Cover Story

TDI Fellow Laura Masulis Is Laser-focused on Springfield

Assignment: Springfield

Laura Masulis

Laura Masulis says working on initiatives to increase foot traffic downtown is among her goals.

Before last spring, about all Laura Masulis knew of Springfield was what she could see off I-91 as she drove back and forth to Wesleyan. But when she was chosen as one of MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative fellows, and the city was selected to be granted such an individual, she got off the highway, took a much closer look, and became intrigued, to say the least. A match was made, and now she’s heavily involved in all efforts to make downtown a destination.

Laura Masulis grew up in Nashville, which is known worldwide for its music industry and, in recent decades, a burgeoning healthcare sector. But for most of her adult life, she’s had what she called a soft spot for “old industrial cities.”

That sentiment helps explain why she considers her current assignment, as a so-called Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) fellow working in Springfield for MassDevelopment, a “match made in heaven.”

Indeed, Springfield’s long history as a manufacturing hub and current work to reinvent itself certainly resonated with Masulis as she was rating potential landing spots within the statewide TDI program as part of a matching process similar to the one experienced by graduating medical-school students.

“We rate them, and they rate us,” said Masulis, 28, as she talked about how she interviewed in Springfield, Lynn, and Haverhill, and officials in those communities ranked the various candidates as much as the candidates ranked potential destinations. “I ranked Springfield first, and they ranked me first, so it was pretty simple.”

But there was more than an industrial heritage that convinced Masulis that she wanted Springfield to be her home, figuratively and quite literally — she recently purchased a home in the Forest park neighborhood — for at least the three-year duration of her assignment.

There was also its many forms of diversity — Masulis majored in Latin American studies and economics in college — as well as the architecture downtown, cultural attractions, and, most importantly, vast potential for improvement.

“I was amazed by how visually beautiful the city was, in both the downtown and the neighborhoods — that surprised me,” she noted. “I was moved by the architecture, excited about the diversity of the community, and intrigued by all that’s happening; it’s definitely an exciting time for this city.”

Her general assignment is Springfield, but, more specifically, it’s a several-block area downtown that it is now called the Innovation District — a name that is slowly working its way into the lexicon but is still used almost exclusively by elected officials and development leaders. Perhaps more importantly, it has been designated by MassDevelopment as a TDI District, with the focus squarely on the first two words in that acronym — ‘transformative’ and ‘development.’

MassDevelopment literature outlining the TDI initiative defines that phrase this way: “transformative development is redevelopment on a scale and character capable of catalyzing significant follow-on private investment, leading over time to transformation of an entire downtown or urban neighborhood, and consistent with local plans.”

There are 10 TDI projects in various stages of progression across the Commonwealth, including those focused on the so-called TOD District in Holyoke, the Tyler Street District in Pittsfield, the One Lynn District in Lynn, the Merrimac Street Transformative District in Haverhill, the North River Neighborhood in Peabody, Downtown Gateway in Brockton, and the Theater District in Worcester.

In Springfield, the TDI District stretches, for the most part, from Main Street to just east of Chestnut Street, and from Bridge Street to Lyman Street. It includes the city’s entertainment district, Apremont Triangle, Stearns Square, the park located on the former Steiger’s site (now known as Center Square), and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ those blocks heavily damaged by the November 2012 natural-gas explosion.

As part of efforts to transform the identified districts, the Gateway cities can apply for what’s known as a ‘mid-career fellow’ to help develop and implement strategic initiatives. Springfield, Lynn, and Haverhill prevailed in the spirited competition for the first three fellows to be funded by MassDevelopment (three more will be assigned in 2016), and that brings us back to Masulis and that matching process.

Her assignment, which started in May, dictates that she works closely with several local development-focused agencies, including the city’s Economic Development Department, the Springfield Business Improvement District, DevelopSpringfield, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, and others, and thus she’s been involved in a number of recent initiatives.

These include everything from movie nights at Stearns Square over the summer (The Princess Bride was among the films shown) to the recent pop-up Downtown Springfield Holiday Market; from Valley Venture Mentors workshops to public stakeholder meetings (the latest was on Dec. 17); from a project at Market Place involving UMass landscape architecture students (see related story, page 41) to the recent City2City trip to Chattanooga, Tenn. (her thoughts on that excursion later).

She said much has been accomplished, but much more obviously needs to be done to transform the district into a place people will not only want to visit, but also live in and start a business in.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Masulis about her assignment, the TDI District, and her thoughts on what the future might bring for the City of Homes — now her own home.

Developing Story

Masulis did her undergraduate work at Wesleyan University in suburban Middletown, Conn. But she’s spent the past several years working and going to school in Boston (she earned a certificate in nonprofit management and leadership at Boston University), and, as mentioned earlier, she grew up in Nashville.

So she’s used to streets teeming with people, and is thus well-acquainted with the energy — as well as the sense of security — that such a critical mass provides.

And those are two of the things she noticed were largely missing during her visits here early on — and are still missing, for the most part. She noted that the clubs along Worthington Street can be crowded — and parking spots hard to find throughout the entertainment district — on weekend nights, but her impression is that the streets are seemingly, and somewhat alarmingly, empty too much of the time.

“I was moved by the fact that there was so little foot traffic,” she told BusinessWest. “At night, you only feel unsafe because there’s no one around. That was sort of an eerie thing to experience when I first got here.”

It’s not officially written into her job description, but doing something about that quiet on the streets, the lack of foot traffic, is a very big part of why she’s here.

And that goal has been at the forefront of many of those efforts described earlier, from the movies in the park to the holiday market. But there is obviously much more to this assignment than announcing such events with chalk on downtown sidewalks, as Masulis could often be seen doing over the past several months.

Indeed, the work involves strategic planning, developing partnerships to carry out initiatives identified in those plans, meeting with the key stakeholders, and, overall, creating and maintaining a buzz about downtown and, more specifically, the TDI District.

Springfield’s Transformative Development Initiative District

Springfield’s Transformative Development Initiative District encompasses several blocks in the city’s entertainment district and so-called ‘blast zone.’

Masulis brings to these various duties a diverse background that includes work with social-service agencies and small businesses. She’s served as a program assistant for the Center for Women and Enterprise and as a business analyst for the Public Consulting Group, and also co-founded the still-operating Lawrence BiciCocina, a community bike and board workshop in Lawrence (another of those old industrial cities) to promote healthy lifestyles, sustainable and low-cost transportation, youth leadership development, and job training.

Most recently, she’s been a senior project manager for Interise, the Boston-based venture that stimulates economic growth in lower-income communities by helping established small-business owners grow and expand their ventures.

She said this background meshed effectively with what Springfield and its TDI District perhaps most needed — small-business recruitment, retention, and development efforts — and this contributed to those ‘match made in heaven’ sentiments.

Masulis admitted that, prior to last spring, about all she knew of Springfield was what she could see from I-91 as she traveled on that road to get to Wesleyan nearly a decade ago. When the city became one of the finalists to be assigned a fellow, she said she got off the highway for a weekend visit that focused on the downtown and the TDI District itself.

As she mentioned, she was somewhat unnerved by the lack of foot traffic — “sort of creepy” was another of the phrases she used to describe it — but looked past it to its many attributes and considerable growth potential, something she says many of those who live and work in the city have a much harder time doing.

“People from the outside can often appreciate the many assets of a city more than the people who are there every day,” she explained. “And I definitely experienced that with Springfield.”

What’s in Store?

As she talked about her assignment, Masulis said it is unique, in many respects, with regard to others within the broad realms of economic development and urban planning. Getting more specific, she said that, while there are certainly many meetings to attend — she didn’t attempt to guesstimate how many she’s been part of since arriving — her work mostly involves implementation, which is what she likes most about it.

And there is plenty of implementation to do, considering the various initiatives taking place in the city and the many partner agencies she works with. Which means that the calendar is full and each day is different.

“It’s an interesting role because I’m doing 15 things at once,” she explained. “I’m working with projects involving the Pioneer Planning Commission on the walkability of downtown and signage and pedestrian infrastructure. And the next meeting I’m at, we’re talking about recruiting restaurants for the district, and at the next meeting, I’m talking with property owners about improvements that need to be made and how they’re going to finance those.

“I’m meeting with residents who are talking about how they wish there was better lighting on their street,” she went on. “It’s a broad spectrum of issues and initiatives, and every day is a complete mix of things. And while geographically I’m very focused on this one district of downtown, all the issues are interconnected to the city and the region, so I wind up being part of these broader initiatives and conversations.”

As for the TDI District itself, Masulis said the basic mission is to make it a destination — or much more of a destination — for a wide array of constituencies. These include people looking for a place — or places — at which to spend a night out, individuals who want to do some shopping, entrepreneurs looking for a location to launch or relocate a hospitality-related enterprise, and people looking for a place to live. And she’s working with the various partner agencies to anticipate and meet the needs of those and other groups.

“This is an entertaining, dining, innovation district that has seen a couple of major investments made, but a lot of it has yet to be built out,” she said, citing the stunning transformation of the Fuller Block as an example of the type of development that could — and hopefully will — happen at dozens of buildings and vacant lots within the district.

“That’s a perfect model for what could happen to buildings across the district,” she said of the property, which now houses National Public Radio, the Dennis Group (an engineering company), and a host of other tenants. “And there have been others that have not been rehabbed, including those in the blast zone, on the extreme end.”

One of the keys to making such redevelopment happen is successful recruitment of new businesses, she said, adding that such work represents just one component of her work involving small businesses. Another is working with those that are already located within the district, she noted, adding that, while attracting new ventures is critical, so too is making sure existing ventures can thrive and thus serve as models for others.

“I’m doing on-the-ground work with the established businesses there — making sure they know what’s going on and have awareness of the various resources available to them,” she said. “And there’s also the work of recruiting businesses from around the region who could potentially open another location in Springfield.

“But I’m also part of the conversation about building out the small business and entrepreneurship pipeline in the region,” she went on, “and for filling in the gaps and having a more cohesive umbrella regarding all the resources available. We need to pull those together more tightly and in a more user-friendly way than what’s currently in place.”

The Right Place and Time

Still another factor that made Springfield a desirable landing spot, said Masulis, was the fact that her three-year assignment — which could go much longer — coincides with an obviously intriguing chapter in the city’s history and reinvention process.

one of 10 across the state

Springfield’s TDI District is one of 10 across the state identified by MassDevelopment.

Beyond the elephant in the room — the $900 million MGM Springfield, which is scheduled to open its doors around the time Masulis’ three-year tenure wraps up — there are other initiatives, including the redevelopment of Union Station, the construction of a subway-car manufacturing plant in the east side of the city, a wave of entrepreneurial energy that manifests itself in the form of the various Valley Venture Mentors initiatives, the new innovation center downtown, and much more.

And Masulis feels privileged to be in a position to not just watch it happen, but play a role in how events transpire, especially with regard to the entrepreneurial piece of the puzzle.

“I feel very lucky to be coming in at this point,” she told BusinessWest. “I definitely recognize that there’s been a huge amount of work and sweat equity already put in to developing this entrepreneurship culture; I’m just here to provide some additional capacity to help keep it moving forward.”

As for the bigger picture — and where Springfield and its TDI District might be three years from now, or 10, or 20 — Masulis, acknowledging that she was taking that outsider’s perspective, even with eight months of work downtown under her belt, takes a decidedly optimistic view.

“Regardless of what happens with MGM, there is already a lot of positive energy in the city, and that includes the innovation and dining space,” she said, referring to the real estate within the TDI District that comprises her primary focus. “There’s a lot of momentum when it comes to the anchors that are already in place that we really want to build upon; what we want to do is fill storefronts with positive activity.”

The pop-up Downtown Springfield Holiday Market was an example of this, she said, adding that the initiative, based in the ground-floor space of the building most still know as Harrison Place, was designed to increase foot traffic while also giving retailers, who take on temporary, or pop-up space, a chance to try on downtown Springfield and see if the shoe might fit.

“That’s one strategy to get more retailers to come downtown and try it out,” she explained. “For us, the plan is to then transition them into longer-term leases in more permanent locations. In five years, we want to see a lot more foot traffic on the street, not just on workdays, but also at night and on weekends. The goal is fewer vacant storefronts and more people utilizing the green spaces that are already there.”

Masulis said she’s heard all about how vibrant Tower Square was decades ago, and also about Johnson’s Bookstore, Forbes & Wallace, Steiger’s, and all the other retail now relegated to the past tense. She said the goal moving forward isn’t about restoring the past, but creating something different, equally vibrant, and more reflective of the changes that have taken place over the past four decades.

“We have a very different community than we had 30 years ago,” she noted. “What’s going to be in the future is not going to be a perfect replication of what was.”

She acknowledged that the task of getting more people to live and do business downtown is a complicated process — people won’t live in the area until there are things to, and there won’t be things to do unless there are people living in and coming to the area. But she believes progress will come on both fronts, and this will generate continued progress.

“You need to work on both things at the same time,” she said of the commercial and residential aspects of the equation. “And you have to find a couple of risk takers who are willing to come out early before the proven model.”

She said the Chattanooga trip, while energizing, certainly, provided ample evidence of how much work remains to be done, but also how much progress Springfield has already made, especially with regard to creating opportunities and closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, something Chattanooga has not done as well.

When asked if Springfield could host a similar program now, or when it might be able to do so, Masulis said that, in many respects, she believes the city is already there, but that, in a few years, it will have many more success stories to put on display.

“In five years, Springfield will look very different, and I really hope that we’ll be in a position where people want to visit this city and we’re able to show that not only do we have these flashy projects that have been very successful, but we’ve made real strides in reducing inequality as well.”

At Home with the Idea

Those words ‘we’ll’ and ‘we’re,’ while seemingly innocuous, are rather telling when it comes to this fellowship and how Masulis looks upon it.

She’s not just someone working in Springfield on a project funded by MassDevelopment. OK, she is, but rather quickly, she’s become an integral part of the multi-faceted effort to revitalize and reinvent one of the old industrial cities she’s so fond of. And she’s using words like ‘we’re’ and ‘we’ll.’

More than that, she’s already talking about how that house in Forest Park may be home for much longer than three years.

In the meantime, she’s in the middle of something special — a match, as she said, that was seemingly made in heaven.

 

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

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