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Striking a Chord

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.  Photo by Ed Cohen

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.
Photo by Ed Cohen

Evan Plotkin has always been a firm believer in the arts as an economic-development strategy and vehicle for “changing the conversation about Springfield,” as he likes to say.

And this belief has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the manner in which he has turned 1350 Main St. (the downtown Springfield office building he co-owns) into a type of art gallery to the sculptures he has helped bring to the central business district, to his long-time support of the Springfield Museums and other institutions.

But perhaps the most visible, and impactful, example of his work to use the arts to bring people — and energy — to the city and its downtown is the annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, the sixth edition of which is slated for Aug. 10.

“We’re putting a light on Springfield that is very positive,” said Plotkin, one of the founders of the festival. “The reputation of the jazz festival has been very positively received throughout the music world, regionally and beyond. That has a lot of benefits to changing the conversation about Springfield; you can talk about a lot of things about Springfield, but now you can add the festival to those things.”

The festival strives to connect people of all ages, races, and backgrounds through music and the arts, said Plotkin, and also connect people to Springfield, a city clearly on the rise.

The festival is known for bringing both established and up-and-coming artists together to perform on the same stage — actually, several stages. The 2019 festival headliner is Elan Trotman, who will perform on a stage in the plaza at MGM Springfield at 10 p.m., kicking off the festival’s after-party.

Other performers of the day are split between two stages of equal importance in or near Court Square; the Charles Neville Main Stage and the Urban Roots Stage will offer performances simultaneously.

Artists for the 2019 lineup include Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators, Tia Fuller, Samite, Firey String Sistas!, Kotoko Brass, Molly Tigre, Convergence Project Trio, Tap Roots, and the Holyoke Community Jazz Ensemble. Local artists from the Springfield area include the Billy Arnold Trio, Bomba De Aqui, and Ryan Hollander.

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.  Leah Martin Photography

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.
Leah Martin Photography

This year marks the festival’s second without Charles Neville, member of the Neville Brothers and beloved performer at the event, who died in April 2018. Neville’s wife, Kristin, co-founded the event with Plotkin and Blues to Green, a nonprofit organization that uses music to bring people together through performances, and hopes to unite people from many different communities in Springfield that share a common love for art and music.

The organization also works to create a more positive image for Springfield and help erase negative perceptions about the City of Homes. Plotkin told BusinessWest that Charles Neville’s impact on the festival lives on through the performances at the annual event.

“I think he really believed in the healing power of music and its ability to bring people together as one people,” said Plotkin, adding that Neville acted as a guiding light for the festival. “His presence spoke more than almost anything.”

The free outdoor festival has drawn thousands of people to Court Square, giving people the opportunity to meet other music lovers. The $200,000 budget for the event comes completely from sponsors and volunteers.

Plotkin said support for the event has been tremendously helpful, and the positive reactions from attendees are what drive the producers to make it bigger and better each year.

“I love the fact that people are so animated and excited about the music,” said Plotkin, adding that the music ranges from Latino bands to blues artists to gospel singers. “The audience embraces the variety of different genres and feels like this is something that belongs to them.”

Hollander, one of the local artists set to perform at the 2019 festival, agreed that jazz music has the ability to bring people together. “I think jazz music is intended to be the music of the people,” he said.

City on the Rise

The Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival comes at a time where the arts are playing a significant, and growing, role in the revitalization of Springfield and also in creating a better vibe in the city. Examples abound, including everything from high-profile, MGM-organized concerts at the MassMutual Center (Stevie Wonder and Cher have performed, and Aerosmith is booked for this summer) to Fresh Paint, a mural project downtown that has changed the face of many buildings and structures .

“I think this festival coming off of the mural festival is going to push us forward in terms of really positive impressions that people will have about the city,” Plotkin said.

Hollander agreed, noting that the opening of MGM and other initiatives have created more vibrancy and more nightlife, complemented by a greater police presence and, overall, fewer concerns about crime and safety.

“I think that Springfield is definitely on the rise,” he told BusinessWest. “The general downtown just feels safer in most parts. I think any time we find other things to occupy ourselves with, we’re less likely to resort to crime or violence. The festival is an opportunity to do something non-violent and be entertained.”

In 2016, Jazz Times magazine named the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival one of the best jazz festivals to attend, and Plotkin hopes the event can continue to grow in both size and stature.

“The jazz festival helps to define the downtown from its walkability,” he said, adding that his goal would be to model the festival after other famous ones in the region, like the Newport Jazz Festival, and set up several different stages and venues around the downtown area.

“Ultimately, a really cool concept to grasp is how walkable the city is, because that implies that it’s safe,” he said. “A walkable city is a safe city. The more people who are walking the streets, the less worries you have about crime and safety.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the underpass that connects the downtown with Riverfront Park, which has been painted into a Dr. Seuss mural by John Simpson. This connector, Plotkin said, used to be a place where people did not want to go because they were afraid to cross the highway to go to the riverfront.

“Now, by painting that underpass and creating activities on that side of the river as well as downtown, you’re creating this connector,” he explained, adding that the jazz festival acts similarly, showing how possible it is to bring all communities in Springfield together as one. “We haven’t reached that ultimate goal of having this festival throughout the downtown, but by doing the jazz festival, you can see the potential of what can happen if we carry this throughout downtown.”

Plotkin remembers a time in his early 20s where he was able to walk to bars and restaurants downtown and feel completely safe, and feels that Springfield is making its way there once again.

“I think, today, it’s the safest the city has ever been downtown,” he said. “And it can only get better as we finish construction on several parks and as we start to program them with music.

“That,” he added, “is where a wall becomes a bridge.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

We’ve written on many occasions in the past about how the phrase ‘economic development’ means much more than trying to lure an Amazon — or an MGM Springfield, for that matter — to your town or filling a business park with distribution companies.

Indeed, this kind of work extends to such realms as workforce development, improving public education, public safety, infrastructure, marketing of a given region, and promotion of arts and culture.

And, sometimes, economic development is art itself.

We saw this with the recent initiative known as Fresh Paint. This was a mural festival staged earlier this month that involved a number of noted artists, with help from the public, and literally changed the face of a number of buildings and structures, such as parking-garage facades.

The murals are highly visible, and they do more than bring a splash of color — a big splash of color — to some otherwise drab pieces of real estate.

They also help tell the story of Springfield through depictions of everything from Dr. Seuss characters to the diverse population that now calls the city home.

How is this economic development?

Well, the murals accomplish something important. They prompt people to stop, look, think, and, ultimately, view Springfield in a different way than they did before. And this is what we want business owners, young professionals, entrepreneurs, and even retirees looking for a place to live to do — look at the City of Homes in a different way.

The murals — there are 10 of them in all, scattered throughout the downtown area and beyond — give the city a new look and vibe. They help send a message that the community is changing, for the better, and that, while once things were dark, the future is seemingly bright.

Can a set of murals really do all that? Apparently, they can.

And for that reason, we certainly hope this is not the last Fresh Paint festival.

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]