Page 56 - BusinessWest April 28, 2021
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 Springfield themselves.
Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building,
attractions, including the Springfield Museums.” This potential is reflected in the ongoing renova-
tion of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.
One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the develop- ment of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,”
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In recent months,
there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need
to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.
Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower- cost option to Boston.
Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential- laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.
The latter is the focal point of a master develop- ment plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the sur- rounding area development.” In the report, the con- sultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic develop- ment and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”
This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Imple- mentation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:
• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over mar- ket) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;
• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic mar- ket rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;
• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and
• Resulting property disinvestment, code viola- tions, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacer- bated on some levels by the pandemic.
“My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”
   Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.
For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while oppor- tunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.
“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the fore- closed portfolio has office space above the ground- floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the exist- ing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”
As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”
Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the dis- trict is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively afford- able cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural
as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas
of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.
Bottom Line
There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.
The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.
When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Cen- ter, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.
Amd with them come more expressions of confi- dence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic. u
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
come, and they’re going to support us like they’ve never supported us before,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people; we haven’t had a ton of outbound activity over the past few months, but recently we’ve finally been able to do some outreach, and there’s excitement.
“We’ve had some meetings with cor- porate partners, too, and there’s some support there as well — we’ve closed a few deals recently,” he went on. “We’re trying to be as proactive as possible ... we’ve garnered a lot of support locally, and people are hopeful that we’ll be back to where we need to be.” u
—George O’Brien
Continued from page 13
And that confidence emanates from the fact that he’s done this before.
Indeed, when a group of owners acquired a franchise in Portland, Maine and moved it to Springfield in 2016, Costa, then general manager, had to condense roughly a year’s worth of work into just a few months. It won’t
be quite like that in 2021, but there are many similarities between the team’s start and what would have to be called a restart this year.
“We’re going to have to go back and redo this thing from scratch,” he explained. “And one thing I look at from a positive perspective is that I have the playbook; we did it that first year in a really short amount of time.
We bought that franchise in June, and we had to play in October — we have that shotgun experience in our back pocket.”
Which brings us back to those baby steps. The team is taking many of them as it works to emerge from what will ultimately be more than 18 months of quiet at the MassMutual Center.
“We’re going through a normal renewal period with season-ticket holders — we’re folding those letters as we speak and just trying to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he explained. “But it’s hard ... we’re hopeful that,
by October, we’ll be in a much better place. But you just don’t know; things change daily.”
Overall, he believes that, despite
a year-long absence, the team is in a good place from a business perspec- tive. Support from season-ticket hold- ers and sponsors has been strong, he noted, and, from all indications, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand for all the Thunderbirds bring to their fan base.
Meanwhile, with American Inter- national College going to the colle- giate hockey tournament and UMass Amherst taking the home a national championship, there will likely be an even greater appetite for hockey locally, Costa told BusinessWest.
“I think people are excited about getting back to the arena, and I think that, when we have the chance to open the doors again, people are going to
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