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MassLive, Tristan Smith

How a gas explosion changed Springfield into destination dining

July 10, 2023

It all started with a big bang.

Debris, soot and glass flared from the now-defunct Scores Gentlemen’s strip club in a midnight gas explosion that shook Worthington Street and the city of Springfield to its core in November 2012.

Springfield Deputy Director of Economic Development Brian Connors said “luckily” no one was killed in the blast that injured more than a dozen people and significantly damaged several buildings from the intersection of Worthington and Chestnut streets two blocks down to Main Street.

Happening only a year after a tornado ripped through Springfield, the strip club explosion was the straw that broke many city officials’ backs.

“The district itself historically had been a restaurant district and then turned into a nightclub scene with some problems,” said Connors.

A decade before the Worthington area would become downtown Springfield’s premier dining district embellished by overhead lights, panoramic murals and red cobblestone bump-outs, Connors said, the block was plagued with crime and irresponsible club management that left an unsightly blight in the city.

After the explosion and tornado, Springfield officials aspired to restore Worthington to its roots.

“A full-service dining district with unique food, different kinds of food that people would come and gather for,” said Connors.

A vision for Worthington Street’s redevelopment

Months following the explosion, Springfield’s Economic Development Office and Business Improvement District went to work on redevelopment plans to bring positive energy to Worthington Street.

Springfield officials wanted prospective local entrepreneurs to join historic city eateries such as Theodores’ Blues, Booze & BBQ and Student Prince Cafe and The Fort in a project to create a late-night dining scene that’ll rival the likes of Worcester’s Canal District and Boston’s Back Bay.

Worthington Street’s development served an additional purpose for the city, with MGM Springfield slated to open in 2016 — delays pushed the casino’s opening to 2018 — Connors said the city wanted to ensure local businesses weren’t forgotten.

“The fear was that all the energy downtown was going to be sucked into that building and not get out,” said Connors.

After years of planning the multi-million dollar redevelopment project, the city of Springfield applied for the state to come and assist Worthington Street’s redevelopment through MassDevelopment’s Transformative District Initiative (TDI) in 2015.

Noah Koretz, TDI director, said the initiative is essentially a neighborhood accelerator program that provides money to help develop infrastructure and grants to bring businesses to designated areas across the state.

The Worthington Street district was one of the first Massachusetts neighborhoods to become part of the TDI initiative.

“Our focus is on real estate development, business development, strategic planning, arts and culture placemaking, all the stuff that goes into a vibrant urban neighborhood,” said Koretz.

Meet the ‘mastermind’ behind the redevelopment

To complete the task, former TDI fellow Laura Masulis was handed the reigns of the project and has been referred to as the “mastermind” behind Worthington Street’s redevelopment.

In tandem with Economic Development and Business Improvement officials, Masulis managed and coordinated the development of the five-block radius stretching from Union Station to the MassMutual Center.

When Masulis first landed in Springfield, she observed a “bustling city during the day that emptied out at night.”

“There wasn’t much for people to stick around for,” said Masulis.

She made it her job to connect with residents, current and aspiring business owners, city officials and visitors alike to see what the district needed most to thrive.

“I really didn’t have a vision of the downtown, it was really just me listening and hearing what community members and leaders were saying,” Masulis said earnestly.

What the community wanted more than anything was a district that illustrated Springfield’s culture of creative energy and diverse population which helms from the Caribbean to Eastern Europe.

The redevelopment team looked to first improve the area’s infrastructure and living conditions.

A $9 million renovation of the Silverbrick Lofts on Taylor Street was set in place partially in collaboration with MassDevelopment with the idea of bringing residents and retail stores to the building in June 2015. Years later, Hot Oven Cookies and community creative space, Make It Springfield, moved in.

Both businesses have since expanded and left, although Make It Springfield moved around the corner to Bridge Street.

Still, with the glut of vacant restaurant spaces standing dormant in the Worthington district at the time, Masulis and her team wanted to provide financial backing to encourage residents to take hold of the downtown Springfield storefronts.

Property owners had been unyielding to new small businesses.

“Property owners at the time really just wanted a big-name corporate chain that could sign 10- to 20-year leases,” said Masulis.

Worthington properties began to open up in 2021 after longtime Worthington property owner Victor Brunos sold his 272-278 and 280-302 Worthington buildings, also known as 382-386 Dwight Street.

Brothers Raipher D. Pellegrino and Joseph A. Pellegrino Jr. purchased the properties for $800,000 on Aug. 24, 2021.

In order to satisfy property owners’ desire for a proven entity, TDI created a grant that paid up to half the rent for the first year of a Springfield business owner looking to open one of the district’s vacant downtown spaces.

“We really focused on recruiting women-owned businesses and BIPOC-owned businesses, because that was very much not reflected in the business ownership downtown at the time,” Masulis said.

Granny’s Baking Table, White Lion Brewing’s taproom, BarKaya and Chef Wayne Hooker’s Big Mamou Cajun on the Go were a handful of businesses Masulis and her team helped usher into downtown Springfield.

A federal loan known as the Downtown Dining District Loan fund provided financial backing for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Sprucing up Worthington Street

Although businesses slowly started creeping onto the scene, the area still lacked an inviting atmosphere. Decrepit brick-and-mortar buildings juxtaposed with a street that turned pitch black at night made the area unattractive to many visitors.

Trendy string lights now suspend overhead across the street, lighting up the block and giving it a “Vegas-style” look, Connors said. A similar set of lights was later installed on Main Street outside of MGM Springfield to mirror those on Worthington Street.

The change was made thanks to a $2 million investment headed by the Business Improvement District.

“Now so many buildings are lit downtown, it has such an impact when you drive around at night and look up at the special architecture. It kind of makes you feel like life is happening down there,” said Connors.

Developers also propped up sidewalk bump-outs that can be seen outside Jackalope and Theodores’ — Osteria is slated to have a similar bump-out installed in the futurefunded by the city’s leftover COVID funds.

Worthington’s brick-and-mortar industrial-era aesthetics were accentuated by the murals Masulis helped bring to the district.

Springfield has several art institutions Masulis believes goes unappreciated including the Art For the Soul Gallery, Amy H. Carberry Fine Arts Gallery and Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts.

“We really wanted to build on the arts and culture scene,” said Masulis.

She connected with Fresh Paint Springfield to paint several murals on buildings in the district. Community members assisted professional muralists to paint several murals on Worthington, State, Dwight and Main streets through Fresh Paint’s mural festivals in 2019 and 2021.

The eye-catching “Worthy” mural outside the Dewey’s Jazz Lounge building, designed by Jeff Henriquez, was one of the paintings that was a part of the downtown project.

Mosaics have been going up on Worthington Street as recently as 2022 with the “creative economy” mural painted by John Simpson.

How COVID hurt downtown

Development in Springfield was going well until COVID stifled the progress and forced some businesses to close their doors for good.

“It was heartbreaking,” Masulis said. “Quite a few businesses I worked with very closely for years had to shut down because of COVID.”

Developers witnessed two Main Street businesses, Shops at Marketplace and Korean restaurant Sun Kim Bop close their doors during the lockdown.

Pub and Pretzels on Worthington Street — one of the first businesses to receive funding from the TDI project — was another victim of the financial wrecking that followed COVID.

“We did what we could at the time, we got a bunch of grant money to help out folks in the short term to supplement for what was happening. But definitely, a lot of heartbreaking moments in that first year and two of COVID. People who had a huge impact on downtown are no longer there,” said Masulis.

Although Masulis and her team saw some of the businesses they helped promote fall, they believe their work helped lay the groundwork for the restaurants and businesses there now.

Dewey’s Jazz Lounge, Jackalope, Delrey’s Taqueria & Bar, 1636 North, Osteria, All American Bar Grill & Patio and most recently Loophole Brewing are some of the Worthington District restaurants to enter the scene after 2020.

“There weren’t a lot of restaurants there and now you’re talking about eight or nine,” said Connors.

On June 8, MassLive reporters took a walking tour down the Worthington neighborhood as hundreds of people sat at various residents before MassMutual’s Tina Tey and Amy Poehler show.

Video of MassLive’s tour and conversations reporters had with Worthington-area restaurant owners can be viewed here.

Connors said the restaurants’ success and development has helped lessen the stigma of Springfield being an unsafe city.

“The reality is that it’s a very safe district and some of the things that we’ve done with police activity, lighting and development were done to make visitors more safe and comfortable,” said Connors. “All those great restaurant owners running good businesses just want people to go and have a good experience.”