Agawam Paves a Road to Progress, Growth
Deborah Dachos calls 2013 the year for public-works projects in Agawam, with several important initiatives on the docket.
Mayor Richard Cohen recognizes that the economy has slowed down everywhere during the past several years, and Agawam is no exception. “But it hasn’t come to a stop,” he’s quick to assert.
“I think Agawam’s economic development is very strong,” Cohen said, noting that 17 small businesses opened their doors in town last year. “Things are beginning to pick up. We’re beginning to see an increase in housing, and some business plans and expansions coming in. And our valuations have remained steady.”
But, while there’s no shortage of plans and hopes to fill some currently vacant commercial space in Agawam, the town’s main focus in 2013 promises to be more street-level.
“I think this is, for Agawam, the year for public-works projects,” said Deborah Dachos, town planner. “That’s kind of overshadowed the steady activity on other economic-development fronts. We have some very large infrastructure-improvement projects that are either going to begin in the next month or going out to bid this spring.”
• The Main Street improvement project, a $4 million undertaking encompassing several sections of the roadway between Route 57 and the Connecticut line. It includes lane construction and new traffic signals, sidewalks, curbing, crosswalks, lighting, and signage — “a whole facelift in terms of safety that was initiated when Six Flags purchased the old Riverside Park,” Dachos explained. The park became a Six Flags property 13 years ago, so the project has been a long time in the planning stages, she noted.
• More activity in the Riverfront project. “This, again, is another multi-year effort in Agawam,” Dachos said, noting that the multi-community effort is 17 years old, but Agawam is ahead of other cities and towns in terms of design and implementation. It will result in a five-mile loop connecting the riverwalk on River Road to parks and playgrounds along School and Main streets. The second, $2.4 million phase of the project, taking shape on the southern portion of River Road, will soon go out to bid, funded by the state Department of Transportation.
• A road-improvement project at Center Street and Route 187 in Feeding Hills. “We’re looking at improvements in that intersection for safety and congestion,” Cohen said. We received $500,000 from the state and just finalized a request for proposals, and they went out.” He said the town has targeted extensive work on 187, but has split up the proposals to make the numbers more palatable and get projects done more quickly.
• The Morgan Sullivan Bridge connecting Agawam with West Springfield. In 2005 and 2006, Cohen said, he and West Springfield Mayor Edward Gibson hired an engineering company to study the bridge. Soon, a federally funded project will incorporate new turning lanes, aiming to make traffic flow — which can be heavy — safer, and hopefully draw more people to future developments along Walnut and Springfield streets (more on that later).
Housing projects are coming to life as well. “In terms of activity, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of residential units proposed. We have some very large projects in the process of reviewing and approving,” Dachos said, including a 131-unit condominium unit in Feeding Hills and another 60 units of high-end condominiums on South Street. “Those projects were sitting waiting for the economy to improve, and now they’re moving forward fairly quickly.”
Dachos was quick to note, however, that “just because these infrastructure projects have been at the forefront of our activities, that does not mean that we’re not continuing with our efforts that began with the economic-development plan.”
That 2010 plan, conducted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), identified several priority development sites in town, particularly the long-stagnant Walnut Street shopping area and large retail development along Tennis Road.
Regarding the former, the town received a $50,000 MassDevelopment grant to complete assessment of the property and spent more than $1 million cleaning up the site, and a local technical assistance grant was recently used to draft mixed-use zoning regulations. “It will allow a great deal of creativity and flexibility in terms of commercial and industrial property, but primarily commercial,” Dachos said.
“We’ve been attempting to direct commercial and recreational activities to that site to make it a destination, and it’s actually working,” Dachos said, citing Stick Time Sports and the Y Express Wellness & Program Center going into the plaza that’s currently home to Dave’s Soda & Pet Food City, Friendly’s, and Slot Car Speedway.
The Y project will feature 8,500 square feet of multi-generational activities. “They are not going to reproduce any of the services we already offer, but they will provide programs that we don’t currently offer,” Cohen said. “We see it as a great relationship and something that will absolutely solidify the area. If we get a Y in the community, it’ll drive other people to come in. We like the concept of a family entertainment area.
“It’s moving along,” the mayor added, “but it will be a while before it’s going to be up and running. That’s one reason we’re pushing for the Morgan Sullivan bridge intersection to be fixed.”
As for Tennis Road, “we did a tremendous amount of public outreach to make sure it would support further retail development of that site, after some failed efforts in the past,” Dachos said.
“That site is very tied to the health and well-being of the nation as a whole, because we’re dealing with national chains. There was interest; there was a developer who was seeking tenants to draft a proposal for a large-scale commercial development of that site, but that interest waned during the recession, and it hasn’t come back yet. That’s not to say we won’t be receiving some proposals in the future, but our efforts are concentrated on the Walnut Street area for now.”
Dachos noted that the Agawam Small Business Assistance Center — which has been operating for 10 years and offers professional counseling and advice to people who want to start a business — has seen the number of clients walking in the door increase when the economy is poor. “For whatever reason, that has slowed down quite a bit in the last six months. We haven’t done a scientific analysis of the level of activity, but we feel anecdotally that it’s a good indication that the economy is on the upswing.”
On the Upswing
One success story, however, has been the industrial park near Shoemaker Lane, which is 100% full, Cohen noted, adding that the town’s efforts to streamline the permitting process for businesses is one reason why. “We have partnered with the Chamber of Commerce on a permitting handbook, and we’re looking at the prospect of updating it.
“We really want to be business-friendly,” the mayor added, recalling one instance of a developer who contacted him late one Thursday; on Friday morning, he was able to meet with the entire permitting team.
That team, which includes the fire inspector, safety officer, public works director, town engineer, building inspector, health director, Cohen, Dachos, and often others, meets on a regular basis to make the permitting process simple, and to reduce the number of times a developer needs to revise a plan. Dachos added that the permitting team “addresses all the issues, so that by the time the plan goes before the planning board, all the significant issues have been addressed.”
Simply put, Cohen said, “we are here to help; we aren’t here to hinder. Every mayor says that, but we actually do that. We want to create a business-friendly atmosphere.”
Meanwhile, other success stories have emerged in Agawam, such as Cooper’s Commons, the former furniture store on Main Street that Kate Gourde has turned into a specialty marketplace, with everything from salons to eateries to gift and flower shops.
“During the height of the recession,” Dachos noted, “she and her husband did some soul searching and decided they were going to take the plunge.”
Speaking of plunges, Six Flags continues to do well at the state line; “they’re a great neighbor,” Cohen said. The park typically adds a new attraction each year, and after the introduction of drop slides in the water park this season, the company will unveil a swing ride in 2014 that soars more than 400 feet off the ground, making it the tallest ride of any type in the U.S.
Agawam, on the whole, might not be reaching those heights yet, Cohen and Dachos say, but it’s certainly a town on the upswing.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com