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Progress Visible at Hospital Site

February 15, 2009 : The Springfield Republican, by Fred Contrada

NORTHAMPTON – As in recent years, Northampton is pinning its hopes for the economic future on a tract of land that was known in its hey-day as the home of the Northampton Lunatic Hospital.

The facility, which eventually changed its name to Northampton State Hospital, has been closed since the early 1990s. After a long struggle to wrest control of the land from the state, the city has slowly and painstakingly been working to realize its vision of a village of new commercial, industrial and residential space on the land formerly known as Hospital Hill.

With the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, a quasi-public agency, at the helm, the one-time hospital campus has undergone a complete makeover. Most of the buildings, including the iconic “Old Main” that served as the chief administration building, have been demolished and their rubble carted away. Traces of the hospital have even been excised from the name of the project, which is now called Village Hill Northampton.

Although Village Hill has seemingly moved at a glacial pace over the last two decades, there was visible progress in 2008. Wright Builders has built and sold a couple of the 11 single-family homes slated to ring the hill and Community Builders is putting the finishing touches on another 40 units of mixed-income housing nearby.

The commercial and industrial space on the other side of Route 66 has been slower to develop, but again there is reason for optimism. VCA Inc.-Alloy, LLC, a high-end woodworking company, became the project’s first commercial tenant in 2008, opening a $2 million, 20,000-square-foot facility on Earle Street.

A much bigger development is in the works for 2009. Kollmorgen Corp., one of the city’s largest employers, is hoping to break ground on a new facility that will take up the lion’s share of the Village Hill industrial space.

The company, which makes optical equipment, some of which is used by the military, had been looking to expand from its current location on King Street. Although Kollmorgen estimates that it will employ as many as 600 workers at the Village Hill site, many of them are existing jobs. However, with Kollmorgen as an anchor, the city is hoping that Village Hill will attract other businesses.

“I’m sure there will be others that will follow because I think they’ll be a magnet for other businesses,” said Teri A. Anderson, the city’s economic development coordinator.

Theoretically, the Kollmorgen move would eventually free up new commercial space at its current site on King Street, but that could be several years down the road.

In downtown Northampton, a group of merchants is looking to establish a business improvement district in an effort to enhance the area and more aggressively market Northampton as a tourist and shopping destination. Similar districts, called BIDs, have been established in other parts of the country. Locally, there are business improvement districts in Springfield and Westfield.

The BID would be run by a board of directors and financed by a fee added to the tax bills of property owners who opt to join the district. Joseph Blumenthal, who owns Downtown Sounds on Pleasant Street, said he and many of his fellow merchants believe the downtown area is in need of revival.

“It’s lost some of its edge in the last 10 years, and we need to invest a significant amount of money to bring it back to where it can be,” he said.

With the fees it collects, the board of directors can pay for additional security, sanitation, maintenance and marketing. The district, which must be approved by the City Council, is scheduled for public discussion at the council’s Jan. 15 meeting.

“We’re confident the city is going to pass it,” Blumenthal said.

However, the BID faces fierce opposition from a group of influential property owners. Eric G. Suher, Alan L. Scheinman and David Pesuit have expressed reservations about membership in the district, the assessment and use of fees and the authority of the board of directors, among other issues. They plan to voice their concerns when the subject comes up before the council.

© Copyright 2009 The Springfield Republican.