By Mark Morris
When it comes to her city, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner takes the long view.
“In five years or less,” she said, “you will not recognize Main Street in Greenfield because so many good things will be happening.”
Two notable projects in the works involve the building of a new, $20 million library on the east end of Main Street and a new, $18 million fire station on the west end.
“These two big investments at each end of Main Street show the city’s commitment to making Greenfield a desirable place to do business,” Wedegartner said.
That commitment also includes a $5 million project to address parking on Main Street. Right now, the street has a mix of angled as well as parallel parking. When complete, Main Street will have all parallel parking and a bike lane.
“Businesses are rightly concerned about the disruption from the work, but we have lots of parking downtown, so their shops will still be accessible,” the mayor said.
Danielle Letourneau, Wedegartner’s chief of staff, said the plan is to modernize more than the parking.
“During the redesign of Main Street, we want to replace the old pipes and infrastructure under the pavement,” Letourneau said. “That way, the redesign will get a couple things done with only one disruption.”
The street project is expected to begin in the fall, Wedegartner said. “By making investments above ground and on the infrastructure below ground, we are showing that we believe in the future of Greenfield and of our downtown.”
In 2021, Greenfield was one of 125 communities in Massachusetts that took part in the state-sponsored Rapid Recovery Plan (RRP), a program designed to help local economies recover from the impact of COVID-19. Based on input from city officials and businesses, the state put together a formal plan for Greenfield titled “The Deliberate Downtown.”
While noting the downtown area is “very walkable” and has solid entertainment anchors, the report also pointed out that Greenfield took a bigger economic hit from COVID than other communities. According to the plan document, more than 70% of downtown businesses said they lost money in 2020 and in 2021, and two-thirds said they were still far behind their pre-COVID levels of business.
“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to. Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”
Foot traffic also suffered as 97% of the local merchants said fewer people visited their businesses. MJ Adams, the city’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the community is in many ways a place of necessity because it serves as a hub for Franklin County and attracts people in from surrounding towns for the YMCA, the John W. Olver Transit Center, and other regional assets.
“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to,” Adams said. “Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”
One idea to bring more people downtown involved blocking Court Square in front of City Hall to create a pedestrian-friendly area with the adjacent town common. Tried for the first time last year, the effort was framed by Wedegartner as a pilot project that received positive reviews from people who enjoyed the weekly farmer’s market as well as the opportunity to relax at bistro tables and Adirondack chairs with eats from nearby food trucks. The only negative feedback came from some residents who couldn’t find parking near City Hall.
“We learned that people who have lived here for years did not know we have an accessible parking lot behind City Hall,” Wedegartner said. “This year, we’ll adjust the plan to make sure people know about all our parking.”
City staff spent so much energy to establish the space last year, they couldn’t give much thought to what programs could be offered there, Adams noted. “This year, we’re doing it the other way around. Now that people have seen the space, they are asking us when they can use it this year.”
Out and About
Indeed, a public open space was among the recommendations from the “Deliberate Downtown” report, which suggested this would be a good way to encourage more foot traffic downtown. According to Letourneau, this is not the first time the open-space idea has been suggested.
“We found plans from previous administrations that discussed closing off the Court Square area dating as far back as 1985,” she said.
The Court Square space now operates from May to November, and once she can find the budget for it, Wedegartner wants to redesign the area, incorporating the town common into a permanent pedestrian space.
Outdoor dining will also return as the weather gets warmer. When the governor relaxed outdoor-dining restrictions at the height of the pandemic, the idea was to help restaurants generate some business during warm-weather months. That special order ended this week, on April 1, but cities and towns across the state have sought variances to continue the program through 2022.
While not all restaurants took advantage of outdoor seating, Wedegartner said, it was a popular option with many people. “We will be doing some version of outdoor dining again this year.”
An ongoing challenge for the mayor and her staff involves two prominent vacancies in Greenfield. The First National Bank building overlooks the town common and has been empty for several years. Efforts to reconfigure the space as a cultural venue were abandoned recently because several entertainment and cultural venues, such as Hawks & Reed, the Shea Theatre, and other spots no longer make the bank building feasible.
“We are putting together an RFP to see if a private developer might have an idea for that space,” Adams said. “It’s an important project for the city to get something in the former bank building.”
Wilson’s Department Store once dominated Main Street but now stands as a prominent downtown vacancy. The nearby Green Fields Market has been considering an expansion into Wilson’s, but it hasn’t yet happened. Wedegartner called the situation an ongoing conversation that’s still in progress.
“Their move into Wilson’s will be wonderful if it can happen,” she said.
Advanced manufacturing is one area where Greenfield has seen steady growth. Wedegartner pointed to Bete Fog Nozzle and especially VSS Inc. as significant companies to the city and surrounding communities.
Once known as Valley Steel Stamp, VSS has transitioned into high-tolerance machine services for the aerospace and defense industries. Steve Capshaw, president of VSS, said the company has grown over the last 10 years from $2 million in annual sales to $40 million.
“We’re looking to increase sales another 50% next year,” Capshaw said, adding that the three- to five-year plan is to become a premier advanced manufacturer and assembler for the aerospace industry. VSS customers include Pratt and Whitney and Raytheon Missiles, as well as manufacturing key parts for F-15 and F-35 fighter jets.
Demand for his company’s services remains strong as many of his customers are “re-shoring” or having components made here in the U.S. once again. As Capshaw pointed out, COVID exposed supply-chain issues and unrealized cost savings companies thought they were going to get when they moved production overseas.
“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained. With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”
“Our customers are making this shift for cost and strategic purposes,” he said. “Looking ahead, we see very strong demand for U..S-made precision machine services.”
With 135 employees currently at VSS, Capshaw would like to hire at least 50 more people this year just based on current business. Because his company uses computer numerical control (CNC) machining — pre-programmed software dictates the movement of the factory tools — Capshaw understands that he must build his workforce through training.
Greenfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1753
Area: 21.9 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $22.32
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.32
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available
“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained,” he said. “With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”
With a predicted need of several hundred more employees in the coming years, he said the search for new workers will encompass a 20-mile radius around Greenfield to “build on what has already made us successful.”
Despite the tight labor market, Capshaw welcomes the challenge. “We like competing for labor. It makes all companies do better, and I don’t see it going away.”
Back in 2010, VSS moved into a 22,000-square-foot facility in Greenfield Industrial Park. After several additions to the site, VSS now occupies 45,000 square feet and is looking to expand.
“Right now, we’re working with the city to find a local place we can buy or a site where we can build an additional facility,” Capshaw said. “We will keep what we have and look to add more space for manufacturing.” He also credited Greenfield officials for all their help in the company’s expansion.
With a new library taking shape, a new Fire Department about to break ground this spring, and a growing advanced-technology manufacturing sector, Greenfield is well on its way to realizing Wedegartner’s vision of transforming the city for the near and distant future.