West Side, Big E Are Focused on Milestones
Once the 17 days of the Big E Fair begin, Gene Cassidy settles into a routine he’s followed for years now.
His day starts early, with a few minutes in his office in the Brooks Building, before he gets into a golf cart and proceeds to his ‘other office’ in the Hampden County building. Along the way, he stops in with employees in the parking area, the ticket booths, and other areas to get a sense of how things went the day before and what would be expected in the hours to come. And to stress, again, the importance of these 17 days to the overall health and vitality of this West Side institution.
“I remind people that they can make the difference between someone who’s a patron having a good day or a bad day,” he said. “Or I’ll thank them if the day before was pouring rain … I’m very conscientious about making sure that people understand that we make 87% of our revenue in 17 days. The people who work here, they have to know how important their role is to delivering to the fairgoing public an experience that’s at the highest level it can possibly be.”
Before any of that, though, Cassidy checks the attendance numbers for the corresponding day of the fair the year before. That number becomes a target and a tone setter, he explained, adding that, if that day from the year before was a washout due to rain, there probably won’t be any trouble matching or exceeding results and moving toward the ultimate goal of improvement over last year. If it was a really good day the year prior, it’s the opposite.
Which means that, this Big E season, there will be some big nuts to crack.
“I remind people that they can make the difference between someone who’s a patron having a good day or a bad day.”
Indeed, the fair set five single-day attendance records in 2022, starting on opening day, and continuing to the second Friday, the second Saturday (when the single-day record was broken and more than 177,789 came through the gates), the second Monday, and the final day. Overall, the 2022 fair came in just shy of the 17-day record of 1,543,470 set in 2018.
“People really responded to the fair last year, and, overall, the weather was pretty good,” Cassidy said, touching on a subject we’ll get back to in some depth later. “People really came out.”
Those new standards set last year, and maybe some others as well, might fall this year, based on what Cassidy has seen in Wisconsin, which just wrapped up its annual fair, as well as Indiana and elsewhere.
Indeed, while inflation remains high, and Americans have plowed through most of the money they saved during the pandemic and are now taking on more debt, attendance at fairs like the Big E is up, said Cassidy, who believes such institutions provide what people are looking for these days.
“We represent the very best of the American way of life,” he said. “The fair is a place for family and friends and camaraderie. The Wisconsin fair recently ended, and they had amazing attendance, and Indiana is going on now, and they had a few record-setting days. People gravitate toward that which satisfies the need for human interaction. Even in years when we have high inflation, people may sacrifice a trip to Disney or a trip to Boston for a Red Sox game to get together with family at the fair.”
West Springfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1774
Area: 17.5 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $15.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.58
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
The ramp-up to the Big E is always big news in West Springfield, and this year is no exception. But there are other developing stories, as they say, starting with the community’s 250th birthday in 2024; a major, as in major, upgrade of Memorial Avenue, the mailing address for the Big E and many other businesses; and the opening of the town’s first cannabis enterprises.
Mayor Will Reichelt said planning for the 250th is well underway, with a full slate of events set, starting early in 2024 and continuing throughout the year.
That slate includes a 250th Leap Year celebration on Feb. 29, with specifics to be determined; a 250th Ball, slated for May 18; a parade and block party in June; a golf tournament and 5K in July; a parade in August … you get the idea.
As for the massive, $26 million upgrade to Memorial Avenue, work is already underway, said Reichelt, noting tree-removal work and other initiatives, and it will ramp up considerably over the next few years, bringing improvement to a major thoroughfare, but undoubtedly some headaches as well.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at West Springfield and the many things happening in this community, starting with the annual fair.
On a Good Run
Reichelt was among the competitors at the recent Ironman competition that wove its way through several area communities, including West Springfield — and a stretch of the Connecticut River for the swimming part of the competition.
He finished in just under seven and half hours — the top finishers came in at just over four hours — a time that he will look to improve upon next year (yes, he’s already committing to doing it again).
“Even in years when we have high inflation, people may sacrifice a trip to Disney or a trip to Boston for a Red Sox game to get together with family at the fair.”
“I bought an Ironman training guide and wrote my time for this year and my projected time for next year,” he said, adding that the target for the 2024 event is to get under six hours. “If I start training now, I think I can get there.”
The Ironman is one of many events already on the 2024 calendar — or soon to announce official dates — that will take on the flavor of the 250th anniversary, everything from St. Patrick’s Day activities to the block party, which will embody elements of a Taste of West Springfield event that was a staple in the community for many years.
Overall, planning for the 250th is ongoing and will ramp up over the coming months, said Reichelt, noting that, while the actual 250th birthday is Feb. 25, this will be a year-long celebration.
By the time it’s over, some major thoroughfares will look considerably different, he said, starting with Memorial Avenue. By this time next year, a project that has been nearly a decade in the making will be well underway, he noted, adding that highlights of the ambitious undertaking, designed to improve traffic flow, will include a reduction of lanes from four to three along a stretch by the Big E, with reconstruction of traffic islands to allow for better turning in and out of businesses along the street. The stretch from Union Street to the Memorial Bridge will also feature a bike lane.
In addition, water and sewer mains are being replaced, and drainage systems will be improved, he said, adding that the project will take several years to complete.
Meanwhile, the city will soon commence work on another major infrastructure project in its downtown area.
It includes construction of a roundabout at the intersection of Westfield and Elm Streets, an area that has seen renewed vibrancy with the opening in recent years of new restaurants and the redevelopment of the former United Bank building into a mixed-use facility called Town Commons. Also planned are improvements to the town common, with new sidewalks, tree plantings, and more.
Beyond infrastructure, there are some new developments within the business community as well, said the mayor, noting that the town’s first cannabis dispensaries — the community was a late entry in this sweepstakes — will be opening in the coming weeks, with one on Memorial Avenue near the bridge, and the other on Riverdale Street.
Meanwhile, the town continues to work with Amherst Brewing on redevelopment of the former Hofbrahaus restaurant just off Memorial Avenue — a project that has been paused with hopes that it can be restarted — and plans are being forwarded, by the same group that redeveloped the former United Bank building, to redevelop a long-closed nursing home off Westfield Street, with housing being the preferred option.
As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming Big E, the weather, and the overall goal of matching or exceeding last year’s numbers, Cassidy got up from his desk and retrieved his notes from previous fairs.
In deep detail, he has recorded not just the attendance for a given day, but the weather and other factors that might provide deeper insight into those numbers.
Especially the weather.
Indeed, Cassidy goes much deeper than ‘rain,’ ‘sun,’ or even ‘partly cloudy’ to describe a day. Much, much deeper.
“We missed the 17-day record last year by just a little bit, and the reason we missed it is because we had five days of rain,” he explained. “I often laugh, because people will say ‘oh, the weather was great year.’ Well, it was great on the day they came.”
Running back over his notes, Cassidy revealed the level of detail given to cataloguing, if that’s the right term, each day of the fair, so that the numbers can be fully understood and put in their proper context.
“That first Sunday was a threatening mix all day; Monday and Tuesday were heavy rain; Monday, there was sun at 5 p.m.; Tuesday, there was sun at 2 p.m., and it was very hot,” he said, reading from his notes. “The first Thursday, there was heavy rain with lightning all day. And the second Monday was pleasant, but there was serious rain at 5:30, and the people ran out — although we had a very big day that day. We had a big day on the final Sunday, but it was cold and overcast.”
All this serves to show the importance of weather to the success of the fair, Cassidy said, adding that this isn’t lost on anyone at the fair, with everyone involved hoping that the seemingly constant rains that have swollen area rivers and damaged crops of all kinds will take a break in mid- to late September.
Beyond weather, Cassidy also likes to talk about what’s new at the fair, starting with entertainment, but also food.
Regarding the former, the 2023 fair will feature an eclectic mix of musical acts, including John Fogerty, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Parker McCollum, Jimmy Eat World, Quinn XCII, Chris Young, and many more. As for the food, Cassidy teased that there is an intriguing new addition for the 2023 fair, but he couldn’t announce what it was at the moment.
What he did say is that food has come a long way — a long, long way — over the past few decades, with offerings that go well beyond traditional fair food and also beyond the ‘everything that can possibly be fried’ category as well.
“The food is so different today than it was 20 years ago, when it was more fair food,” he told BusinessWest. “There is a lot of high-quality food here, and it has nothing to do with being fried. The food today is so much more creatively put together. You can get steak tips with real mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables; no one thought you could buy that on a fairgrounds 20 years ago.
“When I first started in the fair industry, there were hamburgers and hot dogs and cotton candy and candied apples; there was a guy who made sausages,” he went on. “Today, the quality of food, the abundance of it, and the diversity of it are significantly different.”
Some of these eclectic offerings are available at a new area that made its debut in 2022 and will return this year. It’s called the Front Porch, and it promotes small businesses, many of them taking their first opportunity to showcase their brand, Cassidy said.
Last year, there were nine or 10 businesses participating, and this year, there will be seven or eight, to provide the ventures with more room to operate, he said, adding that some will be back from last year, while others will not, primarily because they’ve moved on to brick-and-mortar operations.
“It’s a fun way for people to get their feet on the ground,” he said, adding that the Front Porch has become an intriguing and popular addition to the landscape at the Big E — and one more reason for folks to show up in West Springfield … and maybe break a few more records.