The town of Agawam sits on the banks of the Connecticut River, a prime location for its original inhabitants, the Agawam native tribe, and later William Pynchon and other settlers who bought the land in 1636.
Centuries later, the town that sits by the river retains a rural character, at least outside its main business arteries, surrounded by larger cities like Westfield, West Springfield, Chicopee, and Springfield.
Now that the Morgan Bridge construction is finally complete, new businesses and developments are making their way into town to call it home.
“The bridge slowed development because no one was going to try to develop on the land across from it and try to get people to come if they couldn’t get over the bridge. So we’re looking forward to a lot of the development that’s planned,” Agawam Mayor Bill Sapelli said.
Unlike other cities, Agawam doesn’t have many big-box stores or chain establishments. Yes, Wendy’s, McDonalds, Stop & Shop, and Rocky’s Ace Hardware have a presence here — as does one of the country’s top theme parks, Six Flags New England — but the town is mostly made up of small, local businesses and some manufacturing.
Many of the businesses in town have been thriving in Agawam for a long time, surviving through challenges ranging from the Great Recession to COVID, Planning Director Pam Kerr said.
“The bridge slowed development because no one was going to try to develop on the land across from it and try to get people to come if they couldn’t get over the bridge. So we’re looking forward to a lot of the development that’s planned.”
One of those businesses that has thrived and is now expanding is Hood Milk, originally founded in Charlestown in 1846 and later opening its largest plant in Agawam in 1960.
“Hood purchased the old Southworth Paper Company adjacent to them. That’s a big, big building, and they just did a complete renovation of their existing building, a facelift that really looks good,” Sapelli said. “So they’re a very good neighbor to Agawam. They’ve been here for a very long time, and they’re expanding, which is great news.”
He and Robin Wozniak, director of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce, agreed that renovations and redevelopment spur growth in the town’s overall economy, helping Agawam businesses prosper and stay in town.
Another local staple in Agawam is Cooper’s Commons, located on the “most traveled road in town,” Route 159. It is a marketplace with a variety of specialty shops, services, and offices where locals and travelers can eat, drink, shop, work, and more.
Sapelli explained that the Commons are important to Agawam for many reasons, including the ones mentioned above, but most importantly to bring new businesses and residents into town.
“When you talk about Cooper’s Commons and places like that, anytime we have a specific destination for somebody to come, like Cooper’s, especially this time of year, it brings people into town, and it benefits the town in many ways,” he said. “Businesses like that just foster more businesses and more residents by attracting people to come into town to begin with.”
Harvest of Success
In the coming year, both Kerr and the mayor said they were excited for the businesses coming into the area.
Even though a few businesses were lost during the pandemic, Sapelli told BusinessWest, small business in the town is growing; for example, two new realty companies set up shop in the past year, along with multiple restaurants.
In October, Autumn Mist Farm and its farm-to-table restaurant opened its doors, replacing the old 911 Burgers and Dogs restaurant. Derrick Turnbull has been raising beef cattle since he was 11 years old on his parents’ farm. With the family business having played a vital role in his life, he’s now teaching it to his daughters.
“All of this shows that Agawam is really taking steps necessary to help the small businesses grow, flourish, prosper, and stay in Agawam.”
On his website, Turnbull says he is “blessed to walk out the door and go to work with all active family members in the business.” And locals feel the same way.
“The Autumn Mist farm-to-table restaurant is on the same street that the farm is on, where the animals are raised. And people really like the idea of that, knowing that they’re getting fresh and local meat,” Kerr said.
Keeping the environment in mind, selling locally reduces the carbon footprint that the beef industry creates, he noted. The farm’s customers are restaurants and college dining facilities interested in serving fresh and local food. The Turnbull family also has a beef contract with Big Y, a chain that has focused on buying local for many years.
Wozniak explained that the mission of the chamber is to help support these small businesses through the challenging times and get their faces out there, working closely with the mayor and municipal leaders.
Agawam at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1636
Area: 24.2 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $15.78
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.19
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available
“Bringing in businesses into those empty storefronts, those little mini-plazas that do have some empty storefronts, keeping those filled and keeping people coming within Agawam and from outside of Agawam to purchase their goods and services. that’s obviously just going to help Agawam in the long run,” she said. “So ensuring that the businesses stay in business is the chamber’s mission, and also helping the new businesses come in with ease and helping them showcase who they are.”
She explained that bigger, more well-established businesses can roll with the challenges created by the pandemic, the changing economy, and the workforce crunch. But the town’s job is to be “that middleman” to ensure its part of Western Mass. grows with a focus on helping small businesses become bigger ones.
Culture of Support
Not only are town officials helping small businesses thrive, businesses are helping each other, like Six Flags aiding the Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
On Dec. 17, the amusement park donated its parking lots and staff to assist with parking almost 4,000 cars for Wreaths Across America, the annual event to remember and honor veterans through the laying of remembrance wreaths on graves and saying the name of every veteran aloud. King Gray Coach Lines also donated its bigger buses to shuttle people to and from the Six Flags lots to the cemetery.
“All of this shows that Agawam is really taking steps necessary to help the small businesses grow, flourish, prosper, and stay in Agawam,” Wozniak said. “The mayor and the council being transparent and helping the businesses get anything they need to enhance their business, and the ease of that, makes it very enticing for new businesses to come to Agawam.”