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Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s priorities have included housing, business development, infrastructure, schools, and the emerging cannabis sector.

 

 

When people ask Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle to list her priorities for the city, her answer is always, “housing, housing, housing, and housing.”

And there’s a reason for that — actually, several of them, which LaChapelle summed up in this poignant way: “Easthampton is the cool-kid city.”

By that, she meant that this former mill town has become a destination for businesses, but also a very desirable place to live because of its arts, culture, attractive neighborhoods, and recreational spaces. That mix has created a need for housing — a major need.

“If we don’t put a huge focus on housing, and if we don’t get housing units done by 2025, our city will be in trouble,” said the mayor, adding that her administration has, indeed, focused significantly on this issue, and it has yielded results, such as the One Ferry project, an initiative that is creating not only new housing but retail and office space as well.

Several old mill buildings on Ferry Street are undergoing a massive effort converting the former factories there to condominiums and rental housing, as well as some retail and office space.

So far, the renovation work has focused on three buildings: 3 Ferry St. was finished in 2020, and it is now fully occupied with residents and several businesses. Meanwhile, 5 Ferry St. consists mainly of apartments with condominiums on the top floor; it is expected to open later this year.

“All but two condos are sold at 5 Ferry St., and the developer reported a 65% lease rate,” LaChapelle said, adding that “70% occupancy is usually the goal for a new development, so they are right there.”

Work has also begun on Building 7, scheduled to open in 2024. When complete, the three buildings will add nearly 150 units of housing to Easthampton.

“The Ferry Street project is what we hoped it would be, a spark for community development and neighborhood pride,” the mayor said. “Watching the progress at the site has been a real confidence booster for the city.”

While housing is indeed a priority, it is just one of many priorities in a community that has seen a great deal of change, evolution, and growth over the past quarter-century, and is poised for more of all the above.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses. This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

Other focal points for LaChapelle and her administration include new business development, business-sector recovery from COVID, infrastructure, schools, growth of the city’s emerging cannabis sector, and more, and the mayor reports progress on all these fronts, especially those involving assistance and mentoring to small businesses.

Many are included in a broad initiative called Blueprint Easthampton. Designed to promote entrepreneurial innovation, the initiative also emphasizes partnerships with key constituents in the community such as nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

Keith Woodruff

Keith Woodruff was one of the first local business owners to open an online store on the Shop Where I Live site.

LaChapelle said Blueprint Easthampton is like an octopus in the way it keeps reaching out to different areas. One notable partnership is with the Coalition for Community Empowerment, a collaboration with the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Lawyers for Civil Rights. They have embarked on a statewide program to provide small-business technical assistance and open paths to entrepreneurs from at-risk populations. LaChapelle said at least a dozen businesses in Easthampton have benefited in some way from this effort.

“At a deeper level, three businesses have received grants, and two others have signed up for extensive business coaching,” LaChapelle said, explaining that startup businesses often have to realign their ideas to serve the market that exists.

“In one case, a baker had a business plan based on a delivery and storefront model,” she noted. “After coaching from the coalition, she realized her idea would work better without the storefront.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Easthampton, the many forms of progress being seen there, and what’s next for the ‘cool-kid city.’

 

‘Shop Where I Live’

In January, LaChapelle began her third term as mayor. Unlike her previous terms, which each lasted two years, the mayor’s term now runs four years. It’s a change that makes long-term planning easier on many fronts.

“With a four-year term, the mayor isn’t distracted with campaigning after only 18 months,” she said. “The longer term also makes it easier to manage the timing of grant cycles.”

The longer term is beneficial when coping with pressing issues, said LaChapelle, adding, again, that there are many of them, especially in a community that has become home to small businesses across many sectors, from technology to the arts to hospitality, that were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

In partnership with the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, the city secured a grant from the state’s Rapid Recovery Plan, which was set up to address the economic impact COVID-19 had on cities and towns. The grant resulted in an online retail effort run by the chamber known as easthampton.shopwhereilive.com.

Moe Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, explained that the Shop Where I Live program is an Amazon-type experience involving local businesses.

“Many businesses don’t have the resources or the time to set up online shopping, so this site makes that possible,” she said.

Consumers can choose offerings from several local businesses, put them all into an online shopping cart, and make one payment. Because the site is supported by a state grant, it’s open to all Easthampton businesses whether they belong to the chamber or not.

Moe Belliveau

Moe Belliveau said Shop Where I Live will help businesses respond to economic challenges both now and in the future.

“For members, this will be an ongoing benefit,” Belliveau said. “For non-members, the first year is free, then they can choose to join the chamber or pay a service fee to remain on the site.”

Each merchant can offer up to 100 products in their online store, said Belliveau, adding that Shop Where I Live is not restricted to retail operations. Services such as health clubs, web developers, and insurance agents can be found there, too.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses,” Belliveau said. “This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

KW Home, an interior-design firm and retail showroom, was one of the first businesses to open an online store on Shop Where I Live. Owner Keith Woodruff expects the site to benefit his business going forward.

“For the last two years I’ve had to operate by appointment only with limited hours,” he explained. “Many consumers are still concerned about shopping in person, so having the online store will be a big help.”

KW Home is an example of a business that provides a service and sells products. Most of Woodruff’s work is driven by working with clients to present design plans specific to their homes and then providing the furniture, lighting fixtures, and other items to execute the plan.

He said 80% of what he sells are special orders for clients. Most items run the gamut from a specific type of fabric for a chair or couch to custom window treatments. He also carries items in limited fabric offerings that are more easily available and work well with the online store.

“In order to make the launch date of June 30, I put only a few items on the site,” Woodruff said. “As this rolls out, I plan to add smaller accessories on there to give people more choices.”

 

Work in Progress

One of the many disruptions COVID caused was the nature of where people work. Even now, some people have returned to their worksites, some continue to work from home, while others have left their jobs to pursue the business idea they’d always wanted to try.

Amid these changing dynamics, Belliveau conducted research on how best to use the space at the chamber office on Union Street. The result is a new co-work space called Work Hub on Union.

“We’re looking to address folks who still work from home but need a temporary space, as well as entrepreneurs who are just starting out but are not yet ready for a permanent space,” said Belliveau, adding that the chamber will remain on site, so those in Work Hub can benefit from its support.

“We are designing this so the furniture can be moved around to create educational space,” she explained. “We’ll be able to run things like development programs and entrepreneurial support programs. In short, it’s a much more productive use of the space.”

While inclusivity is a big part of Blueprint Easthampton, so is accessibility. Working with two land trusts, the city recently bought 22 acres of land near Mount Tom that connect to state-owned property. The purchase was intended to save the land from development. Instead, that area will soon have an ADA-accessible trailhead that goes up to the summit of the mountain.

“I ran on improving accessibility for everyone, so this project makes me very proud,” LaChapelle said.

Riverside Industries was a partner in the trail project. Located in the center of Easthampton, Riverside’s mission is “empowering people of all abilities to help them achieve their highest potential and live their best lives.” It is best-known for placing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into employment throughout Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin counties.

Lynn Ostrowski Ireland, president and CEO of Riverside, said anyone can use the new trail because it can accommodate manual or electric wheelchairs, and the ascent along the trail is no greater than the inclines in Riverside’s Cottage Street headquarters.

As someone who has previewed the trail, Ostrowski Ireland reported the summit view is “beyond spectacular.”

“There are plenty of places along the trail to pull off and take a break or just to stop and enjoy the view along the way,” she said. “We will definitely bring clients there and let their families know about it, too. It’s really something everyone can enjoy.”

Natural surroundings like Mount Tom are part of the attraction for new students at Williston Northampton School. The private college-prep school approaches the fall with a full enrollment. Ann Hallock, director of communications at Williston, said 495 students will be on campus, hailing from all over the U.S. as well as 30 different countries.

“We consider our location in Easthampton to be a unique selling point of the school,” Hallock said. “Students love the location, especially being able to walk into town for restaurants or visit shops or go for hikes on Mount Tom. Parents like all that too when they come to visit their kids.”

Williston students also get involved with several local organizations, such as the Easthampton Community Center and the Emily Williston Library.

When classes begin in the fall, the new Mountain View School, housing students in grades K-8, will be fully open to all its students. As the finishing touches were added this year, middle-school students moved in during the spring. Now that construction is complete, the elementary students will begin their classes at Mountain View in the fall.

With the new school project done, LaChapelle has shifted her attention to finding a reuse for the Maple Street, Center, and Pepin schools, the three buildings replaced by Mountain View. Later this summer, the mayor will issue a request for proposals that she hopes will attract the attention of developers who are planning their next construction season.

Naturally, the mayor would like to see the buildings turn into housing.

“Depending on how they are developed, the three buildings could add as many as 150 rental housing units,” she said. “Realistically, we’re hoping to see 70 to 80 units get added to the housing rolls, with 20% to 25% of those designated affordable.”

The search for a developer comes after 18 months of residents working with a consultant to determine the needs and wishes of each neighborhood where the schools are located.

“It’s exciting because every step of the way, we have been talking with residents about the buildings,” the mayor said. “The residents have done an amazing job, and after all their input, it’s safe to say the people have spoken.”

When the people spoke and voted to allow cannabis sales in Easthampton, no one knew what the impact might be on the city. In the beginning, there were fears of higher crime, underage use of cannabis, and fire-suppression issues in the shops. Now, with five dispensaries operating in the city, LaChapelle said none of those concerns came to pass.

Instead, the biggest effect was increased wear and tear on their roads.

“The revenue we’ve received from cannabis has largely been spent on our roads because they have been heavily impacted with the additional traffic,” she told BusinessWest.

The mayor added that it’s actually good news that the impact was on roads because many of them weren’t in good shape before cannabis came to town.

“We had to reprioritize which roads get paved because suddenly there are thousands more people driving on these roads,” she said.

 

Bottom Line

Now that the city is in a good place with its budget and has improved its bond rating since COVID, LaChapelle is reflective on how far Easthampton has come.

“I’m super proud of the people in our city departments and their leaders in how they’ve taken all our projects head on,” she said. “I feel we haven’t dropped any of the balls we were juggling before COVID.”

She quickly added that, because Easthampton is such a desirable place to live, there’s plenty of work to be done going forward.

That’s the reality when you’re the ‘cool-kid city.’

Franklin County Special Coverage

Lighting the Way

 

 

Yankee Candle has long been a national and even global powerhouse in the scented-candle business, but the company will always have special appeal in Western Mass., where Michael Kittredge launched it more than a half-century ago. That appeal is partly — perhaps largely — due to Yankee Candle Village, which has become a significant attraction over the years, one that continues to raise the profile of Deerfield and other Franklin County destinations.

 

By Mark Morris

 

Yankee Candle Village may be best-known for its Christmas-themed displays around the holidays, Wade Bassett sees plenty of promise in the spring as well for a company — and tourist destination — that holds year-round appeal, especially as COVID-19 numbers continue to trend downward.

Bassett is the director of Sales and Operations at the Village, Yankee Candle’s flagship store located in Deerfield. Additionally, the company maintains a manufacturing facility in Whately, a distribution center in South Deerfield, and its flagship store on Route 5. Year-round employment totals nearly 600 people, and as the manufacturing and retail operations get busier for the holidays, the number of employees can reach as high as 750.

During the pandemic, staff at Yankee Candle Village incorporated extra cleaning protocols and made sure to always have masks for anyone who requested one. Bassett said the focus remains on providing a safe and worry-free shopping experience for guests who are looking forward to getting out and celebrating traditions with family and friends.

“We’re seeing daycationers, people who aren’t ready to jump on a plane yet. Instead, they are spending time visiting local attractions like Yankee Candle Village.”

“We’re seeing daycationers, people who aren’t ready to jump on a plane yet,” he said. “Instead, they are spending time visiting local attractions like Yankee Candle Village.”

Wade Bassett

Wade Bassett says Yankee Candle’s relationships with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Springfield CVB, and local businesses have driven traffic to the site.

He credited the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau for keeping Yankee Candle Village top of mind as a key regional destination. “Their efforts focus on a collaborative approach to drive traffic and tourism to the area, and we couldn’t be prouder of our partnership with both of them.”

Last year’s arrival of Tree House Brewing Co., located a half-mile north on Route 5 from Yankee Candle Village, has contributed to the amount of traffic in Deerfield, which benefits all local destinations.

“We have a great relationship with Treehouse Brewery, and we’re excited to have them as another strong and prosperous business in our community,” Bassett said, pointing out that guests can visit Powder Hollow Brewery at Yankee Candle Village, then head up Route 5 to Tree House Brewery, and from there it’s a short trip to Berkshire Brewing Co. located close by in the center of Deerfield. “It’s essentially a mini-beer tour right here in our own backyard.”

Deerfield Town Administrator Kacey Warren, who credits Yankee Candle Village for being a strong tourism draw that benefits Deerfield and Western Mass., made a similar observation on the potential mini-beer tour.

“We now have three fun brewing spaces in town that we hope people will visit to make them all successful,” she told BusinessWest.

 

The Nose Knows

Guests to the flagship store in Deerfield will also find more than 150 fragrant candles on hand. Bassett said many visitors enjoy the treasure hunt of discovering new seasonal candle fragrances such as Sakura Blossom Festival as well as traditional favorites like Clean Cotton, Pink Sands, and McIntosh, a personal favorite of Bassett’s.

The new Well Living Collection are candles designed to transform the mood in the room, he added. “It’s a collection we created to help find balance at a time when wellness is more important than ever.”

Over the last two years, as people were spending more time at home, the Yankee Candle manufacturing facility in Whately stayed busy. Demand for fragrant candles increased during that time, and Yankee Candle products saw plenty of movement off retail shelves. As more people transitioned into working from home, Bassett explained, they were looking to create a space of relaxation and comfort.

“Through fragrance, we are able to help our customers transform their homes into a space that’s happier, fresher, and more inviting,” he said. “Our passion for fragrance helps make your house feel more like a home.”

“Our programs are all about celebrating traditions with families. We are looking at more events that will appeal to all the families who visit us.”

While Yankee is obviously in the candle business, it is also clearly in the home fragrance business. That leads to developing products that may not be candles but help reinforce the Yankee Candle brand in new and different ways, such as the ScentPlug Fan.

“The ScentPlug Fan circulates fragrance throughout every corner of the room and has a built-in light sensor that provides a soft glow when the lights are low,” Bassett explained. Depending on the season or mood, a variety of scents can be easily swapped out of the fan unit.

The new Signature Candle line

The new Signature Candle line features new scents in redesigned vessels.

As April approaches, Bassett discussed several events planned for Yankee Candle Village, beginning with the arrival of the Easter Bunny on April 2, as well as Easter Bunny greetings every weekend leading up to Easter Sunday. There are also events planned for April school vacation week.

“Our programs are all about celebrating traditions with families,” Bassett said. “We are looking at more events that will appeal to all the families who visit us.”

This year, the Franklin County Chamber moved its office and visitor center to Historic Deerfield, a move designed to bring more tourism activity to Deerfield and surrounding towns. Before the pandemic, Historic Deerfield would attract nearly 20,000 visitors every year. Diana Szynal, executive director of the chamber, said the new visitor center is an opportunity to encourage people to explore the area further and stay longer in the county.

“Part of our mission as a regional tourism council is to encourage people to extend their stay,” she said. “Yankee Candle, Historic Deerfield, and other great attractions give people a reason to spend that extra time in our area.”

 

Making Scents of It All

While visitors come to Yankee Candle Village all year, fall and the holiday season are still the busiest times for guests.

“When you grow up in New England, there’s the smell of fall, the feel of Christmas, and the traditions that come with it,” Bassett said. “It’s like no other time of the year.”

A highlight every year at Yankee Candle Village is the arrival of Santa Claus, who makes his way there by either helicopter or fire truck. Bassett said he enjoys talking with the families who attend this event every year.

“In some cases, the kids who came here years ago are now parents, and they are bringing their own children,” he noted. “It’s become a generational event for lots of families.”

The holidays are just one time when the loyal fanbase of Yankee Candle shoppers will visit the flagship store. But it’s not unusual for people to go there several times a year. “Fragrance evokes memories which are extremely powerful for our guests,” Bassett said.

Now a 30-year employee, he expressed gratitude to be working with “such an amazing company.” And he’s looking forward to spring and the opportunity to talk about another new Yankee Candle product line, the Signature Candle.

“It’s a line featuring new scents in redesigned vessels,” Bassett said. “My personal favorite is Iced Berry Lemonade, a mix of strawberry, lemon, and grapefruit aromas that will be my go-to fragrance for spring.”

As soon as the snow melts in the hilltowns, Bassett plans to make sure an Iced Berry Lemonade candle will have a prominent place on his backyard patio — a reminder that Yankee Candle, both its products and its famous Village, remain a year-round draw for people in Western Mass. and well beyond.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Claudia Pazmany says the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Downtown BID have found many ways to partner to raise the town’s profile.

The Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce shares a downtown storefront with the Amherst Downtown Business Improvement District (BID). More important, the two organizations share a common vision.

“In general, BIDs and chambers aren’t always symbiotic, but we have found a way to really bridge that,” said Claudia Pazmany, the chamber’s executive director.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the BID, agreed. “We’ve been working very closely with the chamber; it’s been great bouncing a lot of ideas off each other,” she said. “I think both the BID and the chamber have this approach that a rising tide lifts all shops. We want the Amherst area to thrive and succeed.”

Gould, who came on board the BID five months ago, said part of her focus has been heavily marketing a buy-local, shop-local, eat-local philosophy, and it’s bearing results. For example, a ‘red-ticket’ month held during the holidays, in which shoppers got a red ticket for each $25 spent downtown, which went into a drawing for cash prizes, generated about $500,000. “That’s money that stays local instead of going to the big-box stores.”

The BID is also conducting conversations with residents and businesses about zoning and development — particularly targeting those who generally oppose any change.

“We’re getting some developers together with some community members who are anti-development, where developers are saying, ‘look, I’m fourth-generation Amherst. I’m not the boogeyman. I’m not looking to build a high-rise,’” she explained. “Let’s stop talking about what we hate, let’s stop talking about what’s already been built, and let’s start working together to make a vibrant and dynamic downtown. And without some redevelopment, that’s not going to happen. We need retail stores. We need restaurants.”

Beyond that, the BID has formed a new Foundation for Downtown Amherst, looking to create a 501(c)(3) with a mission to boost the downtown through arts and culture development and promotion. Goals include building a parking garage and working with architects and engineers to create a permanent performing-arts shell on the common.

“Amherst has slipped a bit — we’ve become a drive-through town, and we’ve lost some retail — and to drive traffic back to our downtown, we need density, but we also need things that people will travel to town for.”

Gould hopes to raise sufficient funds to endow the latter project, maintain it, and program it for two years with free performances, ranging from local high-school plays and concerts to touring musicians and theater and dance companies. Another idea is to commission a piece of sculpture that would become a recognized landmark in Amherst and beyond.

“My take on downtown is, if you bring in more art and culture, the retail and restaurants will follow, because we’re going to drive people to Amherst,” she told BusinessWest.

“This should be a destination. In all four seasons of the year, we have a lot to offer. Amherst has slipped a bit — we’ve become a drive-through town, and we’ve lost some retail — and to drive traffic back to our downtown, we need density, but we also need things that people will travel to town for. Our job is to support the businesses that are here and help in bring new businesses and more visitors.”

Broad Vision

Meanwhile on Jan. 22, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce released its 2020 Vision report, which seeks to activate:

• Fiscal resiliency, by establishing processes and benchmarks to keep the town resilient through challenging times, while creating pricing structures to benefit chamber members and drive further membership;

• Community impact, by developing new and deeper opportunities to create partnerships and increase exposure for the chamber’s 65 nonprofit members;

• Transformative tourism outreach, by creating opportunities to highlight the creative economy and redefine the Amherst area as a destination;

• The entrepreneurial pipeline, by creating a toolkit for startups that offers information and support on startup space, marketing visioning, pitch support, loan support, mentoring connections, and microfinancing;

• Workforce development, by bolstering educational and training programs, supporting other regional educational offerings, and connecting job seekers to jobs and transportation; and, conversely, working to address barriers to employment for chamber members;

• Advocacy, through the creation of a government affairs and policy advocacy committee to create programs and forums vital to members and bring forward key issues that support economic development through direct communication with lawmakers and key stakeholders; and

• Professional development for chamber staff, partly by establishing goals around membership, the entrepreneurial pipeline, tourism, advocacy, professional development, and community impact.

“Everything is driven by conversations with people who walk through the door — maybe an alum from one of the colleges, maybe someone who’s retiring here,” Pazmany said. “They’re here because it’s a destination with huge, untapped potential, and we have to get that word out.”

Take the town’s position as a dining destination, she noted. “Downtown Amherst has everything — you can explore the world through dining downtown, and because it’s a college town, the prices are right.”

The plan to take advantage of that is twofold, both she and Gould said — better marketing of what’s already downtown, especially to those outside the region, and bringing in more of it.

Economic efforts involve regional thinking as well, Pazmany added, noting that Amherst businesses have often felt that Route 9 development in Hadley was a deterrent to their success, while, in fact, an improving regional profile benefits everyone. Amherst, she said, can take advantage of that regional attention while honing its own strengths.

“People really love the community feel here. It’s a walkable downtown, with pretty much everything at your fingertips,” she told BusinessWest, adding that people want to feel like they’re part of something bigger, and that’s something a thriving downtown district can provide.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.32
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.32
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College; Delivery Express
* Latest information available

“We have arts and culture and a lot of venues that offer music,” she went on, adding that museums like the Mead, the Carle, and the Yiddish Book Center offer an additional cultural backdrop in town, while the Amherst Cinema drives plenty of programming downtown. That’s why it’s important to take that strength and grow it further, she noted, as a way to both keep residents living here and cultivate a tourism economy.

“More than 30,000 come down Route 9 every day. I have the best of both worlds — I get to focus on the downtown, and I also get to focus on the broader community and bring that to the table when I partner with the BID.”

Creative Thinking

One other advantage for the chamber, Pazmany said, is its connection to UMass Amherst, which has deepened by reaching out to Gregory Thomas, executive director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship to discuss strategies for harnessing the significant entrepreneurial energy being generated on campus and keeping it local.

That takes physical development, and some creativity, she noted, as the town isn’t home to swaths of large, unused buildings like in Holyoke and Easthampton — and, as Gould noted, not everyone in town is high on new development.

But she would like to see an influx of new businesses that cater equally to residents and the 35,000 college students who live in town most of the year, from grocery stores to a men’s clothing shop to a place to buy bedding and furniture.

“We’re looking out there and saying, ‘what is going to benefit all of us?’ In terms of bringing in retailers, we need buildings to put them in. A lot of pieces need to fall into place, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

In her few months on the job, Gould has been asking businesses, ‘what do you need?’

“They all say, ‘we need more businesses,’” she went on, and that’s not always an easy sell to residents, especially long-established ones. “There’s excitement here, but also a lot of fear when you mention development, when you mention building, when you mention ‘new.’ When you start talking to them, it’s very fear-based.

“So how do we take the big, bad boogeyman out of the closet and decide what Amherst really needs?” she asked. “If we don’t, we’re not going to see growth and positive change. We might lose more retail and restaurants. And we don’t want that — we want more people to come in.”

Joseph Bednar 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]

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