A Time to Think Big
With more than $3 billion being directed to area cities and towns through the American Rescue Plan Act, there is no end to speculation about these funds should be put to use. While infrastructure projects and other municipal needs certainly need to be addressed, area economic leaders and developers are urging communities to think big and make investments that will spur additional private-sector development and allow these cities and towns to take full advantage of the changing times and the opportunities they present.
‘Unprecedented.’ ‘Once in a lifetime.’ ‘Once in a generation.’ ‘Transformative.’ ‘Totally unique.’
These are just some of the words and phrases people are using to describe the federal money now flowing into the state and its individual cities and towns from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help them, their residents, and their businesses recover from the hard sting of COVID-19. Area communities are in line for windfalls ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars for the smallest of towns in Franklin and Hampshire Counties to more than $130 million for Springfield. And the state itself is receiving more than $5 billion.
By and large, there are few strings attached to this money, so the $64,000 question (or the ‘fill in an amount’ question, as the case may be with individual communities) concerns how this windfall will be spent.
“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit. But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”
The debate is continuing on Beacon Hill and all across the region as mayors, city and town councilors, selectmen, and town administrators mull myriad options for spending these funds — and how other federal money, such as that included in the infrastructure bill recently passed into law, might be put to use.
Much of the talk on the local level concerns infrastructure — roads, bridges, sewer and water lines — as well as new roofs, HVAC systems, and more for municipal buildings, new parking garages, parks, etc., etc., etc.
And while these options have merit, those who spoke with BusinessWest on the broad subject of how this spending spree, especially the ARPA money, should be conducted said that, from an economic-development standpoint, area cities and towns — and the state itself — would do well to think bigger, and more long-term, with an eye toward using this money in ways that justify that word ‘transformative,’ and also spark private-sector development in housing (especially market-rate housing), new businesses, and more.
“These can’t be ‘bridge-to-nowhere’ kinds of investment — they have to be meaningful investments that all of us can benefit from,” said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass Development Corp., who also warned against a rush to commission studies that would likely yield reports that sit on shelves for years.
Keith Nesbitt, Berkshire Bank’s senior vice president for Business Banking for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut, agreed.
“There are investments that are needed, and I think they come in a variety of forms,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to attract significant private investment without that pump priming that government resources are going to provide. I think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and I really hope that local leaders are bold enough to dream big when it comes to how we use these funds.
“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit,” he went on. “But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”
What falls in that category? Nesbitt, who is also hiring manager for the bank and understands the workforce issues facing area businesses and the lack of qualified talent across the board, cited a community in Minnesota that is earmarking some of its federal money to ensure that all high-school graduates can attend community college.
“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area.”
“They recognized that need to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future,” he said. “The investment in free, two-year community college is what they’ve decided to do, and I’d love to see something that like here.”
Meanwhile, Joy Martin, director of Asset Management with Davenport Companies, which has worked on MGM Springfield, recently converted the former Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street into market-rate apartments and is redeveloping the former Registry of Motor Vehicles building on Liberty Street, said Springfield and other communities need to think about investing the federal money in ways that would make it easier to undertake such projects.
“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area,” she said, adding that many projects need help from state and local government to make the numbers work for developers.
Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who can speak to this subject from various perspectives (he’s the former mayor of Springfield and a current city councilor), concurred, and also stressed the need to invest the money and not just spend it.
“I do think it’s a chance to look at the bigger picture and look down the road,” he told BusinessWest. “And not just fill a gap that might exist today, or not just make some repair that might be necessary, but really further your economy or the quality of life in your community you’re living in.”
While certainly advocating for longer-term thinking when it comes to how the ARPA money should be apportioned, Sullivan and others noted there are some immediate concerns that may also have some ramifications down the road.
That’s especially true when it comes to existing businesses and especially the smaller ventures across many sectors that are still struggling from the effects of not only COVID but some of the side effects from treating it as well.
“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting,” he told BusinessWest. “They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.
“And it can’t be loans because loans come with interest,” he went on. “It has to be either grants or no-interest loans that have a forgiveness provision — it goes away after a short period of time, be it two years or three years or five years; if you stay open and you’re moving forward, the obligation to pay goes away. Some of this money needs to go to your smallest businesses.”
“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting. They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.”
That said, Sullivan and others stressed repeatedly the need to think big when it comes to ARPA, meaning a focus on investments that will pay off the long term, with benefits for generations of residents of a given city or town. That could mean investments in everything from education and training initiatives to faster and more reliable internet, to initiatives that will unlock the development potential of unused and underutilized properties.
Seth Stratton, a business lawyer and managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, said the focus should be on economic-development-related investments, a broad term to be sure.
“The programs and initiatives that should be funded with these resources should be intentional, impactful, and innovative — all with an eye toward a continuing spark; it has to be transformative,” he said, putting support for new housing projects high on his list of priorities. “We want to see economic development and a rising tide that lifts all boats. If we just do one-off projects here and there, that can be helpful, but it won’t have this comprehensive effect of economic development in what many of us see as somewhat of a new economy.
“What do restaurant, food and beverage, and entertainment venues look like going forward?” he continued. “We ought to be thinking about what they look like moving forward and how to embrace that and use funds in a smart way that would have exponential impact, rather than talking about one-off items.”
Daley agreed, and mentioned, as one example, Ludlow Mills, the sprawling former jute-making complex along the Chicopee River that Westmass now owns. He said investments made there by the state and perhaps the town of Ludlow could bring property in line for development and create jobs for several generations of area residents.
“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects,” he said, adding that he hopes the ARPA money and funds in other federal programs, such as the infrastructure bill that was recently signed into law, trickle down to Western Mass. and help it attract the attention of the development community, which has often found it difficult to take on projects here for a number of reasons, including the market lease rates and the costs of renovating old mills and other properties.
“With a small investment — small relative to the numbers they’re talking about Congress and feds giving the state — we could recapitalize those dollars and give a return on investment that would be a million times what they would give us,” Daley said. “We have very, very large properties in Ludlow, specifically, that, without an infusion of cash, it’s going to hard to redevelop. With a small infusion of cash, several million dollars, we can generate a return on investment of $300 million or $400 million, realistically, within five to 10 years — and create a lot of jobs and tax dollars; there are three or four projects we could do that would change the face of Ludlow.”
“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects.”
Martin concurred, noting that this infusion of federal money comes at an intriguing time, as many forces are coming together to make Western Mass. a more attractive option for individuals and businesses alike. These include the much higher cost of living in other areas such as Boston and New York and the opportunity to now work in those areas but live in a lower-cost region like the 413.
“Western Mass. is getting more attractive to investors and to people in general. Overland Lofts is 97% leased, and it has been 97% leased for some time,” she told BusinessWest. “We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”
Elaborating, she said one of the units is being leased by an executive with a Boston-based firm who is now able to work remotely, and chose to do so in downtown Springfield.
With these trends, or developments, in mind, those we spoke with said area cities and towns need to be thinking about ways to utilize the ARPA funds to take full advantage of the opportunities currently presenting themselves.
Returning to that town in Minnesota using ARPA money to send young people to community college, Nesbitt said this is the kind of long-term, high-impact investing that state and area leaders should be thinking about as they consider options for allocating funds in the broad realm of economic development.
“These kinds of human-capital investments need to be prioritized,” he said, adding that the workforce crisis now impacting every sector of the economy must be considered a long-term problem and not one that will correct itself in a quarter or two or with the end of additional unemployment benefits.
“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments. We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”
Stratton agreed, noting that expanding vocational-education programs to assist the trades and the region’s large manufacturing sector should also be a priority. Meanwhile, he noted that other forces are converging that might bring more people into the local workforce, such as the ability to work remotely. He said there are more individuals like that executive now living in Overland Lofts, and, moving forward, they will need places to live.
“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments,” he said. “We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”
Meanwhile, with these changes in how and where people work, communities like Springfield have to think about the large amounts of office space currently unleased and the potential for those numbers to climb, he went on, adding that some thought should go into repurposing some of this space into flexible workplaces.
Getting projects like these off the ground is often difficult because it’s not easy to make redevelopment projects like the Overland initiative “pencil out,” as developers say, meaning make the numbers work. Often, historical tax credits or other forms of funding are needed to bridge gaps, said Martin, adding that the state and individual communities should look at using the federal funds flowing to them to make such projects more feasible and doable.
“We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”
“We run into a gap between the cost to build something and the actual asking price for something,” she said, citing the Overland project as an example. “We got 60 apartments out of it and rents that fit the area, but none of that would have happened without historical funds and state housing funds. So if the city had something that could bridge some of the financial gap between new-build and the current economic conditions in Springfield, that will help to bring developers here.
“It’s hard to justify an $18 million project with $2-per-square-foot rent,” she went on. “But if there’s some way to help bridge that gap, I think you’d see more developers willing to come in and give you a good product.”
Daley agreed, noting that the developers of the so-called Clocktower Building at Ludlow Mills, another housing project, have had to wait the better part of six years for the historical tax credits needed to move that initiative off the drawing board.
“We have another mill that’s 600,000 square feet; if we were to start today and try to get those kinds of tax credits, it would be 12 to 15 years before they were all distributed,” he said. “If the state wanted to have an impact on development of those kinds of projects, it should make more money available for good projects that are shovel-ready.”
Martin said the gap in funding facing those looking to develop existing but older and challenged buildings is one of the key factors impeding redevelopment of the buildings across Main Street from MGM Springfield.
“It’s not that people don’t want to be there,” she said. “It costs a lot to redevelop these buildings, and then to charge a rent that fits the community … it doesn’t pencil out without some kind of help,” she said. “Using these funds in a smart way like that would help bring back the Main Streets in Western Mass.”
Sullivan agreed, and said such investments are part of that process of looking beyond today and to tomorrow, and what communities want and need to look like in a rapidly changing landscape.
“I do think this is an opportunity for communities to look at the bigger picture regarding where they want their communities to be 10 years down the road, what they want their downtowns to look like, and what sectors — be it a restaurant district or an entertainment sector, travel and tourism, for example — they want to attract,” he said. “It’s about determining what you want your future to look like, and investing in it.”
Paying It Forward
Summing things up, Sullivan said these are what he hopes are once-in-a-lifetime windfalls that have come to area cities and towns.
“Hopefully, we won’t ever have to go through this again,” he noted, adding quickly that this unique moment in time represents an opportunity to pause, think about the future, and make some investments in it.
Fixing a bridge or putting a new roof on the fire station might be a suitable use for some of the money, he went on, but overall, cities and towns have to think bigger. Much bigger.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]