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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
* Latest information available

“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]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Folks in Western Mass. know they’re often dismissed by residents out east, Lisa Stowe says. So how does a city like Westfield make its case as a vibrant destination for a business looking to plant roots?

By working together.

That’s exactly what a handful of partners — municipal leaders, Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank — have done by launching Go Westfield, a still-evolving engine to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“We worked on this for six or eight months,” said Stowe, marketing and communications specialist for WG+E. “We want to use this opportunity to highlight what makes Westfield unique and a good place to do business. So many people think Massachusetts stops at 495, but there are a lot of things that are not so great about living in that part of the state — cost of living, high traffic, the cost of buying a piece of land. We wanted to draw attention to the things that make Westfield really attractive for people who are looking to relocate.”

The partners in Go Westfield had been doing that, to varying degrees, in their own ways, she added, but a focused partnership allows them to broadcast the message more efficiently.

“If you’re a site selector, we check a lot of boxes,” Stowe said, citing not only the city’s access to Mass Pike, an airport, and rail service, but its strong inventory of developable land — not to mention the municipal utility.

“If you’re a commercial customer, you pay 18% less than the state average for electricity, and 13% lower for gas rates than the state average,” she added. “If you’re an organization doing manufacturing, that’s significant. We feel that’s a good piece of the story to tell.”

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it. It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?”

So is Whip City Fiber, a division of WG+E that now reaches 70% of residences and businesses with high-speed internet. “The fiber project is a big deal,” she said, noting that customers like not only the speed, but the fact that service comes from a local company, not a national behemoth. “We’ve easily met the targets we had set in the business plan.”

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said early meetings with the Go Westfield partners focused on how to promote the economic-development landscape in Westfield.

“We wanted a way to really persuade businesses to come to Westfield,” she told BusinessWest. “There are the usual assets everyone knows, like the turnpike exchange, airport, and rail, but we wanted to get a group of stakeholders together and come up with a marketing plan for all of it. We’re very excited about this initiative. There’s a local component to it, but the bigger initiative is a push outside the region to get companies to look at Westfield for commercial developments.”

The group has been discussing marketing strategies as well as ideas like industry-specific focus groups.

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it,” she said. “It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?

Westfield also boasts strong schools, a state university, and proximity to numerous other colleges, she added, as well as a chamber of commerce that continually strives to keep businesses informed of state and national trends and developments that could affect them.

In short, the Whip City has a lot going for it, and Go Westfield is just starting to broadcast that message far and wide.

Heart of the City

Meanwhile, the Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, focuses on revitalizing 4.88 acres in a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. The city has also directed funding to revitalize the so-called Gaslight District adjacent to it.

One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017. The transit center was designed to both catalyze related economic development and increase the use of public transportation. The state-of-the-art center includes parking space for four buses with bicycle racks, as well as a bicycle-repair station, which speaks to the proximity of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail only a block away.

The Westfield Redevelopment Authority also 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 city recently issued a request for proposals for the project, taking advantage of the area’s designation as an ‘opportunity zone,’ a state program that provides tax relief for people willing to invest in certain neighborhoods in need of economic development.

“The PVTA project was the first phase of renewal,” said Peter Miller, Westfield’s director of Community Development. “We’re looking for private development to get some mixed-use retail space on the ground floor, and residential space on the top floors.”

Joe Mitchell, the city Advancement officer, noted that Millennials in particular are drawn to urban, mixed-use living, one reason why such projects have popped up around the region in recent years.

“A three-bedroom house and a white picket fence on a half-acre is not what young people are looking for,” he said. “They want a coffee shop downstairs and a bike rack, and being part of a tight-knit community where there’s activity going on right at their doorstep.”

Another $25,000 in state money will soon fund a wayfinding project for downtown, not just to point visitors to destinations off the main thoroughfare but to help them access parking as well. “We have sufficient parking in our downtown, but people don’t always know where it is,” Miller said. “This infusion of money from the state will allow us to better direct people to where the parking is.”

Phelon noted that the city recently switched all on-street parking, which had been a mix of one-hour and two-hour time limits, to two hours across the board — a small change, maybe, but a good example of how quality-of-life issues can be communicated and remedied across departments.

The momentum downtown has spurred some organic growth, too, Mitchell added, noting that Myers Information Systems is relocating there from Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it.

“They’re moving from an urban, walkable space they’ve outgrown in Northampton to buying one of our old buildings and investing private dollars here,” he added. “It was an extremely underutilized building, and they’re converting it into modern office space. They have a real vision for it.”

He doesn’t think Myers will be the last to make that move. “One of the reasons to relocate to Westfield is that we’re at the cusp of something, and people want to be a part of it.”

Back to School

Phelon says Westfield has accomplished more in recent years because of its culture of collaboration. One example is the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent.

At a time when the state is looking for public schools to forge more meaningful pathways to economic development, she added, the alliance puts the Whip City at the forefront of an important trend.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $36.82
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State College, Baystate Noble Hospital, Savage Arms Inc., Mestek Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

She said the next phase could be an adopt-a-classroom program in which area businesses could engage repeatedly with a teacher and his or her students. “I also think we need to get students and teachers into the business world on a regular basis. The work environment is changing so rapidly, with technology and robotics and social media.”

Because of this, she went on, it would benefit teachers to see what employees at area companies do on a day-to-day basis, and how. “That’s what they need to be teaching, so they need to see that.”

The Westfield Education to Business Alliance also facilitates a career fair at Westfield High School that gives students exposure to the types of career opportunities available at local companies — and, more important, what skill sets they will need to take advantage of them.

The goal of the next career fair will be to attract 75 companies, up from 51 last time, to interact with the 500 or so students who show up.

“It’s not a job fair; it’s a career fair,” Phelon stressed. “The message is twofold: for students to see what companies are here, and see that they can go away to college and come back here and get good jobs. It’s also good for these students to talk to these employees about their hiring practices, what degree do I need, should I expect a drug test or a CORI check, what are your procedures. And they could talk to students about internships and co-ops.”

The alliance one of many examples of how Westfield continues to bring people and organizations together to raise the fortunes of all.

“The mayor [Brian Sullivan] has been very supportive of these collaborations,” Miller said. “He made building bridges his theme. That’s how we’ll get the most out of the assets we have — not by operating in silos.”

Phelon agreed. “We have our individual purposes and missions, but there’s a bigger picture of working together and collaborating. It’s such a great city, and we’re fortunate to have the assets we have.”

Now it’s time to let everyone know it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enfield at a Glance

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

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

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

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

Moving In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location, Location, Location

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight: Wilbraham

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open for Business

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

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

Wilbraham at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Know You

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]