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Doing Business in Northampton

There's More to Paradise City Than Its Downtown

April 26, 2010 : BusinessWest, by Kathleen Mitchell

Suzanne Beck says investors from out of the area tell her they are surprised that a place like Northampton exists.

“They are impressed by the quality of life, the vibrancy of our downtown, the creative use of buildings, and the number of businesses here,” said the executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce.

Although most people associate the city with its thriving downtown, which is lined with tony retail shops and upscale restaurants, the city is home to a large number of nonprofit organizations, manufacturers, technology companies, and firms that specialize in goods ranging from custom clothing to medical instruments.

The largest employers are Smith College and Cooley Dickinson Hospital. But other businesses have chosen the location because of its close proximity to the highway, its single tax rate of $12.64 per thousand, and its demographics.

“Northampton has a number of assets, including a vibrant economic base; it is strategically located, is close to Routh 91 and the Mass Pike, and has easy access to major urban markets such as Boston and New York City,” said Teri Anderson, Northampton's director of community and economic development. “We have a highly educated workforce and educational resources through the five colleges. There is also a very strong creative sector here, which adds to the high quality of life and is an attractive feature for businesses and their employees.”

Location, Location, Location

Michael Restuccia, president and CEO of VOmax, which makes technical apparel and performance clothing on Industrial Drive, relocated his company to Northampton from Plainfield in February 2007. “We ran out of space in Plainfield, and we needed to attract new employees,” he told BusinessWest. “This was a perfect location for what we are doing.”

He said the promixity to highways allowed the company to retain its employees and also gave it access to a large pool of skilled and unskilled workers.

“There is a wide age range of people who live in the area for employers to choose from,” Beck said. “Most people think of Northampton as retail and restaurants, but there are so many thriving industries here, and employers say the top offering is the quality of life.”

Bruce Volz and Tony Clarke, who co-own VCA Inc., also view Northampton as an ideal site. They moved their custom-woodworking business from Easthampton to the city a year and half ago.

Volz lives in Northampton and said both he and Clarke are committed to the city. There are many things he finds valuable there, including the bustling downtown with its bevy of restaurants, and the fact that real-estate values have held up well throughout the recent recession.

“It's a progressive area, and there is a certain vitality here that we enjoy,” he said. “There are a multitude of options if you want to take a client out to lunch, plus our employees like the location. There is a bike path across the street from our building and some of our employees use it to get to work. It's a great spot and one that is centrally located for our workforce.”

VCA Inc. is housed in a new, 20,000-square-foot steel building with lots of glass, and was the first tenant in the new Business Park at Village Hill. The park is part of the redevelopment of the former Northampton State Hospital campus, and sits on the south side of the property. The renovation of the site took decades, cost $28 million, and involved the demolition of numerous buildings, environmental studies, new utility installations, and other necessary measures to prepare its 126 acres for residential, commercial, and industrial development.

“VCA had their eye on the site when the park was first discussed, but the state hoped to sell the entire parcel to one developer,” said Anderson. When that plan was abandoned, VCA jumped on the opportunity.

Volz said he and Clarke looked at a variety of other locations in the interim, but found little land available to meet their needs. They were also impressed by the fact that city officials offered their support from the time they first expressed interest in Northampton. And once they made the decision to build in the new business park, Anderson helped them obtain a grant through the city's economic-development incentive program.

She explained that it's a two-prong program in which the city provides a local tax incentive for expansion and the state provides an income-tax credit when a business expands.

Kollmorgen Electro-Optical is also in the process of a major expansion and move from King Street to the Business Park at Village Hill. The company is building a 140,000-square-foot structure that will generate $200,000 in property taxes and add between 30 and 100 new jobs.

The addition of the business park is a real bonus to the city, Anderson said, noting that “Village Hill is an answer to opportunity for developers.”

MassDevelopment is overseeing the effort to attract tenants, and when the park is complete, there will be 476,000 square feet of commercial space for retail, office, and light-industrial use.

That property, along with land on King Street and a new business park proposed along the Route 10 Easthampton line, are areas where is room for growth in Northampton. The Route 10 site has 116 acres and is intended for a mix of industrial and commercial use.

Other opportunities can be found downtown, as the Roundhouse parking lot is being redeveloped and will contain a new parking structure as well as space for commercial development.

Down on Main Street

Although business flourishes in a number of areas, the public face of Northampton has long been its downtown. “It's a cherished asset we can't take for granted; downtown Northampton is the civic and social soul of Hampshire County,” Beck said.

Nanami Shiiki, general manager of Silverscape Designs, says the creativity of the people who reside, work, and own businesses in the city makes it an attractive location. “People who come here have a real appreciation for art and design,” she said, adding that many shoppers like to buy from independent business owners.

Silverscape has a steady stream of customers from Connecticut, New York, and Vermont as well as Massachusetts, due to the city's proximity to highways. And being at the center of the five-college area means downtown Northampton is a destination for many parents whose children attend those schools. “There is also a nice sense of community here,” Shiiki said.

Within the past year, downtown merchants pooled their resources to create a business improvement district. The money generated by fees assessed from property owners is used for marketing and maintenance of the area. “We put forth a unified effort during the holidays to create a very festive look downtown and also paid for snow removal on the sidewalks,” Shiiki said. “We have also benefitted from cleaner streets.”

The fact that businesses are working together to maintain the unique flavor of the city's downtown speaks to their commitment and belief that Northampton is a great place to do business.

Several weeks ago, the city was listed on MSN as the eighth-best college town in the U.S., and a year ago, the New York Times rated is as one of the top retirement communities in the country.

“We are very cosmopolitan and have the amenities of a larger urban area with educational and cultural resources,” Beck said. “Our downtown is in a fairly rural environment, the Connecticut River borders one side of the city, and there are 25 miles of bike trails that are growing, with accessibility to hiking and other recreational activities. Northampton still has a lot of farmland, and its agricultural heritage is still very much a part of the landscape.”

“It's the lifestyle people are looking for, with a lot of urban amenities, so it's a great combination whether you are a business or a visitor.”

© Copyright 2010 BusinessWest.