To Greater Boston, Western Massachusetts is the far-off land of Tanglewood, the Berkshires, and Norman Rockwell. For economic opportunity, however, it’s a place to leave. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst — a crown jewel of the region — bought a failing college in Newton to give college administrators better access to Beacon Hill and students better access to Boston-area internships.
State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow is trying to change that classic Boston-centric way of thinking. For most people, “Western Massachusetts doesn’t exist. They have no opinion of it,” said Lesser, a former Obama White House aide who won election to the state Legislature in 2014. ”We need evangelists.”
Credit Lesser’s zealotry with getting me out to Exit 5 on the Mass. Pike. And don’t think of it as a mercy mission; think of it the way Lesser does, as an introduction to a land of opportunity. “Much of Boston’s housing and congestion crisis can be solved by looking west, where there is a lot of great talent and affordable living, but a desperate need for better jobs,” he said.
The affordability argument is an easy sell. Through October 2019, the median home value in Hampden County (home to Chicopee, Longmeadow and Springfield) was $205,000. The median sales price for a single-family home in Greater Boston was $590,000, But how do you lure people to a place that’s 90 miles away from the high-paying jobs and buzz of Greater Boston?
For Lesser, the first step is pushing for expanded, high-speed rail service between Springfield and Boston. Building on a state policy launched in Vermont, he also filed legislation that would pay $10,000 to people willing to move to the western part of the state and work remotely. The idea is to draw people who don’t have to show up in an office every day but seek lower housing costs and a better quality of life. To make the case, Lesser introduced me to some true believers who already live there.
“Much of Boston’s housing and congestion crisis can be solved by looking west, where there is a lot of great talent and affordable living, but a desperate need for better jobs.”
First up were Victor and Katie Narvaez, who run Goodworks Coffee House in Chicopee. Narvaez, 36, originally from Springfield, and his wife, 37, originally from Northampton, moved to Chicopee 10 years ago, where they are now raising three young children. Over the past 30 years, factories that supported thousands of manufacturing jobs went bust. But Chicopee, which is also home to Westover Air Reserve Base, is fighting back. In the downtown, a German restaurant and a Polish bakery have been joined by a clothing boutique and the Narvaezes’ coffee shop. “When we first opened, I asked, ‘Where’s the people?’” said Katie Narvaez, who helps run the business but also works as a licensed social worker. Today, Goodworks is frequented by local bankers and lawyers as well as friends, neighbors, and students from nearby colleges. “It’s more than a coffee shop,” said Victor Narvaez. “This is a meeting place.”
In Chicopee, that’s a big deal. But the city needs more than that to turn a major economic corner. Governor Charlie Baker has committed several million dollars to Chicopee through the MassWorks Infrastructure program. Driving out of the city, past vacant factory buildings, Lesser says a renaissance similar to what happened in Lowell could happen here — with faster and more frequent rail service. In Lowell, the decline of the textile industry also led to the collapse of the local economy, but public investment, including the anchor provided by UMass Lowell, plus commuter rail service has given that city new life. Of course, Lowell is also only 30 miles from Boston.
Our next stop was Longmeadow, where Lesser grew up and now lives with his own family. He commutes to the State House. But remote workers who don’t have to show up in an office should check out the historic Brewer-Young Mansion, located right off the picturesque town green. After the building fell into disrepair, private developers transformed the it into a gleaming co-working space that would look at home in Kendall Square.
Jason Pananos, 39, is the master tenant who subleases the space to lawyers, financial service professionals, and assorted startup entrepreneurs. Pananos grew up in South Hadley, went to Harvard Business School, and has run several companies and now runs an investment fund. Now living in Longmeadow with his wife and four children, he said of his community, “We have a great cost of living, terrific schools, great colleges. It’s a really special space.” For professionals who work remotely, “This is a flexible place to work . . . the vibe is a great group of people.”
In Springfield, our next stop, a casino that opened in August 2018 is supposed to be the city’s next economic anchor. However, it has not yet met expectations, and owner MGM Resorts International is looking to expand the business mix. (This includes a partnership with the Boston Red Sox, whose owner, John Henry, also owns the Boston Globe.) But hopes for Springfield are not all casino-connected. A few blocks away, Ron Molina-Brantley runs Valley Venture Mentors, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs. This cool space, which is home to an animation studio, among other startups, is supported by state and private development money. Asked about misconceptions people have of Western Massachusetts, Molina-Brantley said: “People don’t know anything about it. They think cow pastures,” he said. “It’s an amazing place to raise kids. The opportunities are endless.”
What’s needed to attract more people? “Trains,” said Molina-Brantley.
That will take political will — and money.
In 2018, the Baker administration undertook a study on the feasibility of an east-west rail link. Its release has been put off several times, and is now scheduled for sometime this spring. Current rail service, via the aptly named Lake Shore Limited, barely exists. A westbound train leaves Boston at 12:50 p.m. and arrives in Springfield at 3:18; an eastbound train departs Springfield at 5:30 p.m., with a 8:01 scheduled arrival in Boston. The eastbound train regularly runs 44 minutes late, according to a website maintained by a grassroots community organization known as Trains in the Valley. That leaves the Mass. Pike as the main route in and out of Western Massachusetts.
“For me, the status quo simply will not work,” said Lesser. “The rail link is the single most important and transformative thing we can do.”
Transportation drives economic development, so better train service is essential. But what’s also needed is a change in attitude, said Boon Sheridan, whose move out there has turned him into a pioneer, suitable for media profiling. He and his wife, Caro, moved to Holyoke in 2016. After the owner of their Everett apartment sold the property, they started comparing Greater Boston cost-of-living expenses to those in the western part of the state. Sheridan, who grew up in Hyde Park, said in a telephone interview that when he and his wife found a converted church in Holyoke, they decided to buy it. Sheridan, 49, is a “user experience (Web) designer” who works remotely, and his wife runs a sewing and knitting business out of a home studio.
At first, the Sheridans thought they would miss Boston and its easy access to places like Fenway Park and Symphony Hall. But they came to realize they didn’t actually visit such places all that often, and are finding lots of alternatives. “Almost everything we do, we do out here,” said Sheridan. He zips onto the Mass. Pike if he needs to travel to Boston and takes the train to New York. He agrees with Lesser that more train service would make Western Massachusetts more appealing. But what’s really needed, he said, is an openness to change. To the risk-averse, he poses this question: “What about leaving Boston scares you? What’s holding you back? You’re spending so much money to be in Boston, and for what?”
For most people, the answer, is, of course, employment. Fast and frequent rail service would be a big game-changer and it should happen. But first comes the willingness to think outside the same old Boston box.