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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza

Armata’s rebuilt plaza (rendering).

Armata’s plaza

After being ravaged by a fire, Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza (rendering above).

Longmeadow is a quintessential small town, veined by Route 5 and a few other arteries and lined with historical homes dating back to before the Revolutionary War. But with a much higher percentage of residential properties than businesses, townspeople have long rallied around the town’s small commercial sectors.

“Our economic development is not so much what you would see in some of the larger cities around us, but Longmeadow has held pretty strong, certainly, over the past three or four years now,” said Lyn Simmons, town manager. “We did not have as much of an impact from COVID as some of those other larger communities that have large retail sectors … but this past year has been pretty good. I think a lot of them are trying to get back to whatever this new normal looks like for us.”

Coming out of the pandemic, the small clusters of business in town have kept residents engaged, said Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, adding that the Longmeadow Shops have “done a wonderful job” with their ‘Stroll the Shops’ initiative and creating activities to keep town residents involved.

“It brings business in, they’ve got shops, they’ve got dining there, and then, across the street, you have more shopping. Wonderful things are happening there.”

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go. From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

Residents and folks from out of town can stop at Alex’s Bagel Shop as they get off the I-91 exit onto Longmeadow Street or stop at the Shops for retail therapy and a bite to eat.

The Maple Center shopping plaza, which was ravaged by a fire a little over a year ago, has long been an attraction as well. Students and their families from Bay Path University frequent the stores, adding to the impact of the economic development.

Bay Path, in fact, is closely identified with Longmeadow, drawing faculty, staff, and students into town from the surrounding areas of Northern Conn. and Western Mass. Barone explained that, even though the college has been in business for 150 years, its “bones and integrity” are still very present.

“What you loved about it 30 years ago is still what you love about it; it still has those great bones, and that’s so important because sometimes, as communities or businesses grow, they grow so much that they lose sight of who they are and what their mission is. I feel [Bay Path] managed to hold onto that really well in Longmeadow.”

 

Out with the Old

Despite the tragic loss of Armata’s Market and a few other shops in Maple Center, store owner Alexis Vallides is looking forward to a fresh start.

Armata’s Market was founded in 1963 by the Armata family and purchased by the Vallides family in the early 2000s. Vallides told BusinessWest that she knew running a business was something she always wanted to do.

“It’s in my blood. I’m fourth generation in my family business,” she said, noting that her great-grandfather immigrated from Greece and launched a career in the food industry. “After I graduated from college, I took a bigger role, and there’s just an opportunity to kind of slide in there.”

The small grocery store had expanded over the decade she had run it; it wasn’t just known for its meats anymore, but also deli foods, prepared hot and cold meals, and a from-scratch bakery.

“We were in a pretty good groove at that point, and people had caught on,” Vallides said. “And we had become pretty well-known. Anytime you would pull into our parking lot, you’d see half Connecticut plates and half Massachusetts plates. So I know we had a good following, and I feel like we definitely did impact the town of Longmeadow economically.”

The fire that tore through the plaza the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2021 completely decimated Armata’s, the Bottle Shop, and Iron Chef. A hair and nail salon were also displaced after the tragedy. The fire’s origin is still listed as undetermined, and no report has been released by the state fire marshal’s office. The lead investigator has retired, and the town is still looking for a replacement.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.64
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

“It had a massive impact on those neighborhoods there,” Simmons said. “Those people that just ran out to grab some milk or order dinner and pick it up quickly … we saw a big impact just from people’s day-to-day lives, with the convenience of having those offerings there. And certainly there’s the impact to the people that worked in all of those businesses, especially at that time of year. It was really hard.”

However, through tragedy came resiliency and determination. Vallides and her team continued to provide turkey dinners, deliveries, and from-scratch baked goods that holiday season. The people of Longmeadow rallied around them and are excited for their eventual return.

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go,” she said. “From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

 

In with the New

As the town gears up for 2023, there is plenty of anticipation about when Maple Center will be rebuilt. The town is currently working with the owners of the property on their rebuilding plans and are going through the hearing process soon, hopefully starting construction within the next few months.

Vallides told BusinessWest she has signed an intent to return with the landlord, but not an official lease yet. At the moment, the new floor plan for Armata’s is expected to be 3,000 feet larger than it was previously.

Right now, she is hard at work with her team as they move into Village Food Mart in Hampden. A second location was always a possibility, but the opportunity had to be right before jumping in.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns.”

“The fire isn’t the only reason we went to Hampden. I would like to believe that, if we still had Armata’s standing today, we still would have taken up the opportunity,” she said. “I think Hampden Village Food Mart resonates a lot with me because it is very similar to Armata’s in many ways, so that’s the kind of opportunity that I was looking for — I didn’t want to just take the first opportunity that came to me. It had to be something that was going to align with what we had built for the brand of Armata’s.”

Barone agreed. If it wasn’t for the support of locals and outside shoppers, there wouldn’t be such a push for the small market to come back.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns. It speaks volumes for Armata’s, and it speaks volumes for the people in the town of Longmeadow,” Barone said. “Everybody longs for them to come back. So instead of going to that little corner, we have to go up the street to the Longmeadow Shops, and there’s some great restaurants there. It’s a change in routine. We just have to wait and see what’s to come in the new phase.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For Longmeadow Town Manager Lyn Simmons, it’s been quite a first year on the job.

With 16 years of experience in municipal government in of Northampton — the last six years as chief of staff for Mayor David Narkewicz — Simmons became Longmeadow’s town manager a year ago this month. After three months on the job, Longmeadow — like the entire world — found itself in uncharted territory.

As challenging as the pandemic has been, Simmons said one positive has been the opportunity to build relationships with department heads and the emergency-management team much faster than she might have under less-hectic circumstances.

“We had to come together quickly and navigate all of this together,” Simmons said. “As difficult as the pandemic has been, the team that’s in place here and the relationships that we’ve formed have made dealing with it much easier.”

She also credits Longmeadow residents for their response in handling the pandemic, noting that people in town are adhering to public-health guidelines and taking personal responsibility. “We see people social distancing, wearing masks, and doing what they need to do to help protect themselves, their families, and our community.”

Lyn Simmons

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation.”

Because most residents complied with state mandates, Longmeadow experienced low numbers of the coronavirus throughout the summer. While the number of cases in town has begun to increase during the fall, this reflects the overall trend in Western Mass. and across the state, Simmons said, adding that a team of municipal employees is monitoring pandemic-related grants and other funding sources that might be available through the state and federal government.

“The pandemic has certainly been a disruption to normal life, whether it’s doing business with town offices or making adjustments to programs that are run by the Parks and Rec department, or the Adult Center,” she noted. But business not been halted, and as she spoke with BusinessWest, she outlined some of the ways progress continues in this small, residential town.

Worth Their Salt

In the midst of all the COVID-related disruption, Simmons points to two town projects she calls bright spots during these challenging times. First, a new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility — a $24 million project on Dwight Road, on the site of a former tennis club — is nearing completion.

The second project is the $14 million Adult Center, where finishing touches are being applied as it gets closer to opening day. While the Council on Aging will have a large presence, the Parks and Recreation department will also run programs and activities from the facility, making it a resource for all residents.

After COVID-19 hit, safety protocols were implemented at the DPW and Adult Center sites to allow construction work to continue and keep both projects on track to open in early 2021.

“The only disruption we had occurred earlier in the spring when the subcontractor who was providing and installing a salt-storage shed was quarantined crossing the state line from New York,” Simmons said. “We’ve been able to move past that, and the salt shed is fully constructed now.”

With 95% of property in Longmeadow devoted to residential dwellings, town officials pay close attention to activity in the real-estate market. Like most towns, the normal sales bump that occurs each spring was delayed by the pandemic. Sales activity returned in July and has remained brisk since then, with most houses selling at the asking price.

“We’ve been able to capture that strong real-estate market,” Simmons said. “On average, houses are staying on the market for about 20 days; low interest rates have certainly helped.”

The demographics in Longmeadow have remained similar to what they’ve historically been. Simmons said the town has a healthy mix of approximately 29% families and about 30% in the over-60 demographic. One key indicator that remains steady is school enrollment, where no declines have been reported.

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation,” she noted.

Looking to the future, the town owns a 10-acre parcel on Academy Drive known as the Water Tower property. Prior to the pandemic, the area was under consideration for an over-55 housing development. If this project moves forward, Simmons said, it might solve a dilemma for many seniors in town. Many aging residents want to continue to live in Longmeadow but would also like to downsize from their current home to one-level living, and an over-55 housing development could be a good solution.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.21
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.21
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

“Once we get the pandemic behind us, I expect our discussions of this site to be dusted off and brought back into the public sphere,” she added.

Meanwhile, conversations about two other potential projects are continuing, including development of a former church at the intersection of Williams Street and Redfern Drive with a different use, and a project on Williams Street that involves building a long-term-care facility. “As far as I know, those plans are still in the works,” Simmons said of the latter plan, “but it’s been slow-moving.”

 

Sharing Resources

More concrete progress can be found on a regional level. Last year, Longmeadow joined with Chicopee to form an emergency communications center called WESTCOMM. By taking a regional approach to emergency dispatch calls, both towns save money, increase efficiency, and have backup support when multiple calls come into either town.

Now nearly a year into the program, WESTCOMM has been a great success — and is growing, Simmons said. “Since WESTCOMM launched in December, we’ve added two more communities this year, when East Longmeadow and Monson came on board with Longmeadow and Chicopee.”

WESTCOMM currently operates out of the Chicopee Police Department, but officials are exploring a move to a larger facility as more communities come on board. Simmons said she expects to hear more about that in the coming year.

Before the pandemic, Longmeadow was looking to share some public-health services with neighboring East Longmeadow. Because the health departments and boards of health for both towns are expending all their energy on COVID-19 concerns, that project has been set aside at least until the pandemic is over, she added. “Looking at a merger of two health departments right now is a little more than we can take on at the moment.”

Simmons was born and raised in Northampton, and she first became familiar with Longmeadow while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Bay Path University.

As she completes her first year as Longmeadow’s town manager, she’s proud of how well people in the community have responded throughout the pandemic.

“I appreciate everyone’s understanding and support as we all try to get through this time together,” she said. “I am really looking forward to the new year when we will open both the new DPW and Adult Center in town.”

Simmons added that she can’t wait for the public to see both buildings and hopes to take residents on tours of the new facilities when they formally open in 2021 — a year when municipal leaders in all communities hope they can put COVID-19 behind them and are able to focus fully on the future once again.

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