By Mark Morris
Despite what she described as “shifting sands and shifting times,” Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle believes her city is more than holding its own in the face of COVID-19.
By that, she meant this community of roughly 16,000 people is moving ahead with a number of municipal projects and economic-development initiatives. And it is also undertaking several efforts, often in cooperation with other entities — such as the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce — to help its business community, and especially the very small businesses that dominate the landscape, weather this intense storm.
“We’re focused on a good, basic plan that addresses infrastructure and quality of life for everyone in our city,” she said, as she addressed the former — and the latter as well.
In that first category, she listed everything from a $100 million school-building project to a $45 million mixed-use development, called One Ferry, that involves renovating old mill buildings and reworking the infrastructure in the Ferry Street area.
“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times. It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”
And in the second category, she mentioned several initiatives, from small-business grants to a community-block-grant program designed to help microbusinesses, to efforts to help renters. Indeed, the city has put aside $300,000 in relief for renters; the relief begins in the fall and is meant to keep an important source of affordable housing in place.
“If you start losing renters, many of the owners will have to sell because they’ll have trouble paying their mortgages,” the mayor said, adding that there are many ripple effects from the pandemic, and the city’s strategy is to keep the ripples from gaining size and strength.
Overall, LaChapelle acknowledged that COVID-19 is forcing businesses, families, and institutions to make pivotal changes during very uncertain times, but she remains an optimist.
“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times,” she noted. “It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”
Like other mayors BusinessWest has spoken with in recent weeks, LaChapelle said COVID-19 has certainly impacted businesses in every sector, changed daily life in innumerable ways, and even altered how city government carries out its business.
But in many respects, it hasn’t slowed the pace of progress in the city — at least when it comes to a number of important municipal and development projects, including the aforementioned school project.
“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them.”
The as-yet-unnamed school, located on Park Street, is an example of several elements of the city’s plan coming together. The new building will house students from pre-K through grade 8, replacing three older elementary schools in Easthampton. New road infrastructure is planned in front of the building as well, with the addition of a roundabout intersection.
LaChapelle noted that the $100 million project is slightly ahead of schedule and should be completed by late 2021 or early 2022. The roundabout will be completed this month.
Meanwhile, other projects are taking shape or getting ready to move off the drawing board. One involves River Valley Co-op, the Northampton-based food cooperative, which is currently building a 23,000-square-foot market in Easthampton on the site of the former Cernak Oldsmobile Pontiac dealership. The co-op is scheduled to open by spring or summer of next year.
Once complete, the mayor explained, River Valley will employ 60 full-time union workers with the potential to expand to nearly 100 workers in the next two years. Road improvements that will benefit the new co-op include a dedicated turning lane into the market and straightening the road in front.
“This is an area along Route 10 that has been a traffic pain point for economic development,” she said. “While it’s a $400,000 project, we expect the return to far exceed those dollars.”
Another project in the works is One Ferry, an initiative expected to bring new residents, new businesses, and more vibrancy to the city.
“In the next 18 to 24 months, this project will add quality apartments, condominiums, and office space,” LaChapelle said, adding that public infrastructure to support this project includes a roundabout that connects a residential area, the industrial park, and the mill district of Easthampton. The first building in the project, recently completed, provides space for two businesses and two apartments.
“Right now, this project is providing jobs and vitality for the area, and that will only increase,” she noted. “One Ferry is huge for our future.”
“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options. It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”
Another bright note for the future involves Adhesive Applications, which makes adhesive tapes for use in more than a dozen industries. The longtime Easthampton manufacturer is planning a 40,000- to 50,000-square-foot addition to the company, the mayor said.
The chamber and the mayor’s office are also working together on Blueprint Easthampton, a resource map designed for entrepreneurs and business people.
“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them,” said Mo Belliveau, executive director of the chamber.
According to a news release on Blueprint Easthampton, the mapping initiative will improve access to available business tools and strengthen the links between the city and the business community.
While work continues on these projects, efforts continue to assist those businesses impacted by the pandemic. And the Greater Easthampton Chamber has played a large role in such efforts.
Prior to the pandemic, Belliveau had begun shifting the emphasis at the agency away from events and more on education and discussion-type programming. After organizing and scheduling programs for the year, stay-at-home orders went into effect in March and wiped out all those plans.
“Like so many small businesses, we at the chamber had to pivot along with our partners and find new ways to provide meaningful value to our community,” Belliveau said, adding that many of these new ways involve providing information — and other forms of support — to businesses during the pandemic.
Indeed, Easthampton received a $30,000 grant from the state attorney general’s office designed to help small businesses pay for COVID-19-related expenses and allow them to continue their operations. LaChapelle invited the chamber to be the administrator of what became the Greater Easthampton Sustaining Small Business Grant (SSBG) program. Applicants could request up to $1,500 and use the grant for buying PPE, paying their rent, or purchasing supplies needed to comply with state guidelines on reopening.
A total of 31 businesses qualified for the grants, which were to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Fortunately, all 31 applicants received grant money totaling more than $43,000, thanks to donations from Easthampton-businesses Applied Mortgage, which kicked in an additional $10,000, and Suite 3, which covered the remainder of the funding requests.
“My goal going forward is to find other businesses that are able to contribute to this effort so we can do another round of funding,” Belliveau said. “The need is great, and the money from this first effort went fast.”
In addition, Easthampton and six surrounding communities recently became eligible for a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses get through the pandemic. Businesses with five or fewer employees can apply for up to $10,000 in grant money. Easthampton was the lead community in applying for the block grant.
“We have many innovative small businesses in Easthampton who still can’t reopen,” LaChapelle said. “This grant program is designed to help them stay afloat.”
Dave DelVecchio is president of Suite3, a company that provides IT services for businesses of all sizes. While most of his customer base is in Western Mass., Suite3 also has clients internationally and in several U.S. states.
As an IT service provider, DelVecchio measures success by “ticket requests,” an indication that a customer needs support. When COVID-19 started taking its toll and many businesses were shut down in March and April, ticket requests were at their lowest point. Since then, Suite3’s business has come back to pre-pandemic levels.
As a past president and current treasurer of the chamber, DelVecchio was concerned about the impact COVID-19 was having on the business community, and especially its growing portfolio of restaurants.
“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options,” he said. “It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”
He added that Easthampton has a good number of other businesses affected by COVID-19 that did not receive as much attention as the restaurants.
“Businesses such as travel agencies and professions that require personal interaction, like chiropractors and massage therapists, were also affected by the virus,” he said, noting that the SSBG and Community Development Block Grant can make a real difference for such businesses.
DelVecchio credits Belliveau with changing the focus of the chamber to more education without losing its important role as a provider of networking opportunities. Part of the changing organization involved moving from an annual fee model to monthly dues. While that can be a risky move, DelVecchio noted there was almost no attrition in membership.
“We are grateful that we continue to get support from the business community and they see value in the chamber,” he said, “especially at a time when expenses are being put under greater scrutiny.”
This support is another indication of how the community, which had been thriving before the pandemic, has come together to cope with a crisis that has provided a real test — or another real test — for residents and businesses alike.
As the mayor noted earlier, Easthampton’s grit and resilience has helped it survive a number of economic downturns and other challenges in the past. And those qualities will see it through this one as well.