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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tyler Saremi

Tyler Saremi sees potential in West Springfield’s downtown, and is taking steps to inject some economic vibrancy.

When Tyler Saremi looks at what is considered downtown West Springfield — the Elm Street/Park Street area — he doesn’t see Northampton or West Hartford.

But he can easily imagine a day when that section of this city that still calls itself a town can attain something approaching a level of vibrancy and an eclectic mix of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, that define those communities.

And he’s doing his best to bring that day closer. Indeed, the multi-faceted business run by his family that he serves as vice president, Saremi LLP, acquired 95 Elm St. — known to most as the United Bank building because it was the main tenant for many years — with the goal of … well, turning back the clock in many respects.

The century-old building has, over the decades, been home to cafés, restaurants, a grocery store, banks, and other types of retail, said Saremi, adding that it has always been a destination, and the broad goal with this project is to make it one again. Thus, it has been rebranded as Town Common.

Already, Tandem Bagel, the Hadley-based company with locations there and also in Easthampton and Northampton, will soon occupy space where bank-teller windows have stood on the first floor; the target date for opening is July. Meanwhile, at the other end of the first floor, Saremi pointed to the place where intends to put a restaurant. He said two other leases have been signed, and several more are pending.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back,” he said. “Our main intention is a café and a restaurant on the first floor; whether we have to open a restaurant ourselves or partner with someone, we don’t care. That’s part of our commitment to West Springfield — it needs a café, and it needs a restaurant, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up.”

The redevelopment of 95 Elm St. is just one of the intriguing stories unfolding in West Springfield, a community that is, like many others, trying to rebound from a pandemic that has taken a huge toll on hospitality-related businesses. And West Side, as it’s called, has many of them, said Mayor Will Reichelt, who counted 20 hotels and motels and a number of restaurants in his community.

But the biggest business in that sector, obviously, is the Big E, which is responsible for filling many those hotels, motels, and restaurants, not just during the 17 days of the annual fair, but almost year-round, as that venue hosts a number of shows centered on everything from horses to toy railroads; dogs to guns and knives.

The Big E has been mostly empty and silent since the pandemic arrived a year ago, and while the outlook for 2021 is more promising, there remains a huge number of unknows, especially with regard to the fair, a situation that Big E President and CEO Gene Cassidy summed up this way:

“It’s like you’re navigating your way down a dark alleyway; you don’t know what’s in front of you — if there’s suddenly going to be a crack in the pavement or if you’re going to walk into a dumpster,” he said, using that phrase to indicate how difficult it is to plan when the rules keep changing, often without much, if any, notice. “Our goal, simply, is to plan to produce a product that people are going to enjoy.”

Cassidy is quite confident there will be a Big E this September — he just doesn’t how many people will be allowed to attend. He doesn’t think it will be full capacity, as in 100,000 people on a weekend day, as in fairs past. Instead, he’s expecting some percentage of that number, which won’t be ideal, but certainly better than last year.

And while most of his energy and attention is still focused on this year’s fair, he said he’s spending a good amount of time lobbying officials to understand the importance of fairs and live events in general, and to help ensure the long-term survival of such institutions, something he believes is now imperiled.

Overall, though, he’s optimistic about the rest of 2021.

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all, and he’s moving forward with planning after having to cancel the 2020 fair.

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up,” he said, noting that various expert projections of herd immunity by fall or even sooner are encouraging, even as innumerable challenges and question marks loom.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes a hard look at West Side and its efforts to become even more of a destination, even as its business community continues to battle COVID-19 and all the challenges it has brought.

 

Road to Progress

Reichelt, now wrapping up his second term in office, with plans to seek a third, said he can’t find too many silver linings from the pandemic and all the havoc it caused in 2020.

But he can find at least one — acceleration of the process to replace the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects his city with Agawam. The bridge project, which commenced two years ago, has to pause during the 17-day run of the Big E, he explained, adding that work actually comes to a halt for three weeks or more because of logistical concerns.

Obviously, that didn’t happen in 2020, he went on, adding that a project that was due to be completed this summer will now be done by spring.

“The work is way ahead of schedule,” he said. “Without the Big E, they probably gained a month of working time, and that will certainly help out on the back end.”

The broad mission moving forward is to get more people to travel over that bridge and other thoroughfares into West Side, said Reichelt, adding that the city has always considered itself at the crossroads of this region — I-91 and the turnpike connect there, and Route 5 runs through it as well. This location has long been a huge asset, one that paved the way, if you will, for major retailers and car dealers alike to populate Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue. It has also brought visitors to the community not only for the Big E and shows on its grounds, but for myriad other tourism- and business-related functions, from leaf peeping to the semiannual EASTEC trade show.

The ongoing goal is to continually take advantage of this asset, build on the foundation that’s been laid, and try to spread the vibrancy to other areas of the city.

Which brings us back to Elm Street, Town Common, and the huge ‘Under New Management’ banner now adorning it.

As he gave BusinessWest a tour, Saremi pointed out the spot where Tandem Bagel would go, then did the same with the restaurant. Venturing to the second floor, much of which is now occupied by Saremi LLP, he showed where a number of smaller spaces, individual offices, and even co-working space might be carved out.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

Later, he pointed out one of the huge windows to the traffic — specifically, the juncture of Route 20 and Elm Street.

“This intersection has so much traffic … we need to get people to stop here in downtown West Side, get out, walk around, go to some shops, get something to eat — that’s how I see it,” he noted, adding that there are already some attractions there, including the Celery Stalk restaurant, a legendary luncheon stop; as well as bNapoli restaurant and the Majestic Theater. The broad goal is to build on that critical mass, he said, noting that clusters of eateries and entertainment venues have been the formula for success in Northampton, West Hartford, and other communities.

Reichelt concurred, and told BusinessWest the city is always striving to build on its already-impressive portfolio of retail- and hospitality-related businesses — and also fill in some spots that are less vibrant than others.

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says initiatives like a new economic recovery director and a series of infrastructure plans will help keep West Springfield on the right track.

As an example, he pointed to Riverdale Street, which actually has two distinct sections, if you will. There’s the one south of I-91, which is thriving and always has, said the mayor, who worked at the Donut Dip on that throughfare in his youth and thus speaks from experience. Then there’s the stretch north of the highway, which, while still vibrant by most measures, has some vacancies and, in general, is underperforming.

Reichelt said the city will look to help address this situation, and other business and economic-development issues in the city, through the hiring, at least on a temporary basis, of what’s being called an ‘economic recovery director.’

“The goal with this new position is to build better business relationships in the community, help with business retention, and focus on some of the underutilized areas, like the north-of-91 section of Riverdale,” he explained.

Already, there are signs of progress, he said, noting the reopened White Hut, the expansion of Calabrese Market on Park Street, and the sale of the former Hofbrahaus property to the owner of the Hangar Pub and Grill and growing ‘Wings Over’ stable of restaurants, among other positive developments.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Meanwhile, a number of infrastructure plans now in place are designed to improve traffic flow and, ultimately, promote more vibrancy in the city. First up is Park Street, he said, adding that it is being repaved and steps are being taken to taken to make the commons more accessible and safer to use. Those plans include what the mayor called a mile-long loop or walking and biking trail around the green space.

Elm Street will follow, he went on, adding that this will be a multi-faceted initiative designed to beautify the area, add more parking, redesign the intersection of Elm Street and Route 20, and allow people to make more and better use of the green space there.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this project is in the design phase and should commence in 2022. Likewise, a huge, $25 million project to improve traffic flow on Memorial Avenue will take place that same year.

 

Fair Assessment

Sitting in the large conference room in the Big E’s administration building, Cassidy reflected on what has been an ultra-challenging 12 months for this regional institution — and what lies ahead, to the extent that he could, obviously.

He said every aspect of this enterprise — from the annual fall fair to the year-round shows that draw visitors from across the Northeast, to the restaurant on the grounds, Storrowton Tavern — have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

And the hurt is still being felt. The shows slated for weekends in January and February were all canceled, he said, with some, including the huge Western Mass. Home & Garden Show, moved back on the calendar, in this case to August.

The Big E has received some support — nearly $1 million in the first round of PPP, with an application in for the second round of funding. There have been some cutbacks — the workforce has been trimmed from 30 full-time employees to 25 — and those who are left have found themselves with … let’s call them broadened job descriptions.

“Those of us who are still here have had to do jobs we’ve never had to before,” he noted, adding that such tasks include everything from directing traffic for the few events that have been staged to making sure the buildings on the grounds are secure. “Everyone has had to pitch in.”

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.90
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.49
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

As for the last three quarters of 2021, Cassidy said there are certainly some signs of optimism with his industry. For example, the Canadian government recently gave the green light for the popular Calgary Stampede to take place in June. Meanwhile, the Pasco County Fair in Florida was recently staged, albeit with a number of restrictions and safety precautions in place.

Cassidy took it in while on a trip to Tampa for ‘Florida Week’ and a number of trade association meetings that were staged in-person, which is significant in and of itself, he noted, adding that the main topic of conversation, obviously, was how to stage events safely.

“Interestingly, at the Pasco County Fair, we were there on a Tuesday night, it was chilly, but the fair manager indicated that attendance actually exceeded what it was last year, and he attributed that to the fact that people want to get out,” he recalled. “They want to resume ‘normal,’ and that’s in a state where businesses have been open and Main Street is open.”

But while he can look ahead and try to plan, there are too many question marks to do the latter with any amount of efficacy. These question marks surround everything from what the attendance restrictions will be to whether — and under what conditions — the state buildings can open, to whether individuals and families will be willing to come back out and be part of a mass gathering on the midway or one of the concert venues.

The major consideration is what will be permitted for attendance, said Cassidy, adding that it’s a simple but troubling fact that the costs of operating the fair will be roughly the same whether it’s at full capacity, 50%, or some other number. But the bottom line is that a smaller fair, attendance-wise, is certainly preferable to no fair at all.

“It costs the same to produce the fair for 1.6 million people as it does to produce the fair for one,” he said. “Our staff is preparing a conventional Big E and will try to deliver the product we’re known for.”

Cassidy believes that, as he saw in Florida, there will a significant amount of pent-up demand and that people will want to return to the fairgrounds.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Reichelt agreed, and said the return of the fair this fall, even a smaller fair, will help the region’s economy and, specifically, many of those hospitality-related businesses that have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

“Having it happen will be good, not only for the Big E, but for the region to bring back that sense of normalcy,” he noted. “And it will be helpful for businesses in the area as they start to recover from all this.”

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

While the city will miss out on opportunities from its full ban on cannabis-related ventures, Mayor Will Reichelt says, there are new businesses of many kinds coming to the community.

West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt recalls that, after his community’s City Council voted in the spring of 2018 to place a ban on any and all cannabis-related businesses, he received some texts from his counterparts in Holyoke and Westfield.

He doesn’t remember the exact wording of either one, but he told BusinessWest that they amounted to thank-you notes, as in — and he’s paraphrasing here, obviously — ‘thank you for the tax revenue that might be coming to our cities because it won’t be coming to yours.’

More than a year after that vote and those texts, Reichelt feels confident in saying that the full ban, while obviously well-intentioned, amounts to some missed opportunities for this community, for both the short and long term.

Indeed, West Springfield exists at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91 (quite literally), and therefore, in many respects, it is the retail center of this region — complete with dozens of big-box stores, car dealerships, restaurants, and more — and draws people from across the region. But this retail hub will not include any cannabis dispensaries, despite a number of ideal sites for such facilities, resulting in, as those mayors pointed out in their texts, tax revenue that will go elsewhere.

But in Reichelt’s view, the ban has potentially deeper ramifications.

“A lot of our tax revenue comes from retail, most of it on Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue; it’s car sales, it’s big-box stores — that’s a large portion of our commercial tax revenue,” he said. “And to not be open to new discussions, new ideas, and new businesses is going to hurt us in the long run because retail is changing; Amazon is coming, and not everyone is going to want to shop in Riverdale Plaza.

“If things change, we’re really going to struggle,” he went on, quickly adding that things certainly won’t change overnight or even over the next few years. “If we’re looking out 25 to 50 years, and West Springfield gets a name for itself that it’s not into these somewhat controversial but new and innovative business ideas, and the communities around us are, it will be easy to pass West Springfield by.”

Fortunately, at present, most traditional retailers, and consumers, have no intention of passing this community by. In fact, many retailers want in — and in a big way, for those reasons (and because of those roads) listed earlier. As an example, the mayor related the story of how Starbucks is very interested in landing a spot on Riverdale Street — specifically that very popular stretch south of I-91 — and how it will certainly be challenged to find one.

So while West Side won’t be entering the high-stakes competition for cannabis-related businesses any time soon, Reichelt and his administration will be focused on doing what this community has long been able to do — take advantage of its ideal location, already-deep portfolio of retail outlets, and heavy volume of traffic to attract more new businesses.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

And it is enjoying success in this realm, as we’ll see later, with developments ranging from a new hotel on Riverdale Street to a new life for an old landmark just off Memorial Avenue, to the community’s first brewery just down that street.

Meanwhile, beyond those two main retail corridors, there are other intriguing prospects for development. One involves the property known to most as the United Bank building on Elm Street. That’s not its official name, but the bank has long occupied it and is therefore associated with it.

But United has all but moved out, and there us now a huge ‘for sale’ sign on the side of the property.

As the mayor gestured toward it while walking downtown with BusinessWest, he noted that, years ago, there were a number of a small storefronts within that footprint along the street. Turning back the clock and creating a new generation of destinations along that block would help build on growing momentum in that area of the city, he said.

Meanwhile, a former mill property along the Westfield River just over the line from Agawam is being gifted to the city by Neenah Paper, the manufacturer soon to vacate the property, said the mayor, adding that a number of new uses, including some residential options, are being explored.

These are just a few of the intriguing developments unfolding in West Side, a city that won’t be entering the intense competition for cannabis-related ventures anytime soon, but still has a host of other emerging business and economic-development stories.

Ale’s Well

Reichelt laughed heartily as he recalled the e-mail that is at the heart of a story he’s now told more times than he can count.

It was from his city planner, and typed onto the subject line was the phrase ‘Two Weeks Notice.’ Upon further reading, the alarmed mayor learned that this was not a reference to another job opportunity seized, but rather an update on the plans for an intriguing new business coming to the community.

“After that, I said, ‘can we just put ‘brewery’ in the subject line?’” said Reichelt, noting that the Two Weeks Notice Brewing Co., located in the former Angie’s Tortellinis facility since late last year, makes some nice IPAs, and has become a solid addition to the business landscape in West Side.

And it is just one of several of those over the past several months, including a new name over a familiar door.

That would be 1105 Main, an address, but also the name of a new eatery at the site of what would have to be considered a West Side landmark — the old Hofbrahaus restaurant.

Joe Stevens, who owned and operated that German restaurant with his wife, Liz, for decades, closed it roughly a year ago. The couple thought they had the building sold, but the deal fell through, prompting a reassessment of their plans.

“We starting talking about a theme restaurant,” said Joe, adding that what eventually emerged is a true family affair, involving sons Eric Waldman, who had been sous chef at a restaurant in Westchester County, N.Y. and was looking for a new and different challenge, and Alex Waldman.

Joe told BusinessWest they are calling this “an American eatery,” offering “familiar food with a twist.” As an example, he cited the lasagna, which is pan fried after it’s baked and includes a wild boar and bison bolognese.

The property at 1105 Main St. was substantially renovated for this makeover. The bar area, popular with regulars then and now, has a fresh look, as does the dining room, which has a brighter atmosphere and a hardwood floor, found underneath an inch of carpet glue after the old flooring had been ripped out.

The new eatery is drawing a mix of families and business people, said Joe, and it even complements another new business just across the street — Hot Brass, a firearm and bow range that shares space with Guns Inc., a seller of firearms.

“We like to say, ‘after you’re done shooting, come in for a shot and a beer,’” said Stevens, adding that a number of people have done just that, thus bringing still more vibrancy to the Memorial Avenue area that has changed dramatically over the past several years.

Indeed, the face of the street — home, of course, to the Big E — has been altered by the addition of Fathers & Sons’ new Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, as well a new retail plaza featuring a Florence Savings Bank branch and new stores in the Century Plaza.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
residential tax rate: $16.96
commercial tax rate: $32.55
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

Memorial Avenue, like the city’s other main retail corridor, is in a seemingly constant state of change, said Reichelt, adding that still more change is likely as new tenants are sought for two locations across from the Big E — the former Monte Carlo restaurant and the former Debbie Wong eatery.

Still further down the road is more property in flux, the former Medallion Motel and the vacant lot next to it, formerly the site of an auto-repair shop. Redevelopment of those parcels will likely have to wait for another day, said Reichelt, because they sit in the shadow of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which crosses the Westfield River and connects West Side with Agawam and is still in the early stages of what is expected to a four-year reconstruction and widening project.

Traffic is often backed up at the site, which is why developers are unlikely to do anything in that area for some time, said the mayor, adding, as his counterpart in Agawam did a few months ago in this space, that the goal is to minimize the disruptions from the bridge project, especially during the 17 days of the Big E, and try to incentivize construction crews to reduce that four-year timetable for this initiative.

Forward Progress

Back on Riverdale Street, a new Marriott Courtyard is set to open later this spring, one of several new developments on or around that busy retail corridor, which, like Memorial Avenue, is in a seemingly constant state of the change.

Others include a gas station at the Costco in the Riverdale Shops, a project expected to commence later this year; the opening of a 1.5-mile bike path behind those shops, due to open in May; and a $21 expansion of the Agri-Mark facility on Riverdale Street, completed last fall.

Looking down the road, Reichelt said the site of now-closed Bertucci’s, located along that stretch south of I-91, is still awaiting new development, and he’s optimistic one will come because properties don’t generally remain vacant for long on that stretch of road.

Meanwhile, as noted, there are developments unfolding outside of those two main retail corridors that could have important ramifications for the community. This is especially true of the United Bank property on Elm Street.

“That used to be a collection of small stores,” he said of the facility, adding that it was renovated to house a bank branch and several of the institution’s departments. “There was a nice bookstore and coffee shop, a restaurant … it was a real destination.”

It can be that again, he went on, adding that his vision includes the community petitioning the state for additional liquor licenses and perhaps transforming the property into a home for a number of hospitality-related businesses that would complement those already thriving in that area, such as the Majestic Theater (located on that same block) and bNapoli restaurant.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

“I’d like to section that property back off again,” he said. “If we can get two more restaurants down there, a coffee shop or bagel place, and businesses like that, we could get a lot more life in the downtown, creating a real destination.

“Everyone always talks about how they’d like to have a mini-Northampton,” he went on. “That’s never going to happen if you don’t have stuff for people to do. This [property] represents a huge opportunity for us to create more things to do.”

And while hopefully generating more things to do with that downtown project, another initiative may well create more places to live.

The Neehah Paper Co. has donated the 100,000-square-foot mill property (formerly Strathmore Paper and then Fibermark) to the city, said the mayor, adding that residential is perhaps the best reuse option, be it elderly housing, affordable housing, or perhaps some combination, although other opportunities for development exist.

“We’ve run some breweries through it, and there’s been some interest,” he explained. “But we can’t really do much until we own it. This represents a great opportunity because we’re going to an actual section of riverfront property, which we don’t have in town.”

Location, Location, Location

Returning to the matter of cannabis-related ventures and the ban that covers the full spectrum of such businesses, Reichelt reiterated his concern that this goes well beyond lost commercial tax revenue.

“Councilors like to say that we’re business-friendly,” he told BusinessWest. “I say, ‘well, no, you’re not; you just completely wiped out an entire industry from coming to town.’”

This makes West Side an island of sorts when it comes to the cannabis trade, he went on, adding that there is still a lot of business activity happening on that island, with the promise of more to come in the months and years ahead.

The great location and easy access to major highways that would make West Side a perfect host for marijuana-related businesses also make it ideal for most any type of retail and hospitality-related venture.

And, as it has for decades, the city will continue to make of the most of all that it has to offer.

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

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