Designs on Progress
Architect-turned-mayor Greg Neffinger Blueprints Change for West Springfield
Greg Neffinger likes to refer to the 11-year tenure of Edward Gibson, West Springfield’s first mayor, as “phase 1” of the community’s transition to city status.
“He [Gibson] had that difficult process of taking us from a town to a city, but a lot of the town remained the same,” said Neffinger, an architect by trade who became West Side’s second mayor in January, and commenced what he considers “phase 2.”
This amounts to, among many other things, a stronger commitment to the city’s charter, especially the part dictating creation of a Planning and Development Department, he told BusinessWest as he punched up those paragraphs on his computer. That commitment has manifested itself with the recent hiring of a Planning and Development director (Doug Mattoon) to preside over several city departments, as well as the city’s first economic-development director, Michele Cabral.
“I think people were looking for more efficiencies in government and more accountability from town hall,” said the mayor. “That’s what I ran on, and that’s what I think I provide right now.”
Phase 2 also entails moving beyond the myriad plans and studies the city has undertaken in recent years, including a master plan and strategic initiative involving the city’s Merrick section, and getting on with some of the steps outlined in those documents.
Mayor Neffinger says West Springfield’s large number of vacant commercial buildings, including many on Riverdale Street (seen here), is a warning sign for the community.
“West Springfield, as one former city councilor put it, has developed the reputation of the ‘city of studies,’” Neffinger told BusinessWest. “In other words, we do a study, and then nothing happens with it — it gets put into a file drawer somewhere. It’s time to do fewer studies and get some things done.
“I know people who worked on the master plan created in 2010,” he continued. “They contributed a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and spent a lot of time away from their families. And that master plan was stuck in a file drawer. We’re not going to do that anymore. The master plan has now been taken out of the drawer, and we’re using it.”
Neffinger’s first nine months in office have been somewhat of a bumpy ride. He drew criticism early for hiring a public-relations specialist to help him with the press and other matters, and drew considerable flak from residents and some city councilors alike for his decision to lay off long-time planner Richard Werbiskis for what he claimed were economic reasons — specifically the $60,000 the council cut from the budget for the new Department of Planning and Development. Meanwhile, several senior city officials, including the police chief and DPW director, have retired, and Neffinger fired the city’s assessor, leaving many departments in a state of transition.
But he remains committed to his vision for the city, and is determined to do things his way.
This includes a higher level of communication with residents — he’s gone so far as to set up a true open-door policy (residents can visit and talk with him on any issue during office hours set aside on Thursdays) — and a commitment to generating jobs and economic vibrancy.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Neffinger, who has a blueprint for progress in his city, and is anxious to move it off the drawing board.
When asked how he got involved in politics, Neffinger said he’s always been interested in public service. He served on West Side’s Board of Appeals for 16 years, and on the Historical Commission for 12. He also developed what he called a “public face” through years of involvement with the city’s Rotary Club, and especially his year as president.
It was while serving in those roles that he became frustrated by several aspects of city government, especially what he considered a lack of respect, not to mention poor-quality service, when it came to some city residents and constituencies.
“It used to bother me when I saw the small guy being taken advantage of,” he said, adding that this was his take on what he saw often from his seat on the Board of Appeals.
“You’d see someone come in with three attorneys from New York, and they would get up and win,” he recalled, “and then you’d have mom and pop come in, and they’d be raked over the coals. I felt that the small guy was not being treated fairly, and I was a small-business owner at the same time.”
His business was architecture, a practice that came to specialize in projects developed by nonprofit groups and religious organizations; one of his more recent signature projects was the new equestrian arena at the Big E.
While his firm did well, Neffinger was frustrated with his inability to effectively compete for many municipal projects because the established conditions were not favorable to small practices. And it was some of these experiences, coupled with what he saw on the appeals board, that eventually propelled him into politics.
“My brother and I were complaining about politics one day, and I said, ‘I’m going to stop complaining and do something about it,’” he recalled, adding that the ‘something’ became a run for state representative, a race he would eventually lose to then-West Springfield City Council President Mike Finn.
After that contest, though, he remembers many residents suggesting he run for mayor. He distinctly recalls one elected official telling him that the issues he was running on in the state representative’s race were more municipally oriented. “People told me I could have a much greater impact on the community if I ran for mayor.”
After Gibson announced that he would not seek re-election, Neffinger took out papers and eventually triumphed over Gerard Matthews.
He remembers attending a day-long seminar for incoming mayors — with discussions led by those who have held the office for some time — and being told that many of the fiscal matters he ran on and sought to address were simply beyond his control.
“They were very frank in their discussions,” he recalled. “One of the issues I ran on was the unfunded pension and health care liabilities that we have. They talked about that freely and said it was unsustainable, but they also said, ‘don’t worry about it, because there’s nothing you can do about it.’”
So it would be fair to say that he’s trained his sights on things he can control — in particular, efforts to bring more jobs and economic vitality to the city. And while working to build the tax base, Neffinger is also advancing projects to improve overall quality of life in the community.
These include everything from a crackdown on all-terrain vehicles in the environmentally sensitive Bearhole Reservoir area to a slew of improvements to Mittineague park off Route 20, to improved access to both the Westfield and Connecticut rivers.
Planning — Ahead
Returning to his thoughts about what he called phase 2 of the community’s transition, Neffinger said steps taken in his several months in office have been designed to bring a higher level of professionalism to city government, as well as that greater degree of accountability he mentioned.
“People are looking for a professional planning and development department,” he said, “where they can propose projects, get answers within a limited amount of time, and not see major changes after that when they go before the Planning Board. I’ve had a number of businesses come to me and say that the day before they were to go before the Planning Board, some new issue came up, which would be a major problem. And part of this was just not being well-coordinated.”
Better coordination is expected through the changes and additions that have been made over the past few months, he said, noting that Mattoon will be focused primarily on infrastructure, zoning, and other development-related issues, while Cabral will be tasked with attracting new businesses to the city.
And with this larger team in place, Neffinger is expecting progress on several key development fronts, including Agawam Avenue Extension, off Memorial Avenue, which is home to several retail and industrial businesses, and could be the mailing address for many more, as well as the long-underutilized and mostly vacant Gilbarco manufacturing complex off Union Street.
Further development of Agawam Avenue Extension is a key recommendation in another report that has mostly been gathering dust, this one on the Merrick/Memorial section of the city, conducted in 2005.
“I took that report out when I was campaigning, looked through it, and said, ‘this is what I’m going to do,’” he recalled. “It said that if that section of Agawam Avenue Extension was developed, that area would bring in more than $1 million in additional taxes to the city.”
Marketing that section and generating opportunities will be responsibilities assumed by Cabral, said the mayor, adding that her larger charge is to leverage the city’s considerable assets when it comes to economic development — the massive CNX rail terminal, highways (the turnpike and I-91 run through the city), and a large inventory of commercial buildings — and create more tax revenue and employment opportunities.
Overall, there are an estimated 90 vacant commercial properties in the city, said the mayor, who said that statistic might surprise some who look at Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue and assume that the city is thriving economically.
He attributes those vacancies to several factors, including a still-sluggish economy, a high commercial tax rate, ineffective zoning, that lack of coordination that has existed historically in the city’s development-related departments, and even a sense of complacency.
“Those vacancies are significant when you listen to the rhetoric of the status quo saying that everything is fine in town,” Neffinger told BusinessWest. “When you talk to people who have experience in commercial real estate, they would tell you that this is not a healthy sign that we have so many empty buldings.
“People are saying, ‘we have Riverdale Street — we don’t need an economic-development director,” he continued. “My answer to that is to go to Chicopee and look at Memorial Drive; 10 years ago it was a ghost town, and now it’s the new Riverdale Street. It has just as much as Riverdale Street, and in some cases, more, and it’s my opinion that, if we don’t watch out, people are going to go there to do their shopping and not West Springfield. We can’t take our town for granted.”
The Bottom Line
The city charter that Neffinger referred to so often essentially forbids him from practicing architecture, or being in any kind of business, while serving as mayor.
But while he’s not at the computer or drafting table in a literal sense, he’s still creating blueprints. These are for a city, though, not a building.
These plans are still a work in progress, but so far the mayor likes what’s taking shape, and he has designs on more progress and growth as he carries out phase 2 of West Springfield’s transition into a city.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org