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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]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mary McNally says the town’s top public-safety priority right now is taking its ambulance service to the next level.

Balance.

That’s a word you hear quite often in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall these days — and for good reason.

This growing community of roughly 16,000 people on the border with Connecticut has long enjoyed a solid balance of business and industry, attractive residential neighborhoods, and a large amount of agricultural land, although the total acreage has fallen in recent years.

It’s an attractive and fairly unique mix — most towns this size can boast two of those ingredients or only one — and maintaining this balance while also achieving additional growth is the ongoing assignment for town leaders.

Balance and patience are the current watchwords for the community, said Town Council President Kathleen Hill, especially as it takes on several large-scale projects she said will benefit the community in the long run.

These include everything from public-safety initiatives to addressing the need to renovate or perhaps replace the town’s 60-year-old high school, one of many built across the region to accommodate the huge Baby Boom generation; from securing a new use for the large eyesore known to most as the Package Machinery property on Chestnut Street to developing a new master plan (more on these matters later).

At the top of the to-do list for town leaders, though, is hiring a new town manager to replace Denise Menard, who left the position on a separation agreement back in July.

For now, Mary McNally serves as acting town manager for a four-month period. She was appointed by the Town Council on Aug. 22 and will serve through Dec. 21 of this year. Hill is in the first year of her second three-year term.

Hill said finding a permanent town manager is a priority for the council and a crucial step in order to begin moving forward with several projects that are in various stages of progression.

“We hired a consultant about a month ago to conduct a professional search for us,” she said, referring to Community Paradigm Associates, which is also assisting Longmeadow in finding a town manager, and recently completed a search for Palmer.

Hill said the town is still in the early stages of the process, and, at this time, the council is gearing up to advertise the position and proceed in the search for the second manager in the town’s history.

Once this process is concluded and the new town manager is settled into the role, more focus can be put on “progressive projects,” as both Hill and McNally called them. Hill says the goal is to move East Longmeadow toward the future, while also keeping the tight-knit community feel that many residents know and love.

“You have to move with the future,” she said. “The character of the town is something we want to preserve. At the same time, we recognize the necessity of being progressive.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Hill and McNally about the process of maintaining balance while also moving the community forward.

Preservation Acts

‘Progress’ is another word you hear in town offices, and officials are looking to create some on a number of fronts, especially with the hiring of a new town manager.

“Next week, the council will be appointing a screening committee, solely for the purpose of reading the applications that the consultant brings to them,” said Hill, noting that the council will not be involved in any part of the process prior to the final four candidates that come out of the pool.

“We will, for the right reasons, go into the process blind to the candidate pool so that we can be totally unbiased, and we will conduct our own public interviews with the hopes of identifying our next manager by early December,” she said, adding that the worst-case scenario is to have the town manager at a desk in early 2020, depending on the candidate and whether or not the person has to give notice to a previous job.

And there will certainly be a lot on that desk in terms of projects and priorities, said those we spoke with, listing matters ranging from public safety to education; economic development to parks and recreation.

With that first category, the priority is taking the town’s ambulance service to the next level, said McNally.

Currently, the town has one basic life support (BLS) ambulance that can be staffed by an EMT, and she says the Fire Department is pursuing an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance that must be staffed by paramedics.

This request, McNally and Hill said, was prompted predominantly by a growing elder community in town. Indeed, East Longmeadow has a half-dozen senior-living facilities, three nursing homes, and other facilities that care primarily for the elderly.

“Because that need is growing, the Fire Department is ready, willing, and able to meet it,” McNally said. “The firefighters have reached that paramedic level of certification; because of the needs of the community, the fire chief has been quite interested in securing that second ambulance, but it’s a long process.”

A feasibility study is also being contemplated for the renovation or rehabilitation of the East Longmeadow Police Department, which was built in 1974.

About a mile down the road from the police station is the old Package Machine property, which is perhaps the most pressing matter in the economic-development category. The industrial property, which includes a large manufacturing area and huge warehouse, has seen various uses over the past several decades — modular homes were built in the warehouse, for example — but has remained mostly vacant and thus become a topic of controversy and speculation.

Hill said there is an interested party, East Longmeadow Redevelopers, that is working with the Planning Board on conceptual work for a mixed-use district that would include apartment-style living, single-family home-style living, retail, and commercial properties.

Hill and McNally referenced Mashpee Commons, located in the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod and described as “upscale shopping and dining in a charming New England village setting,” as the type of facility that might be built on the property.

“There’s something for everyone,” said McNally. “The idea is to have options for your retail, dining, and housing needs. In terms of economic development, it will bring more tax revenue to the town, and it brings housing options for an aging population.”

Kathleen Hill says the former Package Machine property could eventually see new life as a mixed-use development.

She stressed, however, that the discussions are preliminary, and at present there is no existing mixed-use bylaw to establish the district.

The ultimate goal for town officials, as stated above, is to achieve such growth and add needed commercial tax revenue, while also preserving the town’s rural character. This includes preserving remaining farmland.

“We have some huge tracts of land that the town will protect and keep that way as undeveloped land either for conservation or because you just don’t want to build on every square foot you have for a variety of reasons,” said Hill. “You don’t want the farming areas to go away.”

McNally added that this is often a quality-of-life matter, and a desire to have green areas and oxygenation from the trees.

Speaking of green, a plan currently on the back burner is a vision to “re-image” Heritage Park, Hill said. A rendering shows an amphitheater-type stadium built around the pond where more concerts and local events could be held. In addition, more ballfields would be added, as well as a field house.

“It’s going to be a significant investment, but it will add more value to the town,” she said. “That’s what we want to do — make sure there’s return on investment.”

Adding value to the town also means having a good school system with up-to-date buildings, which means addressing the issue of the aging high school. Hill is a former career educator — she spent 21 years in the East Longmeadow school system — and said she has a hard time not advocating for a better high school.

“The reality is, without a building that is state-of-the-art, it drags your real-estate values down,” she said. “People aren’t going to want to come. My husband and I want to sell our house at some point and maybe get something a little smaller. If we let everything in town fall by the wayside, we’re not going to get the same price point that we would if we keep our town vibrant.”

Slow and Steady

Cultivating an even more vibrant community for the long term will be the underlying goal behind creating a new master plan, work on which began more than a year ago.

“Our planner has convened a master plan committee,” said Hill. “It would be a cross-section of folks in town who want to reimagine the master plan. The last one the town did was in 1976, so it’s time.”

Although this might sound like a long time to go without a plan, she said, this is not unique to East Longmeadow. Many small towns either struggle with their plan or simply don’t have one.

But Hill says the benefits of having one are too great to ignore.

“With an accurate plan, as a community, you are in a better position to attract state and federal grant funding,” she added. “It’s a way to define who you are as a community and understand what your needs are. It’s strategic planning. It’s a vision of the future.”

This vision all comes back to that word mentioned at the very top — balance.

“There’s just so much here in this town, but it still has that small-town, quaint feeling,” said Hill. “The sentiment on the Town Council is to maintain that feeling, spend the tax dollars to not only keep that feeling for folks, but give them as much service as possible with a look toward the future as well.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Russell Fox (left, with Karl Stinehart) says Southwick’s slate of 250th-birthday events will be family-friendly and honor the town’s past while looking to a promising future.

Nov. 7 will be a big day in Southwick — and the start of a big year.

Starting that day, a year-long series of events — including holiday festivals, history tours, parades, concerts, and more — will culminate in the Taste of Southwick Gala on Nov. 7, 2020, the 250th anniversary of the town’s incorporation.

Southwick officials and volunteers have been meeting to plan this broad slate of birthday events for some time, much of the planning guided by the nonprofit Southwick Civic Fund.

“It’s an ambitious plan for a smaller community,” said Russell Fox, who chairs the town’s Select Board. “We’re actively raising money, not just from businesses but residents also. And we have some very generous residents — one resident gave us $1,000. So it’s coming along. We’d like these events to be kid-oriented. We want young people to feel like they’re part of the community and learn something about the history of the community and have a good time.”

And there’s a lot to celebrate, as Southwick continues to grow its business base, housing options, and especially its reputation as a recreation destination, Fox said. That Taste event alone speaks to what he calls a recent “restaurant renaissance” in town, with recent additions like Crepes Tea House and Wok on Water, the conversion of Chuck’s Steak House to Westfield River Brewing (which hosts concerts during the summer), and new Crabby Joe’s Bar and Grill owner Mark O’Neill’s plans to tear down that establishment and rebrand it as a state-of-the-art restaurant and brewery that may use wind turbines for electricity.

A 250th-anniversary celebration is an opportunity for a town like Southwick to show how far it has come in the realms of history, population growth, economic development, and cultural and recreational draws, said Karl Stinehart, the town’s chief administrative officer.

On the latter front, Southwick has become a mecca for recreational offerings, like boating on the Congamond Lakes, motocross events at the Wick 338, town events at the 66-acre Whalley Park, and a well-traveled rail trail frequented by bicyclists, hikers, and dog walkers.

As for its population, Southwick still boasts around 10,000 residents, and work continues at two significant new neighborhoods, a 26-home subdivision off Vining Hill Road called Noble Steed, and Fiore Realty’s project to develop about 65 homes at the former Southwick Country Club site. Meanwhile, the town made zoning changes near that site to expand commercial developments along College Highway, including a possible medical facility.

On the infrastructure front, the town is planning to improve sidewalks on Depot Street to provide easier access to downtown, and is currently improving the roadway and drainage on Congamond Road — a key entry into town from Connecticut — aided by more than $4 million in state funds.

“When that’s done, it’ll have a bike lane and sidewalk, and connect the neighborhood both to Gillette’s Corner and to the rail trail,” Stinehart said. “There are businesses that abut the rail trail, and if you go there on certain days, on the weekend, you’ll see people on the trail using those businesses.”

Stinehart noted that the town’s single tax rate of $17.48 continues to be a draw for new businesses, which is good considering the potential development opportunities along College Highway and at the Southwick Industrial Park on Hudson Drive.

“We try to balance residential growth and the business sector, which is an important thing because it keeps our tax rate competitive,” he said. “When you’re a businessman looking to site in a community and you see you’re going to be treated equally as every other taxpayer, you take notice of that.”

Fox agreed. “We try to keep that balance. We’ve got a graying population, with more people on fixed incomes. So the tax rate is a big deal to us. We don’t want to tax people out of the community they grew up in or want to retire in.”

He recalled a business owner looking to move into town from a neighboring community a couple decades ago. He was offered some tax incentives but was angling for more, but instead Fox reminded him of the town’s quality schools, low traffic, reasonable tax rate, and recreational opportunities, and that sold him. “He’s been in Southwick 20-plus years, doing very well.”

Those selling points have only expanded since then, Fox said, and that’s reason enough to celebrate 250 years.

Fun in the Sun

There’s plenty for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy in Southwick, including three golf courses (Edgewood, the Ranch, and a par-3 track at Longhi’s) and the aforementioned 6.5-mile-long rail trail that runs through town from the Westfield border to the Suffield border.

“People in town love the bike trail — it’s just a beautiful area,” Fox told BusinessWest. “When that first started, there were some naysayers, but I think most of those people have gone away.”

“Or they’re on the trail using it,” Stinehart quickly added.

Meanwhile, the lakes on the south side of town — featuring two boat ramps, a fishing pier, and a town beach — provide plenty of activity for residents. A $275,000 project renovated the south boat ramp on Berkshire Avenue last year, making it more modern and handicap-accessible, and the beachfront was recently renovated as well.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.47
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.47
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

Stinehart said the lakes and their environs are an important aspect of Southwick’s outdoor culture and worthy of investment, being, among other things, a major destination for freshwater fishing tournaments.

Then there’s the Wick 338, the motocross track behind the American Legion, which abuts the Southwick Recreation Center and Whalley Park. The complex hosts the annual Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship — which is broadcast live on NBC and draws some 15,000 to 18,000 people to town — as well about 25 other races throughout the year and a host of other events, including Rugged Maniac New England, a challenging, mud-splattered 5K obstacle course. That continual flow of visitors to town benefits a host of other businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, Stinehart noted.

As for Whalley Park itself — which was donated to the town by the prominent Whalley family and developed using municipal and Community Preservation Act funds — it includes a full-size soccer field, baseball field, and softball field, lighting for the fields, a huge kids’ play area, and a pavilion.

The town also recently acquired a 144-acre parcel on North Pond at Congamond Lakes. The Mass. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife awarded Southwick money to help purchase it, and the Franklin Land Trust conducted a fund-raising effort to make up the difference in price. The parcel is abutted by two areas owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of Connecticut.

Even before that, Stinehart said, Southwick had preserved more than 1,000 acres of open space, not including the lakes themselves, and has been active in buying up development rights to farmland, ensuring that they can’t be developed, but must remain agricultural land.

“We’re proud of our agricultural roots, and we still have a lot of farms,” Fox said. “Now we have farms protected in perpetuity.”

Also in the realm of preservation, the town’s Cemetery Commission continues its work to restore the Old Cemetery, which dates to 1770, and the town recently sold its old library, built in 1891, to an investor who intends to partner with the Southwick Historical Commission to preserve it while putting it back on the tax rolls.

Change Is Good

The town’s modern schools — the complex on Feeding Hills Road that houses Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and Southwick Regional School underwent significant additions and renovations in recent years — have also been a draw for new residents, and they have the capacity to house a growing student population, Fox said.

All this has contributed to Southwick being honored this year by the Republican’s Reader Raves program as the best area town to live in.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to that point,” Fox said of the award. “Some people don’t like change at all, but not all change is bad. This is a community we can be proud of. I think we doing a good job of keeping things in balance — commercial, industry, and residential.

“We’re not sitting back; we’re growing,” he went on. “We know people want to move here, and we’re proud of that. We’re going to make sure Southwick remains the town it always has been.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Cynthia West says Easthampton had the best ‘feel’ for the business she launched with her daughter, McKenzie, the Sonnet & Sparrow ‘curated thrift store.’

It was the food that brought Cynthia West to Easthampton.

Well, sort of.

It was the food, in the form of weekly visits to restaurants like Galaxy, Kisara, and others that gave West … well, a flavor of Easthampton and, eventually, the opinion that this was the place to bring a business she had been thinking about and dreaming about for some time.

It’s called Sonnet & Sparrow, a “curated thrift store” she operates with her daughter, McKenzie West, in space that was once part of the historic, yet also somewhat notorious, Majestic Theater on Cottage Street. Notorious because 30 years ago it was showing adult films and had become a symbol of the decline of Easthampton and the Cottage Street area.

Now, Cottage Street, and the city as a whole, have been reborn, and West decided she had to be part of what is generally referred to as a renaissance in this old mill town.

“I chose Easthampton because I love to eat here,” West, who opened her store just two months ago, said matter-of-factly. “We found the community very welcoming; we wanted to be in the Valley, and we found that Easthampton had the best feel for what we wanted to do.”

She’s certainly not alone in these sentiments about Easthampton’s feel and it being an ideal home for a new business, as made clear in an anecdote the city’s mayor, Nicolle LaChapelle, related about a manufacturing firm that expressed interest in this community in the shadow of Mount Tom as a landing spot.

“They’re looking for 40,000 square feet, and they’re looking in Easthampton because, when they surveyed their employees, who have an average age of 47, they found that they want to be able to live and walk to work, have some options when it comes to leisure recreation, and be part of a city,” she said. “Easthampton checks all those boxes.”

Suffice it to say Easthampton checks a good many boxes for entrepreneurs across the broad spectrum of the regional economy, with a number of new ventures opening over the past few months, and even the past few weeks.

Businesses like INSA, a multi-faceted cannabis complex in the Keystone mill complex on Pleasant Street that includes a cultivation facility, dispensary, lab, kitchen, and more. The company, led by CEO Mark Zatyrka, has other locations in the region and is expanding into other regions of the state, but Easthampton is the headquarters location.

And like Prodigy Minigolf & Gameroom, located in the basement of the Eastworks building, also on Pleasant Street, and home to an eclectic mix of businesses. Founder Jeff Bujak, a musician looking to hit some different notes, calls this the most challenging mini-golf to be found anywhere, but there’s much more to the operation, including an extensive list of board games and video games that would make any Boomer nostalgic and any Millennial quite intrigued.

And like Veracruzana Mexican restaurant, or should we say the latest Veracruzana. Phil Pallante and his wife, Sunia Hood, had already purchased the restaurant’s two locations in Northampton and Amherst, but even before they did that, they informally decided Easthampton would be the next push pin on the map. They eventually found a spacious storefront on Union Street right next door to the Chamber of Commerce, and opened just a few weeks ago.

Mark Zatyrka, seen here in INSA’s dispensary, says he and his partners were drawn to Easthampton because of its amenities and welcoming approach to the cannabis industry.

Collectively, these entrepreneurs and others we spoke with say they came to Easthampton for the same reasons West did — they saw a city on the rise, one that that boasts vibrancy, arts and culture, a growing restaurant sector, healthy tourism, no shortage of things to do, and a very ‘green’ mindset.

Comparisons to neighboring Northampton are inevitable and seemingly constant. There are many who call this the ‘new Northampton.’

But while flattered by such comments, Maureen Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, doesn’t believe they accurately describe what’s going on here. Indeed, she told BusinessWest that, while there may be some similarities, Easthampton has forged its own identity.

“We’re not the ‘next Northampton,’” she said. “Northampton does Northampton really, really well. And we do Easthampton outstandingly well. I like to say that our community is hip, cool, wow, and now.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest explores all that goes into that phrase and why Easthampton is becoming the landing spot of choice for a growing number of businesses.

Getting On Board

Casey Douglass says that, when he arrived on the scene in Easthampton roughly 15 years ago and opened his first restaurant in the city, the community was, in his estimation, like that literary little engine that could and its signature phrase ‘I think I can.’

By that, he meant the city was emerging and developing what became a healthy dose of confidence. It’s no longer saying ‘I think I can,’ but instead has shown that it can do it, he suggested.

“Now, we’re moving like a bullet train, and I’m happy to be on it,” said Douglass, owner of Galaxy, a fixture on Main Street and his third such venture in the city after Apollo and what is now Coco and the Cellar Bar. “And there are plenty of seats available.”

As noted earlier, seemingly every month, if not every week, another business owner is getting on board, keeping Belliveau and her ceremonial ribbon-cutting scissors quite busy.

Before getting to some of the recent arrivals, and others, like Douglass, who can talk about the scene in Easthampton with decades of perspective, we need to talk about how Easthampton got here, a state where it is being increasingly compared to its neighbor, a destination that is still the most economically vibrant community in the region.

Summing things up, LaChapelle, a labor attorney who came to the city in 1997, said that, in the mid- to late ’90s, Easthampton laid the foundation for a revival, a reinvention of itself from a mill city to an arts and cultural center, and it has carefully built on that foundation ever since.

Phil Pallante says Main Street in Easthampton was the logical location for the third Veracruzana restaurant.

The bedrock on which it’s built is effective zoning, a huge inventory of old mill buildings ready to be repurposed, a business-friendly government, and a community that can blend affordable housing, plenty of recreation, and that increasingly ‘green’ mindset mentioned earlier.

Over the past few decades, it has steadily added building blocks, she said, in the form of new businesses across many sectors, a slew of new restaurants and cultural attractions that are bringing people into the city, and, perhaps most importantly, jobs to replace those lost when the mills closed.

LaChappele was quick to note that this business-friendly attitude certainly applies to the burgeoning cannabis industry. Indeed, while some communities have outlawed such ventures or are just putting a toe in the water, Easthampton, like another neighbor, Holyoke, has rolled out the red carpet, but in a careful, thoughtful way.

“We’re head over heels in love, I would think, with cannabis, and I don’t that’s overstating it,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything this industry is generating, from tax dollars to jobs to foot and vehicular traffic.

“This is a unique industry; it’s very rare in these days that a person on the street or a collection of investors can get in on a new industry and be a part of the regulations,” she went on, adding that the community currently hosts one such business, INSA, but it has several other host-community agreements in place and other ventures in various stages of progression. “It’s a unique opportunity where we, as a community, get to write the rules and work with entrepreneurs on something that provides local tax revenue. I can’t imagine when that will happen again, and I expect the presence of cannabis-related businesses to grow in Easthampton.”

This open affection is no doubt one of the factors that brought INSA to Pleasant Street.

“Pretty early on in the process, we realized how much time and money went into creating this business and how important it was to be timely,” said Zatyrka. “So we wanted to find a city that was welcoming to us. At the time, there were a lot of cities that weren’t as welcoming, and it gets expensive to push your agenda on a city and its constituents.

Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle says Easthampton can “check a number of boxes” for business owners across a number of sectors.

“I was born in Easthampton,” he went on, adding that the other founders are local as well. “In combination with the progressive nature of Easthampton as well as what the mill district and the mills had to offer, we thought this was the perfect home for us.”

There are now more than 150 people working in the company’s facilities at the Keystone complex, in operations ranging from cultivation to retail, he went on, adding that there is plenty of room to expand.

Scoring Points

Prodigy’s Bujak noted, in what can’t be considered an upset, that his favorite Seinfeld episode is the one called “The Frogger.”

You remember (even if you’re a Millennial) … that’s the one where George discovers that, years after he last played a Frogger machine at a pizza parlor he’s revisiting, he’s still the high scorer. And he attempts to take the machine home, an adventure that ends, predictably, in calamity.

Prodigy has been bringing in a lot of George Costanza types since it opened in the spring of 2018, said Bujak, noting that they come to play a wide array of video games that took up a good part of their lives in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. And they’re playing them on a collection of vintage TVs that he’s had no problem assembling because their previous owners were happy to find someone to take them off their hands. He’s also drawing many teenagers and older individuals (this course is not for young children) to his challenging mini-golf operation.

“I’ve played mini-golf everywhere in this country, and this is by far the most challenging — I won’t say difficult, but challenging — and I wanted it that way,” he said, adding that it plays as much like a video game as it does like golf.

Jeff Bujak made Easthampton home to what he calls the most challenging mini-golf facility in the country.

While he’s lived in Northampton for many years, Bujak noted, he never thought of opening his venture there. Instead, he always focused on Easthampton. He said Will Bundy, owner of Eastworks, made him one of those deals that couldn’t be refused. And he didn’t.

“It’s been very successful,” he said of his first 16 months in business. “I’m doing three times the business I thought I thought I would, and that I put down in my original business plan.”

Early on, he was relying heavily on his large fan base, acquired through many years as a touring musician, but visitation from area communities has escalated, and he’s now averaging 500 to 700 people a week.

“And these 500 to 700 people are now also going to the mill district, and to Food Truck Fridays, and to INSA, and to the Mill Pond concerts,” he said, adding that business has become another of those aforementioned building blocks that support one another and bring ever-greater vibrancy to the community.

Pallante agreed, telling a story with many of the same themes as those told by West, Bujak, and Zatyrka.

He said he and his wife would often eat in Easthampton to avoid the congestion in Northampton and Amherst, and in doing so came to understand that the community was building momentum and had become a true destination in its own right. Together, the two drew up plans for the latest Veracruzana on a napkin while having a bite at still another of the city’s restaurants, Amy’s Place, on Cottage Street.

“We knew that, from everything the city had to offer, and logistically as well, this was the place we wanted to be,” Pallante said. “It became very apparent that Easthampton is aggressively seeking and helping people come here, and creating a culture where people want to be.”

Michael Poole, a welder and sculptor and thus one many artisans now working (and in many cases also living) in Easthampton, echoed these sentiments.

He joked that, if they did one of those Taste of Easthampton-type of events when he first arrived in the city in the early ’90s, it would have featured “a few slices of pizza, and none with pineapple on them.”

That last reference was an attempt to accentuate just how much has changed in a quarter-century or so. There is now a solid portfolio of restaurants acting not only as drawing cards bringing visitors and even entrepreneurs (like West), but as anchors for a host of other businesses that need foot traffic to succeed.

Poole noted that a diverse mix of businesses now exist, and many people are choosing to live and work in the community, a change from when he first arrived.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.46
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

“There weren’t a lot of jobs back then,” said Poole, owner of Blue Collar Artisans and noted for his ornate ‘tree’ handrails, furniture, and other forms of home décor, as well as the bicycle rack on Main Street he fashioned out of the numbers in the city’s zip code — 01027. “People lived here and worked someplace else.”

Now, many more people are coming to Easthampton to work, he noted, quickly adding that many now choose to settle in Easthampton because of all it has to offer and commute to work.

He measures the progress, unscientifically to be sure, by the volume of traffic on Holyoke Street.

“My business is at the far end of East Street, and I can tell what time it is by where the line of traffic stops,” he said. “Our house is right on Holyoke Street, and we joke about the ‘Easthampton rush hour’; every year it gets a little longer. But those are the problems you want.”

Right Place, Right Time

Indeed they are.

Easthampton didn’t have to worry about traffic jams or finding enough parking spaces 20 years ago. Now, it does, to some extent, and, as those we talked with agreed, those are good problems to have.

As is being called the ‘new Northampton.’

It’s always meant as a compliment, said Belliveau, but, as she noted, it’s not really accurate. The city is indeed thriving and establishing itself as a destination, but it’s not the new Northampton; it’s the new Easthampton.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Baystate Health & Wellness Center, which opened last year, lies alongside significant improvements to the Dwight Road corridor at the East Longmeadow line.

When people think of economic development, they might think of a flood of new businesses into a community. Longmeadow will never have that, Town Manager Stephen Crane said, but it certainly has economic development — centered instead around residential property values and the quality of life that maintains them.

“What sustains property values are investments like middle schools, senior centers, things that make the community more desirable to live. That’s the number-one goal of Longmeadow,” he said of a town in which 95% of all property is residential.

“As I always say, our number-one economic activity is the sale of single-family homes,” he went on. “So keeping those homes a desirable place for people to live is job one, and new senior centers, new schools, new amenities — those are the things we can do as a municipal government to sustain that quality of life.”

While a new middle school has been talked about for years, a new senior center will soon become reality, after a groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 11. The Longmeadow Adult Center will move from its current location, a former elementary school at Greenwood Park, to a $14 million facility on Maple Road next year.

“It’s a fantastic project. It’s a very big deal,” Crane said, noting that the demographic trend commonly called ‘the aging of America’ is certainly underway in Western Mass.; in fact, 29% percent of Longmeadow’s population is age 60 or older, and that number grows every year. Because of that, he said, communities need to provide services that help seniors age in place.

“The senior center will fill a lot of gaps we have in terms of aging in place,” he told BusinessWest, noting amenities like its state-of-the-art gymnasium with a suspended walking track. “The programming space will be substantially better than what we have now. The current programs are great, but the new space will reflect the quality of those programs.”

Crane, who has been Longmeadow town manager for the past six years, will be departing his seat next month after inking a three-year contract as town manager in Concord. He’s witnessed plenty of changes in town during that time, but one of the intriguing ones has been Longmeadow’s shifting demographic reputation, spurred by growing amenities for seniors and a significant stock of ranch homes for single-floor living. In short, a town once known as a place where young parents raised their kids and moved out is becoming an all-ages destination.

Taxing Concerns

To maintain those amenities — and the quality of life so critical to keeping residential property values high — town officials support legislation on the state level that would allow it, and other towns, to override a key element of Proposition 2½, which went into effect in 1982.

That legislation sets a 2.5% ceiling on total property taxes — or $25 per $1,000 of assessed value — and a 2.5% annual limit on property-tax increases. (The ceiling does not include excludable debt for capital projects like the senior center.) Proponents of a change, at least in Longmeadow, would like towns to be able to override the first part of the law by moving the ceiling higher, first by a two-thirds vote at town meeting, then at the ballot box.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government.”

“We are approaching that ceiling. And costs are going to continue to go up, unless property values stay the same or go up. If we have a 1% dip in our real-estate market, our tax rate jumps up even if we don’t spend another dime,” Crane said. “We are not proposing to touch the 2.5% increase, but we propose that the community can set the ceiling where it wants, and decide for themselves how much they want to invest in themselves. It’s really a local-control thing.”

While Longmeadow has the highest residential tax rate in the Commonwealth, it also has a high bond rating. “So our tax rate is not the result of profligate spending. We are an extremely well-managed town from a financial standpoint. We have to be very careful and make great decisions and pursue value in earnest, which we do.”

One way it does that is by pursuing regionalization when possible, as with the two-town (and perhaps others in the future) regional emergency communications center, or RCC, that Longmeadow is establishing with Chicopee, housed in that city’s Police Department and operated by an independent district called WESTCOMM. That system is expected to go live in October, and dispatchers have already been hired.

“The Baker administration is pushing municipalities to work together,” Crane said. “We certainly embrace that, whether it’s working with East Longmeadow on shared health services for public health, the regional dispatch with Chicopee, we are always reaching across town lines, trying to find ways to work more efficiently and relieve burdens on taxpayers.”

He understands how legislation to change Prop 2½ could be cast as merely an effort to raise taxes, and he understands how that goes over with some.

“Would it lead to increased taxes? Not any more than the current two-and-a-half-percent cap allows year after year. Would it lead to higher tax bills in the future? Potentially. But is it essential to maintain property values and maintain the community’s quality of life? Yes.

“To hit that ceiling,” he continued, “means reductions in services that may not be impactful right away, but would lead to a downhill momentum where services are reduced, quality of life goes down, property values then go down as well — and that’s even if the economy and real-estate market stay stable.”

Important, though, is the fact that, under the proposed change, each community would have a say in moving its tax ceiling — and Crane said Longmeadow residents have long been aware of its unique tax base and the need for community investment to keep property values high.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government,” he added. “The state doesn’t really give a lot of local-control options to communities for generating revenue.”

Moving Right Along

Meanwhile, the town continues to pursue improvements and development on both the public and private fronts. Along the busy Dwight Road corridor that intersects Converse and Williams streets — where the Baystate Health & Wellness Center opened last year — a major infrastructure project included street and sewer upgrades, new sidewalks and bike lanes, and improved traffic-light coordination across the East Longmeadow town line.

“The corridor improvements on Dwight Road are complete, which is a regionally significant improvement,” Crane said. “Traffic is flowing exponentially better than it ever did. Those improvements were clearly needed.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.09
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.09
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

On the private-investment front, in addition to the Baystate project and a 21,000-square-foot expansion of the Longmeadow Shops in 2017, a memory-care facility is planned on the site of a former synagogue on Williams Street, and the former Brewer-Young Mansion on Longmeadow Street has been converted to professional offices, with developers eying a mix of uses, including shared workspaces. On the municipal side, the development of a new Department of Public Works facility on the site of a former tennis club on Dwight Road continues despite unexpected costs from asbestos removal from the soil.

Overall, Crane said, “town meeting been generous with appropriations. To me, it’s a sign that they have faith in their local government and know that, if it wasn’t really needed, we wouldn’t be asking for it. The success we’ve had with approval of things shows we are able to articulate the community’s needs in a way that town meeting agrees with.”

For instance, voters recently authorized a $1.54 million debt exclusion to continue improvements to the Wolf Swamp Road athletic fields, which Crane called the town’s biggest and busiest recreational asset.

“The fields have fallen into disrepair for a variety of reasons — lack of irrigation, overprogramming, and just some disinvestment,” he told BusinessWest. “The DPW does the best it can to maintain those fields, but without irrigation and with the overprogramming, there’s a limit to how effective you can be with maintenance.”

The plan includes a new, central parking lot, converting current parking at one end of the complex to field space, and achieving a net gain in field space.

“The fields will be stripped, graded, planted, and irrigated,” he went on. “It’ll be a couple years out of service, but when it comes back online, it’ll be the envy of the region, I think. That’s not a great economic driver, but when we have tournaments, those do generate revenue for the town, but it also sustains quality of life, which does have economic value.”

‘A Good Place’

Crane said the various departments in Town Hall want to support its local bricks-and-mortar businesses with good infrastructure and cooperative permitting. “You can help people with what they need or you can make them climb through the regulatory systems on their own, and I know we really try to do what we can for our local businesses.”

But he also understands that housing — and the higher revenues that come from raising quality of life and keeping home values high — will always dictate much of what Longmeadow is able to achieve.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve had a small part in accomplishing,” he said as he prepared for his newest challenge in Concord. “We have a great team, great departments, and outstanding volunteers. I’m proud to have been a part of many positive changes that have happened in the community — things that have been quality-of-life improvements, but have not changed the character of the community. The next town manager will have challenges, but I think the town is in a good place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski say the Westfield Education to Business Alliance benefits both current employers in the city and some of their future workforce.

Kate Phelon has long appreciated the spirit of collaboration between Westfield’s municipal, business, and educational leaders — and points to the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which just wrapped up its third year, as a good example.

The alliance, WE2BA for short, connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent. Last year, it launched an adopt-a-classroom program — Mestek, Forum House, and PeoplesBank were the initial adopters, and more are expected to come on board next year — while Westfield High School’s annual career fair drew a record 61 vendors.

“We want to get more people involved — more businesses adopting more classrooms,” said Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce. “The principals are engaged in this.”

Stefan Czaporowski, the city’s Superintendent of Schools, said those efforts can have long-term economic-development impacts.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

It’s not just WE2BA (much more on that later) that’s showcasing the city’s strengths. Take, for example, Go Westfield, a collaboration among municipal officials, Westfield Gas + Electric, Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“The city had never really taken on the task of marketing itself until just recently,” Mayor Brian Sullivan said. “It’s a work in progress, but we’ve gotten much better at touting what we have. We’ve got a lot of things here. We have an airport, a college, a hospital. We’ve got an exit off the Mass Pike. We’ve got transportation potential, between I-91 and the Pike. We’re literally two hours away from six different state capitals; geographically, we’re situated nicely. And we have more developable land than most.”

But Go Westfield is about more than marketing; it’s also a means to continual self-improvement. Phelon cited three recent focus groups — targeting the retail, manufacturing, and nonprofit sectors — as a notable example.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate. But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

“These are the businesses that are here, and we wanted to find out from them what’s working really well, and what keeps them up at night,” she told BusinessWest. “That helps us better market ourselves as we address concerns and find out if other businesses have the same concerns. We want to make our existing businesses happy and address their issues — and if we don’t know what those issues are, we can’t help them.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’ve gotten much better at listening to stakeholders. It used to be that the city would have an idea, and we would go after that idea. Now, it’s more reaching out to the companies in town and saying, ‘what’s working? What’s not working? What do you need?’ We’re making the companies already here a little better, and by listening to their needs, it’s helping out other companies who are saying, ‘yeah, we needed that too.’”

Sullivan hears those needs at the Mayor’s Coffee Hour, sponsored by the chamber and hosted by a different business each month.

“Those companies get to show off what they do, and we get to talk about things like construction projects, road projects, what’s coming down the pike for the City Council,” Sullivan said, adding that he often brings along other city department heads to enrich the discussions. “I don’t want to just stand in front of the room and talk; it’s got to be a two-way conversation. And an hour can fly by.”

That’s partly because there’s a lot to talk about these days in the Whip City — and the collaborations driving that progress are becoming more robust.

Welcoming Party

When someone contacts one of the Go Westfield member organizations, Sullivan explained, other members are quickly roped in, whether that’s a municipal department, Westfield Gas + Electric, or the chamber. “If some company is interested in coming here and calls the chamber, Kate’s been really good at giving me a heads-up that, ‘hey, these people are looking to come.’”

Companies like Wright-Pierce, a 72-year-old environmental/civil infrastructure engineering firm, which recently announced it will open an office in Westfield.

Or Myers Information Systems, which is relocating downtown from its previous location in Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it. The firm expects to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the coming months.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $38.00
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

“Some of the reasons Myers chose here were the chamber, a bike trail, access to downtown, and fiber coming from the Gas + Electric,” the mayor said. “We reached out, wooing them to come to us. They were pretty impressed with how solidified we were as a group.”

He was referring specifically to Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas + Electric that continues to expand gigabyte-speed internet to residences and businesses across the city.

“Having access to that is huge for an awful lot of companies that are looking for bandwidth and a central location for their employees,” he explained. “Companies aren’t 9 to 5 anymore, where people come in and do their work and leave. It’s all hours of the day, it’s weekends, and if you can have access to high-speed internet, you can thrive as a company.”

The Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, continues to focus on revitalizing a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017.

The same year, the Westfield Redevelopment Authority demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The WRA plans to issue a request for proposals for the site — much of which used to house J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime store — within the next month.

The mixed-use concept, Sullivan said, is an important one for a wide swath of Millennial professionals who crave city living with walkable amenities.

“They want to live downtown and don’t want cars; they want to walk or bike anywhere they want to go — a total urban lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest. “With Millennials, it’s not ‘build your house somewhere and have your two cars and go to your job.’ They want to be downtown, walk to the coffee shop, bring their laptop, do some of their work there, and go for a bike ride.

“The trend is all about internet access, getting to and from places without using a car, and downtown visibility,” he went on. “That’s what drove Myers to Elm Street, access to all these things.”

Another economic trend in Massachusetts involves the cannabis industry, and Westfield has embraced such businesses, with four available licenses for retail, cultivation, or other uses; two are currently going through the permitting process. With Southwick and West Springfield currently not in the marijuana game, Sullivan noted that Westfield is in a good spot when it comes to cornering market share, particularly from across the Connecticut border.

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept at “opening up our ears” and being responsive to the needs of the business community.

“The City Council is figuring out whether we want one in downtown core district or keep them on the outskirts,” Sullivan said. “It’s such a new industry that nobody really knows what’s going to shake down. Everything is on the table right now.”

Meanwhile, initiatives like Go Westfield continue to dig into what the business community wants and how to bring new companies into the fold, with the goal of boosting economic development not only downtown, but across this sprawling city of more than 47 square miles.

“You have to adapt, and we’re getting better at adapting and opening up our ears,” he added. “And that’s what these focus groups are doing. We’re sitting there and listening to what’s lacking or what’s not working, or maybe what is working, and doing more of that.”

Back to School

Phelon and Czaporowski are excited about the potential of expanding the reach of the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, enlisting graduate students from Westfield State University to help out with programs moving forward. At a focus group in the spring, about 20 professors from various degree programs expressed an interest in working with different organizations in town, getting students into the weeds of local businesses.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back. We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

The existing connections work on multiple levels. For instance, the students who worked with Mestek in the adopt-a-classroom program improved their presentation skills and performed, on average, markedly better than their peers in the school’s science fair. Meanwhile, Westfield teachers went to Mestek to help employees with limited English proficiency boost those skills.

“We want to expand adopt-a-classroom because getting the business community in front of the kids and sharing their expertise and their work experiences is huge,” Czaporowski said. “And we want to keep promoting what some call soft skills and we call essential skills — speaking with eye contact, how to interview, résumés, but also how to be a productive employee — things like punctuality and attendance. We call them essential skills because these are skills you’re going to need throughout life.”

Meanwhile, businesses visited elementary schools for career-day events toward the end of the school year, getting kids thinking early about career pathways and even what high school to attend to best serve those interests.

“We’re exposing kids to relevant life learning,” the superintendent said. “And it’s beneficial to the businesses too. The experience is eye-opening for them.”

That’s partly because students learn differently today — in a more interactive, collaborative style, with different tools — than they used to, Sullivan said, and it’s helpful for employers to understand that.

“It’s all about workforce development,” he said. “A lot of these companies will need their talents someday. They need those kids to walk into their business and start working. That training is now happening in the schools. And it’s a two-way street. A lot of the best companies in town are sending a representative to some of these meetings with the students because they want the students to know their product when they get out.”

Whether it’s through the career fair, adopt-a-classroom, or other efforts, Phelon noted, there are many ways to engage with students and show them what career and lifestyle opportunities exist in their own backyard — just as Go Westfield broadcasts that message to a much wider audience.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back,” she said. “We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

While the city will miss out on opportunities from its full ban on cannabis-related ventures, Mayor Will Reichelt says, there are new businesses of many kinds coming to the community.

West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt recalls that, after his community’s City Council voted in the spring of 2018 to place a ban on any and all cannabis-related businesses, he received some texts from his counterparts in Holyoke and Westfield.

He doesn’t remember the exact wording of either one, but he told BusinessWest that they amounted to thank-you notes, as in — and he’s paraphrasing here, obviously — ‘thank you for the tax revenue that might be coming to our cities because it won’t be coming to yours.’

More than a year after that vote and those texts, Reichelt feels confident in saying that the full ban, while obviously well-intentioned, amounts to some missed opportunities for this community, for both the short and long term.

Indeed, West Springfield exists at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91 (quite literally), and therefore, in many respects, it is the retail center of this region — complete with dozens of big-box stores, car dealerships, restaurants, and more — and draws people from across the region. But this retail hub will not include any cannabis dispensaries, despite a number of ideal sites for such facilities, resulting in, as those mayors pointed out in their texts, tax revenue that will go elsewhere.

But in Reichelt’s view, the ban has potentially deeper ramifications.

“A lot of our tax revenue comes from retail, most of it on Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue; it’s car sales, it’s big-box stores — that’s a large portion of our commercial tax revenue,” he said. “And to not be open to new discussions, new ideas, and new businesses is going to hurt us in the long run because retail is changing; Amazon is coming, and not everyone is going to want to shop in Riverdale Plaza.

“If things change, we’re really going to struggle,” he went on, quickly adding that things certainly won’t change overnight or even over the next few years. “If we’re looking out 25 to 50 years, and West Springfield gets a name for itself that it’s not into these somewhat controversial but new and innovative business ideas, and the communities around us are, it will be easy to pass West Springfield by.”

Fortunately, at present, most traditional retailers, and consumers, have no intention of passing this community by. In fact, many retailers want in — and in a big way, for those reasons (and because of those roads) listed earlier. As an example, the mayor related the story of how Starbucks is very interested in landing a spot on Riverdale Street — specifically that very popular stretch south of I-91 — and how it will certainly be challenged to find one.

So while West Side won’t be entering the high-stakes competition for cannabis-related businesses any time soon, Reichelt and his administration will be focused on doing what this community has long been able to do — take advantage of its ideal location, already-deep portfolio of retail outlets, and heavy volume of traffic to attract more new businesses.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

And it is enjoying success in this realm, as we’ll see later, with developments ranging from a new hotel on Riverdale Street to a new life for an old landmark just off Memorial Avenue, to the community’s first brewery just down that street.

Meanwhile, beyond those two main retail corridors, there are other intriguing prospects for development. One involves the property known to most as the United Bank building on Elm Street. That’s not its official name, but the bank has long occupied it and is therefore associated with it.

But United has all but moved out, and there us now a huge ‘for sale’ sign on the side of the property.

As the mayor gestured toward it while walking downtown with BusinessWest, he noted that, years ago, there were a number of a small storefronts within that footprint along the street. Turning back the clock and creating a new generation of destinations along that block would help build on growing momentum in that area of the city, he said.

Meanwhile, a former mill property along the Westfield River just over the line from Agawam is being gifted to the city by Neenah Paper, the manufacturer soon to vacate the property, said the mayor, adding that a number of new uses, including some residential options, are being explored.

These are just a few of the intriguing developments unfolding in West Side, a city that won’t be entering the intense competition for cannabis-related ventures anytime soon, but still has a host of other emerging business and economic-development stories.

Ale’s Well

Reichelt laughed heartily as he recalled the e-mail that is at the heart of a story he’s now told more times than he can count.

It was from his city planner, and typed onto the subject line was the phrase ‘Two Weeks Notice.’ Upon further reading, the alarmed mayor learned that this was not a reference to another job opportunity seized, but rather an update on the plans for an intriguing new business coming to the community.

“After that, I said, ‘can we just put ‘brewery’ in the subject line?’” said Reichelt, noting that the Two Weeks Notice Brewing Co., located in the former Angie’s Tortellinis facility since late last year, makes some nice IPAs, and has become a solid addition to the business landscape in West Side.

And it is just one of several of those over the past several months, including a new name over a familiar door.

That would be 1105 Main, an address, but also the name of a new eatery at the site of what would have to be considered a West Side landmark — the old Hofbrahaus restaurant.

Joe Stevens, who owned and operated that German restaurant with his wife, Liz, for decades, closed it roughly a year ago. The couple thought they had the building sold, but the deal fell through, prompting a reassessment of their plans.

“We starting talking about a theme restaurant,” said Joe, adding that what eventually emerged is a true family affair, involving sons Eric Waldman, who had been sous chef at a restaurant in Westchester County, N.Y. and was looking for a new and different challenge, and Alex Waldman.

Joe told BusinessWest they are calling this “an American eatery,” offering “familiar food with a twist.” As an example, he cited the lasagna, which is pan fried after it’s baked and includes a wild boar and bison bolognese.

The property at 1105 Main St. was substantially renovated for this makeover. The bar area, popular with regulars then and now, has a fresh look, as does the dining room, which has a brighter atmosphere and a hardwood floor, found underneath an inch of carpet glue after the old flooring had been ripped out.

The new eatery is drawing a mix of families and business people, said Joe, and it even complements another new business just across the street — Hot Brass, a firearm and bow range that shares space with Guns Inc., a seller of firearms.

“We like to say, ‘after you’re done shooting, come in for a shot and a beer,’” said Stevens, adding that a number of people have done just that, thus bringing still more vibrancy to the Memorial Avenue area that has changed dramatically over the past several years.

Indeed, the face of the street — home, of course, to the Big E — has been altered by the addition of Fathers & Sons’ new Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, as well a new retail plaza featuring a Florence Savings Bank branch and new stores in the Century Plaza.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
residential tax rate: $16.96
commercial tax rate: $32.55
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

Memorial Avenue, like the city’s other main retail corridor, is in a seemingly constant state of change, said Reichelt, adding that still more change is likely as new tenants are sought for two locations across from the Big E — the former Monte Carlo restaurant and the former Debbie Wong eatery.

Still further down the road is more property in flux, the former Medallion Motel and the vacant lot next to it, formerly the site of an auto-repair shop. Redevelopment of those parcels will likely have to wait for another day, said Reichelt, because they sit in the shadow of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which crosses the Westfield River and connects West Side with Agawam and is still in the early stages of what is expected to a four-year reconstruction and widening project.

Traffic is often backed up at the site, which is why developers are unlikely to do anything in that area for some time, said the mayor, adding, as his counterpart in Agawam did a few months ago in this space, that the goal is to minimize the disruptions from the bridge project, especially during the 17 days of the Big E, and try to incentivize construction crews to reduce that four-year timetable for this initiative.

Forward Progress

Back on Riverdale Street, a new Marriott Courtyard is set to open later this spring, one of several new developments on or around that busy retail corridor, which, like Memorial Avenue, is in a seemingly constant state of the change.

Others include a gas station at the Costco in the Riverdale Shops, a project expected to commence later this year; the opening of a 1.5-mile bike path behind those shops, due to open in May; and a $21 expansion of the Agri-Mark facility on Riverdale Street, completed last fall.

Looking down the road, Reichelt said the site of now-closed Bertucci’s, located along that stretch south of I-91, is still awaiting new development, and he’s optimistic one will come because properties don’t generally remain vacant for long on that stretch of road.

Meanwhile, as noted, there are developments unfolding outside of those two main retail corridors that could have important ramifications for the community. This is especially true of the United Bank property on Elm Street.

“That used to be a collection of small stores,” he said of the facility, adding that it was renovated to house a bank branch and several of the institution’s departments. “There was a nice bookstore and coffee shop, a restaurant … it was a real destination.”

It can be that again, he went on, adding that his vision includes the community petitioning the state for additional liquor licenses and perhaps transforming the property into a home for a number of hospitality-related businesses that would complement those already thriving in that area, such as the Majestic Theater (located on that same block) and bNapoli restaurant.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

“I’d like to section that property back off again,” he said. “If we can get two more restaurants down there, a coffee shop or bagel place, and businesses like that, we could get a lot more life in the downtown, creating a real destination.

“Everyone always talks about how they’d like to have a mini-Northampton,” he went on. “That’s never going to happen if you don’t have stuff for people to do. This [property] represents a huge opportunity for us to create more things to do.”

And while hopefully generating more things to do with that downtown project, another initiative may well create more places to live.

The Neehah Paper Co. has donated the 100,000-square-foot mill property (formerly Strathmore Paper and then Fibermark) to the city, said the mayor, adding that residential is perhaps the best reuse option, be it elderly housing, affordable housing, or perhaps some combination, although other opportunities for development exist.

“We’ve run some breweries through it, and there’s been some interest,” he explained. “But we can’t really do much until we own it. This represents a great opportunity because we’re going to an actual section of riverfront property, which we don’t have in town.”

Location, Location, Location

Returning to the matter of cannabis-related ventures and the ban that covers the full spectrum of such businesses, Reichelt reiterated his concern that this goes well beyond lost commercial tax revenue.

“Councilors like to say that we’re business-friendly,” he told BusinessWest. “I say, ‘well, no, you’re not; you just completely wiped out an entire industry from coming to town.’”

This makes West Side an island of sorts when it comes to the cannabis trade, he went on, adding that there is still a lot of business activity happening on that island, with the promise of more to come in the months and years ahead.

The great location and easy access to major highways that would make West Side a perfect host for marijuana-related businesses also make it ideal for most any type of retail and hospitality-related venture.

And, as it has for decades, the city will continue to make of the most of all that it has to offer.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress in its commerce centers and with green-energy projects.

Palmer’s leaders see the town as a destination — and hope the myriad players investigating east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts view it the same way.

That’s why the Palmer Town Council recently established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study — and prepare a report on — the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer, to be submitted to the state advisory committee currently looking into the feasibility of expanded east-west passenger service.

Those efforts included a recent meeting with community members to brainstorm about the pros and cons of the entire concept of east-west rail and Palmer’s place on any proposed line.

“Originally, the discussion was to have a relatively high-speed east-west route between, say, Boston and Springfield, or Boston, Worcester, Springfield,” said Charlie Blanchard, Palmer’s town manager. “If you add a stop in Palmer, what does it do to the timing? In fact, the timing doesn’t change that much. But the big benefit would be more ridership coming in or getting off the train, which would be a big deal.”

In a recent letter to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who attended the community meeting, Blanchard pointed out that Palmer is roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to Amherst — and to institutions like UMass Amherst and Amherst College — and south to Storrs and the University of Connecticut. In short, it’s a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
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
* Latest information available

Furthermore, the absence of a stop in what’s nicknamed the Town of Seven Railroads would mean commuters from the Quaboag region who want to travel by train to Boston would have to drive roughly 40 minutes per day to use Springfield’s Union Station or slightly more to access Worcester. Participants at the meeting believed Palmer-area residents would be loath to do either, limiting total ridership at a time when the state would be clamoring to maximize it.

In addition, “a train stop in Palmer would be a major stimulus in helping to provide quality housing for commuters at an affordable price. With the ability to commute by train, this would open up a very affordable housing market,” Blanchard wrote in his letter, adding that a stop would also stimulate the economy of a set of communities that have yet to capture the growth found to the east, while boosting Palmer’s own downtown revitalization and encouraging hospitality companies to build more lodging there.

In short, it would inject energy into a town that, while it has plenty to tout in recent years, could always use more.

Projects and Progress

Baystate Wing Hospital’s $17.2 million project to expand its Emergency Department was perhaps the town’s biggest development last year. Aimed at better supporting the current annual patient volume of 24,000 visits, the 17,800-square-foot space includes separate ambulance and public entryways and features 20 patient rooms, including trauma, behavioral health, and other dedicated specialty-care areas.

“That opened in September, and was quite a big expansion,” Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, Palmer joined the ranks of the many Western Mass. communities to welcome the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts (see story, page 6), approving its first medical-marijuana facility on Chamber Road, including a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,200 square feet of retail space. Altitude Organic Corp. will move its headquarters from Colorado to a property on Thorndike Street in Palmer as part of the development, and expects to have plants growing in an indoor facility by October.

“It really is interesting to see the public acceptance of this new type of business,” Blanchard added, noting that the town’s laws allow for three retail cannabis locations in its commercial business district. “We’re looking forward to having them and seeing how successful they can be.”

In the Three Rivers section of town, progress continues at 2032 Main St., where the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is renovating the top floor to apartments and the bottom to retail — a mixed-use plan expected to infuse new residents into the neighborhood while attracting more shoppers.

“They ran into some structural issues — it was a bigger project than they thought — but activity continues,” Blanchard said. “It was completely gutted, and they had to do some reinforcing, but now it’s back on track.”

Property and business owners in Three Rivers have been engaging in a grass-roots revitalization effort for years, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts. At the same time, the consortium known as On the Right TRACK (Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge) has been working for some time to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.

On the culinary front in town, Stables Restaurant of Hadley recently opened a new restaurant at Burgundy Brook, on Route 181 on the north side of town. “When you go by there, you see a lot of cars and a lot of activity,” Blanchard noted.

Finally, the new rail spur installed at Sherwood Lumber Yard, in the town’s industrial park — a project that has been in the works since 2013, and funded through an Industrial Rail Access Program grant — allows the business to bring in materials by train, spurring significant expansion of the operation and helping the entire industrial park by unloading without clogging up other traffic.

“Now that the rail spur is completed, there’s more activity up there,” Blanchard said. “It also helped increase the rail capacity for the rest of the businesses there.”

Powering an Economy

Palmer also continues to embrace green-energy projects. In addition to 10 large-scale solar projects — producing 29.3 megawatts of electricity every year — and the installationin early 2018 of car-charging stations at Town Hall and the public library, the town has been working with Thorndike Energy and the Microgrid Institute to explore the benefits of a microgrid system that would access the hydropower and solar power generated at Thorndike Mills for emergency power.

“Thorndike Energy has hyropower over there, and generates electricity through hydropower,” Blanchard said. “They’re going to be adding some solar to it as well. You take those two renewable sources of electricity, and you add battery or other types of standby storage, so that you can store some of this power generated through a renewable source, and have it available in the event of an emergency.”

Project objectives include improved resiliency of electrical services for critical community facilities, expanded storage capacity to better integrate local renewable energy, and supporting National Grid goals in terms of modernization, storage, and renewables. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of job growth and retention.

“Obviously, anything located at Thorndike Mills would benefit from it,” Blanchard said. “The benefit to overall economic growth would be to attract new businesses to Thorndike Mills, which right now is pretty underutilized. It would enhance their marketability to show they have this renewable stored energy there.”

It’s just one way in which Palmer is generating energy from an economic-development standpoint, and raising its profile as a destination and a connecting point to the rest of Central Mass. — a role it will continue to embrace regardless of the eventual fate of any east-west rail line.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jennifer Tabakin

Jennifer Tabakin says initiatives like high-speed broadband, environmental sustainability, and the arts all contribute to quality of life and help attract young people to town.

Jennifer Tabakin is a believer in using public investment to spur private investment. After six years as Great Barrington’s town manager — she’s stepping down in June — she has seen plenty of evidence to back up that philosophy.

“We’ve talked a lot about the investments we’ve made in Bridge Street, which is one of our side streets off Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “Over the years, the public money put into it has been significant, and we’ve been able to see private development come along in response to it.”

Projects like Powerhouse Square, a mixed-use development on Bridge Street. “It’s literally steps from Main Street — exactly where new development should be,” said Town Planner Chris Rembold.

On the ground floor is Berkshire Co-op Market, a grocery store that’s moving from a different location and doubling its size. The development also includes space for smaller retail outlets and 20 new residential apartments on the second and third levels. In fact, that’s just a sample of a recent housing boom in town; in the past year alone, 228 new housing units were either built or permitted.

“We’ve been able to get far more downtown than I ever expected, ranging from affordable units to downtown condos. That meets the needs people have for a more walkable lifestyle” — one where residences are in close proximity to shopping, restaurants, and cultural amenities, Tabakin said.

One example of the latter is Saint James Place, which opened in 2017 as a home to small and mid-sized Berkshire County arts groups in need of performance, rehearsal, and office space. Created out of the historic St. James Episcopal Church on Main Street, several of its office spaces for lease have been filled by arts-related groups such the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Flying Cloud, and the Berkshire Opera.

“It’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people. Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

Saint James Place is now a thriving cultural venue, and we’re thrilled to have them here,” Tabakin said.

In October, in recognition of its vibrant arts life, the downtown was designated one of the state’s cultural districts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“It’s a geographic area with not only plenty of cultural venues and things to do — like the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Saint James Place as performing-arts venues — but it’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people,” Rembold said. “Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

The cultural-district designation, he added, is a recognition of the vitality of the arts and culture in downtown Great Barrington, but it also serves a practical purpose. Cultural districts can access a stream of services including tax credits, economic incentives, planning assistance, grants, historic-preservation help, signs, and tourism promotion. Among the town’s plans is a shared cultural events calendar, which will help the various venues better coordinate their booking schedules, making it easier for visitors to know what’s happening when they spend a weekend or more here.

“It’s kind of an organizational effort, a marketing effort for the downtown,” Rembold said, adding that there’s much to market: the Mahaiwe and Saint James Place alone offer some 200 nights of entertainment a year. “And if something’s not going on there, you can go see a movie or a poetry reading or a Friday night film at the library. If you’re bored in Great Barrington, that’s your own fault.”

Getting with the Times

Another recent boon for downtown is the installation of fiber service. “It’s a strategy to make sure our downtown has the highest-speed broadband and can be competitive with our neighbors in the area, so people can locate here and take advantage of that higher speed,” Tabakin said.

“We have a private company covering all the development cost and infrastructure cost to bring fiber to downtown, and we’ll eventually start moving out to the rest of the community,” said Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the Select Board.

Great Barrington at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, the town continues to make environmental sustainability common practice, moving all municipal, school, and community buildings to green energy sources and reducing use of single-use plastic products.

“For the past four years, we’ve supported eight large solar projects with a combined value of $16 million,” Tabakin added, while many town residents have gone solar as well.

All these factors — culture, high-speed broadband, sustainability — aim to position Great Barrington as a thoroughly modern community, even as it retains much of its quintessential old New England character, thus attracting more young families. Like other towns in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties, Great Barrington has seen the average age of its residents rise in recent years; the community has always been a popular spot for retirees, and there are a number of New Yorkers with summer homes in town.

But by bolstering ingredients like attractive (and affordable) housing, a vibrant downtown, a burgeoning cultural community, and outdoor activities (Ski Butternut is a prominent attraction), Great Barrington’s leaders are looking clearly at the future, which means attracting young people and especially young families.

Of course, those families will need to find find jobs here, and Great Barrington boasts strengths in a number of sectors, including education (Simons Rock of Bard College is located in town), healthcare (Fairview Hospital), technology (perhaps a dozen IT companies call the town home), the arts and tourism, the nonprofit community, and restaurants (the town is home to around 80 of them).

“We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

“The challenge for the Select Board, and all of us, for that matter, is to maintain the vibrancy we have and support for our local retailers and existing businesses, and also be open to new businesses — to keep that appropriate balance and make sure we have diversity in the local economy,” Tabakin said. “That’s something we speak about a lot.”

One area of the economy that’s growing — literally — is the cannabis sector, which is something BusinessWest has mentioned in almost every Community Spotlight over the past six months. Great Barrington is no exception, with Theory Wellness opening the first retail marijuana store in Berkshire County in January, with others to follow. In the first month, the shop netted $2 million in sales and $90,000 in taxes paid to the town.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” said Abrahams, who quickly added that any cannabis business in Great Barrington should do well, due to the town’s proximity to Connecticut and New York, states where the drug is not legal. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems, and police report no increase in people driving under the influence.”

Continuing Commitment

As Tabakin looks back on her six years in office, she’s especially gratified at a Town Hall full of energetic and committed people, and a lot of new faces — during her tenure, 26 people were either promoted or started a career there.

“Several years ago, we were warned we had a number of people approaching retirement age,” Abrahams added, “and it’s been a really smooth transition replacing them with newer people.”

Having a well-run town, Tabakin said, speaks to a commitment to quality of life, one that’s evident in Great Barrington’s vibrant retail district, cultural attractions, quality schools, and more, she said.

“Many times, government gets a bad rap, but I don’t feel that’s the case in Great Barrington,” she told BusinessWest. “We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

GTI’s cultivation facility in Holyoke

GTI’s cultivation facility in Holyoke has been operating since last summer, and many new ventures could be opening in the years ahead.

Alex Morse says his phone was already ringing — quite frequently, in fact — before he was interviewed on CBS This Morning late last June.

But then, it really started ringing. And his e-mail box became even more crowded.

That’s because, with that report, Holyoke’s efforts to roll out the welcome mat for the cannabis industry, pun intended, became a national story rather than a local story — although it was already well-known.

Yes, this was the detailed report where Morse told CBS that the city once known as the ‘Paper City’ might soon be known as the ‘Rolling Paper City.’ His tongue wasn’t in his cheek, and there was a broad smile on his face as he said it.

Getting serious, or more serious, because he was already serious, he told CBS, “it’s legal … people need to wake up; the days of the past are moving forward. Holyoke has embraced the industry, and we acknowledge that this is an economic-development driver for us.”

Morse, and Holyoke, woke up long ago, meaning just after (or maybe even before) recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts in the fall of 2016, and today it is making giant strides toward creating what officials are calling a ‘cannabis cluster.’

And they’re comparing it, in some ways, to the cluster that put this city on the map — figuratively and quite literally (this was a planned industrial city) — the paper and textiles cluster.

As they used that word ‘cluster,’ both Morse and Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of Economic Development, said it means more than the creation of a number a number of businesses and jobs in a specific sector, although that’s a big part of it. It also means establishment of an infrastructure of support services that can have a large multiplier effect, if you will.

“With a cluster, it’s more than the sum of its parts,” Marrero explained. “Once you have a cluster, then you have an expertise, just like Holyoke did when it was the Paper City. Just as you have an expertise with paper, you can have an expertise with all the expects of this [cannabis] business.”

Elaborating, he said cannabis-cultivation facilities require highly specialized construction, lighting, anti-contamination, air-movement, and security systems, and all this adds up to opportunities for companies in this area that can handle such work.

In many ways, Holyoke is well on its way to seeing this cannabis cluster become reality, said Morse, noting that one large cultivation facility, Green Thumb Industries (GTI), is currently operating in a former textile mill on Appleton Street. And there are several other businesses across the wide spectrum of this business — from cultivation to retail — moving their way through the involved process of getting permitted to operate and eventually absorbing some of the vast amounts of commercial real estate that are vacant or underperforming.

Holyoke at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1786
Population: 40,341
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.29
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.87
Median Household Income: $36,608
Median family Income: $41,194
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Community College, ISO New England Inc., PeoplesBank, Universal Plastics, Marox Corp.
* Latest information available

“For us, cannabis is another form of manufacturing that’s bringing buildings back to life, being a revenue generator and job creator,” said the mayor.

And as they say in the agriculture business, Holyoke is certainly fertile ground for the cannabis industry. Indeed, it boasts, by the mayor’s estimate, 1.5 million square feet of vacant or underutilized former mill properties. Meanwhile, it has, again, by Morse’s calculations, the lowest electricity rates in the state (Holyoke has its own municipal utility), and it has something just as important as those ingredients — a giant, figurative ‘welcome’ sign when it comes to this business, as will become clear later.

But cannabis isn’t the only positive development in this city. Holyoke is also making great strides in ongoing efforts to attract entrepreneurs and arts-related businesses. It is also convincing more people, especially the younger generations, that this is a place to live as well as work and operate a business. And it’s seeing many of those aforementioned mills being put to creative and momentum-building uses.

Mayor Alex Morse

Mayor Alex Morse, an early supporter of the cannabis industry, says its many components collectively form an economic driver in Holyoke.

All of the above can be seen in one high-profile project known as the Cubit Building, the structure on Race Street that takes that shape. The first two floors are now occupied by the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, a story that embodies education, workforce development, and economic development, and in the floors above are apartments that were leased out even quicker than the optimistic owners thought they would.

“You drive by at night, and it’s all lit up,” said the mayor. “People are living on the top two floors, and on the first two floors you see students in the chefs’ hats cooking and doing classes; there’s a lot of vibrancy on Race Street.”

Lights are coming on all over Holyoke, and for this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest examines how this has come about and why Holyoke is creating a buzz — in all kinds of ways.

Budding Ventures

As noted, this cannabis cluster is a solid work in progress, with GTI now approaching a full year in business and several other projects in various stages of development.

Conducting one of those ‘if-all-goes-well’ exercises, Morse said he can envision a cluster that generates perhaps 300 to 400 jobs and many types of businesses, from cultivation facilities to cannabis cafés like those in Amsterdam. If that picture comes to fruition, marijuana-related businesses would constitute economic development in many different ways, from jobs to tax dollars; from revving up the real-estate market (aspiring ventures have acquired options on a number of properties) to giving tourism a boost; from creation of support businesses to helping give Holyoke a new brand.

As Morse told CBS — and BusinessWest — cannabis has become an economic driver. And city officials have had a lot to do with this by being so aggressive, welcoming, and accommodating.

As one example, Morse and Marrero cited the host-community agreements that such businesses traditionally sign in order to set up shop. Some communities have been excessive in their requests (or demands), while Holyoke has taken a different tack.

“These agreements have become another choking point for the industry,” said Marrero. “Communities try to negotiate, they go back and forth, and hold you down for a bunch of criteria. We’ve been very transparent and said, ‘we’re going to go for the maximum allowable benefits for the community by law in terms of impact fee, and if you sign here, you have a host-community agreement; we don’t become an impediment in the process.”

Morse agreed. “There have been communities that have tried to go above the state law in terms of percentage of annual revenues or have tried to negotiate for various line items such as a new fire truck,” he explained. “They say, ‘in addition to the percentage, you need to give ‘X’ amount to this nonprofit every year.’ We have a standard document, so it’s not intimidating in that sense; the burden is really on the companies to get through the state regulatory process — the local process shouldn’t be an additional burden to bear.”

Holyoke’s willingness not to push for every dollar or every concession, on top of its many other selling points, including available mill space and lower utility costs, have certainly caught the attention of the cannabis industry.

“There is political openness and stability to the industry, which is very valuable,” said Marrero. “We were, if not the first, one of the first handful of communities that had a permissive ordinance in place, so we were first to market on the government side to say, ‘we’re open to this business.’

“They saw the mayor’s advocacy, and they saw that the operational costs would be lower, and that is very, very significant,” he went on. “The energy savings alone … you can save 40% on your energy costs.”

This attractive package has attracted a number of interested parties, said Marrero, noting that two additional cultivators, East Coast Farms and Solurge, are working their way through the permitting process. Overall, a total of 15 host-community agreements have been executed, and seven special permits have been issued. Within a year, it is expected that another two or three cultivation facilities could be doing business in the city, and other types of cannabis-related businesses as well.

And as the cluster grows, it gains momentum and recognition, which fuels additional opportunities. Marrero drew some comparisons to Detroit (the car industry) and Silicon Valley (IT).

“The industry has to train a workforce on how to grow these plants and clip these plants, and as that workforce develops locally, other companies know they can locate in Holyoke and they will have an accessible workforce,” he explained. “They will have access to other vendors that know how to provide services or provide goods to cannabis companies.”

Marcos Marrero

Marcos Marrero says a cannabis cluster is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Building Momentum

As noted earlier, though, cannabis is just one of many intriguing economic-development-themed stories being written in what is still called the Paper City.

Others include everything from the culinary arts center and the sum of the Cubit Building’s many parts to ongoing evolution of the Holyoke Mall — one of the city’s main draws and largest employers — in response to a changing retail landscape; from redevelopment of two municipal properties — the former Lynch Middle School and the Holyoke Geriatric Authority building — to entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building efforts that are bringing new businesses, and jobs, to the city.

At the mall, as stores large and small shrink or disappear from the landscape (longtime anchor Sears closed its Holyoke store a few months back) and those that remain operate with a smaller footprint, the facility is changing its look and adding more entertainment-related businesses, said Marrero.

These includes more restaurants, a bowling alley, and a planned movie-theater complex, he said, adding that, overall, the mall is responding proactively to a changing retail scene.

“They’ve been very resilient … retail is changing, and the mall is putting a much greater emphasis on entertainment and making it more of an experience rather than just shopping,” said the mayor. “Whether it’s the escape rooms or the kids’ center or the laser tag and bowling alley, it’s about creating experiences.”

Meanwhile, additional retail will be coming to the city with redevelopment of the former Lynch School, located just off I-91, by the Colvest Group. The property is slated for demolition later this year, and the expectation is that it will become home to several retail outlets.

Reuse of a different kind is slated for the Geriatric Authority property, which closed several years ago. Indeed, Baystate Health and US HealthVest have chosen the site for its planned 70,000-square-foot behavioral-health hospital.

Plans calls for 120 beds in a facility that would represent consolidation of some of the existing beds in the region and creation of new beds as well.

“This is a great story of reactivating a site that had once been a money pit for the city, one that was draining almost $1 million of taxpayer funds,” Morse said of the days when the Geriatric Authority was operating was site. “Overall, we have two large, city-owned properties that are being developed, and that represents real progress.”

There is progress on many different levels in the downtown area and especially the city’s Innovation District, the area around the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which opened in 2012.

On the municipal side, there will be several infrastructure projects undertaken in the area over the next several years, said Marrero, including street work, reconstruction of one of the canal bridges, and other initiatives.

Meanwhile, the city continues to add jobs and vibrancy organically through entrepreneurship-ecosytem-building initiatives such as SPARK, which recently joined forces with the Massachusetts-based program Entrepreneurship for All, or EforAll, to form SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

The new organization offers a number of programs, including a business accelerator, pitch contests, and co-working space currently being built out on High Street that will be available to program members.

Launched four years ago, SPARK has helped a number of ventures get off the ground or to the next stage, and most of them have settled in Holyoke, said Morse, adding that these startups, in addition to some others started organically, are bringing more vibrancy to the downtown.

He listed a catering venture, a salon now under construction, and a microbrewery on Race Street, among others.

“There are things that are happening organically, and I think these businesses are tapping into the momentum happening in the downtown and the ecosystem they feel here and the support they see,” said Morse. “They feel they can be viable here opening up a catering business or a salon or a brewery in downtown Holyoke.”

Marrero agreed. “We’re tilling our own soils, and stuff grows,” he said, referring to organic growth of the business community. “Every now and then, a business moves here, but a lot of this is organic.”

And these businesses are helping to fill more of those vacant or underutilized properties.

“We’re seeing this dynamic where more square footage is coming online,” said Marrero. “It’s being rehabilitated and filled by these businesses.”

As for the culinary arts center and the Cubit Building on the whole, it is bringing many different constituencies to the Innovation District area, adding to this vibrancy there. These include college students, their professors, those attending functions, and, yes, Morse himself, who has signed up for two night classes, one on how to make macaroons, the other involving a chiffon layer cake.

After those, he’ll be even better suited to answer the question, ‘what’s cooking in Holyoke?”

That’s a Wrap

As he was wrapping up his walk through the city with CBS, Morse told the reporter that it would be a good problem to have if the cannabis industry so embraced Holyoke that it found itself running out of commercial space for additional ventures.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon (1.5 million square feet is a considerable amount of inventory), but a cannabis cluster appears to be no longer a goal but a reality. How quickly and profoundly it develops remains to be seen, but Holyoke appears to be well on its way to having history repeat itself on a certain scale.

A name change probably isn’t in the cards — ‘Paper City’ will stick — but a new era in the city’s history is certainly underway.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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.

Mayor William Sapelli has developed a routine since he was sworn into office roughly 13 months ago.

Always early to the ‘office’ (he worked within the city’s school system for decades and wrapped up his career as superintendent), he arrives at City Hall at 7:30 a.m., giving him a solid hour of relative solitude to write some e-mails and clear some paperwork from his desk before other employees start to file in.

But his work day, if you will, actually starts at 7, when he stops in for breakfast at one of several eateries in town he frequents in something approaching a rotation.

“Mondays I’m usually at McDonald’s, mid-week it’s at Partners, and Fridays I’m at Giovanni’s,” he said, referring, with those latter references, to the restaurant on Springfield Street, known for its breakfast items and as a place where people come together, and the Italian pastry shop on Main Street that is also a gathering spot.

“There’s a crew of people that goes in there, and I think now they expect me because I’ve been doing it since I was first elected,” he said of Giovanni’s. “There are crews in each place, actually, especially McDonald’s; a number of seniors go in there. There’s 10 or 12 people, and we kibitz — it’s fun.

“I get beat up sometimes, but in a fun way — they give me good feedback; it goes back and forth. They bust me about taxes or roads or whatever,” he went on, adding that, with municipal elections coming up later this year, there is a new topic of discussion, although he hasn’t formally announced he will run again.

Overall, there is lots to talk about these days over eggs or French toast, especially the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge. Built in 1947, the span over the Westfield River links the city with West Springfield. It is a vital piece of infrastructure, major traffic artery, and entranceway to the Eastern States Exposition, and now it’s about five months into what will be a roughly three-year facelift and widening initiative that is projected to solve persistent bottlenecks in an important commercial area.

But this undoubtedly will be a long three years, the mayor acknowledged, adding that two lanes of the four-lane bridge are now closed, and it will be like this way probably until the calendar turns to 2022.

“There’s a crew of people that goes in there, and I think now they expect me because I’ve been doing it since I was first elected. There are crews in each place, actually, especially McDonald’s; a number of seniors go in there. There’s 10 or 12 people, and we kibitz — it’s fun.”

“It will be an inconvenience, but this work has to be done; it is what it is,” he said, putting Bill Belichick’s classic phrase to work while noting that the inconvenience extends beyond motorists and their daily commutes. Indeed, it will also impact businesses in the area just over the bridge, many of which are relative newcomers to Agawam (more on this later).

Beyond the bridge, other topics of conversation at breakfast include everything from storm drains — Agawam, like all other communities, is facing stiff mandates to update their systems — to streets and sidewalks, to schools and taxes.

The mayor recently took the conversation from the lunch counter to City Council chambers for his State of the City address, the first for this community since 2012. Recapping for BusinessWest, Sapelli said he told his constituents that there are challenges ahead, especially with the bridge, but also opportunities, especially within the broad realm of business and economic development.

Indeed, using two acronyms now probably quite familiar to those he’s sharing breakfast with — DIF (district improvement financing) and TIF (tax increment financing) — he said officials have been bringing new businesses to the city and allowing existing ones to stay and grow.

The DIF has been used to help bring new stores and more vibrancy to the Walnut Street retail area of the city, while the TIF, which is awarded to new or existing businesses willing to commit to adding additional jobs, has been used to enable Able Tool, formerly in the Agawam Industrial Park to build a new building on Silver Street and essentially double in size.

But economic development comes in many forms, he said, touting initiatives in the city’s schools aimed at both introducing students to careers and helping ease some of the region’s workforce challenges. These include the creation of an advanced-manufacturing program at Agawam High School and a heightened focus on making students aware of career options that might not involve a college education.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest caught up with the mayor after his breakfast ritual — and after answering all his e-mails — to get a progress report on one of the region’s smaller but more intriguing cities.

Attention Span

While the start of work on the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge has triggered a host of questions for those breakfast sessions over the past 13 months, it has actually removed one topic from conversation — at least temporarily.

Indeed, the former Games & Lanes property on Walnut Street Extension, long an eyesore and source of unending questions and speculation about potential future uses, before and after it was torn down, has become a staging area for the contractor hired for the bridge project, Palmer-based Northern Construction.

“It made perfect sense,” said Sapelli. “They needed a staging area — there are two of them, actually, with the back end of the Rocky’s [Hardware] parking lot being the other. And with the bridge being under construction and the limited traffic and the inconvenience, it would be very difficult for the owner the develop the property; as soon as the bridge is done, it will be much more marketable.”

But there are still plenty of other things to talk about, said the mayor, who was just settling into his new job when he last talked with BusinessWest. Not quite a year later, he feels more comfortable in the role and is already talking about the challenges of having to manage a city and run for office every other year (Agawam is one of the few cities in the region that have not moved to four-year terms for their mayors).

“Just two years ago, there were a lot of vacant storefronts. Now, slowly but surely, we’re filling those in. We still have a ways to go, but we’re making good progress.”

“I’m learning every day,” he said. “Being an educator, I know that’s a good thing. I never would profess that I have all the answers; I don’t. But every day, I’m learning something new about municipalities and how they operate; I’m learning every time something new comes up.”

Lately, he’s been learning quite a bit about bridge reconstruction and all the issues involved with it. The same goes for his counterpart in West Springfield, Will Reichelt. The two meet and converse often on the matter on the matter of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge in an effort to stay ahead of it and attempt to minimize the potential disruption.

As an example, he pointed to the jersey barriers now up on the bridge. They went up just a few weeks ago, but the initial plan was to erect them months ago, when it wasn’t actually necessary to do so.

“The original plan was to put them up in October, but I’ve seen too many construction jobs where they block them with these barriers and then no progress took place for months,” he explained. “So we said, ‘when you’re ready to block it, make sure you’re ready to do the work immediately and don’t waste people’s time and energy blocking it when nothing’s going to happen.’ And they listened.”

While day-to-day traffic will obviously be impacted by the bridge work, attention naturally shifts to those 17 days in September and October that comprise the Big E’s annual run. The two mayors are already in conversations with leadership at the Big E on ways to mitigate the traffic problems, said Sapelli, adding that shuttle buses are one option, and, in the meantime, electronic signs will likely be put out on I-91 and perhaps other highways to encourage Big E visitors to take alternative routes.

Getting Down to Business

As noted earlier, the phrase ‘economic development’ takes many forms, and in Agawam that means everything from zoning reforms to work on roads, sidewalks, and storm drains; from to efforts to raze blighted properties and commence redevelopment to ongoing work to bring new businesses to the city.

And Sapelli said there’s been recorded progress in all these realms and many others.

More than $2 million has been spent on streets and sidewalks — on both preventive maintenance and replacement — and another $900,000 was recently transferred from free cash to continue those efforts this spring, he noted, adding that 11 blighted properties — 10 homes and one business — have been razed, and another three homes are prepped for demolition, with 10 under renovation and more in the queue for receivership.

“This is a very involved process, and it’s takes time to take these properties down,” said Sapelli, adding that these investments in time and energy are well worth it to the neighborhoods involved.

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.92
Median Household Income: $49,390
Median family Income: $59,088
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England
* Latest information available

As for new businesses, the mayor listed several, including Taplin Yard Pump & Power, now occupying the former Allen Lawnmower property, JJ’s Ice Cream, and several other small businesses.

He noted that considerable progress has been made with filling vacancies in the many strip malls and shopping plazas that populate the city.

“Just two years ago, there were a lot of vacant storefronts,” he told BusinessWest. “Now, slowly but surely, we’re filling those in. We still have a ways to go, but we’re making good progress.”

As examples, he cited what’s considered Agawam Center, a lengthy stretch of Main Street, where several vacancies have been filled, and also the old Food Mart Plaza on Springfield Street, which is now essentially full.

District improvement financing has been key to these efforts, he said, adding that, with this program, taxes generated in a specific area — like Walnut Street and Walnut Street Extension) — from new businesses and higher valuations of existing businesses are put into a designated fund and used to initiate further improvements in that zone.

Many of these new businesses will no doubt be challenged in some ways by the bridge project, which will dissuade some from traveling into that retail area, said Sapelli, before again stressing that he and his administration, working with West Springfield leaders, will endeavor to minimize the impact.

Meanwhile, another avenue of economic development is education and workforce development, said Sapelli, noting that the School Department has been focusing a great deal of energy on non-college-bound students and careers in manufacturing and other trades.

“Superintendent [Steve] Lemanski and his staff are addressing the needs of those who will go on to careers, instead of going on the college,” he said, adding that the School Department is working in conjunction with the West of the River Chamber of Commerce on initiatives to introduce students to career options.

“A recent career day involving high-school and junior-high-school students featured 26 speakers,” he noted, adding that they represented sectors ranging from manufacturing to retail to law enforcement. “They’re doing a wonderful job to promote awareness of what offerings are out there besides just college, and that’s very important today.”

Food for Thought

As this spotlight piece makes clear, there is certainly plenty for those Sapelli is sharing breakfast with to kibitz about these days.

Between taxes, bridges, roads, sidewalks, and new businesses, there is plenty of material to chew on (pun intended).

Overall, there is considerable progress being made — and that includes Morgan-Sullivan Bridge itself — to make the city an attractive landing spot for businesses and a better place to live and work.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

The phrase ‘4/20-friendly’ has been around a while now.

April 20 las long been an international counterculture holiday of sorts, when people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. In recent years, it was also a day to call for legalization of the drug, and even more recently, as legalization spread, the term has morphed into a form of acceptance and, yes, business-friendliness when it comes to the many types of ventures within this industry.

Greenfield could now be considered 4/20-friendly, said M.J. Adams, the city’s director of Community Development and Economic Development, adding that there is already a medical marijuana dispensary, Patriot Care, located within the community, and it is poised to become a recreational dispensary next month. And there are many other parties expressing interest in establishing different forms of cannabis-related businesses within Franklin County’s largest community.

“Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight [cannabis] icenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

“We’ve had a lot of interest from people that want to grow and do recreational retail,” said Adams, noting that Greenfield’s efforts to build a cannabis cluster, if you will, are bolstered by its status as one of the 29 communities across the Commonwealth designated as “an area of disproportionate impact,” as defined by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.

Such communities — Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, West Springfield, and Pittsfield are among some of the others — have been deemed “disproportionately harmed by marijuana-law enforcement,” according the commission, and therefore, priority review is given to applicants who can meet several criteria involving these areas, including residency.

“We’re quite 4/20-friendly,” she went on, adding that this has become code for communities that are “pretty OK” when it comes to marijuana use. “Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight licenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

But cannabis and the prospect of more businesses in that intriguing industry is just one of positive forces shaping the picture in this community of 18,000 people.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Others include the opening of a long-awaited parking garage on the west end of downtown; the arrival of many new restaurants and clubs downtown, punctuated by the emergence of the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center as a force for attracting diverse audiences to Greenfield; emerging plans to expand the city’s industrial park amid heightened interest in space for manufacturing and warehouse ventures; some new ventures, including the conversion of a Roadway Inn into a 90-bed Marriott Grand Hotel and plans for UMassFive College Federal Credit Union to build a branch within the city; ongoing redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property; and perhaps some forward progress in efforts to forge a new life for the long-dormant First National Bank building on the stretch known as Bank Row.

Meanwhile, from the big-picture perspective, the broad economic-development strategy for the city involves making the community, and especially its downtown area, more of a destination for many constituencies, including tourists, entrepreneurs and small-business owners, and families.

That’s the assignment for the city, but also for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said its new executive director, Diana Szynal, who takes the reins in somewhat ironic fashion. Indeed, she succeeds Natalie Blais, who was recently sworn in as the state representative for the First Franklin District. Szynal, meanwhile, was the long-time district director for the late Peter Kocut, long-time state representative for the First Hampshire District, and was unsuccessful in her bid to win that seat last fall.

She inherits a chamber that will celebrate its centennial this year, and while a good deal of her time will obviously go toward marking that milestone, another priority will be helping to get the word out on all that Greenfield and Franklin County have to offer.

“One thing we have to do is spread the word about all the things that happen here and some of the opportunities that are here,” she said. “And Franklin County is a place that young people and young professionals just starting out and looking for a place to put down roots should consider; this is the perfect place for that.”

For this, the latest installment in our ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Greenfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

Getting Down to Business

Szynal told BusinessWest that she worked in downtown Greenfield a quarter-century ago, and that moving into the chamber’s office on Main Street is like coming home again.

“I just came from lunch at Taylor’s [Tavern] and was at Wilson’s [department store] recently,” she said, mentioning two mainstays in the downtown for decades and noting that there are many more that fit that category. “Downtown has many of the same businesses it had years ago; it hasn’t lost its charm — it has that same old feeling.”

But there are also many new ventures in the city that are giving it a somewhat new and different feeling as well, she said, especially in the broad realm of hospitality and entertainment.

“There’s Indian food, there’s Thai food, there’s some fabulous Mexican food,” she noted. “So in a way, it has that perfect balance; things you can count on like Wilson’s, combined with new places.”

Building upon this balance and creating an ever-more diverse mix of businesses in the downtown is one of the main strategic initiatives for the city, said both Szynal and Adams, adding that that there are many components to this assignment.

“There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

They include everything from efforts to bring high-speed broadband service to more neighborhoods within the community — a prerequisite for attracting many types of businesses — to formal and informal efforts to help spread the word about all this city and this region have to offer; from making the most of that “area of disproportionate impact” designation when it comes to cannabis to making the First National Bank building a fitting final piece to the puzzle that has been Bank Row.

Indeed, while significant progress has been made in rehabbing and repurposing the buildings along that stretch across from City Hall — the so-called Abercrombie building, now home to the Franklin County district attorney, being the latest — the former First National Bank remains a stern challenge, said Adams.

So much so that the city applied for, and received, a technical-assistance grant from MassDevelopment that will fund a consultant charged specifically with blueprinting a reuse plan for the structure.

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.36
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, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Built in 1929, the building has been essentially unoccupied for the better part of 40 years, said Adams, adding that the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority took ownership of the property in 2017 with the goal of determining the best reuse option.

“We’re waiting for the consultant that’s been assigned to us to come aboard, and we expect that to happen later this month, and have that individual work through this spring on a potential-reuse study of the building,” she said, adding that she expects this work to be completed by June. “We’re also spending some funding on some engineering to take a look at the building envelope — the structure, the fire-protection systems, and more — and then doing some preliminary cost estimates for getting a clean shell that can be developed.”

The project is important, she said, because the property has a prominent place in the city’s history and a prominent location as well. Its redevelopment could act as a catalyst for other investments and make the city more of a destination.

Speaking of catalysts, the cannabis industry could become one as well, Adams went on, adding that retail operations could help create still more vibrancy in the downtown, and the cultivation businesses could help fill various types of commercial properties, including old mill buildings.

Overall, the goal downtown, and just outside it, is to attract a diverse mix of businesses, said Adams, adding that, while there are have been some new arrivals, there are still many vacant storefronts in the central business district — more than city officials would prefer.

“We did an inventory about two years ago that looked at the properties downtown and especially the ground-floor retail spaces,” she noted. “There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

As for the chamber, as it celebrates its centennial, it will focus on a number of initiatives, including efforts to support and promote not only Greenfield but the entire county. One key to doing so is through collaboration with other entities involved in promoting business and economic development, said Szynal.

“There’s an active business association for Shelburne Falls, there’s one for Greenfield, Nortfield has a business association … there are several of these organizations,” she said. “One of my top priorities is to figure out how to work collaboratively to promote more business growth and keep our businesses strong county-wide.”

One challenge to overcome is enabling Greenfield, and the rest of the county, to shed its ‘best-kept secret’ status.

“We have some incredible outdoor recreation opportunities in Franklin County, and that’s something we’re looking to highlight in the coming year,” she said. “It’s a big part of the economy, and it can be even bigger; there are some people who don’t know that these opportunities are here in Franklin County and that you don’t have to drive far to experience them.”

Balancing Act

Reflecting upon her return to downtown Greenfield a quarter-century since she last worked there, Szynal said she is impressed by, and increasingly enamored with, its mix of old and new.

“To some extent, Greenfield is growing and changing, but it’s also staying true to its roots,” she explained. “There’s a familiar feeling as you walk down the street, but there is exciting change as well.”

Moving forward, the goal is to create … well, much more of that, and there has been considerable progress in that regard as well as the promise of more.

Some might result from being 4/20-friendly, as the saying goes, but the bulk of it will come from being plain old business-friendly and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that develop.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz say Amherst benefits in many ways from its reputation as an academic hub.

Amherst is a community in transition, Paul Bockelman says — in some positive ways.

The most notable change, obviously, was the seating of Amherst’s first Town Council last month; 13 members were elected following a change in the town charter last March that included a move away from the town-meeting form of government.

“Some people who advocated for the charter change felt the representative town meeting wasn’t fully representative of the town and wasn’t nimble enough to address the issues that were facing the town on a daily basis,” said Bockelman, Amherst’s town manager. Other people, he added, were angry after the town meeting failed to fund a new school building.

Either way, he went on, “they’re building a government from scratch. Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting. A lot of issues were put on hold during the transition period. Now that the council’s in place, there’s this backlog of things people want them to do, so those will start pouring through the system during the course of the year.”

But that’s not the only way Amherst is changing, said Geoff Kravitz, the town’s Economic Development director. He cited activity in the restaurant scene, which has welcomed a number of new names, including Asian eateries Chuan Jiao and Kaiju, Jake’s at the Mill in North Amherst, Share Amherst, and Shiru Café, an intriguing coffee shop and study space that offers free coffee to area students in exchange for their personal information, which is sold to job recruiters and advertisers.

“Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting.”

“For college students, it’s an interesting model where they get a cup of coffee every hour,” Bockelman said. “It’s really designed for college students to hang out and do their homework, and the only requirement is that you give them some data that you otherwise would give to Facebook or Twitter.”

“It’s not just for marketing,” Kravitz added, “but for recruiting for jobs out of college. Recruiting is really the model.”

Other restaurants are on their way as well, he added, and vacant properties, especially downtown, don’t remain unfilled for long.

“It’s not a stagnant town; it’s a town of transitions, and not just because we have a new form of government,” Bockelman added. “It seems that every time a restaurant moves out, a new restaurant comes in.”

Building on Progress

There’s plenty more activity on the development front as well. In September, Archipelago Investments, LLC of Amherst opened One East Pleasant, a mixed-use project featuring 135 residential units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

“That whole complex rented up very quickly and is full,” Bockelman said, noting that Archipelago has developed a handful of other properties in Amherst, and is planning another mixed-use project at 26 Spring St., which will feature 38 residential units and 1,000 square feet of commercial space.

Meanwhile, W.D. Cowls Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Communities are moving forward with North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use development under construction in North Amherst, which will feature 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space.

Amherst is also among the Western Mass. communities enthusiastically exploring the marijuana industry as an economic driver. That’s not surprising, considering the town’s voters favored the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana by a 3-to-1 margin. RISE Amherst, a medical-marijuana dispensary, is currently in operation, with three other businesses working their way through the local and state licensing process.

With 33,000 students attending UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town has also worked on educational efforts around adult-use marijuana, and has also passed a number of marijuana-related regulations, including a 3% local-option sales tax, a ban on public consumption, and capping at eight the number of recreational-marijuana establishments in town.

From a municipal perspective, the town has long been studying the potential renovation of the North Common/Main Street parking lot, Kravitz noted.

“There’s been a parking lot in front of Town Hall since at least the ’70s, if not earlier, and we’re trying to redesign it from both a drainage and ecological perspective,” he explained. “It’s sort of sloped oddly, so when it rains, all the rain coming off the streets washes it out; that was the primary purpose of looking at it.”

What to do with the space will be one of the Town Council’s issues to tackle in 2019, Bockelman added. “The biggest question coming up relatively soon to the Town Council will be, do you want to work on this project or leave it as is?”

Meanwhile, the overall vision for Amherst has long involved arts and culture. The Amherst Central Cultural District aims to leverage the offerings of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jones Library, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Museum at Hampshire College, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and other cultural institutions, and some of those efforts bleed into the downtown area as events, such as ArtWeek, a statewide effort taking place from April 26 to May 5.

Amherst at a Glance:

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“We want to create more excitement about being downtown,” Bockelman said. “Downtowns today are less about retail, brick-and-mortar shops and more about entertainment and cultural events. Some of them can be sponsored by the town, but a lot of them come from individuals.”

Many of Amherst’s museums and cultural institutions have statewide, even national reputations, and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College are two of fewer than two dozen ‘living buildings’ worldwide — structures that meet strict standards for hyper-sustainability and net-zero energy use.

All these factors, plus the colleges and UMass, create a buzz and energy that attracts both new businesses and families to Amherst, Kravitz said.

“From a business perspective, there are very few communities of our size that boast three institutions of higher education,” he told BusinessWest. “I think that we have an incredibly educated population. People want to be around other people who have big ideas, so I think that’s part of the draw for some of the businesses — to be around other smart people. You saw that happening in Boston and Cambridge, you saw it happen in Silicon Valley, and I think that all starts with the academic institutions, whether it’s Stanford or MIT or UMass here.”

It’s Academic

The recent mixed-use developments are a welcome start to meeting housing needs in a growing town, as there hasn’t been much residential development over the previous couple of decades. In fact, a 2015 study determined that Amherst could use some 4,000 more units.

Still, Bockelman said, “I think it really is a place where people want to come to raise their family, for lots of different reasons.”

Last week, he met with a man who teaches two days a week in Washington, D.C. “He says he can leave his house at 6:15 in the morning, be in Washington by 10, and stays overnight. When he comes back, he takes the 5:00 and is back home at 8 to put his kid to bed. He chose to live in Amherst because he wanted a multi-cultural community with people who care about education, with excellent schools and an academic environment, and he found all that, plus easy access to open space. So he’s willing to make that weekly commute from Bradley. That’s kind of amazing to hear.”

That’s why it’s heartening, he added, to see how UMass Amherst has raised its profile in recent years as an internationally recognized research institution.

“It’s a big economic engine; thousands of people come in every day to work there,” he said. “Amherst is the largest community in Hampshire County, but it doesn’t read that way because it doesn’t look like Northampton, like a city. And in terms of our population, some people say the students are inflating that, but they’re here eight to nine months a year. And what that number does not count is the number of people who come into town every day because they’re employed by the two colleges or the university.”

In short, he concluded, “it’s a very vibrant community, even though it retains a certain college-town atmosphere that so many people love about it.”

That characteristic is one he and Kravitz both expect to remain steady, no matter what other transitions Amherst has in store.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Nicholas O’Connor says recent projects have created considerable momentum in Belchertown, “like a snowball rolling down a hill.”

Nicholas O’Connor says recent projects have created considerable momentum in Belchertown, “like a snowball rolling down a hill.”

Nicholas O’Connor says there’s a generational split in Belchertown when it comes to new amenities and development in general — but that line has become increasingly blurry.

“There’s the old guard who don’t want anything to change; they want it to be a bedroom community, and they still lament the fact that we have a Stop & Shop and a Family Dollar. There’s no changing their minds, and I get that,” said O’Connor, who chairs the town’s Board of Selectmen.

“But by the same token,” he went on, “we can’t sustain the services that we provide in a town this size, with the great schools we have, without revenue, and 93% of our revenue comes through taxation. We don’t have a big business base — so, in order to have more, you need to generate more.”

And ‘more’ is a good word to describe economic activity in town, particularly along the section of Route 202 running from the town common past the Route 21 intersection to the Eastern Hampshire District Courthouse, a mile-long stretch that has become a hub of development, from a 4,500-square-foot Pride station currently under construction to a 4,000-square-foot financial center for Alden Credit Union; from Christopher Heights, an assisted-living complex that recently opened on the former grounds of the Belchertown State School, to a planned disc-golf course.

These projects, balancing town officials’ desire for more business and recreation, have been well-received, O’Connor said.

“Even among the old guard, I sense a split. There’s a large community of longtime Belchertown residents who are yearning for these things that are finally happening. I think it’s a minority of people who wish Belchertown would be like it was in 1970. That dynamic has shifted a bit.”

That said, it takes plenty of planning to build momentum for projects — not to mention state and town funding and approvals at town meetings — but he sees the dominos falling.

“We don’t have a big business base — so, in order to have more, you need to generate more.”

“With a lot of the ideas we’ve had over the past few years, shovels are finally hitting the ground. We’re really in a year when things are starting to progress.”

The 83-unit Christopher Heights has been a notable success, growing its resident list every month and exceeding its forecasts, O’Connor noted. Nearby, Belchertown Day School and Arcpoint Brewing, a veteran-owned business run by a couple of Belchertown locals, both plan to break ground on new facilities in the spring.

At the same time, Chapter 90 money came through for the renovation of that key stretch of Route 202, a project that will include new road signaling, crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes, making the area more pedestian- and bicycle-friendly. Meanwhile, Pride owner Bob Bolduc will put in a sidewalk and a pull-in as part of his new building, which will accommodate a new PVTA stop.

“People will be getting out in front of his store, and that’s a win-win for everybody,” O’Connor said. “That whole road project will certainly change things from the common down the hill, all the way to the courthouse.”

The Great Outdoors

Belchertown has plenty of potential to expand its recreational offerings, O’Connor told BusinessWest. For example, a town meeting recently appropriated funds to create an 18-hole disc-golf course in the Piper Farm Recreation Area.

Belchertown at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 14,838
Area: 52.64 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.19
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.19
Median Household Income: $52,467
Median Family Income: $60,830
Type of government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Hulmes Transportation Services; Town of Belchertown/School Department; Super Stop & Shop

O’Connor said disc golf has been rapidly gaining in popularity. “We’ll be clearing in the spring, breaking ground, and hoping to be throwing discs by the fall. There’s been interest growing in town, which is good because we’re going to need public effort for the clearing. I think a lot of that’s going to be done by community members and volunteers.”

He envisions the course as another piece in a day-long outing families could have in that area of Belchertown, with attractions ranging from baseball at the town’s mini-Fenway Park to Jessica’s Boundless Playground, to a 1.3-mile walking trail behind the police station that circles Lake Wallace. Meanwhile, state Sen. Eric Lesser was instrumental in securing money to tear down some tennis courts and build a splash park.

O’Connor would also like to see ValleyBike Share make inroads into Belchertown, and he wants to revisit discussion around expansion of a regional rail trail through town.

“A lot of people in town have tried these things before. The rail trail got voted down years ago,” he said. “Belchertown hasn’t always been ready for this type of progress, but we’ve had a large influx of younger families over the past 10 years or so, and different people standing up in positions of leadership. Just in the last four years, we have a new chief of police, a new Recreation director, a new Conservation administrator, a new senior-center coordinator. Not that the leadership before wasn’t doing the job, but I see new folks stepping up, and new ideas and new interests coming to the fore. That’s not a comment on the past, but it’s progress.”

And progress takes time, O’Connor said, noting that roadwork plans for 202 have been in flux for years, while Bolduc owned the future Pride site for a long time with no shovels in the ground until the assisted-living complex and other developments began to come online.

“It takes one project, and everybody starts going, ‘oh, there might be something there,’” he said. “The governor has been out here, and we’ve seen a lot of the lieutenant governor the last couple of years. Once you start brick and mortaring, now you get money for roads, you’re awarded more money for cleanup, and people really get on board. The momentum becomes attractive, like a snowball rolling down a hill. Nobody wants to go it alone, but then they see all these ancillary businesses, and it really starts to come together.”

What’s the Attraction?

To O’Connor, it’s not hard to see why businesses would want to set up shop in Belchertown. There’s the single, low property-tax rate, for starters, the well-regarded schools, and a widening flow of road projects aimed at making the town easier to navigate.

But not simply pass through, he added.

“I grew up in Amherst, and my dad lived in Wales while I was growing up, so I drove through his stretch every weekend. Then I went to UMass, and I saw them build all the hotels on Route 9,” he recalled.

“Now, I certainly don’t want to be Hadley — we want to keep our business within the character of the town; no one’s interested in a dynamic change to the town. But I thought to myself, a lot of these parents are driving home to Boston after parents’ weekend — maybe they don’t have to stay on Route 9; maybe they can stay here and take a walk on the Quabbin and hit an antique store and whatever else gets developed. I think there’s a lot to be said for us being a main thoroughfare between Boston and Western Massachusetts. Everybody gets off exit 7 and 8 to drive through here. We see a lot of cars, and it would be nice to get them to stop.”

Of course, for business owners, a lot of cars is a good thing, and the impending development of sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus routes will continue to drive traffic into what has really become the heart of activity in Belchertown.

“We love our town common, but in terms of a business center, an economic center, that’s moving down the hill. And a lot of the businesses there will benefit from the infrastructure upgrades.”

O’Connor told BusinessWest he can envision a future where Belchertown can be both the scenic, classic New England town of the past and a bustling destination. Illustrating that picture for other people can be a challenge, but he keeps trying.

“We need patience to get these things moving,” he said. “There’s definitely investment that needs to be made by business owners — not just in money, but in belief.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Joseph Deedy (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick strikes a healthy balance between economic growth and outdoor attractions.

Joseph Deedy (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick strikes a healthy balance between economic growth and outdoor attractions.

A 250th anniversary celebration, Karl Stinehart says, is an opportunity in many ways for a town like Southwick.

“It’s tourism, it’s economic development, but it’s also history — people asking, ‘where do I live, and how do I value that? What is the history of my community?’” said Stinehart, the town’s chief administrative officer. “It was once known for its agricultural base and its ice houses. Now, the branding in town is more related to recreational opportunities.”

Southwick officials and volunteers have been meeting to plan a yearlong slate of anniversary events throughout 2019, securing a $25,000 state grant, with the help of state Sen. Don Humason and state Rep. Nicholas Boldyga, to plan activities, market events, and purchase street banners and commemorative merchandise, among other earmarks.

“We have a very active main committee that is being chaired by Jim Putnam, the town moderator,” Stinehart said. “They have a series of subworking groups working on different facets, and we’ve been reaching out to all the businesses to see how they want to participate and to what extent, whether it’s donating money or being involved with a float or an event or program.”

There’s plenty to celebrate as the anniversary approaches, Stinehart said, from recreational offerings — like boating on the Congamond Lakes, motocross events at the Wick 338, and town events at the 66-acre Whalley Park — to growth on the residential front, particularly two large developments.

Specifically, work continues on 26 homes at the new Noble Steed subdivision off Vining Hill Road, with 12 of those units already sold. Meanwhile, Fiore Realty is developing 65 to 70 homes at the former Southwick Country Club site, with 16 of the 23 sites on the west side of the property already sold; another 45 or so will later go up on the east side.

“It sounds like it’s full steam ahead over there,” said Joseph Deedy, who chairs Southwick’s Select Board.

As important as residential expansion is, Stinehart added, it’s as important to develop the main economic corridor in town, which runs along College Highway. “We want to balance any residential development with economic and business development.”

For instance, Deedy said, a new O’Reilly Auto Parts store is expected to open in February. “What’s nice about those folks is they actually purchased the property, so it’s not another leaseholder where it could be vacant in two years and sits for 10. They have a stake in the community, which is nice to see.”

The town also recently executed PILOT (payment in leiu of taxes) agreements with two solar farms on Goose Pond, off Congamond Road, Deedy added, noting that they will provide fiscal benefits to the town in an unobtrusive way. “These are landlocked parcels, so it’s not something people are going to see and be inconvenienced by.”

Ramping Up the Fun

What Southwick officials do want people — residents and visitors alike — to see is the array of recreational opportunities that have made this town of fewer than 10,000 residents a destination for tens of thousands of others.

For starters, outdoors enthusiasts enjoy the Metacomet/Monadnock Trail, as well as a 6.5-mile-long linear park, or rail trail, that runs through town from the Westfield border to the Suffield border. And the town’s two golf courses, Edgewood and the Ranch — not to mention the par-3 track at Longhi’s, near the Feeding Hills line — are doing well following the closure of Southwick Country Club, Deedy said.

Meanwhile, the lakes on the south side of town — featuring two boat ramps, a fishing pier, and a town beach — provide plenty of activity for residents. A $275,000 project recently renovated the south boat ramp on Berkshire Avenue, making it more modern and handicap-accessible, and the beachfront was recently renovated as well.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.47
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.47
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

Stinehart said the lakes and their environs are an important aspect of Southwick’s outdoor culture and worthy of investment, being, among other things, a major destination for freshwater fishing tournaments.

“Anytime you come by at 5 a.m., they’re out there,” Deedy added.

Then there’s the Wick 338, the motocross track behind the American Legion, which abuts the Southwick Recreation Center and Whalley Park. The complex hosts the annual Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship — which is broadcast live on NBC and draws some 15,000 to 18,000 people to town — as well about 25 other races throughout the year and a host of other events, including Rugged Maniac New England, a challenging, mud-splattered 5K obstacle course. That continual flow of visitors to town benefits a host of other businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, Stinehart noted.

As for Whalley Park itself — which was donated to the town by the prominent Whalley family and developed using municipal and Community Preservation Act funds — it includes a full-size soccer field, baseball field, and softball field, lighting for the fields, a huge kids’ play area, and a pavilion. Deedy said the town recently put up more lights and is looking to expand its roster of tournaments and other bookings.

“It’s getting recognized as a destination for leagues,” Stinehart added, adding that the Rotary presented a series of concerts there last summer, and the town is looking to present other types of shows that would be popular community draws. “It’s getting quite a diverse number of groups. It’s between the rec center and the school complex — that’s a great collection of parcels with different uses.”

Southwick has kept busy with needed infrastructure efforts as well, including a current project to improve the roadway and drainage on Congamond Road — a key entry into town from Connecticut — aided by more than $4 million in state funds. That follows a similar project that wrapped up last year on Feeding Hills Road.

“They’re adding sidewalks, a bike lane, and it will help connectivity to the rail trail and the lakes,” Stinehart said. “Those areas will be able to come right out to the Gillette’s Corner economic area. So some of these projects are about connecting and having access to places. Any place we have a recreational area, we want to be able to connect it to a commercial area.”

The town also tapped $500,000 from the state’s small-bridges program, while leveraging some local funds, to replace the Shurtleff Brook culvert on North Loomis Street, near the Westfield line, Deedy said, noting that all cities and towns could use more such assistance.

“Every single community has certain common denominators, and those are culverts and bridges and roads — and the need for additional money.”

“Every single community has certain common denominators, and those are culverts and bridges and roads — and the need for additional money,” Stinehart added.

Ongoing efforts to preserve open space nearby are also gaining ground, as the town continues to raise money toward the acquisition of a 144-acre parcel on North Pond at Congamond Lakes. The Mass. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife awarded Southwick money to help purchase it, and the Franklin Land Trust has embarked on a fund-raising effort to make up the difference in price. The parcel is abutted by two areas owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of Connecticut.

Why Southwick?

Overall, Deedy noted, the town offers plenty of incentives for businesses, ranging from proximity to Bradley International Airport to a singular tax rate of $17.47 for residential and commercial properties, as well as modern schools — the complex on Feeding Hills Road that houses Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and Southwick Regional High School underwent significant additions and renovations in recent years — that have the space to accommodate Southwick’s developing neighborhoods.

Not to mention a leadership culture in town that promotes volunteerism opportunities and open communication, Deedy added.

“If you do have a problem, most of the leaders have a business, and you can walk right in. It happens daily. I don’t think anyone here has a closed-door policy,” he said. “A lot of times, most of the complaints people have are a phone call away to fix. It’s all about communication.”

These days, with the 250th anniversary coming up and continued progress on the residential, business, and recreational fronts, there are plenty of positives to communicate in this small but active community.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress on higher-profile developments, like the health complex at the Longmeadow line and a possible mixed-use project on Chestnut Street.

Denise Menard has witnessed plenty of growth in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall since becoming the community’s first town manager two years ago, from the creation of a seven-member Town Council to the creation of a Human Resources department, a new director of Finance and director of Planning and Community Development, and the establishment of a Board of Health overseen by a full-time director.

But she says the most important change in the city offices may be the ease with which new businesses to town can navigate the permitting process.

“I see myself as a business manager for the town — a business manager that has the authority to make the kinds of decisions that need to be made to streamline the process,” she said. “Just being here day to day, helping implement the priorities of the council and all these other things, is a real a plus for the community. And in the last two years, we’ve seen a lot.”

Take, for instance, the 18,000-square-foot medical office building at 250 North Main St. constructed by Associated Builders last year for Baystate Dental Group. The dental office occupies the first floor, and the second floor is being rented for medical and office space.

“That’s a great credit to the community; they just wanted to locate in East Longmeadow,” Menard said. “We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

Another, more complex project in the health realm is a joint venture with the town of Longmeadow — a medical complex that will add to East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center at 305 Maple St., cross town lines, and provide benefits to both communities.

“We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

The project includes four structures on a 20-acre site: a 50,000-square-foot medical office building in Longmeadow that will be occupied by Baystate Health; a two-story, 25,000-square-foot office building in East Longmeadow; and an assisted-living facility and expansion of an existing skilled-nursing facility run by Berkshire Health.

“It’s really moving along,” she said, adding that the buildings on the East Longmeadow side should be up by the spring. Meanwhile, the two towns have worked together to improve road infrastructure at the site. The project encompasses three intersections on Dwight Road — two in Longmeadow and one in East Longmeadow. Longmeadow is managing the road improvements, and East Longmeadow is receiving contributions from the nursing-home developer, which will pass through to Longmeadow to offset the cost of the street improvements.

“The road improvements have been painful to say the least, but it will be such a great improvement at the end of the day,” Menard said. “It’s so nice to have a joint venture with Longmeadow, and both sides are going to win with that. Longmeadow and I are good neighbors. The two town managers really work well together.”

Major projects like these are complemented by a number of other developments in town, a trend she says was boosted by the town’s change in government two years ago.

“I’ve had developers come in and say, ‘we waited because we wanted to see what the new charter was going to be like before we decided to come to East Longmeadow,’” she recalled. “So there was a change in the philosophy of people looking in from the outside, as to what they would like to see here, and I think they’re happy with what they see now with the new government.”

Setting Down Roots

Menard said East Longmeadow has a decent stock of developable land.

“We have industrial space, and we also have agricultural land, and we’re wondering what’s going to happen with that because farming is getting more difficult. But we want to be agriculture-friendly and hope to continue down that path.”

The new director of Planning and Community Development, Constance Brawders, has been taking the land stock into consideration as part of a master plan that’s in the early stages, Menard added.

“That master plan will focus on what residents here want,” she explained, adding that a series of public forums will focus on topics like recreation, traffic, and what kind of land-use mix residents want, balancing residential neighborhoods with the need for commercial and industrial investment.

East Longmeadow
at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 15,720
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.94
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.94
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Cartamundi; Lenox; Redstone Rehab & Nursing Center; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation
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“It will take a little while, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time,” she told BusinessWest. “So it’s time for us to take a snapshot of today and see what we want to look like in the future.”

It’s healthy to conduct such an exercise because society changes a lot over the years, and that affects how businesses operate and how towns cater to their needs.

“Think about the changes in the world just in the past 20 years. There are huge differences,” she said. “The big businesses that required a lot of space because they needed a lot of employees — now maybe they don’t need so many on site because a lot of them can work from home. My son works from home, and he’s part of a huge organization; they don’t require the footprint they used to.

“So a lot of things have changed since we’ve updated our plan,” she went on, “and it’ll be time to just address what we have now and what the current businesses and residents and everybody that has anything to do with East Longmeadow wants, so we can move forward. That’s really exciting.”

Some projects in the works have the potential to create vibrancy in town, such as an ongoing plan to create a mixed-use development at 330 Chestnut St., in the former Package Machinery building. The project would include commercial, retail, and possibly office space in the front part of the building, and above will be some residential apartments or condominiums.

The applicant for that project, MM Realty Partners, withdrew the proposal last winter, but they are now moving forward. The exact nature of the project is still being hammered out, but Menard says mixed use is a promising model for the site, due to the energy and foot traffic it would create.

“That’s the interesting part about it, but we’ve got to make sure it’s the right fit in the right spot for East Longmeadow,” she noted. “It certainly is an interesting concept.”

Other projects have come on line recently, including a gas station and 6,500-square-foot convenience store at 227 Shaker Road, a lot that had been empty for many years. That development was delayed when Atlantis Management Group bought out the property, but after a second round of permitting and approvals, construction went forward and was completed this year.

“The whole change in ownership delayed them applying for the permits they needed to bring it all together,” she added, “but now that’s on board, and they’re always busy.”

Attractive Mix

Part of what makes East Longmeadow attractive, Menard said, is a healthy mix of properties of all kinds, both residential and commercial.

“We have some very high-end housing, but we have some very moderate housing as well,” she noted. “We have a great Recreation Department, and our schools have a great reputation.”

Residents and businesses also appreciate that the town is conservative when it comes to taxation and spending, she added.

“Businesses see that our tax rate isn’t fluctuating up and down; it is really just gradually going to a level of what we need to address the needs of the community. And it’s a community that people are saying they want their children to grow up in. They want to own houses here.”

Employers feel the same way, she added. “In fact, we had a business come in — he was going to be leasing from somebody in East Longmeadow — and he said, ‘I want to come here because my staff, my workers, would be able to live in a nice community with good amenities and good community spirit.’”

Maintaining that culture takes planning, of course, and the woman who sees herself as a business manager is pleased that those plans will be carefully crafted — and hopefully implemented — in the coming years.

“This is a moving, growing community, to be sure,” Menard said. “We have a lot going for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]