GREENFIELD — Two years after opening her shop in the downtown of this Western Massachusetts city, Stella Corso is making ends meet. Tourists and locals have found their way to the Pale Circus to peruse its eclectic offerings of vintage clothing and locally designed jewelry.
But every once in a while, Corso catches a glimpse of the “For Rent” signs in the vacant storefronts across the street, a reminder of the uncertainty always at hand in this part of the state. As an insurance policy, she recently took a second job bartending at night at a downtown pub.
Corso in many ways captures the outlook of this city of about 18,000, one that is increasingly optimistic as the economy continues its slow improvement, but also aware that bad times might not be far off. Like many communities that once depended on manufacturing, Greenfield has struggled for decades with an eroding economic base, as its tap and die industry — the manufacture of nuts, bolts, and other threaded machine parts — faded from prominence. The impact of the recession was felt keenly, driving many of the remaining manufacturers to slice their workforces or shut downaltogether.
Those effects still linger five years later. Median household income in the city, at just over $48,000, remains well below the statewide median of $67,000, according to the Census. The percentage of households in Greenfield using food stamp benefits is nearly twice the statewide rate.
Demand at the local food pantry has not diminished since the recession started, and the number of households requesting fuel assistance has remained generally steady, said Clare Higgins, executive director of social services agency Community Action of the Franklin, Hampshire, and North Quabbin Regions.
“I would say that the recovery hasn’t reached people who live with low income,” she said.
But many residents, civic leaders, and business owners sense the economy has turned around.
Unemployment, which peaked above 9 percent during the recession, has fallen to just over 5 percent, below the Massachusetts average, according to state data. Home prices have rebounded and at the end of last year were just 7 percent below the pre-recession peak, according to the Warren Group, a real estate tracking firm in Boston.
Manufacturers that survived the downturn are hiring again. Greenfield Community College and local technical schools are working with companies to train workers in the math and machine operation skills needed in modern precision manufacturing.
For much of the past few years, every job opening would attract 20 qualified applicants, making it hard for even experienced workers to find employment, said Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board, the area’s workforce development agency. But earlier this year, she noticed a shift.
More clients were receiving not just one, but multiple job offers, and more job postings sought permanent rather than temporary workers.
In January, the city released a plan to revitalize vacant commercial buildings, lend money to growing businesses, and market the area as a tourism and recreation destination. The strategy calls for shaping Greenfield’s picturesque brick-and-stone downtown into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood that includes a variety of businesses and market-rate rental housing.
Also driving optimism is a plan for restored train service to Greenfield, making the city more easily accessible and bolstering its tourism efforts. The project, partially funded by federal stimulus money, will connect southern Vermont to New York through Greenfield and Springfield. Construction has already begun.
About 30 businesses, including restaurants, bars, boutiques, and music stores, have opened in the downtown since the economic downturn was at its worst.
Scott Seward opened his used record shop, John Doe Jr., in 2009 and said his business has increased steadily since then.
He added that he’s noticed a distinct change in the downtown vibe over the past five years as more young people — the core of his customer base — have moved into town.
“It just feels like there’s more buzz,” he said. “There’s definitely been a turnaround.”
Sarah Shemkus can be reached at seshemkus@ gmail.com.