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Uncommon Space

Historic Office Facility in Belchertown is Attracting New Ventures
Joan Stoia, Shahrzad Moshiri, and Deborah Robes

Joan Stoia, Shahrzad Moshiri, and Deborah Robes stand in the foyer of the Carriage Towne Commons, where their offices are located.

There was a small celebration taking place on Main Street Belchertown early this month, as tenants of the Carriage Towne Commons professional offices gathered to watch the building’s new sign being erected. It was proof that the building and the businesses inside had arrived, and, moreover, that they planned to stay.

The Carriage Towne Commons is the brainchild of Steve and Joan Stoia, who purchased the historic Jonathan Grout House on Belchertown’s town common nine years ago to open a bed and breakfast that was open for seven years. The Stoias later bought a larger B&B in Northfield, the Centennial House, which they still operate. They held on to the Main Street property, though, in part due to its distinct colonial-era architecture and proximity to Belchertown’s increasingly busy town center.

“The town is coming to life, and at the same time, new life is happening here too,” said Joan Stoia. “We feel this town is on the rise. Belchertown is one of the only towns in Western Mass. that has seen an increase in both population and annual income, and we’re also seeing growth in high-end homes. All of the indicators are good.”

In addition to residential growth, Belchertown will also welcome a new district courthouse, slated for completion in April 2007, and plans are being blueprinted to convert the former Belchertown State School complex into a health- and fitness-focused resort complex. Stoia said she and her husband wanted to capitalize on that growth while at the same time moving away from the hospitality sector at the Carriage Towne property.

Designs on Women

With those goals in mind, the couple moved forward with plans to convert the building into office space and to recruit a diverse set of tenants, particularly in the legal and health and wellness fields. The result is a unique setting for business – an historic, home-like environment in a prime location, one that sees roughly 13,000 cars pass by each day, according to a recent traffic study.

“It’s already zoned for commercial use, so why not take advantage of that?” Stoia said. “The legal and health care communities will likely be rising with the construction of the courthouse and the resort spa, so we felt those were the people we should reach out to first.”

But the Stoias also wanted to create a space that would be ideal for newer, smaller businesses, including sole proprietorships.

“People who have an affinity and a respect for this house as soon as they walk in are the perfect candidates,” Stoia said, noting that they began “vigorously marketing” the property in 2005, and secured their first tenant, Shahrzad Moshiri, CPA, owner of SJM Accounting and Financial Services in December of that year.

“This property is unique,” said Moshiri of her decision to relocate. “You see the seasons change from your windows, you work in comfortable light … the house provides an excellent environment in which to work, and that has definitely grown on me.”

Soon after Moshiri set up shop in the Carriage Towne building, a trend began to emerge – the majority of interested tenants not only owned and operated unique, niche businesses, but were also almost entirely women.

Today, all of the property’s professional tenants are women, representing a wide range of fields. Moshiri runs her business from a second-floor office that once served as a bedroom suite, and downstairs, she’s been joined by Caro Lambert, a speech and language therapist, and Debbie Robes, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, real estate, and special education advocacy.

“I’ll be right next to the courthouse, which is great,” said Robes, “but the primary reason I came to look at the property was because I love old houses. The idea grabbed me, and the space sold me.”

Stoia, who also operates a career development practice, Cold Spring Career Associates, at the location, said Robes’ reasons for coming to Carriage Towne Commons have been voiced several times by interested business owners.

“Initially, we had a suspicion that women were going to be more attracted to this space than men,” Stoia explained. “It’s more home-like and artistic, and we offer amenities that women appreciate. Men tend to look for the high-tech bells and whistles.”

While high-speed DSL is among the amenities Carriage Towne offers, the house also provides for a shared reception area and a community meeting space for the tenants’ clients, cleaning services, and soon, a shared kitchen space as well.

A Living Legacy

But the property also has a history that makes it an appropriate incubator for women-owned businesses. Stoia explained that it has been owned and, in many cases, occupied by women since 1770, including during the Civil War, and has also long supported a variety of businesses, among them a doctor’s practice, an antique shop, a boarding house, and a carriage manufacturer.

“I still get goosebumps when I think about all the serendipity that surrounds this house,” she said. “It has always housed women, and has also frequently housed small businesses. I think now it’s moving forward into a new era with its own inertia.”

When the property is fully leased – there’s one suite still vacant – Stoia said she hopes to further enhance those in-house services, and perhaps involve the tenants in cooperative marketing strategies.

“Once everyone is in and settled, we want to offer as many in-house services as we can provide,” she said, noting that she and Steve have been careful to select tenants who complement one another’s businesses, and have also involved existing tenants in choosing the final company to join the Carriage Towne group.

We’re waiting to hear that ‘click;’ that moment when the final tenant moves in, and everything falls into place.”

Sign of the Times

For now, hearing the sound of a fully-occupied professional suite hitting its stride is dependent on filling that final, blank space on the Carriage Towne Commons’ signage. Stoia said men aren’t barred from applying, by any means, but small, entrepreneurial businesses will continue to receive preference, as well as those that could thrive within the Commons’ historic, colonial-inspired offices.

And Stoia looks forward to the day when she and that business owner quietly stand on Main Street … watching those new signs of life.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]