Commercial Real Estate

Way Finders Relocation Creates More Momentum in Both Ends of the City

Making a Move

Two architect’s renderings of the planned new home of Way Finders at the site of the Peter Pan bus station.

Two architect’s renderings of the planned new home of Way Finders at the site of the Peter Pan bus station.

The nonprofit group Way Finders, formerly known as HAPHousing, has released renderings of the new 35,000-square-foot home it intends to build on the site of the soon-to-be abandoned Peter Pan Bus station. The move to the North End will bring benefits for the agency and its many types of clients, but it will also generate momentum — and economic development — at two locations, a trickle-down effect not always seen with relocations of this type.

From the start, Peter Gagliardi said, the goal was to find something on the major bus routes and, preferably, near the bus station.

Turns out, he accomplished all that and then some.

Indeed, the new home for Way Finders, formerly HAPHousing, will be the bus station — or the old bus station, to be more precise, the long-time home to Peter Pan Bus Lines. Which just happens to be across Main Street from the new bus station, the renovated, 90-year-old Union Station.

“I had really hoped that we would have a place near the bus station, but I never expected that we would buy the bus station — you can’t get any closer than that,” said Gagliardi, long-time CEO of the agency, which rebranded to Way Finders last fall in a reflection of its broadened mission.

But this ambitious, $15 million project (that’s the latest estimate) will achieve much more than added convenience for and clients served by Way Finders, many of whom don’t own cars or have reliable transportation, said Gagliardi.

It will also become an important additional component of broad revitalization efforts in downtown Springfield and especially the area just north of the Arch — and a likely catalyst for still more, he noted. It will also bring roughly 200 workers to that area, providing opportunities for service businesses already in that quadrant and those looking to expand into it. And it will give a growing, evolving agency the room and the facilities to better serve clients and continually expand its portfolio of services.

Indeed, a nonprofit that was once focused mostly on securing housing for those who could not afford it has morphed into a truly multi-faceted agency focused on everything from financial education to helping individuals buy a home to assisting them with finding employment so they can rent a home or apartment.

“Because there’s not enough housing to go around, we’re helping people avoid homelessness by becoming employed,” said Gagliardi, obviously proud of the results generated by this relatively new initiative. “We’ve placed about 560 people over the past four and half years, and at the end of 12 months, 80% to 90% of those people are still employed. We don’t have [housing] vouchers for everyone, so we tell people employment might be their best bet.”

But while this relocation will bring many benefits to Way Finders and its many clients, there will be a trickle-down effect as well, and one not always seen when a large employer leaves one home for another.

Peter Gagliardi says the new Way Finders headquarters will be a solid addition to Springfield’s North End.

Peter Gagliardi says the new Way Finders headquarters will be a solid addition to Springfield’s North End.

Indeed, this relocation, announced late last year, is not a case of musical chairs — the commercial real-estate variety, anyway — a phrase that brokers and those involved in economic development like to use when a tenant within a property abandons it for something similar a few miles or even a few blocks away.

Such moves often don’t have a significant net impact on the real-estate market or the economy of the area in question, experts say, because the only thing that’s really changing is the tenant’s street address.

In the case of Way Finders, so much more is changing. It’s soon-to-be-former home in Springfield — the agency also has an office in Holyoke — at 322 Main St. in the South End has been acquired by Balise Motor Sales. And while no plans have been announced, it seems likely that property will be put to new and different use as Balise expands its already considerable footprint in that part of the city.

Meanwhile, Way Finders’ move to the North End, coming as Peter Pan moves its employees into Union Station, provides another shot of adrenaline for a section of the city that had been mostly dormant for years.

To borrow a phrase used often in business and politics, this move would appear to constitute a win-win-win for the South End, the North End — and specifically Union Station — and the nonprofit agency and its clients. Maybe that’s a win-win-win-win.

In any case, for this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes a look at this relocation and its many implications.

Space Exploration

As he talked about how Way Finders arrived at that press conference where its purchase of the Peter Pan property for $2.75 million was announced, Gagliardi said the seeds for that acquisition were planted quite some time ago.

To make a long story somewhat short, the nonprofit has grown significantly over the past several years as its mission has been expanded, he explained, adding that the workforce, or at least those members of it working in Springfield, outgrew the property at 322 Main St. a few years ago.

“We were comfortable at 120 people, but not at 160,” said Gagliardi as he got specific with the numbers of employees working at that site a few years ago. “It really compromised the quality of the space the staff was working in, and it also cramped the quarters we were using to work with clients; our foot traffic just kept increasing, especially with the issue of homelessness and people trying to keep a roof over our heads.

“It was getting to be untenable,” he went on, adding that parking was another issue, especially after MGM acquired the former Orr Cadillac property (Way Finders was leasing 40 parking spaces there) and converted it into the new Springfield Rescue Mission and Balise acquired an adjacent property, eliminating another 25 spaces. “The handwriting was on the wall. It was a 15,000-square-foot parcel with a 13,000-square-foot building; there wasn’t even room to put in a dumpster.”

By that time, “Balise had us surrounded,” said Gagliardi, adding that the car company had acquired several parcels around 322 Main St., and the logical step for Way Finders was to offer that building as the next addition to the portfolio, lease back office space and parking spaces, and commence a search for a new headquarters.

Which it did, while also moving about 40 employees to a large suite of offices on Maple Street, just a few blocks away.

As for that search, a request for proposals yielded several options for buying and especially leasing space, said Gagliardi, acknowledging the obvious — that a stable, growing nonprofit with roughly 200 employees would be a very attractive tenant for a number of landlords in the city.

The bus station became one of those options, he went on, adding that, after careful consideration, it became the best option, for reasons ranging from location — that first consideration in commercial real estate — to the footprint’s size and flexibility, especially with regard to parking (there will be room for 180 spaces).

Being near the new bus station, or transportation center (there is rail service at Union Station as well) was a big factor, he told BusinessWest.

“We needed a place well served by public transportation because a lot of our clients don’t have cars or don’t have reliable vehicles,” he explained. “And we have a lot of staff that live in the city and could use buses if they were convenient.”

Initially, the thought was to renovate the existing facilities at the bus station, said Gagliardi, adding that a detailed review determined that new construction would allow better utilization of the footprint and better service to clients.

“We looked at it closely, but the cost of bringing facilities up to code was substantial,” he said. “It would cost even more to do it as new, but a new building will be far more energy-efficient than we can make the old one; it will be a much more efficient use of space. The end result was that it just made more sense to do this.”

Way Finders, which recently took title to the property, is in the process of putting together financing for the project, said Gagliardi, adding that it will include New Markets Tax Credits, a tax-exempt bond through MassDevelopment, and significant fundraising, perhaps a total of $3 million to $4 million. The goal is to move in by September 2019.

As for that trickle-down effect mentioned earlier, often there isn’t much of that phenomenon with moves such as this, only that musical-chairs outcome seen in this city and many others when new properties are constructed.

“Often, with relocations like this, you’re worried about the place left behind,” said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer, adding that this thought process went through his mind even on projects like the new federal courthouse on State Street, an initiative he led as an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. The new facility changed the landscape on State Street and greatly upgraded the facilities for the court — but it also left a huge vacancy at 1550 Main St.

That property rebounded nicely and is now home to a diverse group of new tenants, but such bouncebacks don’t always occur.

With Peter Pan relocating to Union Station, the bus station would be left behind, said Kennedy, adding that Way Finders’ relocation was both a quick and extremely positive reuse of a highly visible piece of property.

“To get a brand new building there with a significant number of employees was a good result,” he said in a voice that certainly conveyed understatement, adding that the second parcel to be left behind, 322 Main St., will likely have an equally positive outcome.

“With a family like Balise that has accumulated a significant amount of property in that area, I expect a that we’re going to see a significant development there that will be good for the city and good for the tax base,” he told BusinessWest.

Room for Improvement

All that certainly constitutes a win-win-win, with maybe a few more wins as well.

It started with a desire to be near the bus station and ended with a purchase of the bus station. That wasn’t the expected route, to borrow a phrase from the transportation business, but this relocation will help several parties get to their desired destinations.

“We could have gone outside the city; we could have done something in an industrial park,” said Gagliardi. “But that wouldn’t have been good for our clients or good for the city. The idea that someone that can hop on a bus in Chicopee, take it to Union Station, and walk across the street is a good thing.

“We’d like to be part of the good stuff that’s happening this city,” he went on, adding that this relocation, not to mention the agency’s many initiatives to improve quality of life for area residents, will certainly make that a reality.

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