MJ Adams recalled a community event in February 2020 called “A Deliberate Downtown: Growing by Design.”
“Because so many interesting things were happening downtown at that time, and we were getting ready to launch a downtown-revitalization effort, we wanted to engage everyone in the community conversation about downtown,” said Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development.
Then the pandemic struck, the world went into lockdown, and the city pressed pause on its plan, she said. But only a pause.
“The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things about the city’s growth plans for the short term, all of 2020 and most of 2021, but it did not change the grit, determination, and resiliency of our city’s business and government leaders,” Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said in a recent state-of-the-city address, noting that municipal leaders moved forward with construction and revitalization programs, aided by a rush of state and federal money intended to pump life into the economy and infrastructure.
During that time, the city broke ground on a new, $20 million library (set to open this spring), solidified a location for its new $21 million fire station (expected to open early next year), and built a temporary fire station to ensure continued service.
“These projects are a testament to the willingness of Greenfield citizens to fund essential services that serve our city and surrounding communities,” she said, adding to that list a skate park soon to open between Chapman and Davis streets downtown, funded with a combination of state grant money and city capital-improvement funding.
It’s all part of what the mayor calls the city’s ‘rurban’ lifestyle, an appealing combination of urban amenities and a rural feel, all highlighted by a downtown set to undergo significant changes to make it more liveable, walkable, and attractive for businesses and visitors alike.
“Downtown areas throughout the nation are changing; some have dried up completely, while others, like ours, are focusing on recognizing demographic and business shifts and are embracing that change,” Wedegartner said in her address. “We have a robust downtown-redevelopment strategy focused on transformational change incorporating available and new housing, new infrastructure improvements, and retail and commercial opportunities. Here is where we merge our economic-development, infrastructure, and housing efforts into a cohesive plan.”
What’s in Store?
A significant element in the downtown mix is the former Wilson’s Department Store site, which is being converted into an intriguing mixed-use development.
The city brought together the Community Builders and MassDevelopment in the acquisition and redevelopment of the former Wilson’s property, originally built in 1882. The redevelopment will create approximately 65 residential rental units and will reactivate prominent first-floor and basement retail spaces through the relocation and expansion of Franklin Community Co-op’s Greenfield store, Green Fields Market.
“In addition to creating much-needed, high-quality housing in Greenfield, relocating and expanding Green Fields Market will provide the community with access to healthy food in an area of Greenfield currently without a full-service grocery store,” said Rachana Crowley, director of Real Estate Development at the Community Builders, when the project was announced. “We’re proud to be a part of this team which will create new housing and employment opportunities and invest in a strong and robust Main Street in Greenfield.”
Adams said attracting a combination of commercial and residential tenants through mixed-use development has been important in the ongoing downtown plan. “What happens downtown, how we perceive it, is how the region perceives us as a community. So we knew we had to work on downtown. And we knew we couldn’t leave Wilson’s sitting empty.”
Adams called upper-story redevelopment “a significant building block in our efforts to create more business development and housing in Greenfield.” But the Wilson’s project is only one piece; another 36-unit development on Wells Street will hit the construction phase soon, and developers are eyeing other potential residential-development sites both within and outside of Greenfield’s downtown sector.
“We know we need to take a look at the missing middle-market supply of housing that serves working people who are not eligible for subsidized housing but are also struggling to find housing in any market now,” she said. “This is an issue for the whole state. Everyone is feeling, quite accurately, that we’ve made progress with affordable rental housing, but now we need to work on other aspects of the market.”
Adams feels like Greenfield is an attractive market for people looking for a place to live because it’s considered more affordable than other communities and boasts strong transit links to the rest of the region and beyond.
A $7.8 million, state- and federally funded multi-modal Main Street improvement project should only lend momentum to that perception, she and Wedegartner believe. The mayor appropriated $288,900 in capital funds for engineering and design of the project, which begins 100 feet to the east of Colrain Street and ends at High Street. The project is on track to be included in MassDOT’s Transportation Improvement Program, with construction slated to begin as early as fall 2026.
“While this project is underway, the city will also be able to upgrade underground utilities, primarily our water and sewer infrastructure. This will save the city money as we will not need to dig up Main Street twice,” the mayor noted, adding that additional grant money is being used to fund a parking-management study for the downtown area.
One significant goal of all this, she told BusinessWest, is to make Main Street more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, including continued efforts to make Court Square a pedestrian plaza. “Route 2A can never be pedestrian-only; Main Street has to be open to all traffic. But there’s significant work being done curb to curb.”
“I’m fond of saying that, in five years, you’re not going to recognize Main Street.”
Wedegartner stressed that development activity in Greenfield extends well beyond downtown. The Planning Department and City Council continue work to rezone about 40 acres across Route 2A from the I-91 Industrial Park as additional industrial space geared to attracting more advanced manufacturers and sustaining existing manufacturers who have run out of space in the current industrial park.
Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, said one of the city’s selling points is its balance between that industrial sector and the sorts of small, locally owned shops and eateries that dot the downtown, as well as attractions ranging from Greenfield Garden Cinemas, which recently celebrated its 94th birthday, to Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.
Greenfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1753
Area: 21.9 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $19.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.65
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, Sandri
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The owners of Greenspace Co-work, located upstairs from Hawks & Reed, have been bringing local businesses together at a monthly event called Business Breakdown, and Deane has been impressed with what they’re saying.
“The Business Breakdowns are so interesting; we’re hearing how many people not originally from this area chose to start a business in Greenfield because there are so many resources available — partnerships with the chamber and the Franklin County CDC and the city — and how glad they are that they did choose Greenfield.
“Greenfield is the seat of Franklin County,” she added. “When Greenfield does well, all of Franklin County does well. So it’s good to see Greenfield making such a concerted effort to revitalize the downtown.”
Partners in Progress
With technical and financial assistance and other resources provided to businesses through agencies like the CDC, Common Capital, the chamber, and others, and workforce-development efforts at Greenfield Community College, Franklin County benefits strongly from a culture of partnership, Deane said.
“It feels like there’s this collective effort to really build on the partnerships; it’s one of the things Franklin County generally does very well,” she explained. “Working through the pandemic, we had effective partnerships, and I’m really seeing those grow as we’re able to share resources and think more strategically about the next generation of Greenfield and what the city should look like.”
That said, “I’ve been really impressed with the energy and momentum I’m seeing in Greenfield,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve seen the city of Greenfield creating an environment more attractive to businesses, while simultaneously supporting the outstanding businesses we already have to make sure we’re ensuring their success.”
That’s Wedegartner’s goal too, of course, even as she asks people for patience as all the visible signs of progress come together downtown over the next few years, from the new library and fire station to new housing and a more walkable city center.
“I’m fond of saying that, in five years, you’re not going to recognize Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s going to be so different and so much more vital in so many ways. But it’s going to take time.”