A Springfield revival?
Railcar manufacturing, a casino, and other changes are creating optimism
Photographs by Mark Morelli
SPRINGFIELD MAYOR DOMENIC SARNO remembers the day after Thanksgiving in 2012. The sky was clear and the temperature unseasonably warm. The mayor was at the city’s downtown museum complex for an event kicking off the start of the holiday season, and earlier he had attended the annual Parade of the Big Balloons, Springfield’s version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day floats.
It was just the kind of day the city needed after the previous year’s cataclysm: the tornado that tore through the city, killing three, wreaking havoc on scores of buildings, and leaving hundreds homeless. A freak October snowstorm would compound the misery, downing hundreds of trees and power lines. And all of this destruction was visited on a city that had already suffered from a range of ailments, among them high unemployment and fiscal insolvency.
So it was that Sarno was savoring that warm cheerful day in November. Then a loud boom convulsed the ground and shook the windows. The crowd ran for cover while Sarno ran in the direction of the blast a few blocks away; a gas explosion had leveled a strip club.
Today, Sarno can look back on those days and almost chuckle. How Springfield’s luck has changed in a few short years—and no, that’s not just a nod to the billion-dollar MGM casino going up downtown, where blocks of buildings had been torn asunder by the tornado.
Across town, the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC)—the largest railcar manufacturer in the world—is building a plant that will employ more than 100 local workers to assemble the new fleet of MBTA Orange and Red Line cars. By the end of this year, the city is expected to reopen Union Station, after a long-awaited nearly $100 million overhaul of the historic transportation terminal. Vacant for decades, the station will soon serve as an “intermodal” transit hub, a depot for Amtrak trains, local and intercity buses, and possibly commuter rail. The opening corresponds with track and station upgrades in Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield. If Connecticut completes upgrades on its end of the line, in a few years’ time there could be 25 daily round trips running between Springfield and Hartford—what public officials have taken to calling “the Knowledge Corridor.”
There’s a growing technology cluster in and around Springfield, fueled in part by the regional hospital and the area’s dozen-plus colleges and universities, and old-line manufacturing businesses are expanding. All told, public and private investment in ongoing or recently completed projects totals $5.2 billion, according to the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts.
So are we witnessing a miraculous recovery in Springfield—a “renaissance,” as some of its boosters put it these days?
If so, it’s not being reflected in some of Springfield’s dismal statistics: The city’s poverty rate remains among the highest in Massachusetts, and the school district’s test scores are among the lowest. And this wouldn’t be the first time a comeback was heralded for Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, with a population of about 153,000.
Sarno, who was elected in 2007 and is poised to become the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, insists this time things are different, that the changes taking place in the city are real. “You can see the brick and mortar now,” he says. “It’s not smoke and mirrors.”
The usual assemblage of public officials, executives, and ironworkers are gathered in East Springfield on a warm humid day in late August for the “topping off” ceremony, when a beam is symbolically installed at the top of the sprawling skeleton of girders that will soon house the CRRC railcar plant. Sarno, Gov. Charlie Baker, and state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack are all there on the dais, but it is CRRC vice president Yu Weiping who may best express the import of the moment.
“We will return manufacturing to Springfield, stimulate the local economy, and deliver the most technologically-advanced Red and Orange Line vehicles to the MBTA,” he says in a speech translated into English by a young woman. “No more sleepless nights of 40-year-old railcars rattling through Boston and beyond.”
The subway car facility is the product of what may prove to be one of the wiser decisions associated with the T in recent memory. The state-owned Chinese railcar company agreed to build the plant as a condition of the $566 million contract to replace the Red and Orange Line trains. The T is getting 284 shiny new cars, and Western Massachusetts—where residents have long grumbled about having to pay for a transit system they scarcely use—will get much needed jobs, about 150 of them with salaries starting at $65,000 year.
It’s safe to say a Chinese executive heralding the return of manufacturing to an American city would have been an unimaginable sight for the millions of US workers who saw their jobs outsourced overseas, to China and elsewhere, over the past several decades.
The irony is especially rich in Springfield, which occupies a seminal place in the industrial history of America. The City of Firsts, as Springfield is aptly known, was home to the first National Armory, supplying firearms to the US Army from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam conflict. The city is credited with producing the first gas-powered vehicles, and it was home to the first American motorcycle manufacturer, the legendary Indian.
No one believes that the CRRC plant portends a return to the glory days of manufacturing in Springfield. But the facility will be CRRC’s North American headquarters, and it is likely to have ripple effects up and down the regional supply chain. (The company is seeking contracts with other US transit systems, but there are no guarantees of expansion in Springfield. CRRC won a contract with the Chicago Transit Authority earlier this year, and is building a new factory there as well.)
CRRC’s Springfield factory could help propel a new wave of highly-automated and computer-driven manufacturing—what’s referred to as precision manufacturing —that’s taken root in the region.
And there’s one venerable product line that never left Springfield: guns. Smith & Wesson’s main headquarters and production facility have been in Springfield for more than a century, and the company very much remains a prominent fixture. Revenues at the company rose 40 percent from last year, with demand for firearms rising amid the continuing debate over gun control and mass-shootings.
Economic development types, however, don’t seem to have much nostalgia for Springfield’s industrial past. They tend to focus on its potential as a hub for technology and innovation, drawing on its mix of “eds and meds”—the 14 colleges in the area and a regional medical center.
“There’s absolutely a growing creative economy,” says Richard Sullivan, the CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts.“You have a film industry, game development, app development, medical data.”
In Holyoke, which shares many of the economic challenges of neighboring Springfield, a high-speed data research facility—the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center—was opened in 2012 with backing from the Commonwealth and several of the state’s major universities.
At Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, the largest hospital in the region, officials have launched TechSpring, an incubator that gives entrepreneurs and researchers access to a live medical setting to come up with innovations in health care.
And then there’s the casino. Long before Massachusetts enacted its gaming law in 2011, a casino was seen as the last, best hope for Springfield, which was already known for its less-than-savory entertainment options, in particular the strip clubs that line the edge of downtown.
While the casino isn’t the first thing that business leaders seem to want to talk about, no single factory or tech startup compares to the anticipated economic impact of the MGM Springfield, which is expected to offer 3,000 permanent jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue when it is slated to open in 2018.
City officials tend to play up MGM’s status as a purveyor of classy entertainment—it’s known for hosting the Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas—rather than gambling. In addition to the casino, the facility is expected to house a movie theater, bowling alley, 250-room hotel, and numerous restaurants.
Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s economic development chief, stresses the facility will be integrated into the downtown streetscape, with close to 20 separate entryways along historic facades. “It’s not designed like a fortress where you suck everybody in and keep everyone inside,” he says.
The casino is expected to generate more than $17 million annually in tax revenue for the city, in addition to a $15 million host community agreement. And that money could go a long way toward avoiding the fiscal problems that have plagued Springfield in the past.
READING ECONOMIC SIGNALS
For a long time, finances were a touchy subject in Spring-field. Twelve years ago, the city appeared to be heading the way of Detroit. The city was on the brink of bankruptcy, with a $41 million deficit; its bond rating was approaching junk status; city workers were laid off in droves; and a cloud of corruption lingered from the federal probe of former Mayor Michael Albano in the early 2000s.
In 2004, the state convened a special panel of local leaders, state revenue officials, and business executives to overhaul the city’s finances. The Finance Control Board succeeded in beefing up revenue collection and hammering out new agreements with the city’s labor unions, and in 2009 the board was dissolved by Sarno, who was one of its founding members when he was on the city council.
“Everyone thought after they left, we’d fall off the face of the earth, but we’re stronger than ever,” Sarno says of the control board. “We have the highest bond rating in the city’s history.”
Springfield’s bond rating is now double-A, and its rainy-day fund tops $40 million.
For all the promising developments in Springfield, the boarded-up windows and empty lots one can find across the city dispel the notion that any kind of dramatic transformation is afoot. Springfield’s economic vitals consistently rank near the bottom of the list of Gateway Cities, the Commonwealth’s immigrant-heavy post-industrial urban centers. Nearly 30 percent of Springfield’s population lives below the poverty level, second only to neighboring Holyoke. While the unemployment rate has fallen below double-digits in recent months to around 8 percent, it remains well above the state average of 5 percent. Its labor participation rate is 65 percent, the lowest of any Gateway City; in other words, more than a third of the city’s working-age population isn’t even in the labor pool.
“You have huge numbers of people who are not even engaged in looking” for a job, says Elizabeth Wills-O’Gilvie, an African-American community activist who grew up in Springfield, worked in community development in New York City and Chicago, and returned to the city about eight years ago. “You’ve got second generations of people where their parents never had a job. So why would they even believe there are opportunities out there for them?”
Wills-O’Gilvie says vast parts of the city continue to suffer from a lack of basic necessities, including a decent supermarket. To get high quality, healthy food, Wills-O’Gilvie says one has to cross the “tofu curtain,” as locals refer to the invisible barrier that divides Springfield from wealthier, liberal-minded burgs to the north such as Northampton.
Springfield’s deficiencies manifest themselves most starkly in the school system. Fewer than half of the district’s students test at proficient levels in English, math and science, and dropout rates far exceed the state average.
Springfield has been among the handful of districts eyed for state takeover since 2010, when the law authorizing the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to place troubled school systems into receivership went into effect. Districts taken over include Lawrence and Holyoke, which, like Springfield, have large majorities of students who are minority and poor. More than 64 percent of Springfield public school students are Hispanic. Nearly 78 percent of students are considered “high needs”—low-income, non-native English speakers, and/or special needs.
Last year, under mounting pressure from state education officials, Springfield embarked on an ambitious school reform effort, building on some of the lessons learned in Lawrence, which has been in state receivership since 2011. Individual leaders at most of Springfield’s middle schools, where problems are especially acute, have been given considerable autonomy over staffing and other matters.
The thinking, sometimes referred to as a “third way” between charter and traditional public schools, is that leaders at the school level are in the best position to identify and drive the changes needed to improve student performance. The so-called Springfield Empowerment Zone is working with Empower Schools, the Boston nonprofit started by Chris Gabrieli, the one-time gubernatorial candidate and former MassINC chairman, and it is overseen by an independent board.
One year into the program, there aren’t many hard metrics. But Empowerment Zone board member John Davis, a businessman and trustee of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, says early indications are promising.
“In reports we’ve started to get back, I can say there definitely has been some progress in the outcomes,” he says. “But these things are going to take a number of years.”
Davis, whose family foundation has been supporting education initiatives in the Springfield area for more than five decades, says improving district schools is key to the city’s wider revival.
“We’re leaving the industrial age and going into what we would call the knowledge age,” Davis says. “People used to work with their hands and backs; today they’re working with their minds. It’s a different world than existed 60 years ago. We need people who can solve problems to do that.”
The question of what to do about Springfield has long occupied local, state, and federal officials. A 2009 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston concluded that the city had not recovered the way other smaller former manufacturing cities had, such as Providence and New Haven.
“The riverfront redevelopment projects of the 1980s—including the creation of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the renovation of the downtown civic center—proved unsuccessful in bringing the city back to its feet,” notes the report, “Reinvigorating Springfield’s Economy: Lessons from Resurgent Cities.”
The Commonwealth has spent vast sums over the years on various projects in Springfield. Over just the last five years, MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development agency, has funded nearly $384 million in projects in the city, including the Union Station redevelopment and college and hospital expansions.
MassDevelopment is now taking a different tack in its approach to Gateway City redevelopment. Derived in part from research by the Boston Fed and MassINC, the agency in 2014 launched the Transformative Development Initiative, which seeks to concentrate resources in specific geographic areas of Gateway Cities—TDI districts—which are typically in distressed areas within or close to downtowns. The premise, outlined in a 2013 report by MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth, is that targeted improvements in gritty but prominent sections of these cities will catalyze private investment and lead to a wider transformation.
“The idea is flipping the way you would normally look at economic development. Instead of saying, ‘Let’s do a couple buildings here and there,’ it’s saying, ‘Let’s look at these concentrated areas and take a concentrated approach,’” says Laura Masulis, the TDI fellow in Springfield. She’s one of three fellows—professionals with a range of backgrounds—that MassDevelopment hired in 2014 to essentially embed in the troubled districts.
Masulis works out of “Make-it Springfield,” a “makerspace” in the TDI district that stands out next to empty storefronts, a convenience store, and a greasy spoon. The center offers a host of hands-on and creative workshops—on a recent day students were learning how to fly drones—and the colorful products of various art classes decorate the walls. Among other things, Masulis has helped bring about a downtown holiday craft market, the installation of way-finder signs, and a weekly beer garden, with offerings from White Lion, which bills itself as Springfield’s first craft brewery. For a state-funded program, the activities may seem whimsical, but Masulis says they help tap one of the city’s latent economic engines: the thousands of employees who work for companies downtown, including MassMutual, the insurance giant that has kept its headquarters in Springfield since the 1800s.
“Many people come to work, park in a garage, walk through a sky walk, go into an office, go to a food court in the building, go back to the office, and drive home without ever setting foot in the street,” says Masulis. “That’s a big missed opportunity.”
Springfield has also sought to lure more people downtown, with music and arts programming. And several area colleges—at the urging of Mayor Sarno—have opened campuses downtown, including UMass Amherst.
Downtown Springfield bears the distinct scars of past urban renewal efforts—forbidding multi-lane, one-way streets and monolithic concrete apartment towers that have not aged well—but a stroll with Masulis helps one appreciate the city’s potential. There’s a shuttered Art Deco-style movie theater, and floors of vacant space sit behind immaculate old facades.
And then there’s one of the city’s most impressive and easily overlooked quarters: its stately complex of four museums, known as the quadrangle. Next year, “The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum” is slated to open, the long-awaited homage to Theodor Seuss Geisel, arguably the city’s most quirky and internationally renowned native son.
SilverBrick, a Manhattan-based real estate development firm, is wagering that others will recognize downtown’s subtle charms. The loft phenomenon has largely eluded downtown Springfield, where low-income subsidized units make up the bulk of housing and where, unlike other Gateway Cities, there are few extant mill buildings. But SilverBrick has managed to convert a complex of old buildings into some 265 market-rate, loft-style apartments; the company says demand has been strong. (SilverBrick also purchased a mill in neighboring Chicopee with plans to build another 300 units.)
Springfield perhaps offers an even more compelling housing option for pioneering professionals, especially if they’ve been paying rents in the Boston or New York areas: massive old houses can be had for less than $200,000.
After she got the MassDevelopment gig, Masulis, who had been living in Somerville, decided to buy a place in the city. One of the main challenges she and her partner faced was finding a house that was a manageable size. “We basically wanted to know where is the smallest house on the market,” she says.
It’s too early to say if the recent surge in economic activity will allow Springfield to shake off some of the woes that have long weighed the city down. But in the view of some observers, one thing is already changing: people’s attitudes.
Jay Minkarah, who heads the nonprofit DevelopSpringfield, which aims to boost commercial real estate development in the city, recalls encountering a downbeat “fatalist” attitude when he came to Springfield close to four years ago. This began to change with the groundbreakings for the casino and the subway car facility.
“When people start to see changes on the ground, their whole view changes, and it’s tremendous to see,” says Minkarah.
Wilfredo Lopez, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Springfield with his family when he was a small child, has experienced firsthand the changing fortunes of the city. He had worked in the nightclub business, but now is a real estate broker. He recently participated in discussions around a long-range economic plan for the city, FutureCity 2026.
“I think things are getting better,” Lopez says as an after-work crowd begins gathering at Theodore’s, a local institution known for its barbecue and live blues.
Among those to greet Lopez is a Hispanic woman who he says worked in community relations for MassMutual and an African-American man who was a construction supervisor on the MGM casino.Springfield has long been known for having a clannish, tough style of politics, but Lopez says that is changing; the corridors of power are becoming more accessible.
“Everybody wants to be king of the mountain, but I’d rather have a city of hills,” he says. “I truly believe there are enough good people and good energy right now. It’s just a matter of time when the lightbulb is going to hit.”