Home Posts tagged Community Spotlight
Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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

It was the food that brought Cynthia West to Easthampton.

Well, sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting On Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scoring Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

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

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

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

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

Right Place, Right Time

Indeed they are.

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

As is being called the ‘new Northampton.’

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxing Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Right Along

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

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

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.09
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.09
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Good Place’

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming Party

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

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

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

Westfield at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept

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

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

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

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

Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ale’s Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
residential tax rate: $16.96
commercial tax rate: $32.55
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

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

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

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

Forward Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location, Location, Location

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y
* Latest information available

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

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

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

Projects and Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powering an Economy

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jennifer Tabakin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting with the Times

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

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

Great Barrington at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing Commitment

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

GTI’s cultivation facility in Holyoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holyoke at a Glance

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

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

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

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

Mayor Alex Morse

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

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

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

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

Budding Ventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcos Marrero

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

Building Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a Wrap

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is making progress on many economic-development fronts, from filling vacant storefronts to zoning reform to workforce-development initiatives in its schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention Span

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Down to Business

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

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

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

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

Agawam at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Thought

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Down to Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.36
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balancing Act

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building on Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amherst at a Glance:

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Academic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]