Business, Family Roots Run Deep in South Hadley
“The Brunelle family has been a cornerstone of the South Hadley business community for a long time,” the town’s administrator said. “It’s important to the community; people come to South Hadley to cruise on the Lady Bea or access the Connecticut River, and the Brunelles have built quite a reputation — and quite a business — there.”
It was a fitting thought, as several of those words — business, community, reputation, long time — were summoned again and again in discussing the economic character of South Hadley, a town where small, multi-generational family companies dominate a commercial sector that’s relatively tiny compared to neighboring communities like Chicopee, Amherst, and Hadley.
And it’s that deep-seated community identity that has the Brunelles firing up lunch and dinner under an outdoor pavilion while their eatery overlooking the marina is rebuilt.
“They’re resilient,” Sullivan said. “They’ve got all their permits reprinted up, everything is in place, and they’re looking to get back at it in quite an aggressive fashion — and we’re looking to do everything we can to support them.”
Dr. Steven Markow, owner of Village Eye Care and president of the South Hadley & Granby Chamber of Commerce, also expressed sympathy after the fire, noting that the Brunelles have been part of South Hadley’s business picture for a long time, but they’re far from alone.
“Carey’s Flowers has been around here for decades. All Star Dairy is a long-time, long-standing family business. There’s Chapdelaine’s Furniture, Jubinville Insurance, Ryder Funeral Home, and many others … there has been a lot of stability in that way. It’s a generational town in a sense, and the same is true of many businesses.”
That stability extends to residential life in what Markow calls a bedroom community. He said he recently consulted a world atlas from 1960 that listed South Hadley’s population at around 15,000; today, it’s just over 17,500.
Dr. Steven Markow says South Hadley is a generational town in many ways, for both families and businesses.
“I’ve been here for 17 years, and I’m just starting my 13th year in business — so, by South Hadley standards, I would be considered a newbie,” he said. “But as president of the chamber, I’d say we have a very diverse membership, and it’s that diversity that helps keep the economy somewhat stable and strong here. Of course, that’s true of the whole region. I think, relative to how things are in other parts of the country, we’re doing fairly well here, although we could do a lot better.”
Reversing the Fall
With a thriving town center driven by the bustling Village Commons — with its 100% occupancy rate and mix of retail, restaurant, service, and office tenants — and the more than 2,300 students at Mount Holyoke College, the challenge for South Hadley is to focus on more-challenged areas of town, such as the Falls, just across the Connecticut River from downtown Holyoke.
“We’re moving on with some new tools we think will be advantages for economic development,” Sullivan said, noting that the town recently invited John Fitzgerald, urban development coordinator from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, to talk about the usefulness of a redevelopment authority, which would have the power of eminent domain to seize private property. “We think, particularly in an older community, you need to amalgamate properties to make it viable or attractive to developers to come in and make investments. The redevelopment authority can be a wonderful tool.”
Sullivan said such a move is long overdue. “The Falls is an area that has been unintentionally neglected for a long period of time, and we need to be a little more dutiful and pay attention to it.”
The Brunelle family has kept food service going under an outdoor pavilion while they make plans to rebuild the fire-gutted Dockside.
The Falls will benefit next year from a new, $10 million public library overlooking the Holyoke Dam, and the neighborhood also received a profile boost this summer with the first Falls Fest, a free, all-day music event at the Beachgrounds, the recently renovated park beside the river.
“We got the buzz out, and everyone who was there had a great time,” said Markow, adding that the neighborhood has the potential for more such events. “The idea was, what can be done to revitalize the economy of the Falls? This was a wonderful step in the right direction. The bands who performed there thought it was the best place they had ever performed, because it provided everything one would need for a venue — food vendors, craft vendors, shade for a summer day, kids got to play in the splash park … it’s a great place to come listen to music.”
Sullivan also welcomes a multi-faceted approach to boosting the Falls. “That’s really our focus; we’re trying to revitalize and find adaptive reuses for the area, and we’re looking at having more events there. Some people say that the way cities get rediscovered is through those types of events. People come in and say, ‘wow, I never knew this was here; I want to invest.’”
Decades of investment are clearly visible at the Village Commons, across Route 116 from the college, home to six restaurants, Tower Theater, and a host of retail shops and other businesses.
“When I moved here 17 years ago, there were more retail shops in the Village Commons, but retail has gone through some tough times,” said Markow, whose eye-care practice neighbors the complex. “What’s evolved is more food and service, which probably is a microcosm of the whole economy in general. It’s the center of town, and it’s thriving; they’re doing very well there, and a couple of new food places went in recently. People like coming there; it’s a good, central location.”
Mount Holyoke itself provides much of the energy in that neighborhood, he added. “In my opinion, South Hadley is extremely lucky to have Mount Holyoke College in its midst because it’s a world-class higher-education institution, the first all-women college in the country that’s still in operation. It has a world-class art museum, outstanding faculty, and a first-class equestrian center that brings equestrian shows here and helps the economy. The college just brings the town to a higher level.”
Although South Hadley receives just 8% of its tax revenues from businesses, Sullivan noted, “what’s not listed in that statistic is Mount Holyoke College, a nonprofit business. If you put that into the valuation formula, as an economic-development engine, that is quite significant — the jobs it creates, the investments made by the college.”
A prestigious college is just one piece of the community’s education strengths, Markow added, which includes the new public library and plans for a new Plains Elementary School. “It’s this kind of development which helps to attract families to the community. When they see investment in the school system, that’s very important to new families coming into town.
“I try to work with the schools because I think having a high-quality school system is part of the formula that makes a community strong and stable,” he continued. “The new superintendent of schools here, Dr. Nick Young, has been a very willing partner. He wants to cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with the business community, and he’s really reached out to us.”
Despite the town’s strong points, however, commercial vacancies remain, Markow told BusinessWest, and there’s plenty of room for improvement in the town’s overall economic outlook.
“I don’t know what the answer is. How do you bring in new business when everyone is still holding back?” he pondered. “From the chamber’s perspective, we’re limited by our resources, and we could do more with more resources. My pitch is trying to get more businesses on the chamber; a large group has more clout than a small group. That’s one of our missions, to increase membership, increase resources, and be more effective in improving the quality of life in town and supporting the business environment.
“Personally,” he went on, “my mission as president is to see what we can do to improve quality of life in town because that’s going to attract new people to come live here, help stabilize the property values, and just make it a nicer place to live. What can we do to make it a nicer place to live? That, in turn, will trickle down and make the economy better.”
Markow noted that the town’s economic strengths are tempered by losses like the Big Y on Newton Street, which the property owner has no plans to retenant in the near future.
“That was a very disappointing occurrence because it had been a grocery store for quite a long time, and as New Englanders, we’re used to not changing. But what’s really disappointing is keeping the place vacant for a number of years, which I find unhelpful to the economic health of the town.”
On the other hand, Sullivan noted, “Village Commons is in discussion about expansion of their retail and mixed-use development. That’s exciting. So there are a lot of good things happening in a lot of different ways from an economic-development standpoint, but we still have a long ways to go.”
As for the Dockside, he applauds the Brunelles’ efforts to bring the restaurant back to life.
“That’s one of the places people go to recreate and spend money,” he said, including the Ledges and Orchards golf courses, McCray’s Farm, and the college area in that category. “It’s all about destinations in the community.” n
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org