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Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise says Palmer has looked into several family-friendly attractions to draw more people to town.

Three years ago, when Ryan McNutt took the job as Palmer’s town manager, he observed that, when people entered town from Mass Pike exit 8 (now exit 63), they encountered a Big Y World Class Market, a McDonald’s, a couple of other businesses, and lots of empty parcels all around them on Thorndike Street.

“You don’t typically see this near a turnpike exit; it’s usually built out with commercial real estate,” he said, adding that town residents — and those passing through — may soon see the landscape change in a meaningful way.

Indeed, McNutt has been working with other town officials and with landowners to take advantage of the considerable opportunities these empty lots present.

“The landowners have met with several national chains, and I can now share that one of the projects will be a Starbucks coffee shop,” he said.

Linda Leduc, the town planner and Economic Development director, is working on finding a retail tenant and a sit-down restaurant to join the planned Starbucks. She said turning these chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses gives a big boost to Palmer residents.

“Just seeing the cleanup happen on two of the lots we’re developing is getting people excited,” she added.

Far from a scattershot approach, these commercial developments are part of a master plan the town compiled and published at the end of 2020. McNutt said this is the first master plan for Palmer since 1975.

“We had an amazing amount of public input on the plan,” he noted. “When you put the meetings on Zoom, more people show up.”

The plan addresses commercial, residential, and protected open space in Palmer. McNutt said it helps prioritize the “low-hanging fruit” where the town should put its energy now, as well as projects that can be done later. The master plan lists 20 underdeveloped sites in Palmer, 12 of which are in the process of being developed or close to that point.

“Instead of getting off the pike and just driving through, there are going to be lots of opportunities for people to stop and spend money in Palmer,” Leduc said.

 

Right Place, Right Time?

One significant potential development area is known as ‘the hill.’

As drivers exit from the turnpike, they are immediately confronted by a large hill at the end of the exit ramp. On top of the hill are nearly 100 acres of land available for development. The hill was once the proposed site for a casino until voters in Palmer rejected those plans. Recently, the Town Council approved a zone change that made an adjacent 78-acre parcel available for business use and further incentivize a large-scale project for the land.

“We’ve always seen interest in development of the hill,” said McNutt, adding that there is optimism that interest may soon turn into progress and some recognized needs met.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer. The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

One priority residents have shared with him involves bringing another supermarket to Palmer. Big Y has been a stalwart in town for many years and has contributed to various community efforts.

“Big Y is a great company, and they are a great partner, but residents would like to have some other options,” McNutt said. “It’s what I’m hearing the most from people in Palmer.”

Closer to downtown, a recent zone change to the former Converse Middle School has drawn both interest and concern. Andrew Surprise, CEO of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce, said the more business-friendly zone change has drawn interest from a company that would convert the school to an Esports Arena, where video-game players of all levels could compete against others.

“In the New England area, there’s really nothing like this,” said Surprise. “There are some at colleges like UMass Amherst, but those are geared to students on campus rather than the general public.”

The Esports Arena is one of several ideas to bring family-friendly attractions to Palmer. According to Surprise, the town has looked into a water park, a trampoline park, and other attractions.

Linda Leduc

Linda Leduc says turning chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses is a development priority.

“I believe the town will do a feasibility study at some point for the Esports idea as there’s still much to do to make sure the residents approve of it or any other proposed use,” he said.

Through a MassDevelopment program know as the Transformative Development Initiative, Surprise is working on other ways to attract businesses to Palmer. The Vacant Downtown Storefront Program is one that may have some promise for the downtown area. “It provides grant funding for a business to renovate a storefront if they plan to open there,” he explained.

Meanwhile, as interest in more retail grows, another aspect of the town’s economy, tourism and hospitality, is poised for a resurgence after two long years of the pandemic.

Indeed, for the past two years, Surprise has held off publishing the chamber’s tourism guide and visitors directory. The pandemic led to frequent changes and cancellations to event schedules, making publishing the guide seem futile.

Businesses are now contacting Surprise because they want to get their names and events out to the public once again. The new guide is scheduled to be complete by early May and available to the crowds attending the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in mid-May.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer,” he said. “The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

Speaking of breweries, Surprise said Palmer and other towns in the chamber are looking to host a brewery in their community.

“Even though there are lots of breweries in the general area, we have our eyes open for anyone who wants to open a brewery to see if we can help them with any incentives,” he noted.

 

Bridges to the Future

To make Palmer more economically viable, the master plan suggests ensuring proper infrastructure is in place. Two main bridges in town, located on Church Street and Main Street, are both in need of replacing. MassDOT closed the Church Street Bridge in 2019 while the Main Street bridge had minor repairs which will keep it safe for vehicular traffic. The town will soon erect a truss bridge to use while a new Church Street bridge is built.

“The state said it will use some of their infrastructure funding to fully replace the Church Street bridge, but that could take up to five years,” McNutt said. “The truss bridge allows us to keep the bridge open to traffic.”

In MassDOT terms, the Main Street bridge is not in imminent danger, but the town does need to replace it in the future. McNutt said the plan right now is to use the truss bridge on Church Street, then move it to Main Street once the permanent Church Street bridge is complete.

With passage of the federal infrastructure bill, McNutt remains optimistic about the proposed east-west rail proposal across Massachusetts. Currently, the state has three alternative configurations for the rail project, with a stop in Palmer included in all three. McNutt said he’s hopeful that remains the case and looks forward to talking with the state once it is ready to proceed.

“Obviously, this would be transformative for Palmer,” he said, adding that a rail stop will serve to make the town an even more attractive option for new retail and hospitality-related businesses.

Nearly two-thirds of housing in Palmer consists of single-family homes, higher than the state and county averages of just below 60%. McNutt said town leaders are working to attract more permanent housing development for the community.

To that end, work will soon begin on a 200-cottage development at Forest Lake. The plan calls for seasonal cottages that will have water and sewer services. McNutt estimates that, when complete, the cottages will add nearly $800,000 to the tax base in Palmer.

On the other side of Forest Lake, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game plans to build a new boat launch, parking lot, and ADA-accessible fishing pier so people of all abilities can enjoy the water. McNutt estimates the state project and the cottages are about two years away from completion.

“I feel like we’re finally getting to the point where Palmer is going to see lots of great things happening that residents and visitors will be able to enjoy,” Leduc said.

 

 

Bottom Line

Everywhere he goes in town, McNutt carries a copy of the economic-development chapter of the master plan.

“This way, when someone has a question about what we’re doing, I can show them in the plan how we want to create destination locations for them and for folks who have never been here,” he said.

With the proposed east-west rail and a lower cost of living compared to Eastern Mass., McNutt believes Palmer has the right location at the right time, and can take a meaningful step forward in terms of growth and prosperity.

“We’re going to position Palmer as an attractive place to live,” he said, adding that it can, and hopefully will, also become an attractive place for businesses of all kinds to plant roots.

Construction

Steady On

Thomas Crochiere

Thomas Crochiere at the Chicopee property he purchased, renovated, and tenanted up almost two decades ago.

 

Thomas Crochiere had a modest vision for his construction company a quarter-century ago — and, as it turned out, a successful one.

“Having worked for a company with up to 100 employees in the past, I knew I didn’t want to have a large company,” he told BusinessWest. “I was happy with a small company where I could know my employees very well and work with them and manage one or two projects at a time. I didn’t want to have a large plate of projects. So we’ve just continued in that direction for 26 years.”

Crochiere entered the construction world out of college and, as he said, worked for a large company that performed a lot of state and municipal work.

“I was working as a project manager for that company for about 10 years. But I got a little itchy; I wanted to become an owner. So my wife and I started this business back in 1995, and since I’d been doing mostly municipal and state work, and had pretty decent familiarity with that process, we stayed with commercial construction as our primary focus, and we have just picked away at jobs over the years.”

Tom Crochiere and Ann Collins-Crochiere launched Collins-Crochiere Construction Services Inc. in Palmer and rented shop space in Ludlow for a few years. Then, 18 years ago, they came across an eight-acre parcel on McKinstry Avenue in Chicopee, on which sat a large, long building in need of rehabilitation. They saw potential, not only as the company’s headquarters, but as a rental property for service businesses, under the name of Main Street Property Management.

“I was happy with a small company where I could know my employees very well and work with them and manage one or two projects at a time.”

“When we bought this, it was bankrupt, abandoned, contaminated, and pretty much in nasty shape,” he said of the property, which used to be the home of Jahn Foundry in Chicopee, the sister foundry to the Springfield site that suffered a fateful explosion in 1999. “When we bought this, we cleaned it environmentally and then started building it out for modern business space. It’s been hunky dory. But early on, it was a little sketchy.”

It has also helped him keep his employees busy during slow weeks. “We can always find something to improve here, whether it’s painting a hallway or doing some other repair that makes life better for the tenants. That’s been our filler.”

But the day-to-day business has been consistent over the past 26 years. “We have some busy years, some not-so-busy years, and our staffing ranges from around five to 10 employees. The high point was 10, but that was short-lived. It wasn’t as productive or effective as having four, five, or six.

“So we’ve stayed with that, and all of our work generally has been word of mouth,” Crochiere continued. “We don’t do a whole lot of marketing, and work just seems to come to the surface. When we’re finishing a job, someone else calls and has bought a building or is looking at a building or is planning a major renovation. That’s how work seems to fill our schedules. That’s how we got to this point. It’s worked out reasonably well.”

 

Work to Be Done

Crochiere noted several jobs from recent years to give an idea of the company’s work, including a renovation and addition to Ralph’s Blacksmith Shop in Northampton, similar work on a building purchased by Fire Detection Systems in Chicopee, and a renovation and upgrades to an older building purchased by Fire Service Group in Palmer. At Multicultural Community Services in Springfield, Collins-Crochiere tackled an office renovation two years ago and is currently working on a group home for the organization.

“A typical job is, somebody buys a building or is about to purchase a building, and they think they got a great deal on it, and then they invite me to do a walk-through, and I start to think about building codes, ADA codes, energy codes, and I inform my potential client that their budget is about a third of what it should be because the building codes require a certain amount of updating,” he explained.

“In a perfect world, property owners would have a contractor or architect or engineer walk through their building every five years just to give them insight into how far behind the 8-ball they are.”

“They look at me initially with ‘this isn’t part of my financial plan this year,’” he went on. “But we work through it. I work with local architects and engineers to do a full code review and come up with design requirements and upgrade requirements, and then we typically work with the owner to put together a team of subcontractors and suppliers to complete the project.”

In addition, Collins-Crochiere has been a subcontractor to some large electrical and mechanical contractors on state and federal jobs, Crochiere said. “We act as support; sometimes a large mechanical job requires two months of carpentry spread over six months. So we might be that supportive subcontractor to a larger mechanical contractor.”

Over the years, plenty of business has been of the repeat variety, he noted — maybe a former customer is growing and is buying a second or third building, or a first renovation was good for 10 years, and now they call looking for more upgrades or a new addition.

“That’s been nice. And our relationships in Western Mass. have been helpful. We often find that a new customer will call and say he’s spoken to two close friends, looking for a contractor, and our name comes up in both conversations. So he says, ‘I guess you’re someone I should talk to.’ That has led to a few jobs over the years.”

Springfield Technical Community College

One of the company’s recent projects involved repairs to this building at Springfield Technical Community College.

Consistency has been king when it comes to the company’s core of subcontractors and suppliers as well, many of which have been the same for decades.

“It’s been an asset for our business to be able to rely on our relationships with these local subcontractors who bring extra expertise in each of the trades, whether it’s electrical, mechanical, or plumbing. That means fewer surprises. That’s one factor that’s helped us with our consistent delivery of jobs.”

Even at the Chicopee property, the company has done plenty of tenant buildouts and renovations over the years. Crochiere knows properties everywhere are crying out for upgrades, but business owners often don’t realize it.

“In a perfect world, property owners would have a contractor or architect or engineer walk through their building every five years just to give them insight into how far behind the 8-ball they are, because codes change, technology changes, things wear out,” he explained. “And yet, when someone goes to sell their building or someone buys a building or someone plans an upgrade, the owner is frequently shocked at how much they have to do and how expensive a project might be — they only wanted to do a conference room and a bathroom, and it turns out to be a whole lot more.

“After so many years in the business, we’ve come to expect it, but unlike getting your car inspected each year, no one inspects their own building each year. And it would be helpful, I think, for owners to do that,” he went on. “Even with efficiencies, there are some products out there that have a short payback time, but they’re never considered until someone considers a major renovation or is purchasing a building.”

 

New Normal

While, as Crochiere noted earlier, some years have been stronger than others, no one was prepared for the chaos of the early days of COVID-19, and its lingering economic effects.

“When COVID hit, we were here for probably four months during that initial shutdown period, where we have some essential businesses that manufacture products here, so it was nice to be able to do some things to support them and keep our employees busy,” he said.

That was especially fortuitous because the firm had an office renovation in the planning stages, and the client — another essential service — called and decided they didn’t want anyone working in the building for a few months.

While work eventually restarted for contractors during the pandemic, this past year has seen a global supply-chain crunch impact firms of all sizes, and that remains a serious concern (see story on page 15).

“It’s hour to hour — it’s no longer planning for the week, it’s ‘what happened last night? What product isn’t going to get to the job this week that was supposed to be delivered, and it’s now six weeks out?’ It throws a wrench into everything,” Crochiere said.

“But it’s a nationwide issue, and everyone’s aware of it, so customers have been understanding when I send them an e-mail indicating we’ve had a wrinkle in this week’s plan or this month’s plan,” he went on. “Fortunately, our subcontractors are looking forward and trying to purchase long-lead items as early as possible to try to avoid significant effects on jobs. It’s a weekly — no, it’s a daily inconvenience, but everyone is trying to work through it.”

Like other contractors BusinessWest spoke with for this issue, Crochiere said demand for work is plentiful, and once the global issues clear, the future seems bright.

“I think people will continue to want to improve their buildings and make capital improvements to facilitate the changing business environment. Manufacturing has changed a bit over the last two years, and certainly office usage has changed the way we use our spaces. So I expect there will be continued work in the pipeline as a result of people adjusting their business needs.”

The other hindrance to taking on that work is, of course, persistent workforce shortages in construction — an issue that long predates COVID.

“The labor shortage is certainly an issue,” he said. “It does affect us. It would be nice to find another experienced, capable carpenter or laborer or employee, but I’d say those that respond to ads aren’t really employable for the work we do. They either don’t have the skills, don’t have the experience, or they don’t have the driver’s license that’s necessary. The labor shortage is affecting all of our subcontractors and everyone we speak to.”

Crochiere is a believer in construction as a career, though, and would like to see more young people catch the same vision.

“Very few young people are showing interest in the physical labor, but one has to be not just physically capable, but smart — technology is changing in every trade, every business, so it’s a great opportunity for young people who are motivated and want to work, with their hands and with their brain. There’s a lot to learn, but the opportunities are limitless. The lifestyle is good, the income level is good, they’re physically active during the day … it could be a good thing.”

It certainly has been at Collins-Crochiere Construction Services, for 26 years and counting.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop, making it an oft-discussed part of conversations about expanded east-west rail.

As the nation recovers from a year of dealing with COVID-19, Palmer Town Manger Ryan McNutt looks to the future with optimism.

While larger cities had to contend with high COVID infection numbers and revenue losses from business taxes, Palmer maintained low infection numbers and relies more on residential taxes, which remained stable.

These days, as many people in the larger metropolitan areas work from home, there is no certainty they will return to five days a week in the office. That dynamic, McNutt believes, gives Palmer a real opportunity. With the average home price in Palmer at $191,000 compared to the Greater Boston area average of more than a half-million dollars, he wants to take advantage of this moment.

“The ability to start a family and work toward the American dream is much more difficult to afford in the Greater Boston area and much easier in our area,” he told BusinessWest. “We may see a change in working conditions where office workers spend up to four days a week at home, which would allow them to live in Western Mass. and take advantage of our affordability.”

McNutt is creating a marketing plan to reach out to the Boston area as well as other densely populated urban areas to promote the value and quality of life available in Palmer and surrounding areas.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario.”

One huge boon for Palmer in this regard would be the proposed east-west rail project. The plan to offer passenger rail service from Pittsfield to Boston has been included in the federal infrastructure plan about to go to Congress. McNutt said east-west rail would be transformative for his town.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario,” he said. Though many steps remain before the plan wins approval and comes to fruition, town planners are looking to identify the right location, and they want to make sure it’s shovel-ready.

“I want to be so ready that, if we were told they could helicopter in a train station and drop it where a site was selected, we want to be ready for that helicopter,” he said.

 

Engine of Opportunity

The economic potential of a train stop in Palmer is not lost on Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabog Hills Chamber of Commerce. On the job since January, Surprise looks to help chamber members increase their engagement with state and local officials, as well as identify economic programs to benefit the area.

He has already begun working on a grant for downtown Palmer through the Transformative Development Initiative, a MassDevelopment program. The grant provides incentives for businesses to locate in condensed areas, like downtown settings, that are walkable.

“That’s a positive for us because Palmer’s downtown is very walkable,” Surprise said.

He is also applying to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to have downtown Palmer designated as a cultural district. In addition to being a walkable area, a community must show it hosts arts and cultural events on a regular basis.

Surprise admits these projects will take several years to be successful, but the effort would be worth it. “A well-developed and vibrant downtown will help us bring in other businesses.”

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise

“Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

As part of his outreach to local officials, he reminds them of Palmer’s tradition and continued relevance as a manufacturing town.

“There has been a lot of talk on the national level about restoring manufacturing jobs,” he said, adding that communities like Palmer that have plenty of available land could be attractive to Boston-area high-tech companies looking for manufacturing space. “Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

The chamber recently conducted a survey among its members to find out how they weathered the pandemic. Results so far show that two-thirds of businesses have been able to avoid employee layoffs. By finding alternatives such as reducing hours, many avoided having to reduce their staffs.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.63; Three Rivers, $23.28; Bondsville, $23.67; Thorndike, $23.62
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

“We conducted the survey to learn what types of services the chamber could offer to help businesses find success going forward,” Surprise said, noting that these are only preliminary results, as all surveys have not yet been returned.

As a first step, the chamber is planning a number of seminars for small businesses to help them increase foot traffic and bring in new customers through approaches such as digital marketing.

“Many small businesses are not familiar with digital or social media marketing, and it’s really a necessary tool in the 21st century,” he noted.

 

On the Right Track

McNutt is hopeful some kind of infrastructure package passes Congress because, like municipal leaders all over the country, he faces big projects that need attention.

“There are 47,000 deficient bridges in the U.S., including the nine that are in Palmer,” he said.

But for a small community, he added, taking on a big infrastructure project is a heavy lift, and Palmer has been working with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal to secure funding for at least two bridges, on Main Street and Church Street, which need the most attention.

One project that could add significantly to the town tax revenues involves building 300 seasonal cottages on Forest Lake. McNutt is excited about the potential for this project.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

“Right now the cottages are planned for warm-weather use and would bring plenty of folks in to stay in town,” he said. “They will most likely go to local restaurants and make other purchases, so we could see a real economic multiplier effect from this project.”

Palmer has also agreed to be a host community for the cannabis industry. Two retail sites and two cultivation businesses have run into delays to start their enterprises, but McNutt blames COVID for the slowdown.

“The Cannabis Control Commission held fewer meetings than they normally would, and site visits were more difficult to do,” he explained. “In short, everything in the regulatory environment was just harder to do during the pandemic.” He feels confident at least one site will be up and running this year or early in 2022.

As the number of people vaccinated increases and COVID concerns decrease, he believes the opportunity is now for Palmer and surrounding towns.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

McNutt noted that people can still pursue the American dream by locating to Palmer because, in addition to its natural surroundings, the town has easy access to metropolitan areas. In short, he said, “we have the best of both worlds.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says a burgeoning cannabis sector is just one of many positive developments in Palmer.

If there’s one thing capitalism doesn’t like, Ryan McNutt says, it’s uncertainty. And COVID-19 has certainly injected plenty of that into the regional and national economic picture.

But unlike more densely populated areas like Boston, where the death toll — and accompanying anxiety — are higher, leading to a slower return to acitity, Palmer has seen only seven coronavirus-related deaths. Even now, only nine people are under some sort of quarantine order, following a long stretch of no cases at all.

How much Palmer’s low case count has affected business activity is hard to tell, said McNutt, who became town manager last year. But there’s reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector,” he told BusinessWest. “And some other Western Mass. communities are seeing that as well.”

Local projects run the gamut from a bar on Main Street being converted to a pizza restaurant to Adaptas Solutions adding a building to its complex in the Palmer Industrial Park.

“It’s a growing business — even in this pandemic, people are still adding jobs, adding capacity, adding new product lines,” said McNutt, noting that Sanderson MacLeod, which specializes in manufacturing twisted wire brushes, has grown recently by shifting to new product lines, some of them medical, during the pandemic. “Capitalism is creative destruction. People are going to enter new markets, or enter existing markets where others couldn’t fill those markets, and Palmer will benefit from that.”

The cannabis sector certainly shows no signs of slowdown, with four businesses — Altitude Organic and Heka Health on the retail side and and MINT Cultivation Facilities and the WingWell Group on the cultivation side — getting ready to open in the coming months.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector.”

“This will be an amazing amount of unrestricted local revenue,” McNutt said, though he was quick to add that most neighboring states still haven’t legalized cannabis. “Once those states or the federal government legalize, there will be diminishing returns. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from other states.”

That said, he expects the industry to be a net positive for Palmer’s tax base for a long time to come, even if it’s hard to predict the exact impact. “There’s obviously a floor of cannabis users, but what is the ceiling?”

It’s a question he can apply to many types of economic development, including a long-talked-about rail line that could eventually be a game changer for this community of just over 13,000 residents.

Focused Approach

When McNutt, the former city manager of Claremont, N.H., took over in Palmer last July, economic development was a key focus from the start.

“Economic development is important, making sure we grow the tax base and make it sustainable for the people who live here but also create opportunities to attract new people coming in,” he said. “We can do that to some degree ourselves, and then there are macro things happening, like the east-west rail line. Some days I’m more confident that will come in, some other days I’m less confident. I try to stay on the optimistic side of it.”

Palmer at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.80; Three Rivers, $23.42; Bondsville, $23.89; Thorndike, $24.16
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

That said, “if our folks at the federal level are really looking at this country, starting to talk more and more about having a national infrastructure package, then I think the east-west rail line is more promising, because it will take federal money; it will take being a component of a larger national infrastructure package to make it doable. But that east-west rail line would be so transformative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In recent years, the Palmer Town Council established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer. The town’s position, roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges and south to the University of Connecticut, makes it a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

In addition, McNutt noted, Palmer has a workforce of close to 8,000 people, and 85% of them work outside of Palmer, mostly in Worcester but more than 100 in Pittsfield. A rail line would ease the commute for many, while individuals who want to work in the Boston area, where housing prices can be exorbitant, could instead choose to live in towns along the rail line, like Palmer.

“There are a lot of good opportunities that make Palmer an attractive community, as long as we market ourselves correctly,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can so when a national infrastructure package gets introduced, we will be shovel-ready.

Speaking of infrastructure, Palmer boasts nine bridges that span four rivers, all built around 80 years ago with a life expectancy of about 50 years, he said. The cost to repair them is about $3 million per bridge, on average, and with the entire municipal budget, including schools, around $40 million, “it’s not like we have the internal capacity to just fix those bridges.”

The town submitted a $7.5 million grant application to the federal BUILD program last year to repair a couple of those bridges, competing with $10 billion worth of applications — across all 50 states — for about $900 million in funding. Despite those odds, Palmer made it to the final round of consideration before being dropped, and McNutt said the region’s federal lawmakers encouraged him to reapply this year. He’s cautiously optimistic the news will be better this time around.

“I think both Democrats and Republicans agree we’ve let huge swaths of this country fall apart since the end of World War II. Bridges, ports, airports … we’ve got to get on top of this. Everyone understands the deficiency across the country is bipartisan. The amount of jobs that could will be created would keep people working for the 20 years fixing the stuff we’ve let go for 70 years. And borrowing money has never been cheaper.”

Bang for the Buck

McNutt said he’s always thinking in terms of economic development, and its importance in communities with tax-rate increases constrained by Proposition 2½.

“I’m conservative when it comes to taxpayer resources,” he said. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know the strain Proposition 2½ places upon communities and municipalities, considering the rising fixed expenditures and costs we face, especially on the school side. And at the same time, I really believe that taxpayers pay a lot of money. I’m very keen on making sure people get value for that taxpayer dollar, so we’re always looking for grants and efficiencies in doing business, to be able to control those costs.”

For that reason, he went on, it’s important for towns of Palmer’s size and demographics to attract an influx of younger residents, and expanded rail could help boost that effort.

“Everybody who’s aging and on a fixed income, they really have a limited runway in what the property taxes can get to,” he noted. “That’s something that’s always my first focus — what is the tax base, what is the tax rate, and what is the economic capacity to pay it? How quickly do we need to find new revenue to support municipal operations without having everything fall on the backs of the retiree who’s lived in Palmer their whole life, and not necessarily getting new revenue themselves?”

Fortunately, even during a pandemic, growth is possible — and, in many cases, happening — and the promise of east-west rail service only boosts McNutt’s sense of what’s possible. While his confidence on that front may waver, depending on the day, his belief in Palmer’s potential — and its ability to weather the current storm — certainly does not.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress in its commerce centers and with green-energy projects.

Palmer’s leaders see the town as a destination — and hope the myriad players investigating east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts view it the same way.

That’s why the Palmer Town Council recently established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study — and prepare a report on — the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer, to be submitted to the state advisory committee currently looking into the feasibility of expanded east-west passenger service.

Those efforts included a recent meeting with community members to brainstorm about the pros and cons of the entire concept of east-west rail and Palmer’s place on any proposed line.

“Originally, the discussion was to have a relatively high-speed east-west route between, say, Boston and Springfield, or Boston, Worcester, Springfield,” said Charlie Blanchard, Palmer’s town manager. “If you add a stop in Palmer, what does it do to the timing? In fact, the timing doesn’t change that much. But the big benefit would be more ridership coming in or getting off the train, which would be a big deal.”

In a recent letter to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who attended the community meeting, Blanchard pointed out that Palmer is roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to Amherst — and to institutions like UMass Amherst and Amherst College — and south to Storrs and the University of Connecticut. In short, it’s a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y
* Latest information available

Furthermore, the absence of a stop in what’s nicknamed the Town of Seven Railroads would mean commuters from the Quaboag region who want to travel by train to Boston would have to drive roughly 40 minutes per day to use Springfield’s Union Station or slightly more to access Worcester. Participants at the meeting believed Palmer-area residents would be loath to do either, limiting total ridership at a time when the state would be clamoring to maximize it.

In addition, “a train stop in Palmer would be a major stimulus in helping to provide quality housing for commuters at an affordable price. With the ability to commute by train, this would open up a very affordable housing market,” Blanchard wrote in his letter, adding that a stop would also stimulate the economy of a set of communities that have yet to capture the growth found to the east, while boosting Palmer’s own downtown revitalization and encouraging hospitality companies to build more lodging there.

In short, it would inject energy into a town that, while it has plenty to tout in recent years, could always use more.

Projects and Progress

Baystate Wing Hospital’s $17.2 million project to expand its Emergency Department was perhaps the town’s biggest development last year. Aimed at better supporting the current annual patient volume of 24,000 visits, the 17,800-square-foot space includes separate ambulance and public entryways and features 20 patient rooms, including trauma, behavioral health, and other dedicated specialty-care areas.

“That opened in September, and was quite a big expansion,” Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, Palmer joined the ranks of the many Western Mass. communities to welcome the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts (see story, page 6), approving its first medical-marijuana facility on Chamber Road, including a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,200 square feet of retail space. Altitude Organic Corp. will move its headquarters from Colorado to a property on Thorndike Street in Palmer as part of the development, and expects to have plants growing in an indoor facility by October.

“It really is interesting to see the public acceptance of this new type of business,” Blanchard added, noting that the town’s laws allow for three retail cannabis locations in its commercial business district. “We’re looking forward to having them and seeing how successful they can be.”

In the Three Rivers section of town, progress continues at 2032 Main St., where the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is renovating the top floor to apartments and the bottom to retail — a mixed-use plan expected to infuse new residents into the neighborhood while attracting more shoppers.

“They ran into some structural issues — it was a bigger project than they thought — but activity continues,” Blanchard said. “It was completely gutted, and they had to do some reinforcing, but now it’s back on track.”

Property and business owners in Three Rivers have been engaging in a grass-roots revitalization effort for years, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts. At the same time, the consortium known as On the Right TRACK (Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge) has been working for some time to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.

On the culinary front in town, Stables Restaurant of Hadley recently opened a new restaurant at Burgundy Brook, on Route 181 on the north side of town. “When you go by there, you see a lot of cars and a lot of activity,” Blanchard noted.

Finally, the new rail spur installed at Sherwood Lumber Yard, in the town’s industrial park — a project that has been in the works since 2013, and funded through an Industrial Rail Access Program grant — allows the business to bring in materials by train, spurring significant expansion of the operation and helping the entire industrial park by unloading without clogging up other traffic.

“Now that the rail spur is completed, there’s more activity up there,” Blanchard said. “It also helped increase the rail capacity for the rest of the businesses there.”

Powering an Economy

Palmer also continues to embrace green-energy projects. In addition to 10 large-scale solar projects — producing 29.3 megawatts of electricity every year — and the installationin early 2018 of car-charging stations at Town Hall and the public library, the town has been working with Thorndike Energy and the Microgrid Institute to explore the benefits of a microgrid system that would access the hydropower and solar power generated at Thorndike Mills for emergency power.

“Thorndike Energy has hyropower over there, and generates electricity through hydropower,” Blanchard said. “They’re going to be adding some solar to it as well. You take those two renewable sources of electricity, and you add battery or other types of standby storage, so that you can store some of this power generated through a renewable source, and have it available in the event of an emergency.”

Project objectives include improved resiliency of electrical services for critical community facilities, expanded storage capacity to better integrate local renewable energy, and supporting National Grid goals in terms of modernization, storage, and renewables. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of job growth and retention.

“Obviously, anything located at Thorndike Mills would benefit from it,” Blanchard said. “The benefit to overall economic growth would be to attract new businesses to Thorndike Mills, which right now is pretty underutilized. It would enhance their marketability to show they have this renewable stored energy there.”

It’s just one way in which Palmer is generating energy from an economic-development standpoint, and raising its profile as a destination and a connecting point to the rest of Central Mass. — a role it will continue to embrace regardless of the eventual fate of any east-west rail line.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Making a Big Splash

This rendering shows the many components of the planned $650 million resort and water park in Palmer.

This rendering shows the many components of the planned $650 million resort and water park in Palmer.

More than five years after Palmer residents rejected a casino proposal for a huge tract of land just off Turnpike exit 8, the property is back in the news, this time as the planned site of a $650 million water park, resort spa, and sports complex.

It’s the most basic tenet in commercial real estate.

Location, location, location.

Since the Massachusetts Turnpike opened in 1957, the large tract of land sitting atop the hill overlooking the exit 8 ramp in Palmer has always possessed that coveted quality. But over the ensuing 60-plus years, little has been done to capitalize on it.

Indeed, among the more than 20 exits on the Pike, exit 8 is arguably the least developed. There’s a small gas station and attached convenience store just off the exit ramp, but one has to go a half mile left or right to find much commercial development, and even then there isn’t much.

Still, Northeast Development saw the enormous potential in the property more than 20 years ago, and first obtained an option on more than 200 acres owned by the late John Lizak — who owned several properties within the town — and later acquired it outright soon after casino-gambling legislation was passed in the Commonwealth.

An opportunity to place a casino, proposed by the owners of Mohegan Sun, at the site went by the boards in 2013, when Palmer residents rejected a casino referendum, but now the property is the focus of another high-profile initiative — one on almost the same scale as the MGM casino eventually placed in the South End of Springfield.

“I remember being at a meeting with them and hearing them say, ‘this is a hot idea — irrespective of the casino, water parks are hot commodities if they’re done right.’”

And, ironically, it’s a concept that actually became part of the rejected casino proposal — a water park.

Or a water park on a much, much larger scale, to be more specific. This would be a $650 million water park resort and spa, featuring everything from a man-made tubing river (if constructed as planned, it would be the longest in the country) to batting cages to athletic fields.

“As the casino competition started heating up, everyone was putting something new into what they were doing,” said Paul Robbins, president of Paul Robbins Assoc., a Wilbraham-based marketing and public-relations firm and spokesperson for the Palmer Sports Group. His firm has also represented Northeast Development for many years. “Doug Flutie was going to be part of Ameristar [one of the casinos proposed for Springfield], and MGM was touting its entertainment. That’s also when Mohegan introduced the concept of a water park.

“And I remember being at a meeting with them, and hearing them say, ‘this is a hot idea — irrespective of the casino, water parks are hot commodities if they’re done right.’”

Those at Palmer Sports Group obviously feel the same way.

Led by Winthop ‘Trip’ Knox, who has been involved with the design and construction of more than 3,000 water-related facilities for water parks, resorts, and deluxe hotels, and Michael D’Amato, who managed the construction of the later stages of the Foxwoods Resort Casino, including the Grand Pequot Tower, the group is thinking big.

As in very big.

Indeed, the complex will feature indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a resort hotel, and two indoor water parks, as well as an indoor hockey and basketball facility, an indoor sports bubble, a baseball complex, soccer and mixed-use fields, beach-volleyball courts, restaurants, and on-site townhomes.

There is demand for all of the above, said Robbins, adding that there isn’t anything like this in the Northeast, and the developers expect to draw visitors from a 300-mile radius and do so for at least 10 months out of the year; yes, the water in the tubing river will be heated.

“The developers believe there are 25 million people in the catchment area for this facility,” said Robbins, who used the phrases ‘Disney-esque’ and ‘think Orlando’ a number of times as he talked about just what is being proposed for the Palmer site.

Elaborating, he said there will be a large water park attached to the resort complex (again, like the Disney parks) that become part of the package of staying at that facility. There will also be second water park for day trippers, as well as a host of other facilities.

Robbins said the Palmer site, while somewhat remote (which explains the lack of development at and around the exit 8 interchange), lies roughly halfway between Springfield and Worcester and is easily accessible to several major population centers. And that has made it a hot property, as they say in this business, for some time.

“When Mohegan signed on, I had a number of meetings with them, and they absolutely loved that site,” said Robbins. “They loved it because [then-Gov.] Deval Patrick said he wasn’t thrilled about casinos going to urban areas; his vision was for a bucolic, ‘drive to the destination, stay a few nights’ type of resort, and that’s what Mohegan is. But the location is also ideal.”

So much so that Northeast pursued a number of different development opportunities for the site, but eventually returned to the concept that grew out of the casino proposal and may eventually replace it as Palmer biggest hope to replace the many manufacturing jobs that were lost there over the past few decades and bring new vibrancy to the community.

Preliminary estimates call for 2,000 jobs, said Robbins, adding that the project might well become a synergistic complement to the recently opened MGM Springfield, offering people from outside the region more reason to come to the Bay State, and specifically Western Mass., for an extended stay.

At present, there is no timetable for the development, said Robbins, adding that the Palmer Sports Group is working with town officials to secure the necessary approvals and make the project a reality.

— George O’Brien

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