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Community Spotlight

renovated chapel

An architect’s rendering of the renovated chapel at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, what students are calling the ‘Harry Potter dining hall.’

The students have started calling it the “Harry Potter dining hall,” and with good reason.

That’s the look that will be created by an ambitious initiative to transform the ornate but very much underused chapel at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) into a next-generation dining commons.

The undertaking, the second phase of a much larger strategic initiative that comes with an $18 million price tag, will enable the school to make far better use of not only the chapel, but the current dining hall, which will be converted into an auditorium and event space.

“This is going to be stunning,” Head of School Brian Easler said. “Because the music department is under the current dining hall, it will be a much more efficient use of space. Right now, we use the chapel once a week for 20 minutes for school meeting; other than that, it stays vacant, which is a shame because it’s the most beautiful building on the campus. So we’ll use the most beautiful building as the heart of the school.”

Perhaps the best part about all this, Easler said, is that the idea for converting the chapel into a dining hall came from a student, who was looking at a 3D scale model of the campus created by the architectural firm handing the project and put forth a powerful ‘what if?’ (more on that later).

Transformation of the chapel, the timing of which is dependent on fundraising — which is off to a solid start, according to Easler — is not the only landscape-altering development taking shape on or just off Main Street in Wilbraham.

Indeed, there’s also new construction just down the road from WMA, where, on the site of three demolished buildings, a mixed-use facility is taking shape, one that will house a brewery, an Italian restaurant, additional commercial businesses, and seven apartments.

This development, called the Center Village project — on top of other emerging and established success stories across town — is expected to spur new development in what is considered the town, or village, center, although it still doesn’t look much like a center, said Mike Mazzuca, chair of Wilbraham’s resurrected Economic Development Committee.

“We want to look at how we can create a true downtown for Wilbraham,” he said, noting that there is real potential for business to thrive beyond the Boston Road corridor.

Jeff Smith, another member of the committee and co-owner, with his wife, Amy, of one of those Wilbraham-based businesses, New England Promotional Marketing (NEPM), agreed.

“Back in the ’80s, there was a lot more going on in the town center, and it was used more,” he explained, noting, for example, that the post office was there before it was relocated to Boston Road. “Things changed, a couple of the buildings became vacant, and there was less and less activity there. Now that there will be more activity, we believe that will spur more development.”

Mazzuca added that, while one of the committee’s primary goals is to bring new commerce, vibrancy, businesses, and especially people to the town center, its larger mission is to send a message, loud and clear, that Wilbraham is ‘open for business.’

It always has been, he said, but it has also always been a mostly residential community and among the region’s unofficial ‘best places to live.’ It can still be that, he went on, while also building on a somewhat impressive portfolio of businesses — most of them small, most of them retail or service in nature, and most of them on Boston Road.

As it goes about its work, the Economic Development Committee will promote all that Wilbraham has to offer, said both Mazzuca and Smith, adding that there are many amenities on that list, starting with a single tax rate and continuing with available tax-increment financing; a vibrant business corridor (Boston Road) that boasts traffic counts of 12,000 cars a day; proximity to Springfield, Ludlow, Hampden, Palmer, and Monson; a diverse existing business base; high-speed internet; and more.

“We want to help out and be a liaison between the municipality, the permitting authorities, and the actual businesses, with the ultimate goal of getting that message across that we are open for business.”

Smith said the committee is working to parlay these assets and the current momentum in the town on Main Street, Boston Road, and beyond into new business opportunities.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Wilbraham and all that goes into that phrase ‘open for business.’

 

Food for Thought

As he recounted that now-famous session where students and the architects were discussing what should come next — and where — on WMA’s campus, Easler could hardly contain his sense of pride in the fact that one of his students had masterminded what will be the signature component of the largest building initiative at this private school in anyone’s memory.

“The architect was leading them through a brainstorming exercise, focusing on three primary questions: what do we need? Where should it go? And what should happen first?” he recalled. “We were at that part where he was asking them where things should go, and the specific question was ‘is the dining hall in the right place?’

“The kids were chatting and moving blocks around, when one of the boys said, ‘what if we made the chapel into a dining hall?’” Easler continued. “There was a nervous chuckle around the table for about five seconds, and then there was a 10-second pause where you could see the wheels turning in everyone’s head. And then there was just this ‘a-ha’ moment where everyone went, ‘that is an awesome idea.’”

And an idea that will become reality … soon, when enough money is raised to commence construction, said Easler, noting that fundraising, which involves almost exclusively alumni of the school, is progressing well, but there is a good amount still to be raised.

mixed-use facility taking shape on Main Street in Wilbraham

The mixed-use facility taking shape on Main Street in Wilbraham is expected to spur new development in the town center.

As noted earlier, renovation of the chapel is just part of a much larger undertaking designed to enable WMA to make better, more effective use of existing facilities, said Easler, noting that the chapel itself has served the school as a meeting place, and there simply haven’t been many meetings there.

The project also calls for the existing dining commons, on the other side of Main Street from the chapel and most classroom facilities, to be converted into an auditorium with stadium seating, with the existing kitchen to be used for back-of-house functions for that facility.

“This will have a really remarkable impact on the campus, and the town, actually — it will reduce pedestrian traffic on Main Street by about 70%,” Easler told BusinessWest, noting that dining facilities will now be on the same side of the street as classes, dramatically reducing the number of times students will have to cross the street each day.

Beyond that, it will give the arts program a functioning theater (the current dining hall), a dramatic improvement over existing ‘black box’ facilities, and the students will have the ‘Harry Potter dining hall.’

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,613
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.70
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

And the school, which is currently at full enrollment, will be in an even better position to recruit young people to the campus, he said.

“Boarding school, and private school in general, is about the experience,” Easler said. “We have top-notch education, rigorous and supportive programs, lots of things people can do outside of academics … but a big reason people choose to invest in us is because it’s an experience they can’t get in a public school or a day school. And a big part of experience is having facilities like these to support it — like that dining room.”

 

Progress Report

There has been considerable momentum at WMA generated by several projects in recent years, including the building of a new athenaeum and conversion of the basement of the science building into a 5,000-square-foot innovation lab, and these advances constitute just some of the positive developments on Main Street and beyond in this community of around 14,600.

Michelle Buck, Wilbraham’s Planning and Community Development director, cited several signs of growth and progress across town.

That list includes several new developments on Boston Road, including a new Starbucks now under construction in front of Home Depot, once the site of a bank branch that was demolished; parking-lot expansion of the Lia Toyota dealership; a new Golden Nozzle car wash; a new fitness center called Cycle & Praise; and an outdoor dining facility for Route 20 Bar & Grille, as well as a large solar farm soon to be under construction on Three Rivers Road.

But the most visible — and most impactful — development, she said, is the emerging home for Scantic River Brewery, the ‘new’ Parfumi’s Pizza (the current version is right next door), seven apartments, and, hopefully, other small businesses. Center Village is an important development for the community, said all those we spoke with, not only because of what is planned for the site, but because of how it might make the town’s center more of a destination and spur additional development.

“It’s an exciting project that could bring more people to Main Street,” Buck said, adding that, while town leaders want to cluster most commercial activity on Boston Road, there is certainly opportunity for development in other areas of town.

Mazzuca agreed, and said bringing new businesses to Wilbraham is overarching mission of what would be called the ‘new’ Economic Development Committee, which has been working on a number of fronts simultaneously.

One has been bringing some of the businesses displaced by the closing and demolition of the nearby Eastfield Mall to the town. The committee helped secure Boston Road addresses for two of them — Mall Barbers and School of Fish — through the use of ARPA funds to help with relocation expenses.

The other major front has been ongoing work to bring more businesses and vibrancy to the downtown area, which, as Smith noted, was more of a destination 30 or 40 years ago, and can be again through developments like the Center Village project and others that might come to the drawing board because of it.

The broad goal, he said, is to create a walkable downtown and an attractive mix of businesses that will effectively serve those living in Wilbraham and surrounding communities.

“Looking north and south on Main Street, we have a farmers’ market now at the church once a week, and some activity at WMA,” he said. “So we want to look at the whole picture of the way vehicles and pedestrians interface, and revamp that. The first concern would be safety, and the second would be convenience — and it’s convenience that attracts people. There’s a snowball effect.”
He said similar efforts to revitalize town centers and downtowns are taking place in communities across the country, and those on the committee are looking at what communities of similar size and demographics are undertaking to do some benchmarking and adopt best practices.

“The ultimate goal of the Economic Development Committee is to be a liaison for businesses locating in Wilbraham,” Smith explained. “We want to help out and be a liaison between the municipality, the permitting authorities, and the actual businesses, with the ultimate goal of getting that message across that we are open for business.”

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

To say that the still-emerging cannabis sector has had a profound impact on the local economy, and the local landscape, would be a huge understatement.

Indeed, this sector, now just over six years old in the Commonwealth, has brought much-needed revenue to area cities and towns, several hundred new jobs, and new life to dormant or underperforming properties ranging from old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton to the Springfield Newspapers building.

No one really knew just what to expect when this new business took off, but few could have expected this kind of impact.

And while nothing was easy for anyone getting into this sector — there are steep costs and a mountain of regulations to meet — it has been, for the most part, a ticket to success.

That’s has been.

As the stories make clear, the cannabis sector has already entered a new and exponentially more difficult phase of its existence. Competition is growing, both in this region and in neighboring states; prices are coming down; margins are becoming ever-more thin; and profitability is becoming more difficult.

To make a long story short, the laws of supply of demand are starting to catch up with this sector.

In the beginning, meaning just a few years ago, there was huge demand and not nearly as much supply as there is now. We can all recall the long lines of people around those first dispensaries that opened in this region.

It was these lines that hinted at just how lucrative this business could be, and they helped lead entrepreneurs with capital and a sense of adventure to stake a claim during what some came to call a ‘green rush.’

What these entrepreneurs are realizing, and most of them realized it long ago, is that there is a limit when it comes to just how big this pie can become. And as more people want a slice … well, the slices will get smaller and smaller.

In this environment, communities — smart ones, anyway — will take steps to limit the number of licenses, thus enabling those operating at least a fighting chance to succeed. Meanwhile, individual business owners will have to focus on quality, customer service, branding, and, overall, separating themselves from the competition and finding what it will take to survive in a changing, more competitive environment.

In that respect, they will have to be like business owners in every sector where the consumers have choices and exercise their right to choose.

History has shown that, in situations like this, it becomes a matter of survival of the fittest. And it will be the same with this sector, which has changed the landscape in all kinds of ways and continues to do so.

Cannabis has been a game changer for this region and this state, but now, the cannabis game itself is changing. It will be interesting to watch as the new chapter in this intriguing story unfolds.

Berkshire County

Changing the Narrative

Created through the merger of several economic-development-focused agencies, 1Berkshire has a broad mission statement, but it can be boiled down to making this unique region a better place in which to live, work, and do business.

Jonathan Butler says he grew up during what was, in most all respects, a down time for many communities in the Berkshires.

This was a period — a few decades in length, by most estimates — when General Electric in Pittsfield and Sprague Electric in North Adams were slowly disappearing from the landscape and taking roughly 25,000 jobs with them.

Butler told BusinessWest that he’s heard countless stories about what it was like when those huge employers were in their heyday and the downtown streets were clogged with people on payday — and every other day, for that matter — and seemingly everyone who wanted or needed a job had one.

“But that’s not part of my narrative,” he said, adding that he grew up on the other side of all that, when the downtowns were populated largely by empty storefronts and jobs were much harder to come by.

“The good-old-days stories are actually getting quite old,” he went on. “That’s because a few generations have grown up not knowing them.”

Instead, there are new stories being told, said Butler, involving everything from ziplining to craft beers; from health spas to new and exotic eateries; from communities’ populations getting larger to populations getting younger.

Indeed, the best stories involve people — a lot of them just like Butler — who grew up during those darker times, left the area (because that’s what they thought they had to do), and are now coming back to enjoy all of those things mentioned above.

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“The good-old-days stories are actually getting quite old. That’s because a few generations have grown up not knowing them.”

“We’ve really changed the narrative around what it’s like to live in the Berkshires,” he noted. “People my age that grew up here, went away, and have had the chance to come back, whether it’s to live here or visit family, are shocked at what they see.”

This changing of the narrative was and is the unofficial mission statement for 1Berkshire, an economic-development-focused organization that resulted from the merger of four agencies — the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, the Berkshire Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Berkshire Economic Development Corp., and Berkshire Creative, a support organization for entrepreneurs and those involved in the arts.

Housed in an historic former firehouse called Central Station in downtown Pittsfield, 1Berkshire’s employees are focused on a number of strategic initiatives collectively aimed at advancing the region’s economy and making this a better place to live, work, visit, and operate a business.

“We spend a lot of time and energy bringing visitors to the Berkshires, but we also spend significant time and energy promoting this as a place for families and for people to relocate to,” he explained.

The ‘visit’ component has always been a huge part of the equation, said Butler, noting that tourism has long been the primary economic driver in the Berkshires. That’s still true today, but visitation is becoming more diversified, or “rounded out,” as he termed it.

 

“We have an extremely robust visitor experience here,” he noted, adding that that tourism spending, up 30% over the past decade ago, now averages about $500 million a year. “There’s the performing arts, the visual arts … but we’ve also become established as a food economy — dining in the Berkshires is great, for the foodie audience but also the more traditional audiences.

“There’s a farm-to-table component of our economy — there’s a lot of agritourism — and there’s also the recreational economy: hiking, biking, adventure sports, scenic rail, and more,” he went on. “People have always come here for nature and culture, but what’s catching up is the recreational economy and the health and wellness economy.”

But those other parts of the puzzle are equally important, he went on, adding that 1Berkshire is also committed to bringing people here to live, work, and start and grow businesses.

Overall, the agency was conceived as a “better way to do economic development,” said Butler, and to date, the evidence, both qualitative and quantitative in nature, would show that it’s succeeding in that role.

“Over the past 15 to 20 years, the Berkshires have been re-energized, but there are still a number of challenges,” he said, adding that the largest involves ongoing efforts to attract young people and lower the age of the region’s population, a vital component to overall vitality and economic sustainability.

For this issue and its focus on Berkshire County, BusinessWest talked with Butler about 1Berkshire and how it has gone about helping to change the narrative in this unique corner of the Commonwealth.

New Breed of Economic Development

‘The Year of the Dog.’

That was the name attached to the 63rd annual Fall Foliage Parade, staged on Sept. 30 in downtown North Adams. When asked, Butler was more than willing to explain, and started by noting that an elementary-school class in that community has the honor of coming up with a name to accompany the much-anticipated event, which draws thousands to that town.

“This is the Chinese Year of the Dog, and they recently opened a dog museum in North Adams,” he noted, referring to the facility located in the former Quinn’s Paint & Wallpaper Co. on Union Street. “So … it all makes sense.”

There was a huge banner at the top of the 1Berkshire website hyping the parade, he said, adding that the promotional support for such traditional gatherings is just one of many functions carried out by the agency.

There’s also something called simply ‘the jobs thing.’ This is a job-posting site on that same website (1berkshire.com). All positions listed (and there is a fee for such postings) must be for jobs in Berkshire County and come with a salary of at least $40,000. Those doing some browsing can search by field (they range from administrative and clerical to hospitality and tourism to sales and advertising) and by experience (entry-level, mid-level, and senior-level).

1Berkshire also has an events calendar filled with a host of programs, including a youth-leadership program and Berkshire Young Professionals events; a ‘relocation’ button on its website that enables visitors to explore every community from Adams to Windsor; and ‘featured opportunities,’ such as a ‘Get Mentored’ program that pairs selected entrepreneurs with experienced mentors. Applications are being accepted now for the winter session.

“We’ve really changed the narrative around what it’s like to live in the Berkshires. People my age that grew up here, went away, and have had the chance to come back, whether it’s to live here or visit family, are shocked at what they see.”

Then there’s the Berkshire Blueprint, a detailed strategic plan for the region — similar in many ways to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress — that was first drafted in 2007 and is now being updated.

All of these are examples of how 1Berkshire is carrying out that aforementioned assignment — to find a better way to do economic development, said Butler, who was hired to lead the Berkshire Chamber four years ago, and spent much of the next 18 months working out the merger of the chamber and the convention and visitors bureau into 1Berkshire.

Overall, two years after the all the components of this agency came together, the venture is proving to be much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Going back those four years, he said several of the smaller economic-development-related agencies were doing good work but struggling to keep the doors open financially. Discussions commenced on the many potential benefits from bringing them together under one roof and one administrator, he went on, adding that this somewhat unique economic-development model became reality.

That uniqueness is matched by the region itself, he went on, adding that, while the Berkshires is part of Western Mass., or the 413, as many call it, in many, if not all, respects, it is more than just one of four counties.

“We’re a little bit of our own place,” he explained. “We have our own identity, our own brand. People actually know the Berkshires of Massachusetts on a national level, and even internationally, as a destination. But we’re small — only 135,000 people, with about one-third of them living in Pittsfield.”

That small population is matched by a small economy anchored by a few large employers — General Dynamics and a few banks, for example — and dominated in most ways by tourism.

There are many benefits to living and working in the region, Butler went on, adding that 1Berkshire exists primarily to educate people about them and encourage them to take full advantage of it all.

Right Place, Right Time

To carry out its multi-faceted mission, 1Berskshire, with an annual budget of roughly $2 million, relies on revenue from a number of different streams.

They include membership dues — there are currently about 1,000 members — as well as larger donations from so-called ‘investors,’ major employers such as Berkshire Bank, Greylock Federal Credit Union, and General Dynamics. There is also revenue from website advertisements (a spot hyping a Harry Potter-inspired Halloween party at the Blantyre is among those on the site now), the jobs initiative, and other programs; there are actually two web sites — berkshires.org, the primary visitor portal for the region, and 1berkshire.com.

And there is state money, because the convention and visitors bureau is part of the mix and is funded in part by the Commonwealth, and also because the agency is a regional economic-development council.

As noted earlier, a primary function of the agency is to drive visitation to the region, because tourism has a very broad impact on overall vibrancy in the region.

“With visitation, there is a ripple effect that goes well beyond the traditional visitor-stakeholder economy,” Butler explained. “It has an impact on the quality of our downtowns. We have much more vibrant downtowns today than we did 20 years ago, whether it’s Pittsfield, Lee, or Great Barrington. Those communities have benefited from visitor activity, which has made them a better place to live. It’s had a ripple effect into downtown housing projects, new restaurants and eateries, and things to do.

But there are many other aspects to the mission, he went on, listing everything from advocacy for members to the all-important work aimed at bringing new residents to the area, not just tourists.

Tracing his own career, Butler said that, after earning a graduate degree, he went to work for the Commonwealth in economic development and later for state Sen. Ben Downing in the State House.

He “worked his way back” to the Berkshires, as he put it, and worked as town manager for the city of Adams for six years before becoming director of the chamber.

Now, in his new role, he and his staff are working to encourage others to work their way to the Berkshires, or discover it for the first time, not as a place to leaf-peep or hike or ski — although they can do all of that — but as a place to live.

And this is important work, he said, because so many young people of his generation did in fact leave, in part because so many jobs disappeared, leaving communities demographically older and less vibrant.

But many are returning because what they see now is not the Berkshires of their youth.

“There are so many stories of people who choose, after they get their careers started, to come back to the Berkshires,” he explained. “The dialogue for them when they were kids might have been that they needed to get their college degrees and go off somewhere where there was lots of opportunity and be successful.

“Now, that dialogue is starting to shift to ‘go out, get your degree, experience the world, and why not come back to the Berkshires?’” he went on. “That’s important — that’s really important — and we’re seeing more and more of it.”

Good ‘New’ Days

Getting back to those stories about when the major manufacturers like GE were humming, Butler said they’re getting so old, they’re not really worth telling anymore.

That was a different Berkshires region, and so was the one he grew up with in the ’90s.

The Berkshires of today is not like either of those Berkshires. It is different, vibrant, diverse, and always changing — in short, it’s a different narrative, he explained.

Creating that narrative and making the story known is what 1Berskshire is all about, and four years after its formation, it is thriving in that all-important role.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]