Riverside Drive will improve access to all areas of Ludlow Mills.

The revitalization of the mills has become a major asset for the town of Ludlow.

“It’s been one of the areas where we’ve seen massive growth for economic development and housing opportunities,” Stefancik said, adding that potential exists for even more growth in the years ahead — something that’s true not only for the mill complex, but for the town itself.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For Longmeadow Town Manager Lyn Simmons, it’s been quite a first year on the job.

With 16 years of experience in municipal government in of Northampton — the last six years as chief of staff for Mayor David Narkewicz — Simmons became Longmeadow’s town manager a year ago this month. After three months on the job, Longmeadow — like the entire world — found itself in uncharted territory.

As challenging as the pandemic has been, Simmons said one positive has been the opportunity to build relationships with department heads and the emergency-management team much faster than she might have under less-hectic circumstances.

“We had to come together quickly and navigate all of this together,” Simmons said. “As difficult as the pandemic has been, the team that’s in place here and the relationships that we’ve formed have made dealing with it much easier.”

She also credits Longmeadow residents for their response in handling the pandemic, noting that people in town are adhering to public-health guidelines and taking personal responsibility. “We see people social distancing, wearing masks, and doing what they need to do to help protect themselves, their families, and our community.”

Lyn Simmons

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation.”

Because most residents complied with state mandates, Longmeadow experienced low numbers of the coronavirus throughout the summer. While the number of cases in town has begun to increase during the fall, this reflects the overall trend in Western Mass. and across the state, Simmons said, adding that a team of municipal employees is monitoring pandemic-related grants and other funding sources that might be available through the state and federal government.

“The pandemic has certainly been a disruption to normal life, whether it’s doing business with town offices or making adjustments to programs that are run by the Parks and Rec department, or the Adult Center,” she noted. But business not been halted, and as she spoke with BusinessWest, she outlined some of the ways progress continues in this small, residential town.

Worth Their Salt

In the midst of all the COVID-related disruption, Simmons points to two town projects she calls bright spots during these challenging times. First, a new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility — a $24 million project on Dwight Road, on the site of a former tennis club — is nearing completion.

The second project is the $14 million Adult Center, where finishing touches are being applied as it gets closer to opening day. While the Council on Aging will have a large presence, the Parks and Recreation department will also run programs and activities from the facility, making it a resource for all residents.

After COVID-19 hit, safety protocols were implemented at the DPW and Adult Center sites to allow construction work to continue and keep both projects on track to open in early 2021.

“The only disruption we had occurred earlier in the spring when the subcontractor who was providing and installing a salt-storage shed was quarantined crossing the state line from New York,” Simmons said. “We’ve been able to move past that, and the salt shed is fully constructed now.”

With 95% of property in Longmeadow devoted to residential dwellings, town officials pay close attention to activity in the real-estate market. Like most towns, the normal sales bump that occurs each spring was delayed by the pandemic. Sales activity returned in July and has remained brisk since then, with most houses selling at the asking price.

“We’ve been able to capture that strong real-estate market,” Simmons said. “On average, houses are staying on the market for about 20 days; low interest rates have certainly helped.”

The demographics in Longmeadow have remained similar to what they’ve historically been. Simmons said the town has a healthy mix of approximately 29% families and about 30% in the over-60 demographic. One key indicator that remains steady is school enrollment, where no declines have been reported.

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation,” she noted.

Looking to the future, the town owns a 10-acre parcel on Academy Drive known as the Water Tower property. Prior to the pandemic, the area was under consideration for an over-55 housing development. If this project moves forward, Simmons said, it might solve a dilemma for many seniors in town. Many aging residents want to continue to live in Longmeadow but would also like to downsize from their current home to one-level living, and an over-55 housing development could be a good solution.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.21
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.21
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

“Once we get the pandemic behind us, I expect our discussions of this site to be dusted off and brought back into the public sphere,” she added.

Meanwhile, conversations about two other potential projects are continuing, including development of a former church at the intersection of Williams Street and Redfern Drive with a different use, and a project on Williams Street that involves building a long-term-care facility. “As far as I know, those plans are still in the works,” Simmons said of the latter plan, “but it’s been slow-moving.”

 

Sharing Resources

More concrete progress can be found on a regional level. Last year, Longmeadow joined with Chicopee to form an emergency communications center called WESTCOMM. By taking a regional approach to emergency dispatch calls, both towns save money, increase efficiency, and have backup support when multiple calls come into either town.

Now nearly a year into the program, WESTCOMM has been a great success — and is growing, Simmons said. “Since WESTCOMM launched in December, we’ve added two more communities this year, when East Longmeadow and Monson came on board with Longmeadow and Chicopee.”

WESTCOMM currently operates out of the Chicopee Police Department, but officials are exploring a move to a larger facility as more communities come on board. Simmons said she expects to hear more about that in the coming year.

Before the pandemic, Longmeadow was looking to share some public-health services with neighboring East Longmeadow. Because the health departments and boards of health for both towns are expending all their energy on COVID-19 concerns, that project has been set aside at least until the pandemic is over, she added. “Looking at a merger of two health departments right now is a little more than we can take on at the moment.”

Simmons was born and raised in Northampton, and she first became familiar with Longmeadow while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Bay Path University.

As she completes her first year as Longmeadow’s town manager, she’s proud of how well people in the community have responded throughout the pandemic.

“I appreciate everyone’s understanding and support as we all try to get through this time together,” she said. “I am really looking forward to the new year when we will open both the new DPW and Adult Center in town.”

Simmons added that she can’t wait for the public to see both buildings and hopes to take residents on tours of the new facilities when they formally open in 2021 — a year when municipal leaders in all communities hope they can put COVID-19 behind them and are able to focus fully on the future once again.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year — because advocacy is needed, and events are few.

For the past four years, Amy Cahillane has led the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) in its many efforts to boost vibrancy in the city’s center.

The DNA typically handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales.

Note that word ‘typically.’ Because this hasn’t been a typical year.

“The pandemic changed it completely,” said Cahillane, the DNA’s executive director. “We usually focus heavily on events — it’s sort of our centerpiece. In light of COVID, I’d say 98% of our events were unable to happen. Arts Night Out is a monthly gathering where we invite lots of people into a small space to share food and drinks. That was one of our first COVID casualties — there’s no way to do that safely.”

But the DNA’s second major role is advocacy, making sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall and that people feel their voice is heard, through public meetings and community forums on issues that impact businesses. That function was magnified in this unusual year.

“As everything changed, we were forced to change our focus because our small-business community is in desperate need of help, as is every other downtown in this area,” she told BusinessWest. “Even had our events not been canceled, it became clear pretty quickly we’d have to change our focus to advocacy at both the state and local levels, just to keep businesses afloat.”

Much of that advocacy came in the form of pushing for state and local aid, while other efforts were narrowly targeted, like making sure downtown parking was altered so restaurants could expand outdoor seating — “anything we could think of that could help them carry on through this trying to time, until we see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

And the city’s leaders have been responsive, Cahillane said, from a round of direct emergency grants to the business community to making the changes needed to bolster restaurants.

“They stepped up right away to work with our organization and downtown restaurants to make it possible to have outdoor seating, and make it last as long as possible. They got that up and running pretty quickly, and the License Commission was very fast turning around approvals for those who wanted to serve liquor outside.”

Debra Flynn, who owns Eastside Grill, was among the first downtown restaurateurs to pivot to curbside takeout and delivery once eateries were forced to shut down in early spring. “We had no idea how to do it,” she said, adding that it was important to buy the right containers to keep food warm and make sure meals were presented with care, even in the boxes.

“I can’t complain right now; we’ve had such wonderful support from our community,” she said, noting that she was able to set about 30 seats outside and eventually bring patrons back inside as well. “But I’m nervous going forward.”

“It’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

That’s because the weather is getting colder, and while regulars are comfortable with the safety protocols being taken inside, she worries that folks who haven’t visited recently might not want to do so during flu season. And while the governor’s new mandate that businesses need to close by 9:30 p.m. doesn’t affect Eastside, it does impact the operations of other downtown restaurants. “They’re very nervous and upset about this whole thing,” she noted.

 

Shifting Winds

Alana Traub, who owns Honey & Wine, a clothing shop in Thornes Marketplace, has had a worrisome time this year, too.

“Everything changed for my business with the pandemic, when all businesses closed for quite a while,” she told BusinessWest. “When it finally did reopen in June, it was extremely slow going; I think people were really nervous to go out, and maybe they didn’t even know if we were open or not.

“Since then, it’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

If there’s a downtown that’s well-positioned to rebound after the pandemic, Cahillane said, it’s Northampton.

“Even among my circle of friends, we are dying to go back out to restaurants, go bar hopping,” she said. “I think these businesses downtown are doing everything they can to hang on.”

Perhaps the economic shakeup — and some business closures that have followed in its wake — will present opportunities for some new faces to enter the downtown scene, she added. “A pandemic seems an odd time to start a business, but we’ve seen several open up; we might see a new round of creative, exciting businesses downtown.”

Lindsay Pope made the jump over the summer, purchasing Yoga Sanctuary, also at Thornes, from former owner Sara Rose Page on Aug. 1. A former member at the studio, Pope said she decided to become a business owner in this uncertain time because she feared Page may not have found another buyer.

“I feel like this time is incredibly liberating,” Pope said. “What do I have to lose? The alternate was that we could have lost this space, and instead, we’re going to give it another shot.”

With the times in mind, she launched not only reinvigorated studio programming in September, but also new online programming and an online video-library platform. “We’re going to try to evolve to meet the needs of the times and the next generation. That’s what we’re all being called to do right now in the chaos that’s happening.”

Cahillane said many other businesses have pivoted as well — although she admitted she’s a little sick of that word.

“Restaurants that never did curbside were nervous to try it, but our community showed up and started ordering curbside. Stores that never did local deliveries wondered if people would take advantage of it, but they did. People definitely have been incredibly supportive of downtown — the question is whether that’s enough.”

 

Holding Pattern

Before the pandemic struck, the DNA — which cites beautification among its top goals, along with programming and advocacy — was coming off a couple of years that saw a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade to make the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

To say 2020 has been a different sort of year is an understatement, although traffic has returned to some degree in recent months, and many businesses, including those in the retail marijuana trade, continue to do well. But anxiety lingers for many.

“I think everyone is concerned,” Cahillane said. “There is certainly more traffic than there was in March, April, or May, for sure. But winter is coming. It’s easy right now to park your car and walk outside, or enjoy some coffee on the sidewalk, when it’s sunny and pretty and the leaves are changing.

“But I think the first sign of snowfall will change that picture pretty dramatically,” she went on. “Are people going to be comfortable shopping indoors in the winter? I don’t know. Or sit inside a restaurant in the winter? I don’t know. And because so much is unknown about COVID, are people going to be extra anxious during flu season, when they don’t know if the person next to them has a cold or something more? There are so many unknowns. People are definitely concerned.”

Yet, Traub senses optimism from other business owners in Thornes and downtown in general, not because the pandemic is close to ending, but because Northampton is a strong enough business community to fully rebound once it does.

“That’s the general consensus,” she said. “I think everyone is also being realistic because no one knows what’s ahead. This is so unprecedented.”

Still, she moved her five-year-old business here from Franklin County for a reason. “I would call this the shopping destination in Western Mass. It’s definitely been a lot of fun, and I’ve been happy with my move to Northampton.”

And waiting for a time when the city is truly on the move again.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson says many local businesses have had to pivot and be nimble in the face of COVID-19.

Despite all the challenges a pandemic brings, Mary McNally says, town officials and business leaders in East Longmeadow are looking forward with a sense of optimism.

After serving in an interim role, McNally became East Longmeadow’s permanent town manager in December 2019 — just before every town in America began dealing with the effects of COVID-19.

Even though Town Hall has been closed to the public since mid-March, McNally said the staff has worked hard to maintain town services to the public and keep projects moving.

“All of our Planning Department functions, such as petitions and site-plan reviews, are being conducted — business as usual,” McNally said. “That is, if you accept Zoom meetings as business as usual.”

According to Charlie Christianson, those types of adjustments have enabled the town and its businesses to find their way during these difficult times. Christianson, board president of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, said COVID-19 forced a number of companies to pivot and find new ways to stay viable. He cited Go Graphix, maker of signs, vehicle wraps, and other marketing materials, as an example of an East Longmeadow company that made a big adjustment and found success by doing so.

“When business fell off at the beginning of the pandemic, Go Graphix pivoted early to make plexiglass partitions as well as signs to help communicate social distancing and mask wearing. Now, it’s a big part of their business.”

In addition to his work with the chamber, Christianson runs CMD Technology Group, a provider of IT solutions and support. With so many people working from home, his business was able to pivot to set up workers who needed remote connections.

“We have seen a lot of activity in our remote-access business where we help companies get their remote employees into their online system in an effective and secure way,” he explained.

“All of our Planning Department functions, such as petitions and site-plan reviews, are being conducted — business as usual. That is, if you accept Zoom meetings as business as usual.”

Chamber member Steve Graham, CEO of Toner Plastics, said several of the products his company makes are considered essential, a designation that kept his workers busy all year. Perhaps the most notable product Toner makes these days is the elastic for N95 masks.

“Since the pandemic, you can imagine the demand for that product went through the roof,” Graham said, adding that, during a time when other companies were cutting back due to COVID-19, his company had to quickly ramp up for more production.

With Toner facilities in Pittsfield and Rhode Island, as well as in East Longmeadow, Graham appreciates the opportunity to continue his operations during these challenging times. “We’re fortunate that we are able to keep people employed and continue to ship to our customers; best of all, none of our employees have been inflicted with COVID-19.”

 

Go with the Flow

Despite the pandemic, municipal projects in East Longmeadow keep moving. The town applied for a $600,000 grant through MassWorks to improve sewage outflow where it connects to the Springfield system, allowing East Longmeadow to more accurately monitor what gets sent to Springfield.

“While it’s not a glamourous project, it’s a big undertaking and represents a real improvement in our town’s infrastructure,” McNally said.

After years of applying to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, East Longmeadow is in the eligibility period to explore funding for a new high school. McNally said this milestone is significant because it represents the first step in the process to eventually replace the current, 60-year old facility.

For many years, residents have been concerned about the site of the former Package Machinery site, with any potential development hampered by its industrial zoning status. McNally said the Town Council and the Planning Board have recently taken action to change the zoning status to mixed use, which would allow residential as well as commercial buildings to locate there.

“While no official project is in front of the Town Council, one development that has been discussed could include single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, and light-use business entities,” McNally said. “The idea is to have a new walkable neighborhood near the bike trail and the center of town.”

To keep projects like these moving forward, McNally and her staff are working to develop a new master plan for East Longmeadow. The last master plan for the town dates back to 1976, prompting her to put this effort high on the must-do list. The first phase of the plan is scheduled to be complete by June 2021.

A master plan allows the town to move from talking about projects to getting them done. One example is Heritage Park, where architect drawings were generated in 2016 to add athletic fields, an amphitheater, and other improvements. The $5 million price tag has kept the redevelopment in the discussion stage.

McNally said including Heritage Park in the master plan improves its chances of eventually reaching completion. “It’s a beautiful resource, and we want to capitalize on it to make the park available to everyone, but right now it’s still a work in progress.”

“We have seen a lot of activity in our remote-access business where we help companies get their remote employees into their online system in an effective and secure way.”

During the pandemic, the chamber has been successful in bringing people together to talk about the challenges of COVID-19 and a variety of business topics. Christianson credits the chamber’s ability to quickly embrace the virtual world.

“To say we didn’t skip a beat would be an exaggeration, but we’ve done a pretty good job to help our members and to keep a consistent value proposition for them.”

He noted that the chamber has even found a way to keep the popular Feast in the East event going. Traditionally, this is a networking event in which members sample food from area restaurants while local chefs compete for the Top Chef Trophy.

“This year’s event will be like the show Iron Chef, with three local chefs competing in front of judges,” he explained. Offered as a paid Zoom event, ticket purchasers can watch the competition and receive a ‘takeout’ package of offers from local restaurants. “Through creative thought and hard work, the chamber found another way to still run this popular event.”

 

Here’s the Scoop

One of the real strengths of East Longmeadow, according to Christianson, is the healthy mix of residential and business interests. One intriguing project scheduled to open next year involves the train depot built in 1876 and located in the center of town.

Earlier this year, Graham bought the train depot and the three acres where it sits. He is in the process of converting it into an ice-cream shop called the Depot at Graham Central Station.

“Even though there have been a lot of delays due to COVID, we are finishing up the conversion, and we’re looking forward to opening the depot for the town to enjoy next spring,” he said. Because of its close proximity to the bike path, he hopes to open in the morning and offer light breakfast items, too.

While the anticipation of a new ice-cream shop in town is certainly something to look forward to, Graham said he’s anticipating even bigger news on many fronts.

As a plastics manufacturer, he works with industries as far-ranging as aerospace and automotive to medical devices and retail displays. “We are affected by many of these industries, and when they were down, it had an impact on us,” hs said.

But recent conversations with his customers reveals that many industries are starting to come back, and come back strong. “I have a great deal of optimism for the future.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

John Page and Claudia Pazmany

John Page and Claudia Pazmany say the chamber has stepped up its role this year in many ways to help businesses, including those in Hadley.

Before the pandemic, up to 80,000 cars would travel on Route 9 in Hadley each day, bringing workers, students, and customers to and through the town.

Known for its agriculture, proximity to the Five College community, and a robust retail corridor along Route 9, Hadley has been challenged, like all towns, since the arrival of COVID-19. But efforts by a group of town officials are meeting those challenges to keep Hadley viable today and well into the future.

David Nixon, deputy town administrator, said area colleges play an important role in the local economy. Hadley’s location is central to the Five College community, but Nixon actually sees it as a 30-campus community because that’s how many colleges are within an hour’s drive of Hadley.

While some campuses are open, others have stayed closed, and some are taking a hybrid approach, mixing on-site classes with distance learning.

“This has had an impact on local businesses,” he said, noting that less activity at the colleges, most notably UMass Amherst, which borders Hadley, adds to the struggles many businesses are facing as they try to comply with pandemic restrictions and stay afloat. “Right now, we are doing as much as possible to keep people safe and to support our businesses.”

Hadley officials have reduced licensing fees and expedited the process for businesses that are adapting to state COVID-19 guidelines. For example, when restaurants had to amend their food and liquor license permits to allow outdoor service, Nixon said the town was quick to respond to get the changes made.

“We’ve also expedited the inspections that are necessary when a business changes the footprint of their building,” he added, noting that cooperation among the town’s Planning Board, building inspectors, Fire Department, and Select Board ensured an easier process for the businesses involved.

Hadley is also one of seven communities benefiting from a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses stay afloat during the pandemic. Easthampton is the lead community on the grant, which allows businesses with five or fewer employees to apply for up to $10,000 in grant money.

David Nixon

David Nixon

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9. By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Also pitching in to help businesses is the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which covers Hadley and other surrounding towns. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the chamber, said the area has been fortunate in that the number of COVID-19 cases is lower than most parts of the state. To keep it that way, the chamber is now providing PPE, as well as printed posters and floor decals, that reinforce messages of social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. Available at no charge to chamber members, the signage is just one of the ways to help businesses get back on their feet.

“These are not business-saving techniques by themselves, but we hope to help our members reduce their costs as they open back up under the new guidelines,” she told BusinessWest.

 

Lines of Communication

The chamber has stepped up its role during the pandemic in other ways as well. “Our ability to advocate for and to market our businesses has become even stronger since COVID-19,” Pazmany noted, adding that it’s one of the few “silver linings” of these times.

The town and the chamber have been working together on a series of Zoom meetings with local businesses to hear their concerns and offer whatever help they can, she said. “We’ve been hosting these meetings to keep an open conversation between the town and businesses.”

One of the popular topics in the meetings has been the widening of Route 9, which is expected to start next year. The $26 million project will add travel and turning lanes to the road.

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9,” Nixon said. “By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Pazmany said the Route 9 widening has been in the planning phase for years, and once complete, the improvements will benefit all who use the roadway.

“Many people use the bus to go to work and school. Among other things, the widening project will provide much safer bus stops and allow buses to get more people moving in an efficient manner.”

The widening project will begin at Town Hall and go east for 2.6 miles to the intersection of Route 9 and Maple Street.

Business owners located along Route 9 have expressed concerns about the loss of business due to COVID-19 being followed up by a loss of business due to road construction. To alleviate that concern, the town has applied for an economic-development grant to market the Route 9 corridor. John Page, the chamber’s marketing and membership manager, said the idea is to position Route 9 as a great place to open a business.

“The grant would be about marketing and planning the future of Route 9 post-COVID,” he explained. “Hopefully, that’s coming sooner rather than later.”

As plans for the future of the town come into focus, Pazmany reminded everyone that Hadley has a great deal to offer right now.

“For those looking for a day trip, this is the time to come and visit,” she said, adding that, with the arrival of autumn, “Hadley will be at its most beautiful and picturesque in the next few weeks.”

She noted that many local restaurants participate in farm-to-table efforts with Hadley farms supplying many of the vegetables.

And, as more people take part in outdoor activities, the Norwottuck Rail Trail bike path has seen more riders than ever before, she said. The path runs completely through Hadley and features scenic views of farms and neighborhoods.

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.78
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.78
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

Nixon said the rail trail gives people another perspective on his town. “I often talk about the view of Hadley from Route 9 and the view from the bike path. They look like two completely different communities.”

 

Moving On

Two out of three building projects started last year in Hadley have been completed. The new Senior Center is complete and providing remote programs for residents. The new fire substation is also up and running, and the town library is close to completion.

As those projects conclude, Nixon is planning to wrap up his 15-year career with Hadley and retire on Dec. 31. To transition out of his role as town administrator, he has assumed the title of deputy town administrator while he helps Carolyn Brennan, the recently hired town administrator, transition into the job.

As someone who has been involved in municipal governments for more than 30 years, Brennan’s experience ranges from working with councils on aging in Amherst, Hampden, and East Longmeadow. She remains active as a selectman in Wilbraham, where she lives. Back when Brennan was a student at UMass, she lived in Hadley and worked at the Shady Lawn Rest Home.

Brennan said she’s glad to be back and described Hadley as being in great shape thanks to the town employees and Nixon’s management. “Having worked in other municipalities, I’m impressed with the all of the employees; they are real stakeholders in their community.”

She also appreciates having Nixon work with her while she gets acclimated to the job. “With David staying on until the end of the year, you couldn’t ask for a better transition plan for the town and for me.”

As for Nixon, he reflected on his career with Hadley and spoke of how rewarding it was to serve the town for 15 years.

“I’ll definitely miss the people,” he said. “I’m glad I was part of advancing our community a little further down the road.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith says getting town business done during COVID-19 has been more challenging than usual, but projects continue to be approved.

Wilbraham is a mostly residential town with two main business districts — the town center, as it’s known, on Main Street, and along a lengthy stretch of Route 20, or Boston Road.

The fact that both have seen development activity during the ongoing pandemic is good news indeed, said Jeffrey Smith, chairman of the Planning Board.

Take, for example, a couple of vacant buildings next to Home Depot that have been vacant for about a decade. They will soon become a 7,000-square-foot O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store and a 2,340-square-foot Valvoline instant oil-change facility.

“It’s great,” Smith said. “Being on the Planning Board and being a resident in town, I hear from people all the time, in casual converations, ‘what’s going on with that place?’ This is one of those vacant and seemingly abandoned properties that is getting a great redo, and I think it’s going to be a welcome addition. The site has been an eyesore for some time.”

Then there’s the former Papa Gino’s restaurant near the Springfield line that’s been vacant several years, but will soon be home to an expansion of Springfield-based Vanguard Dental. Meanwhile, Excel Therapy and Conditioning, a physical-therapy practice that’s expanding to sports rehabilitation and personal training, will set up shop on Boston Road as well.

“We had to work fast to fast-track this during the height of the pandemic, with Town Hall closed,” recalled John Pearsall, director of Planning. “They were in a situation where their lease was running out and they had a chance to purchase this building and move and expand their practice. That’s been a good success story, saving a local business during these difficult times.”

Doing due diligence on development projects hasn’t been easy with offices closed, Smith noted.

“Just like every other town, we’re dealing with COVID, and all Planning and Zoning board meetings have to be done remotely. John and I used to meet quite a bit more in person during the week and outside our regularly scheduled meetings, and we do a little less of that right now. Everything has become more cumbersome, with a lot of extra steps.”

“For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

Yet, important work continues, including efforts by the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Health, and licensing authorities to get restaurants reopened in recent months.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to help our businesses stay afloat during these difficult times,” Pearsall said. “And they seem to be very active. I think people are happy to have that option, whether it’s curbside pickup or being able to go out and have a meal outside the home. That’s a big thing for people these days.”

As the town continues to develop a Route 20 renovation plan — including widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more — business continue to see it as an attractive destination, Smith and Pearsall said. That bodes well for 2021, when the process of getting anything permitted in town — and, let’s be honest, life in general — promises to be slightly easier.

Center of Activity

Most schools throughout Western Mass. are currently teaching students remotely. But not Wilbraham & Monson Academy, which launched an ambitious plan earlier this year — including everything from reconfiguring buildings to implementing strict safety guidelines — to bring students back to campus.

“We worked extensively as a town with WMA to reopen and allow students back,” Smith said, recalling Head of School Brian Easler working the Planning Board, Board of Health, and Board of Selectmen to produce a comprehensive plan to get students back safely for in-person learning. “I was surprised at the lengths they went and the protocols they put in place to get reopened.”

The town had a stake in the plan that went beyond what was best for students and their families, Pearsall said. “We were happy to see them open because they provide a real anchor to the town center.”

It’s a center that has long been the subject of speculation. Two years ago, an effort to allow a mixed-use development 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. Since then, town officials have struggled to balance the need to fill vacant buildings with general pushback when it comes to change.

Currently, two vacant buildings at the corner of Main Street and Burt Lane have been slated for demolition and development, Smith said.

“We’ve been working at least the last two years with the owner of the property and getting something viable in place for those buildings,” he told BusinessWest. “If everything goes as planned, that will be a major change in the way the town center looks. The owner of the property has worked extensively with us and other committees and boards in town to come up with a design concept that would fit in with the town center.

“It’s a very sensitive area; it’s looked the way it has for quite some time,” he added. “This is a new use on this spot — mixed-use development, with retail on the ground floor and apartments on the second floor. Actually, it’s bringing in an old use. At one point, a hotel stood on this spot. So we’re bringing residential use back, and resurrecting something that was done years ago.”

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.38
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

Some folks in the neighborhood are open to change, Pearsall said. “For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

The former post office on Crane Park Drive recently changed ownership and could be repurposed as commercial office space, he added, while a new cosmetology business, Inner Glow Skin Studio, is moving in. Meanwhile, the old Masonic Hall on Woodland Dell Road was purchased by a local resident who is converting it to office space for his dental-management business.

“We’re taking a property that was tax-exempt and putting it back on the tax rolls,” Smith added.

Also along Main Street, Rice’s Fruit Farm and adjoining Fern Valley Farms have been enjoying a strong year, with pick-your-own-apples business boosted by cooperative weather and families looking for something to do. In fact, Rice’s has been working with town Planning and Zoning officials on parking expansions to accommodate the enterprise’s growth.

“It’s been very successful,” Smith said, adding that a parking crunch is, in one sense, a good problem to have. “They’re kind of taking the next step.”

Developing Stories

Wilbraham also has two solar farms under construction, a 1.4-MW project on Tinkham Road and a 3.4-MW project on Beebe Road; the latter development straddles the Hampden town line, with another 2 MW available for that community.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“There’s a need for fiber and high-speed internet,” Smith said. “We moved some time ago to be a municipal light plant, which means we can essentially be a supplier of high-speed internet.”

“There’s a broadband committee, being coordinated by our IT director, to move that project forward,” Pearsall added.

Residential growth advances slowly in a small town, but some trends have emerged. Even before COVID-19 struck, Pearsall noted, more people were starting to work from home.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest and activity from people trying to do home-based businesses,” he said. “We’ve also seen a lot of interest in so-called in-law apartments in town, and we have zoning for that, where elderly parents own a home and want their children to live with them, or the children own the home and create an apartment for their parents. That seems very popular right now.”

It’s another way times are changing and town leaders must adapt — in a year when they’ve certainly had plenty of practice.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says a burgeoning cannabis sector is just one of many positive developments in Palmer.

If there’s one thing capitalism doesn’t like, Ryan McNutt says, it’s uncertainty. And COVID-19 has certainly injected plenty of that into the regional and national economic picture.

But unlike more densely populated areas like Boston, where the death toll — and accompanying anxiety — are higher, leading to a slower return to acitity, Palmer has seen only seven coronavirus-related deaths. Even now, only nine people are under some sort of quarantine order, following a long stretch of no cases at all.

How much Palmer’s low case count has affected business activity is hard to tell, said McNutt, who became town manager last year. But there’s reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector,” he told BusinessWest. “And some other Western Mass. communities are seeing that as well.”

Local projects run the gamut from a bar on Main Street being converted to a pizza restaurant to Adaptas Solutions adding a building to its complex in the Palmer Industrial Park.

“It’s a growing business — even in this pandemic, people are still adding jobs, adding capacity, adding new product lines,” said McNutt, noting that Sanderson MacLeod, which specializes in manufacturing twisted wire brushes, has grown recently by shifting to new product lines, some of them medical, during the pandemic. “Capitalism is creative destruction. People are going to enter new markets, or enter existing markets where others couldn’t fill those markets, and Palmer will benefit from that.”

The cannabis sector certainly shows no signs of slowdown, with four businesses — Altitude Organic and Heka Health on the retail side and and MINT Cultivation Facilities and the WingWell Group on the cultivation side — getting ready to open in the coming months.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector.”

“This will be an amazing amount of unrestricted local revenue,” McNutt said, though he was quick to add that most neighboring states still haven’t legalized cannabis. “Once those states or the federal government legalize, there will be diminishing returns. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from other states.”

That said, he expects the industry to be a net positive for Palmer’s tax base for a long time to come, even if it’s hard to predict the exact impact. “There’s obviously a floor of cannabis users, but what is the ceiling?”

It’s a question he can apply to many types of economic development, including a long-talked-about rail line that could eventually be a game changer for this community of just over 13,000 residents.

Focused Approach

When McNutt, the former city manager of Claremont, N.H., took over in Palmer last July, economic development was a key focus from the start.

“Economic development is important, making sure we grow the tax base and make it sustainable for the people who live here but also create opportunities to attract new people coming in,” he said. “We can do that to some degree ourselves, and then there are macro things happening, like the east-west rail line. Some days I’m more confident that will come in, some other days I’m less confident. I try to stay on the optimistic side of it.”

Palmer at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.80; Three Rivers, $23.42; Bondsville, $23.89; Thorndike, $24.16
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

That said, “if our folks at the federal level are really looking at this country, starting to talk more and more about having a national infrastructure package, then I think the east-west rail line is more promising, because it will take federal money; it will take being a component of a larger national infrastructure package to make it doable. But that east-west rail line would be so transformative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In recent years, the Palmer Town Council established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer. The town’s position, roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges and south to the University of Connecticut, makes it a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

In addition, McNutt noted, Palmer has a workforce of close to 8,000 people, and 85% of them work outside of Palmer, mostly in Worcester but more than 100 in Pittsfield. A rail line would ease the commute for many, while individuals who want to work in the Boston area, where housing prices can be exorbitant, could instead choose to live in towns along the rail line, like Palmer.

“There are a lot of good opportunities that make Palmer an attractive community, as long as we market ourselves correctly,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can so when a national infrastructure package gets introduced, we will be shovel-ready.

Speaking of infrastructure, Palmer boasts nine bridges that span four rivers, all built around 80 years ago with a life expectancy of about 50 years, he said. The cost to repair them is about $3 million per bridge, on average, and with the entire municipal budget, including schools, around $40 million, “it’s not like we have the internal capacity to just fix those bridges.”

The town submitted a $7.5 million grant application to the federal BUILD program last year to repair a couple of those bridges, competing with $10 billion worth of applications — across all 50 states — for about $900 million in funding. Despite those odds, Palmer made it to the final round of consideration before being dropped, and McNutt said the region’s federal lawmakers encouraged him to reapply this year. He’s cautiously optimistic the news will be better this time around.

“I think both Democrats and Republicans agree we’ve let huge swaths of this country fall apart since the end of World War II. Bridges, ports, airports … we’ve got to get on top of this. Everyone understands the deficiency across the country is bipartisan. The amount of jobs that could will be created would keep people working for the 20 years fixing the stuff we’ve let go for 70 years. And borrowing money has never been cheaper.”

Bang for the Buck

McNutt said he’s always thinking in terms of economic development, and its importance in communities with tax-rate increases constrained by Proposition 2½.

“I’m conservative when it comes to taxpayer resources,” he said. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know the strain Proposition 2½ places upon communities and municipalities, considering the rising fixed expenditures and costs we face, especially on the school side. And at the same time, I really believe that taxpayers pay a lot of money. I’m very keen on making sure people get value for that taxpayer dollar, so we’re always looking for grants and efficiencies in doing business, to be able to control those costs.”

For that reason, he went on, it’s important for towns of Palmer’s size and demographics to attract an influx of younger residents, and expanded rail could help boost that effort.

“Everybody who’s aging and on a fixed income, they really have a limited runway in what the property taxes can get to,” he noted. “That’s something that’s always my first focus — what is the tax base, what is the tax rate, and what is the economic capacity to pay it? How quickly do we need to find new revenue to support municipal operations without having everything fall on the backs of the retiree who’s lived in Palmer their whole life, and not necessarily getting new revenue themselves?”

Fortunately, even during a pandemic, growth is possible — and, in many cases, happening — and the promise of east-west rail service only boosts McNutt’s sense of what’s possible. While his confidence on that front may waver, depending on the day, his belief in Palmer’s potential — and its ability to weather the current storm — certainly does not.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says COVID-19 has put a damper on many of his plans for Chicopee, but he remains optimistic about the city and its future.

John Vieau wasn’t exactly planning on running for mayor last summer.

That’s because he was reasonably sure that incumbent and two-time Mayor Richard Kos would be seeking another two-year term — and Kos eventually did take out papers for re-election. And when Kos ultimately decided in February 2019 to return to his law practice instead of the corner office, Vieau, a Willimansett native and long-time alderman from Ward 3, didn’t exactly jump into the race.

Indeed, he had to think long and hard about this decision, especially the prospect of leaving a well-paying job with the Commonwealth — specifically, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) — and take a pay cut to serve as mayor.

“I’m not a gambler,” said Vieau with a laugh, adding that he ultimately decided to run for mayor — and prevail over a crowded field — but take a leave of absence from his job with MassDOT so he can ultimately return when he’s finished with City Hall.

That careful due diligence notwithstanding, being mayor has been a long-time goal, if not a dream job, for Vieau, who said he fully understood everything that came with the territory … except maybe a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of municipal management — from greeting guests at City Hall (elbow bumps instead of handshakes) to making a budget — and made just about every facet of economic development, from maintaining the momentum that was building downtown to beginning the next stage in the life of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park, that much more difficult.

“It’s put a lot of things on pause,” said Vieau, who put the accent on ‘lot,’ noting that the pandemic has impacted municipalities as hard as it has hit specific economic sectors and individual businesses. It has affected how city business is conducted, sharply reduced revenues, and, as noted, put a number of projects on ice.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores. And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

“All the ideas and things that were happening are sitting on the back burner as we combat this time of uncertainty and crisis,” he said while summing things up succinctly, before amending to say ‘most all’ the ideas and projects.

Indeed, there are some things happening, from a new Florence Bank branch at the site of the old Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Avenue to a new restaurant, Jaad, located downtown. But, as he said, the pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress at a time when he thought the downtown, and the city as a whole, were seeing a renaissance of sorts.

But Vieau, while not exactly welcoming the challenge of COVID-19, is embracing it to some extent and looking upon it as a stern test of his management and leadership capabilities — a trial by extreme fire, if you will.

He noted that he took his first full weekend off since March early last month, and said it felt good to get some rest. But he fully understands that the future is a very large question mark, and the pandemic certainly isn’t done making life difficult for the residents and leaders of the region’s second-largest city.

“We have to remain diligent,” he said, echoing the governor when it comes to the pandemic and how the city, the state, and the country, are far from out of the woods. “We have to do everything we can to keep this under control.”

For this, the latest installment if its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with the city’s relatively new mayor about life in the age of COVID-19 and how he’s trying to see his community through to the other side of this crisis.

Numbers Game

At one point in his talk with BusinessWest, Vieau paused and reached for some papers on his desk — the latest reports on the state of the pandemic in his city.

He didn’t have to consult the paperwork to know the numbers — he had already pretty much committed them to memory — but he did so to show just how much data he and others in municipal management have to keep track of, and just how committed he is to understanding everything he can about the spread of the virus on any given day — or moment, for that matter.

“I look at the numbers every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 deaths in the city, people with underlying conditions, ages 58 to 100. We have, today, 41 open cases of COVID-19, 399 people who have recovered, and we have 45 people in the N/A group, meaning they’re probably residents of the city that are now in assisted living, some form of nursing home, or other facility that’s not in Chicopee.”

This attention to detail is just part of managing the pandemic, or managing during the pandemic, to be more precise, he said, adding that he has a 10 a.m. conference call with his ‘COVID team’ every day, and these calls have led to some aggressive and ultimately effective efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Indeed, Chicopee was among the first, and most vigilant, cities when it came to requiring masks in stores and other public places and putting other measures in place to slow the spread of the virus.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores,” he noted. “And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park into apartments is one of many projects in Chicopee now clouded by question marks as a result of the pandemic.

This is not exactly what Vieau signed on for when he took out papers for mayor last winter, soon after Kos opted not to seek re-election. What he did sign up for was a chance to take what has become a career of service to the city to a higher level.

That career started with a stint on the Planning Board — he was appointed by Kos during his first stint as mayor — and went to a different plane when he was talked into running for the open Ward 3 seat on the Board of Aldermen 16 years ago, not long after he took a job at MassDOT handling eminent-domain work.

“I saw this an opportunity to get more involved,” he told BusinessWest. “This was the area where I grew up; to have a chance to represent it as an alderman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Vieau spent the last four of those 16 years as president of the board, and was content to go on representing his ward until Kos decided not to seek another term. Vieau said he received calls from the media within an hour of Kos’s announcement asking if he was going to run, and his quick answer was ‘no,’ for those reasons stated earlier. But after talking with family, friends, constituents, and his employer, and after learning he could take a leave of absence, he ultimately decided to run.

There were many planks to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.

“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keeping people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.

For example, $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.

Holding Patterns

One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress registered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents responded by turning out in large numbers.

The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it. We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylinders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events on Friday nights and had food trucks … all these fun things were happening, and … COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”

The hope is that businesses downtown can weather what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stronger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.

These building blocks include the Mass Development-funded Transformational Development Initiative (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.

One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,298
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.93
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek

* Latest information available

These projects, which the mayor expects to proceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.

“We’re looking at young professionals and empty-nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”

As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were funneled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he continued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, City Hall.

Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, adding that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the structure, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”

Managing the Situation

As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get weekends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.

But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.

This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.

After all, he has made public service a second career.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

While communities nationwide continue to grapple with what he calls the “grumpy cloud” of COVID-19, Westfield Mayor Donald Humason is looking to project a little sunshine.

“A lot of it has to do with the attitude in Westfield,” the mayor said. “We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.” 

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, agreed, and wants everyone to know Westfield is open for business.

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon says the Greater Westfield Chamber remains strong and active, and has even welcomed some new members.

While the chamber remains strong with more than 5,000 members, two new businesses have recently joined. Play Now, a new toy store on Silver Street, and Results in Wellness, a health and wellness clinic on Springfield Road, were both planning ribbon-cutting ceremonies at press time. Also scheduled to open is a Five Below store, where everything is priced between $1 and $5.

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody,” Phelon said.

After many months of not being able to hold any chamber events, she’s also excited about hosting the annual chamber golf tournament, scheduled for Aug. 31 at East Mountain Country Club. “We will, of course, be following all the guidelines for masks and distancing. It certainly helps that this is an outdoor event.”

Speaking of outdoor events, the Westfield Starfires began their Futures Collegiate Baseball League season on July 8. The team modified Bullens Field to provide a safe experience for fans and staff by following state guidelines for COVID-19 safety. Phelon attended as part of a contingent of chamber members and reported that fans simply wore their masks and were able to enjoy refreshments at properly distanced picnic tables.

“We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.”

Considering what’s already been lost in this unprecedented year, the shout of ‘play ball!’ was certainly welcome — and city and chamber officials hope it heralds the start of a back half of 2020 that’s far more promising than the first half.

Full Power

While it was uncertain if the Starfires would be able to play this season, the crew at Westfield Gas & Electric never stopped.

General Manager Anthony Contrino said his crews have consistently provided essential services for customers of the municipal utility. After a crash course on handling COVID-19 in the workplace that kept people safe and followed state guidelines, G & E crews have handled only emergency situations for the last several months. More recently, the utility has been able to handle non-emergency work like in-home gas and electric installations.

Contrino said the many disaster-recovery drills he and his colleagues have done in the past helped prepare them well for COVID-19.

“We’ve had a lot of remote-workforce capabilities in place, but they’ve never been tested to this degree,” he said, calling it a “blessing in disguise” as the last several months confirmed that the processes they had set up work when they are most needed.

Administrative staff returned to their offices at the end of June after the building was reconfigured with the latest pandemic protocols in place.

“I commend my co-workers, who have done a very good job during this time for their service to the city and all of our customers,” Contrino said, adding that Westfield G & E received the Reliable Public Power Provider Award for excellence in operating efficiently, reliably, and safely.

Westfield

Westfield Mayor Don Humason says he has heard from business, both downtown and elsewhere, looking to expand once they feel they can.

Whip City Fiber, a separate business that provides fiber-optic internet service, is also run by Westfield G & E. Contrino said 70% of Westfield now has access to the utility’s fiber-optic network. “In 2020, we have continued to add customers to areas that have access to fiber optics in their neighborhood.”

The plan going forward is to expand the network to the remaining 30% of the city. “Customer demand will determine where we build out the remainder of the network,” he noted.

In addition to serving Westfield, Whip City Fiber is working with 19 towns in Western Mass. to establish their internet service, Contrino added. “We are working in places like the hilltowns that were underserved with internet service, so they are appreciative that we can help them get up and running.”

Once established, customers in the hilltowns will have access to gigabit service, or 1,000 megabits coming into their homes. By installing fiber optics, Contrino said, these towns are “future-proofing” their internet systems. “We already had the competencies in place to build fiber-optic networks, so by expanding our services to other towns, we become more cost-effective for Westfield residents.”

Getting Around

On the recreation front, the Greenway Rail Trail, an elevated bike path, is expanding across the city. By the end of next year, bike paths and five bridges will be added to the trail.

“The completion of the bike trail will be a real economic driver for Westfield,” Humason said. “I think it will attract cyclists from other parts of the country, as well as the state.”

Phelon added that serious cyclists will be able to ride continuously from Westfield to New Haven, Conn., and the trail is a valuable asset for casual cyclists as well.

“Bike riders will now have a way to quickly get across town because the trail goes through the center of Westfield,” she noted. “Because it’s elevated and above all the traffic, they will be able to go from one end of town to the other, complete with off-ramps into different neighborhoods.” 

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody.”

The mayor is hopeful that enterprising businesses will locate near the bike trail to serve the bikers, walkers, and others who use it.

“The bike trail fits in nicely with the flavor of old Westfield and our history of industry and agriculture,” he said. “Even if you’re not interested in all that, it’s an easy way to get across town.”

Humason said he’s pleased to see that a number of road improvements over the years now connect the downtown area from the south side of the city all the way to the Mass Pike exit.

The latest road project near completion involves widening and adding sidewalks along Western Avenue. The project also improves traffic flow with turning lanes into Westfield State University, as well as pull-off areas for PVTA buses.

“Western Avenue is one of the longest streets in the city, and it deserved to get this treatment,” the mayor said, adding that certain parts of the road also have traffic islands to separate the east and west lanes. “It’s an easier road to drive now, and it looks really nice.” 

The mayor said the city completed a similar project on East Mountain Road, another long street. “If we continually work on the longer streets and keep them in good order when we have the revenue, we can work on the smaller streets in the neighborhoods and the downtown corridor, so we can keep the city in good shape.” 

Future projects coming to Westfield include a new entry gate to the military side of Barnes Airport to service the both the Army Aviation facility and the Air National Guard base. The new entrance will allow the base to modernize function and security for everyone entering the base.

A public park is also planned just outside the gate that will feature one of the F-15 fighter jets that flew over New York City on 9/11. A plaque to tell the story of the jet’s mission on Sept. 11, 2001 will also be part of the display.

Moving On

Also in the near future, Phelon will be retiring from the Greater Westfield Chamber. Before she leaves on Sept. 25, her plan is to work with the new executive director to ensure continuity in the many chamber projects.

“I want to make sure the next director understands our community, as well as our members, and can work with our public and private partners at the local and state level,” she said.

Despite the tough economic times of the last six months, prospects for Westfield look strong, she told BusinessWest, adding that she’s encouraged by the fact that no businesses have decided to not reopen. Meanwhile, Contrino said his crews have not been asked to shut off any business customers because they are permanently closing. Humason said he’s heard only from businesses looking forward to expanding once they can.

“Like many towns, we’re going through the COVID economy, but that’s not going to last forever,” the mayor said. “We’ll be ready to grow when the restraints have finally been taken off because the people in Westfield have put a lot of time, attention, and money into its city and its downtown.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti says the addition of a Spanish-speaking accelerator program will enable EforAll Holyoke to become an even more impactful component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

It’s been more than three years now since Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse told a TV reporter, tongue in cheek (or not), that he wanted to rename Holyoke ‘Rolling Paper City,’ in a nod to its past — and its potential future as home to businesses in the cannabis industry spawned by a ballot initiative in the fall of 2016.

Things have moved slowly as the city has looked to take full advantage of both its red-carpet treatment for the cannabis industry and vast supply of old mill space — ideal for cultivation as well as other types of businesses in this sector — more slowly than most would have anticipated.

But by most accounts, 2020 should be the year this sector begins to, well, light things up in Holyoke.

Indeed, while Green Thumb Industries, better known to most as GTI, is the only cannabis-related business operating in Holyoke at the moment, that is certain to change soon. True Leaf is ready to commence cultivation operations in the large building on Canal Street that was formerly home to Conklin Office, said Morse, and there are other businesses moving ever closer to the starting line.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry,” said Morse, who, while filling his role as CEO of the city, is also running for Congress this fall. “We’re looking at hundreds of jobs between cultivation and dispensing, and we’re seeing the growth in commercial property values as a result of these investments.”

Meanwhile, there are large tracts of real estate either sold to or under option to a number of other cannabis-related businesses, said Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of Planning and Economic Development.

“We have about 20 companies that have approached us for a host-community agreement; a few of those are no longer proceeding, but we have probably close to a dozen that are still in some part of the process, and we expect a couple to open at some point this year,” said Marrero, who noted that, for decades, Holyoke’s problem was that it had far too much unused or underutilized old mill space. It’s certainly not there yet, but some are starting to think about the possibility of actually running out of that commodity.

But cannabis is certainly not the only promising story in Holyoke at the moment. Indeed, progress is evident on a number of fronts, from the development of several co-working spaces in the city to a thriving cultural economy; from the prospects for a new retail plaza in the vicinity of the Holyoke Mall to Holyoke Community College’s culinary-arts center in the heart of downtown; from Amazon’s new distribution center just off I-91, which has brought more than 100 jobs to the city, to Holyoke Medical Center’s recently announced proposal to build a new, standalone inpatient behavioral-health facility on its campus.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry.”

Then there are the city’s efforts to foster entrepreneurship, especially through the agency known as EforAll Holyoke, which last year cut the ceremonial ribbon at its facilities on High Street.

The agency, originally known as SPARK, will graduate its third accelerator class on March 26, said Executive Director Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, adding that EforAll will soon be expanding with a Spanish-language accelerator, something that’s definitely needed in this diverse community.

“Many people can understand English, but to learn in the language you’re comfortable with … that makes such a difference,” she noted, adding that other EforAll locations have offered programs in Spanish. “There is a need for this here.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on what is still known as the Paper City, a community that has greatly diversified its economy is looking to continue that pattern in the coming years.

In Good Company

Murphy-Romboletti says she won’t be leading the Spanish-speaking accelerator — she’ll be hiring someone to assume that responsibility — but she is taking steps to be better able communicate in that language.

“I’m using Rosetta Stone, and I’m basically telling the people in my life who speak Spanish that they should only speak Spanish to me so I can learn,” she said. “Just growing up in Holyoke, I feel like I understand it fairly well, but I’m still struggling to communicate.”

These language lessons are just one of many items on her plate, including final preparations for the March 26 graduation ceremony, at which accelerator participants will showcase their businesses and many will receive what Murphy-Romboletti refers to affectionately as “those big giant checks” — facsimiles in amounts that will range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, as well as some seed money.

Those awards may not sound significant, but to small-business owner, they can provide a huge boost, she went on, adding that they can cover the cost of forming a limited liability corporation (LLC), buy a new copier, or perhaps purchase some insurance.

“Those are the little things that a startup often has a hard time attaining,” she said. “That money is very important to them.”

As for the seed money, provided by an array of sources, it is awarded based on how well businesses meet stated goals for growth and development.

“We have them set goals for each quarter, and the entrepreneurs keep meeting monthly with their mentors,” she explained. “We survey them before we meet, and there’s a peer-ranking process based on the progress they’ve made toward the goals they set at the beginning of the quarter. It’s a combination of mentor feedback and peer feedback, and it’s a good way to keep the momentum going.”

Summarizing the breakdown of the first several cohorts, Murphy-Romboletti said there has been a good mix of businesses, including several food-related ventures, some professional services, a few nonprofits, and some construction-related endeavors. None are large in size or scope, but most all of them have promise, and many are already contributing to vibrancy in Holyoke by leasing real estate, buying goods and services, and providing them as well.

“When an entrepreneur is getting started, it can be a very lonely process, and we want people to know they don’t have to go through this whole thing alone,” she said. “And I think we’re starting to see the impact this has on the local economy, when there’s new businesses registering and they’re getting bank accounts for their business, and they’re doing things the right way so they can be legitimate businesses that will contribute to the economy.”

Marrero agreed, noting that the companies fostered by these efforts to promote entrepreneurship have created more than 100 jobs, most of them in Holyoke.

“Not everything is a home run — there are a lot of singles, but that’s another way of getting into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “We’re continuing our efforts to create a culture of entrepreneurship, and we’re starting to see some results.”

Thus, promoting entrepreneurship is an economic-development strategy in Holyoke, said Morse, adding that, while it’s good to attract large corporations like Amazon, growing organically by fostering small businesses is usually a more reliable path to growth.

But there are several other growth strategies being executed, and the cannabis industry, and the city’s pursuit of it, could certainly be considered one of them.

Indeed, while some communities were somewhat cautious in their approach to this sector and others (West Springfield, for example) decided they didn’t want such businesses within their boundaries at all, Holyoke has, seemingly since the day the ballot initiative was passed, been quite aggressive in pursuit of cannabis businesses — and jobs.

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back. The plans are still coming together.”

And, as the mayor noted earlier, 2020 is shaping up as a year when many of the businesses that have been putting down roots, to use an industry phrase, will start to see their efforts bear fruit.

True Leaf has been aggressively building out its massive space, said Marrero, and it is expected to employ more than 100 people when it that cultivation and processing operation opens later this year. Other similar businesses are also in the process of readying spaces, including Boston Bud Co., Solierge, and Canna Provisions, which will soon be opening a dispensary in downtown Holyoke.

“Once they open, that will create a lot more economic activity, including hiring, and as soon as they have sales, that will also generate income for the city,” he went on, adding that there will be a ramp-up period for the cultivators as the first crops grow. But when these companies are fully operational, he expects that more than 200 jobs will be added.

Meanwhile, mill space continues to be absorbed by this sector, he said, adding that 5 Appleton St. was recently acquired for cannabis-related uses, bringing the total amount of real estate sold or under option to roughly 500,000 square feet, by his estimates, thus creating speculation, and even concern, that no one could have imagined even a decade ago.

“Eight years ago, the concern was that there was too much empty space,” said Marrero. “The long-term proposition and concern for someone in my position is that we might be running out of inventory, which is funny to think, but it could happen.”

What’s in Store

Meanwhile, retail is also an economic-development strategy, or at least a key contributor to the city’s tax base and overall vibrancy. It remains so, but that sector is changing, primarily because of the city’s new corporate citizen, Amazon, and others like it. The landscape is changing — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Evidence of this change is evident at Holyoke Mall Crossing, a retail center just off I-91 at the intersection of Holyoke Street and Lower Westfield Road. Actually, it’s more a former retail center, said owner Ned Barowsky, who acquired the property in 1996. Indeed, a number of former retail spaces now have different uses, as homes to professionals, healthcare facilities, and service providers, as evidenced by the current tenant list.

It includes Baystate Dental, Rehab Solutions, Ross Webber & Grinnell Insurance, ServiceNet, Vonnahme Eye, Great Clips, and H&R Block. It doesn’t include Kaoud Oriental Rugs and Pier 1, two long-time tenants that became the latest retail outlets to leave that location, leaving 13,000 square feet of contiguous space on the ground floor that Barowsky is now working aggressively to lease with ads touting this as “the best location in Western Mass.” And he expects that there will be more healthcare and professionals in this space instead of traditional retailers.

“Slowly but surely, I’ve been converting my building, which was once 100% retail, into office and medical uses,” he said, adding that he expects this trend, which started roughly a decade ago, to continue. “The only true retail left is Hunt’s Photo and Video, which is doing very well.”

Because of the location at the junction of the turnpike and I-91, he said, the site would be ideal for medical practices and other healthcare-related businesses, and he’s already talked with several interested parties.

While spending most of his time and energy working to fill Holyoke Mall Crossing, Barowsky is in early-stage work on a new retail development on a five-acre parcel adjacent to that property that he acquired from the mall. His primary motivation was to create more parking for the healthcare and service-oriented businesses now populating the Crossing, and he will keep one acre for that purpose. As for the rest, a vision is coming into focus.

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back,” he told BusinessWest. “The plans are still coming together.”

Meanwhile, at the Holyoke Mall, which recently marked 40 years of dominating the local retail landscape, the landscape is shifting there as well, from traditional retail — although there is still plenty of that — to family entertainment and recreation.

“They’re been very savvy about remaining relevant, not like other malls,” said Marrero, citing recent additions such as a Planet Fitness and bowling alleys, as well as new theaters now under construction in the site once occupied by Sears. “They’re integrating a lot more lifestyle entertainment.”

Barowsky, who, as noted, has been a neighbor of the mall for a quarter-century, said that facility is still thriving because of its ability to adjust and put emphasis on entertainment at a time when traditional retail is struggling.

“They’re doing a lot of entertainment-related things to get people in, and hopefully people will shop while they’re there,” he said. “They’re doing a great job of adjusting — the parking lot is still full all the time.”

While the mall is evolving, so too is the downtown area, said Marrero, adding that several new businesses have opened in recent months and more are in the planning stages, including a restaurant, Jud’s, along the Canal Walk; a high-end salon called the Plan, which describes itself as a “sustainable, mission-driven beauty company” and “a force for positive change”; and the Avalon Café, a lounge and game café expected to open soon on Dwight Street.

Most of the growth involves small businesses, said those we spoke with, noting that this organic growth will likely inspire additional vibrancy across many sectors.

“When a forest burns, the forest doesn’t grow back by planting a giant oak tree in the middle of it,” said Marrero. “You have to organically grow an economic ecosystem that feeds off of itself and allows bigger businesses to come in; it’s the small businesses that start putting together the foundation for a place where people want to work and live and enjoy the surroundings.”

Building Blocks

This is what Holyoke has been building toward, said all those we spoke with — building that economic ecosystem that feeds off itself.

There are, as noted, a number of moving parts, from cannabis-related ventures to the small businesses in the accelerator cohorts at EforAll, to the new entertainment options at the Holyoke Mall.

As with the cannabis sector itself, the pieces are coming together slowly but surely. And 2020 is shaping up as a year when it all comes together.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A $50 million renovation will transform Elm Court, on the Stockbridge line, into a new resort.

Historic properties are getting a second act in Lenox these days.

Take the $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and has transformed it into a high-end wellness resort, called Miraval Berkshires Resort & Spa, featuring 102 guest rooms and suites, and a luxury, 46-room hotel, Wyndhurst Manor & Club.

Set to open in May, the complex known as Miraval Berkshires is the third Miraval property nationwide, following its flagship in Tucson, Ariz. — named among the top 20 destination spas in the world last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers — and a second location in Austin, Texas, which opened last year. Hyatt acquired Miraval in 2017, and Wyndhurst Manor & Club is part of Hyatt’s Destination Hotels brand.

The 29,000-square-foot spa in Lenox “was conceived to excite all five senses and encourage mindfulness and introspection,” according to the company, and will include 28 treatment rooms, an indoor/outdoor lounge pool, separate relaxation rooms for women and men, a salon, a sauna, a steam room, a retail boutique, and a courtyard that evokes “a sense of harmony with nature.”

The neighboring Wyndhurst Manor & Club, a renovated Tudor-style mansion built in 1894, will offer a more traditional hotel experience, but guests there can purchase day packages for Miraval.

“We are excited to continue the Miraval brand’s expansion with the upcoming opening of Miraval Berkshires, as well as to welcome Wyndhurst Manor & Club to the Hyatt family,” said Susan Santiago, senior vice president of Miraval Resorts, in a release. “These two properties will offer distinct and memorable travel experiences, and we look forward to inspiring once-in-a-lifetime, transformative experiences for all guests who visit our Miraval and Wyndhurst resorts in the heart of the Berkshires.”

Then there’s the Elm Court estate on the Stockbridge-Lenox line, constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt. It completed a series of renovations in 1919 and evolved into an inn in the ’40s and ’50s, hosting dinners, events, and overnight accommodations. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

These days, Travaasa Berkshire County is working on a $50 million renovation of the property to develop a new resort there, featuring 112 rooms, including 16 existing suites in the Gilded Age mansion. After a series of starts and stops, including a holdup in land court in Lenox and a pause for infrastructure improvements to the roadway and water and sewer lines, the project is now moving forward.

“Travaasa Berkshire County’s plan preserves and protects a beloved historic property, respects community character, conserves open space, and contributes to the hospitality culture of the region,” the project website notes. “A tasteful, responsible commercial use of this property by a financially healthy organization will revive a dormant estate, create living-wage hospitality jobs at all skill levels, and maintain the property on town tax rolls.”

Even the Mount, Edith Wharton’s English manor-style home during the early part of the 20th century, is making news these days. Her classic novel The Age of Innocence is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, the Manor is displaying Wharton’s personal copy of the book.

“We have many, many of her works that either have bookplates or her signature — or both, as with this copy — and so, to finally have her own copy of The Age Of Innocence join this collection of her work, it’s amazing. It’s incredible,” Nynke Dorhout, the Mount’s librarian, told Northeast Public Radio recently.

Looking Ahead

Lenox is much more than its historical properties, of course. It’s also long been renowned for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But the business community has seen new energy in recent years as well, with projects like a Courtyard by Marriott that opened in 2017 and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space; the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years; an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies; and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,205
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.10
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.78
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

To address an aging population, town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, and this town of just over 5,000 is looking decidely to the future, while continuing to celebrate and restore its rich past.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project is ahead of schedule, and with a new acceleration agreement in place, it is due to be completed by late summer next year.

Mayor William Sapelli said he received the text late on a Friday afternoon earlier this month, and it was somewhat unexpected; he was anticipating word coming later.

But it was very, very welcome.

It came from state Lt. Gov. Karen Polito, and it said, in essence, that the state had approved what’s known as an acceleration agreement for the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project. What that means is that money has been apportioned that will allow the general contractor, Palmer-based Northern Construction, to pay crews overtime to work on nights and weekends to accelerate (hence the name) the timeline for completing what amounts to a full replacement and widening of the 74-year-old bridge over the Westfield River.

As a result, the anticipated completion date, originally May 21, 2022, is now August 9, 2021.

And what this means is that the 2020 edition of the Big E will be the last that will have to contend with this all-important span, which links Agawam with West Springfield, being under construction.

That’s why that text was so welcome. Even though the two communities, the Big E, tens of thousands of people who visited it, and those who live, work, and do business near the bridge somehow made it through the 2019 exposition without major incident, doing so presented a serious challenge.

It’s not something they’d want to do again, but they’re quite grateful to only do it once more, to be sure.

“This is great news regarding the bridge,” said the mayor. “With this acceleration plan, we’re going to cut almost a year off the completion time.”

The bridge project has been the dominant topic of conversation in this city (remember, it has a mayor) that is still officially called the Town of Agawam since well before construction began. And Sapelli has been part of many of those conversations as he continues a daily ritual of eating breakfast — and often holding court — at different eateries in the community.

“We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”

As was noted in this space last year, this rotation includes Partners, Giovanni’s, and a somewhat new addition, the Pride station on North Westfield Street in the center of Feeding Hills.

“There, it’s a bunch of old-timers — a great bunch of guys; I’m the youngest one there,” Sapelli, the retired school superintendent who just started his second two-year term as mayor, noted. “We used to meet at the McDonald’s, but with the renovation at Pride, they moved over there. That’s on Mondays; I’m there at 7 and then in City Hall by 7:30. We sometimes take up as many five tables, and there’s always a lot to talk about … beyond the bridge.”

Indeed, while that project has complicated things at and for the Big E and also caused some initiatives to hit the ‘pause’ button, including redevelopment of the Games & Lanes building on Walnut Street Extension and the site of a former motel on Suffield Street, there are still things happening.

Indeed, the shopping plaza on Springfield Street once dominated by a FoodMart that saw its roof collapse and has struggled with vacancies in recent years is now essentially full. The latest additions include Still Bar & Grill — now occupying space that was briefly home to a satellite location of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — and a small but intriguing market called Kielbasa and Dairy. It sells more than those items, but they are the headliners. Which explains why they’re on the sign.

Agawam at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, a new tenant — TW Metals, a subsidiary of O’Neal Industries — has taken over roughly half the sprawling space once occupied by Simmons Mattress in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, a Westmass property located on the site of the former Bowles Airport.

Also, another new business, Vanguard Renewables, an organic recycler, has broken ground on Main Street, said Sapelli, adding that a new over-55 housing development is being planned for a large parcel on South Westfield Street, and a number of vacancies in the myriad strip malls and small shopping centers that populate the city are being filled.

And perhaps the best news for the business community is that the business tax rate has come down slightly, a step that Sapelli believes speaks loudly about this community’s commitment to being business-friendly.

For this, the latest edition of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Sapelli about all these matters and what they mean moving forward for a community that is very much looking forward to life after this bridge project has been completed.

Food for Thought

Getting back to those gatherings over breakfast, Sapelli said the tone has been generally positive lately — and it hasn’t always been so, especially in the ramp-up, if you’ll pardon the expression, to the start of the bridge project.

The improved mood can be attributed in part to the bridge work already being ahead of schedule — thanks to a considerable amount of work on nights and weekends — and the fact that, while there have been inconveniences, they haven’t been as bad as many anticipated.

“What I’m hearing — and believe me, they wouldn’t be afraid to tell me otherwise — is how smoothly they think things are going,” said the mayor. “It’s not as congested as they thought it would be, and things are moving pretty well and they’re on schedule, which never happens with projects like this.”

That held true, generally speaking, for the 17 days of the Big E last September, he went on, adding that a great deal of collaboration and early planning efforts paid off handsomely.

“It wasn’t as bad as many people thought it would be, and I heard that not only from residents but police officers working details,” said Sapelli. “And we attribute this to the fact that we met — with ‘we’ meaning the police, the administration, West Springfield police, and the Big E — and came up with a plan of action.”

Elaborating, he said the Big E printed materials instructing motorists how to get to the fairgrounds without using Routes 75 (Suffield Street) and 159. And visitors — most of them, anyway — heeded that advice. The Big E also used park-ride facilities in Agawam that helped ease traffic on and around the bridge, despite record attendance at the fair.

And for the 2020 edition … well, things will go a little more smoothly because the three lanes to the south of the bridge (now under construction) will be open, as opposed to the two lanes on the north side currently being used.

But enough about the bridge. There are other things happening in the community, starting with that important vote on the commercial tax rate, said Sapelli.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is making progress on many economic-development fronts, from filling vacant storefronts to zoning reform to workforce-development initiatives in its schools.

The town’s split rate now looks like this: $16.83 residential and $31.61 commercial. Last year, the numbers were $16.65 and $31.92. Commercial rates don’t generally go down at the expense of the residential side, Sapelli acknowledged, and the decrease was only 31 cents.

But that’s an important 31 cents, perhaps on the tax bill and certainly from the standpoint of sending a message, said the mayor, adding that some historical perspective is in order.

“Years ago, when the split in the tax rates originally started, the rates were fairly close; now, the commercial rate is almost double,” he explained, adding that he and other city officials decided it was time to move them closer together.

“At my presentation to the City Council, I talked about how we, as public officials, talk about being business-friendly,” he recalled. “It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to do it.”

He believes the unanimous vote in the council is a solid example of ‘doing it,’ and he believes it might help bring more new businesses to consider Agawam moving forward.

In addition to that lower rate, the community boasts good schools, available land, plenty of parks and recreation (three golf courses, for example), and, as noted, ample opportunities for retail operations.

There have already been some intriguing additions, he said, noting that the Still and Kielbasa and Dairy are solid additions to the plaza on Springfield Street, and they’re helping bring more people to that section of Agawam.

Meanwhile, TW Metals helps fill a troubling vacancy in the industrial park, he noted. The company signed a 10-year lease for 65,000 square feet, half the nearly 130,000-square-foot building, now owned by Agawam 320 TGCI LLC, an affiliate of the Grossman Companies.

“I think we’re doing well because of our location and because we’re business-friendly,” said Sapelli. “We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”

Bridging the Gap

As noted earlier, the bridge project has put some initiatives on hold in this community, including efforts to revitalize and modernize the Walnut Street Extension area, which includes the Games & Lanes parcel, and also redevelopment of the parcel off Suffield Street.

But in most other respects, things are moving forward, and the talk over breakfast at the Pride store, Partners, and Giovanni’s has been generally positive. And with that text from the lieutenant governor, there was certainly more good news to discuss around those tables.

In short, this community isn’t waiting until the ribbon is cut on the new bridge to create momentum, more jobs, and new opportunities.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams has been investing in economic development, public safety, education, and a host of other areas.

Seven priorities, 43 goals, 95 policies, and 355 actions.

This tall list makes up the master plan for the city of North Adams. The Vision 2030 Plan was launched in 2011, and just this year, Mayor Thomas Bernard and cohorts revisited the plan to check up on the progress made to date.

“We had a really good session in October where we got some interesting suggestions for setting priority areas around marketing and promotion to move the needle on some of the economic developments,” he said.

In addition to the information session in October, Bernard says another will be held in early 2020 in which the town will tackle three things: review what has been accomplished so far, identify things that five years ago may have seemed urgent but are not as pressing now, and identify issues that have changed in the last five years.

The plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — are all currently being reviewed, and Bernard says these undertakings make for an exciting time in the city.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Some of the more prominent developments include a project to build a much-needed new elementary school, updating zoning for the town, investing in public safety, and several projects that cater to younger children.

Bernard knows that, in order to be successful with new projects, the city must still take care of the older, foundational matters, and says North Adams has done a great job keeping track of both.

“We want to double down on the things we’ve already done, both this cultural development that’s happening, but also doing the foundational work to ensure that we can be successful so that we’re championing the big developments, we’re celebrating the jobs that are coming in, but we’re also making sure that the quality of life in neighborhoods is strong and solid,” he said.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas. There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Indeed, he says the overall feedback from the community has been extraordinarily positive, and mentioned one feeling in the city in particular: optimism.

Youthful Approach

That optimism, said Bernard, now going into his second term as mayor of North Adams, comes amid an increasing number of investments in economic development, public safety, and other key areas.

But you can’t move forward without looking back, so one big goal is investing in the youth and education sector, which includes the renovation of a very old elementary-school building.

Just a few weeks ago, Bernard and Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas visited the Massachusetts School Building Authority and were invited into eligibility for consideration of the reconstruction of Greylock Elementary School — a building that is 70 years old.

North Adams at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $40.67
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
* Latest information available

“If we’re able to be successful in the feasibility phase, then we’re invited to proceed forward, and we can put the funding plan together,” said Bernard. “It really will set the course for elementary education in the city for the next 50 years.”

Other investments for the youth population in the city include a splash park and a skate park. While Bernard acknowledged North Adams is an aging community and its leaders are always thinking about what it means to be age-friendly, he sees a lot of energy and — here’s that word again — optimism when it comes to investing in the younger population.

“What this splash park and the other main investment, which was a skate park, has done is create community engagement, excitement, energy, vibrancy, and a sense of optimism that comes from things that are youth-focused,” he said.

On the economic-development side, Dave Moresi, a local developer, recently embarked on a mill project that celebrated its grand opening this past June. Bernard said Moresi bought the mill in mid-2017, and it already has more than 50 businesses inside, including a financial-services office, a mental-health clinician, a coffee roaster, a gym, a hair salon, and much more.

“I think this speaks to a couple things,” said Bernard. “It speaks to the quality of work that Dave and his team do, but it also speaks to this moment that we’re in, bringing it back full circle to this energy, excitement, and potential.”

Moresi also purchased a school building the city no longer uses and is turning it into residential apartments.

Adding to that excitement are two enabling projects that have occurred over the past year. Bernard said bringing life into the downtown area continues to be a challenge, so a parking study was done to look at what assets and needs are necessary if the city were to attract additional housing and development. North Adams also updated its zoning map to reflect current conditions — a process that hadn’t been tackled since the late ’50s to early ’60s.

With all this activity going on, the city has also been investing in public safety. Just this year, Lt. Jason Wood was appointed as the new police chief for North Adams. In addition, the city added its first hybrid vehicle to the city fleet and is working on adding a hybrid cruise, which would make it the first city in Western Mass. to do so.

Forward Momentum

While North Adams still faces economic and socioeconomic challenges, like all cities do, the mayor feels optimistic that the community is on the path for success.

“We continue to be in an exciting time for North Adams, and I think more and more people are picking up on it, whether that’s visitors who are coming here or whether it’s longtime residents who are seeing some of these developments and being really excited about it,” Bernard said. “We have a lot of work to do to make sure we stay on an even keel.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith and Sue Bunnell say one of the biggest projects going on in Wilbraham is a renovation of Route 20.

Revival by its very definition suggests an improvement in the condition or strength of something. It means giving new life to what already exists, an upgrade of sorts.

This is what elected officials in Wilbraham plan to do in several places around town, for a number of reasons.

One of the most valuable assets the town of Wilbraham has to offer both residents and visitors is the array of businesses and attractions on Route 20, and Jeff Smith says that artery is getting a serious upgrade.

“We have a lot of real estate that could be developed,” said Smith, chairman of the Planning Board. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities for businesses to locate here.”

And some already have.

What was known as the Wilbraham Light Shop many years ago was closed up until recently, and friends of the previous owner are reopening it as a new and improved light shop, something that came as a bit of a shock to Smith and other town employees, seeing as it was vacant for about 20 years, but good news for the town nonetheless.

Sue Bunnell, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, added that Wilbraham boasts an excellent track record when it comes to bringing businesses into town.

“Wilbraham has a good reputation of being business-friendly and among the easier places to get a business up and running,” she said.

Part of this is due to zoning flexibility, Smith said. “We have boards and committees that are willing to not only work within the existing zoning laws, but present new zoning laws to the town to ratify so that new businesses can locate here.”

This has happened recently, when Iron Duke Brewing was looking to move from Ludlow Mills to Wilbraham. Zoning laws were changed, and Iron Duke is now one of two breweries in town.

Still, there is work to be done. And at this point, the Route 20 renovation plan is at 25% completion, which marks the start of public hearings.

“We’ve seen preliminary drawings,” said Bunnell. “Those will be made available to the public, and they will be going from the Friendly’s corporate location to the Palmer line with that redo of the highway.”

What was once meant to include solely road work has become a much more involved process, and town officials recognize the need for all the work being done to make this project happen.

“It started off as what we thought was a repaving, but it really seems like it’s expanding now to more of a redesign,” said Planning Director John Pearsall.

Wilbraham’s town officials hope this redesign, coupled with a progressing marketing strategy and few other things on the agenda, will continue to make it a place people want to live and spend their money.

Driving Momentum

Like Pearsall said, what was supposed to be a fairly simple project has now turned into a plan to revive Route 20. This includes making adjustments to some of the problematic intersections, widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more.

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
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

Most importantly, town officials hope to capitalize on the space and buildings available along the road, and are already taking some options into consideration, including mixed-use developments.

Actually, while the term ‘mixed use’ has been thrown around a lot for Route 20, Pearsall said, a better phrase would be ‘multiple use.’

Recently, Delaney’s Market opened in a building that was redeveloped into a multiple-use project. In addition, a proposal for a Taylor Rental property that has been vacant for a while is under review. Also in the works for that property, a Connecticut developer recently filed an application to create another multiple-use development on those grounds.

“I think pedestrian access to a lot of these businesses is going to increase because they’re talking about running proper sidewalks up both sides of Route 20,” Smith said. “It will be a huge help to the existing businesses and future ones.”

The bigger picture of Boston Road is that it was, at one time, all exclusively zoned for commercial activity. But over the years, the town has been trying to introduce residential uses there, including the Woodcrest Condominiums and a new active-adult community that’s being developed off Boston Road.

Route 20 isn’t the only part of town that will be utilizing mixed-use communities. Smith noted that they also hope to revive the town center.

“In our town center, there are a few buildings that are slated for demolition, and we’re working on redevelopment of the site,” he said. “We recently decided at a town meeting at the beginning of this year to allow a mixed-use development on this site.”

For this specific development, the term ‘mixed use’ is appropriate. According to Smith, there will be retail and commercial establishments on the first floor and living quarters on the second floor. This, he said, is part of a bigger picture concerning town redevelopment being worked on behind the scenes.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“Our expectation is to identify someone to explore how delivering fiber along the Boston Road corridor could create opportunities for businesses,” said Bunnell.

Using Entry Point, a company that has worked with other municipalities to develop and build out their own fiber networks, Wilbraham hopes to give businesses along the Route 20 corridor this opportunity.

Smith is also a business owner of New England Promotional Marketing alongside his wife, Amy, and has been a guinea pig of sorts for the fiber network.

“It was critical for our business; it’s a great system,” he said. “If you’re choked down by your internet, it just becomes slow and difficult to do, and it can really put a damper on your business. Opening up to that fiber-optic pipeline was huge for us, and we want to provide that opportunity all the way down Route 20.”

Welcome Mat

With quite a few items on the to-do list, it’s safe to assume there will be no shortage of excitement in Wilbraham in the coming months and years.

“There are a lot of older buildings that have been kind of run down for a long time, and they’re being turned around,” said Smith. “There are a lot of properties that have been dormant or underutilized, and there’s a big push to rehabilitate these and find new uses or, in some cases, existing uses.”

As for any new businesses looking to make Wilbraham their new home, they can sleep well knowing this is a top priority in Town Hall, Bunnell said. “I think the goal is to make Wilbraham even more attractive and accessible to businesses that are looking to come into town.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mike Vezzola says the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce’s new headquarters at Enfield Square has given the organization greater visibility.

If a long-discussed tribal casino takes shape in East Windsor, Conn., the town of Enfield would find itself in an intriguing geographic spot between two destination casinos — which could bring benefits in a number of ways, Mike Vezzola says.

“It’s still going through a large permitting process, but if the casino does wind up coming to East Windsor, we’re right smack dab in the middle of MGM Springfield and that proposed East Windsor site, so the hope here is that Enfield can become a little bit more of a destination,” said the executive director of the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce during a recent conversation at the chamber’s office in the mall known as Enfield Square.

“It’ll certainly create a lot of runoff for hotels and restaurants,” he went on. “We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through. We’re excited for what’s on the horizon over the next five to 10 years.”

As a border town that may eventually be flanked by two casinos, Enfield is, in many ways, at a crossroads — one that town officials hope will be bolstered by a new train platform in the Thompsonville neighborhood.

Earlier this month, the Town Council unanimously voted to transfer $670,000 from the general fund into a separate fund for the development of a train platform in Thompsonville, a project that has been 15 years in the making and is expected to attract traffic to town and give residents and businesses more reason to relocate or stay there.

Other financial hurdles need to be cleared, as the total cost of a platform would be around $2.5 million. A full train station could follow down the road, at a cost of tens of millions; Enfield is just one of several train-stop communities in the Nutmeg State waiting for DOT action on such projects. In Enfield, town officials say any upgrade will bring a number of economic benefits, particularly for Thompsonville itself, which has been the focus of a planned revitalization project for some time.

The town implemented a tax increment financing (TIF) plan in Thompsonville and the Enfield Square area earlier this year. TIF is an economic-development tool that allows municipalities to use tax revenues generated from new capital investment to assist in a project’s financing.

“We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through.”

Patrick McMahon, CEO of the nonprofit Connecticut Main Street Center, who was hired by the town as a consultant in January to help revitalize Thompsonville, told legislative and business leaders at a recent economic-development breakfast that Enfield leaders envision significant private investment in new business ventures, redevelopment of historic properties, and new public infrastructure.

“Hopefully, the new TIF project will bring some revitalization to that specific area, especially with the commuter rail between New Haven and Springfield,” Vezzola told BusinessWest. “We’re one of the primary stops on that rail, and they’re hoping to get the platform built in the next couple of years.”

Pipeline to Progress

At the same time, Enfield has seen growth in recent years in its manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing sectors, while Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) — which hosted the recent breakfast — has built a reputation as a manufacturing-education leader through its Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center (AMTC).

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and other guests toured the space, speaking to students and taking in the 11,000-square-foot machining lab with its 90 CNC and manual machines, the state-of-the-art additive manufacturing lab, and other high-tech training areas.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
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

With programs that get students working at good-paying manufacturing jobs in two years or even one in many cases, ACC — and, by extension, its town — has become a promising answer to workforce needs at area plants, which have long lamented persistent skills gaps.

Asnuntuck has forged partnerships and talent pipelines with area manufacturers and businesses including Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, Eppendorf, and Stanley Black & Decker, among others, contributing to a 98% job-placement rate for AMCT graduates.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state,” said Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian, who participated in the tour.

The rise in Enfield’s manufacturing reputation coincides with retail struggles, particularly in Enfield Square, where the only remaining anchor is Target. However, numerous small stores still call the property home, and Party City made a major investment there two years ago.

“The mall is very open to interpretive ways of using their retail space,” Vezzola said, the chamber’s presence there being just one example. “We get a lot of foot traffic in here, community members looking for referrals to some of our members or just information about who we are and what we do and how that benefits the community. Certainly, we’re here and excited to help facilitate any potential new clientele the mall might see in the future.”

While Enfield hasn’t attracted many new large retail establishments over the past year, the community continues to be a haven for sole proprietors, he noted.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state.”

“These are folks who have their own businesses and work from home, whether it’s social-media development or graphic design, things of that nature,” he said. “A lot of young people are starting these businesses — and we’re excited that they want to put their talents and work skills to use right here.”

So excited, in fact, that the chamber is hoping to launch a young professional networking group next year as a subsidiary of the chamber.

“We want to encourage other younger folks who might not necessarily know how to navigate creating their own business or are looking for a new opportunity to learn and develop, so it’ll be a bit of an educational piece as well as a networking piece,” Vezzola explained. “That’s a big focus of what we do; we’re continuing to encourage our businesses to help each other, utilize each other, and benefit each other the best way they can.

“We peg ourselves on changing with the times, and certainly the scope of what a chamber does is completely different now than it was 20 years ago,” he added. “We’re just trying to stay relevant and active and evolve with the times.”

Life on the Border

Vezzola understands, too, the potential for his chamber and its members to make connections across the state line as well.

“Being a border town, I think it helps us get some exposure over the border in Massachusetts for our businesses and vice versa, and we’re considering some partnerships with chambers in Western Massachusetts to maybe do some cross-border development with each other, with networking groups,” he said. “Again, it’s about always evolving and just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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