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MassLive, Jeanette DeForge

Chicopee Center to see 3 businesses, 4 apartments open in renovated building

August 25, 2023

CHICOPEE — A building once known as the biggest problem in the city’s downtown will soon become the home of a woman’s clothing store, a Sri Lankan restaurant and a bakery specializing in cookies.

People on a waiting list for housing will also be able to move into their own one-bedroom apartments in the building with views of Chicopee’s downtown area in September.

The Valley Opportunity Council last week unveiled the results of its latest renovation project that turned a boarding house at 30 Center St. that was described as “gross” into affordable housing and an economic driver that should attract people to Chicopee Center.

Not only were some of the tenants living in filthy, bug-infested conditions and having to deal with shared bathrooms, they had to listen to fire alarms that were going off every night. Police frequently responded to calls over drug dealing, fights and other problems. The first floor commercial space was partially occupied but outdated, officials said.

Now, one of the commercial spots will be occupied by Island Spice Restaurant, which is currently operating out of a food truck but owners Dee Fernando and her husband Welisarage Fernando wanted a permanent spot.

“We love it. This is our community and people like our food truck and keep asking when we will open a restaurant,” said Dee Fernando.

The couple has operated restaurants before, including Six Corners Pizza in Springfield, but decided to take a break. When they were ready to start another business, they decided to return to their roots and specialize in their native cuisine.

“In Sri Lankan food, the base is coconut milk and coconut oil and we use our own spices,” she said.

When they learned of the Valley Opportunity Council’s renovation project, the downtown location and the new commercial kitchen made it the perfect place for them to return to a stationary restaurant.

On Thursday, the Valley Opportunity Council held an open house to show off the four newly-renovated apartments and introduce the community to the three new businesses, since they all plan to open on different dates.

While the Fernandos, who expect to open late September or early October, were handing out samples of several dishes including potato curry and chicken kottu, their new neighbors Hot Oven Cookies had boxes of its signature cookies including cheesecake guava and coquito snickerdoodle ready for visitors.

Hot Oven Cookies already has locations in Springfield and Westfield. It expects to open in mid-September in 30 Center St., said Jenei Rivera.

All the cookies are baked on site, so the family still needs to put some finishing touches on the store including installing a stove and a counter and, like Island Spice, they still need to decorate, Rivera said.

Hot Oven Cookies is a family business owned by Rivera’s mother Shelia Coon. Rivera is the production manager for the Westfield store and her sister Allyssa Kemp will run the Chicopee location, she said.

“We are hearing good things about Chicopee. It is more lively now and more stores are moving in,” she said.

She heard about the opening of the new store from Goodworks Coffee House owner Victor Narvaez who operates his business in a different building on Center Street that was also bought, renovated and owned by Valley Opportunity Council.

Goodworks has, at times, carried some of their cookies so they became fast friends. When he heard about the agency’s plans for 30 Center St., he recommended it to Coon.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m looking forward to having more businesses here. We have had her cookies here in the past and I know people miss them,” Narvaez said.

And Hot Oven Cookies isn’t the only business he referred to 30 Center St. His friend Johanna Maldonado, who has held pop-up clothing sales at Goodworks, is opening Moda Mia women’s clothing store on Sept. 9.

Maldonado, of Springfield, said she has operated her store online and through pop-ups, but this is her first brick-and-mortar store.

“This place is a perfect size for my first business. I love it,” she said. “My dream my whole life has been to own a boutique.”

The store will have a variety of women’s fashion from work attire to clothing for date night and a girls’ night out. Maldonado said she is also working with some local artisans and plans to carry their original, handmade jewelry.

Maldonado said she is hoping people will stop in at Island Spice for lunch, walk down the joined hallway for dessert at Hot Oven Cookies and stop at her place for some shopping. They could even wrap it up with some drinks at Munich Haus across the street.

When he approached Valley Opportunity Council with the idea that it purchase and improve the building, Mayor John L. Vieau said he didn’t expect to see a result as good as this one.

While sampling food at Island Spice he said: “This is delicious. Good spices, good crunch.”

He called the three businesses a nice addition to the city, saying one of the advantages of Chicopee is people can find many different types of ethnic food here: German, Polish, Puerto Rican and now Sri Lankan.

“I’m excited to see them filling up the storefronts with destinations that will bring people downtown,” he said.

The building came up for sale in January 2022 and was such a problem that instead of watching it just change hands, Vieau approached Valley Opportunity Council and said he would help them buy it and renovate it.

The anti-poverty agency already has a record of improving buildings. About two years ago, it transformed the historic Kendall House, which was also a boarding home, to a collection of one-bedroom apartments so people had their own kitchens and bathrooms.

Chicopee grated $750,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to the agency to be used for the purchase and to start renovations.

The agency also received a $425,000 renovation grant from Springfield that is designed to help expand affordable housing options. It also received other money including financing from MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative that was used to renovate the storefronts, including turning an outdated commercial kitchen into the new one in the Island Spice Restaurant.

The Valley Opportunity Council owns about 210 affordable housing units and a handful of commercial spaces scattered throughout Holyoke and Chicopee.

Its goal is to provide safe, decent housing for people and uses rents, especially from commercial properties, to pay back loans, invest in other properties and fund the myriad of programs it runs such as child care and adult education. It pays property taxes on all of its buildings except the headquarters on Mt. Carmel Avenue where there is an in-lieu of tax agreement, said Stephen Huntley, executive director.

Two of the third-floor apartments at 30 Center St. will be affordable housing and the tenants will come from the agency’s waiting list, which has been growing lately due to a housing crunch in the region. Huntley said the apartments are ideal for a couple or a single parent with one child.

Because of the funding sources, the two others are market rate with the monthly rents being around $800 a month.

Because some lead paint in the second-floor hallway has to be abated to meet codes, Huntley said he wasn’t sure exactly when the first residents will be able to move in, but he said he hopes it will be in mid-September.

All four apartments have walk-in showers and plenty of closet space. The layouts and sizes are different in each, but they generally measure about 900 square feet. There will also be a shared laundry room on each floor, he said.

When Valley Opportunity Council purchased the building, all but one of the 18 single rooms were occupied, some with two people. The council thought it would take years before they could start renovations since the agency was not planning to forcibly evict anyone. But several people moved out quickly and the council was able to find better housing for others in some of its other apartments. Construction began on the third and first floors sooner than expected.

Now all but one room is vacant and the final tenant is expected to move to an apartment in Holyoke next month, Huntley said.

“Construction on the second floor will start in the fall,” he said.

The Valley Opportunity Council had hoped to work with area colleges to create a pilot program to provide affordable apartments to college students who do not have stable housing. But that plan took longer to work out than expected so, for now, it is on hold, Huntley said.

The region’s housing need is so huge right now that officials do not want an apartment to sit empty while they work out details on how a pilot program would work, he said.

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