The “crossroads of New England” has long been Chicopee’s unofficial nickname, and with good reason: four interstate highways run through its boundaries, including I-90, I-91, I-291, and I-391, as well as state routes such as 33, 116, and 141.
These roads have certainly played a role in the continued development and growth of a business community steeped in history — everything from swords to tires were once produced here — and defined by both national corporations and small, local ventures.
It is this mix, this balance, that gives the community its character, while also providing thousands of jobs and making this city a true destination, drawing residents from across the region.
“I call this the biggest small town in Massachusetts — 55,000 people that are all connected in some way, which is really something special. And I think that the people who live here recognize that,” said Mayor John Vieau, adding that the community is continuing to grow in what town officials call the ‘post-pandemic years.’
Indeed, along Memorial Drive, or ‘the Drive,’ as some call it, the main retail corridor of the community, there are some new faces, as well as a new ‘old’ face. Hot Table, the Springfield-based panini maker, is adding its first standalone storefront to the busy strip. Meanwhile, Hannoush Jewelers, which had a presence in the city for years at the former Fairfield Mall, is staging a return; it is converting an old auto shop by the Stop & Shop into a new storefront.
Meanwhile, work continues on a new headquarters building for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts on Carew Street. The $26.3 million facility, slated to open in September, will help the nonprofit respond to rising rates of food insecurity in the region.
“I call this the biggest small town in Massachusetts — 55,000 people that are all connected in some way, which is really something special. And I think that the people who live here recognize that.”
These additions will bring even more diversity to a business community that boasts a strong blend of retail, manufacturing, distribution facilities, service businesses, nonprofits, and even McKinstry Farm and Market Garden, a home-grown business (pun intended) that is, through the efforts of the seventh and eighth generation of the McKinstry family, continuing a tradition that started in 1908 (more on that later).
This diversity builds strength and resiliency, said the mayor and others we spoke with, noting that the city has never been dependent on one business or one sector, and that trend continues today and is reflected in the membership of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, a clear indicator of its ability to provide needed services and resources.
“I think the fact that multiple-size businesses engage with the chamber and stay connected with the chamber is a sign that we are providing those resources across the board,” said Melissa Breor, the chamber’s executive director. “Take the example of Walmart engaging with the chamber; I see them joining as a way to connect with their community, to be able to figure out who are the small businesses and nonprofits that they can work with and support.”
For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Chicopee and how it continues to grow and diversify its business community.
Making More History
As noted earlier, Chicopee has been home to many large-scale businesses since the 19th century. The city was home to the first American producer of friction matches as well as a variety of other industries, including Ames Manufacturing Co., an early pioneer in machining lathes, building upon the work of Springfield’s Thomas Blanchard, and the largest producer of swords and cutlasses for the Union Army during the Civil War.
By the start of the 20th century, the city was home to a number of large manufacturers, including Fisk Tire Co., one of the largest tire makers of that time, and some of the earliest sporting-goods factories of A.G. Spalding.
Today, this tradition of manufacturing continues, especially in the industrial parks run by Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. (WMDC), which are also home to a number of distribution facilities.
WMDC is a quasi-public development corporation formed in 1974 to convert military property in the vicinity of Westover Air Force base to productive civilian uses, and has developed more than 1,300 acres of land in the area and currently operates the Westover Civilian Airport and three industrial parks, commonly referred to as ‘airparks,’ located in Chicopee and Ludlow.
According to a UMass Donahue Institute report released in 2021, the more than 100 tenants in the three Westover parks — East, North, and West — provide the city and region with more than 4,000 jobs and support a total of $2.2 billion in economic output and roughly 8,500 jobs across Massachusetts annually.
Those numbers will move even higher with the addition of Universal Forest Products, a lumber company originally based in Michigan that purchased the former Leoni Wire building and intends to move in later this year.
“I think we knew the impact was impressive, but didn’t really know until we quantified it last year or so … we were pretty shocked that it’s $2.2 billion between the three industrial parks,” said Michael Bolton, WMDC president and CEO. “A lot of people from Springfield work here in different businesses. So it really benefited the community.”
Chicopee at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1848
Area: 23.9 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $15.15
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.83
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek
* Latest information available
Vieau agreed. “I look at an engineering company [Universal Forest Products] as living-wage jobs, professional jobs, and obviously contributing to our tax base,” the mayor said. “So I’m excited about that. Those warehouses are providing jobs and obviously paying taxes, so it’s really helped us to provide wonderful services.”
But just like the industrial parks create jobs for the city of Chicopee, so do the myriad small businesses that call the city home.
The past 18 months has been about “rebirth,” said Mim Zayas, chair of the board of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m always impressed with Chicopee; when you look at the city itself and the community, it continues to grow,” she said. “Chicopee seems to continue to be a place where businesses want to be, which is great for us.”
Town officials told BusinessWest that many businesses, especially those in the broad service and hospitality sectors, struggled during COVID, but the city was able to help many small businesses, whether financially or with other assistance, to help pivot and change the dynamic of their business. The Community Development office was able to help sustain some of the small businesses, and Vieau said the city is certainly benefiting from those efforts.
“To know you have a new group of young guys who are in the family who want to take over — and to see the ideas coming out of them and the energy that comes out of them — that’s amazing.”
He acknowledged that bringing in large chain stores that want to be in high-volume locations such as Memorial Drive — an important component of the city’s economic-development strategy — certainly impacts small, locally owned businesses. But promoting the small-business community and letting people know that they can get great service and great products from small-business owners is important as well.
“Some of them are specialty businesses that really need consumers to buy their goods and services, and without that, the chains are going to put them out of business,” he explained, stressing the need for area residents to support local businesses.
Anchors like the Munich Haus, the Red Fez, and GroundWorks Coffee help Chicopee keep consumers’ dollars in this region, and they support the local community.
Lee Pouliot, director of the city’s Planning and Development department, told BusinessWest that there is a strong small-business community in the city, with many of these ventures family owned and operated.
That list includes McKinstry Farm, which has been a Chicopee staple since 1908, when Willard McKinstry opened up a roadside market wagon and started selling fruits and vegetables.
The farm, now currently being operated by the seventh and eighth generations of the McKinstry family, has evolved steadily over time.
“My grandfather switched over to vegetables in 1908; his brother took over the chicken part of it,” said Bill McKinstry, sixth-generation farmer and co-owner of McKinstry Farm and Market Garden, adding that the farm moved to its current location on McKinstry Road in 1938 due to repeated flooding.
McKinstry Farm and Market Garden has grown from a roadside fruit and vegetable stand to a robust market since the start of the pandemic. It sells a variety of fruits and vegetables — blueberries, strawberries, beans, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, watermelon, lettuce, pumpkins, and more — and recently added homemade ice cream, dill pickles, and donuts to the list of options. The market also sells fresh produce by local farmers of all kinds, like fresh eggs, honey, plants, fresh baked goods, and cheese.
But the McKinstrys are best known for their corn; they harvest 40 to 50 different varieties, including all-yellow, all-white, and mostly yellow and white.
Despite the economy, COVID, and other challenges, the operation is thriving, said Nicole McKinstry, co-owner of the farm and market, adding that succession planning — having the next generations on board — provides needed stability.
“The exciting part about having a family business is that, when you have someone that’s interested as much as Bill and I have been in this business for many years … it’s scary,” she said. “But to know you have a new group of young guys who are in the family who want to take over — and to see the ideas coming out of them and the energy that comes out of them — that’s amazing.”
Will and Warren McKinstry, the sons of Bill and Nicole, are key contributors to the recent growth of the family business. They are actively in the process of taking over — they became co-owners over the past year — and are striving to take the business to the next level.
After discussing the business plan and how the business will operate, the family decided to add the roadside market. Will and Bill tend the 250-acre farm, and Warren and Nicole manage the store.
Amid rising inflation and soaring costs of doing business, Nicole told BusinessWest that her youngest son, Warren, tries “very hard” to keep prices at the market as low as possible. But it’s not always easy, especially for off-season products, and with the price of fuel constantly fluctuating.
Bill McKinstry put the farm’s operating philosophy and its reason for being in perspective, noting that “we’re not in this business to get rich — we never were. But the satisfaction you get from putting out a good product is more rewarding to me than money.”
All those we spoke with said Chicopee is an ideal community to run a small business; the residents and municipal leaders are supportive and want to see the proverbial ‘small guys’ thriving like they were before the pandemic.
The city’s business community showed continued resilience and strength in 2022, and there is a sense of momentum heading into the new year.
“I tell many people this … you can invest in the stock market, or you can invest in something real like the city of Chicopee,” Vieau said. “If you want an opportunity to see dividends on your money, the city of Chicopee is the place to be.”