Monday, July 30, 2007

Daily Hampshire Gazette - July 30, 2007

The Daily Hampshire Gazette's Scott Merzbach wrote two good stories on July 30, 2007:

SOUTH HADLEY - Just about every morning at the Crack of Dawn restaurant on Bridge Street, men get together to discuss their lives, town affairs and world events.

Similar daily get-togethers take place over breakfast at the Egg & I on Main Street. And by noon, the neighboring Roost restaurant, like the Crack of Dawn, fills with people getting lunch.

Throughout the day, adults and children go to the public library on Bardwell Street, while others conduct business at Town Hall on South Main Street. Come evening, especially in summer, the Beachgrounds park across from Town Hall comes alive with children playing baseball.

And on weekends, the local churches, like St. Patrick's Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls, fill with members.

Despite the regular activity in South Hadley Falls, the oldest commercial section of South Hadley, it pales in comparison to the once-vibrant area that lifelong residents of the neighborhood remember.

Wayne Boulais, who now makes his home at The Knolls, has good memories of his childhood on Lathrop Street in the Falls.

"During the period when I lived there, it was a very wonderful place," Boulais said. "My observation is that it was a great place to live and be educated."

His opportunities to spend time in the Falls are limited now. Trips to Town Hall and athletic events at the Beachgrounds involving his grandchildren give him reason to return.

At least through the 1960s, the Falls had not only a lot of businesses, spurred on by the Texon factory and paper mills, but also an active night life for those who lived and worked there.

For Brian Duncan, who lives on McDowell Drive but visits the Falls just about every morning to meet with his friends at the Crack of Dawn, the neighborhood was more lively.

"Not like today, where there's not as much going on, unfortunately," Duncan said.

As Boulais notes, many of the town's activities take place outside the Falls. The public schools, Buttery Brook Park and the Ledges municipal golf course are all in other parts of town. The Village Commons in the town center, developed in the late 1980s, and supermarkets and strip malls along Route 33 in both South Hadley and Chicopee have likely drawn away trade.

Will Ryder, whose family has run Ryder Funeral Home on Lamb Street since 1953, said the Falls needs something to attract visitors. "The best thing to do is get people down here," Ryder said.
If this can be accomplished, he believes, businesses will follow.

---- Time of changes
Changes in the Falls over several decades have been dramatic - and not always kind.

With the flats of Holyoke right on the other side of the Connecticut River, many business owners depended on that population, as much as the Falls residents, for their livelihood.

But this proximity today has more often meant bringing in problems associated with an urban area. In addition, no longer can many of the businesses count on support from people visiting on a whim.

"You've got to want to go there to go there," said Louis Conti, the former owner of Buddha's, which later became Crack of Dawn.

Conti, who has lived on Canal Street in the Falls for 60 years, said there is insufficient parking to support many enterprises. And too much of the neighborhood is either overgrown, blocking views of the river, or contains what he calls "eyesores," including boarded-up buildings.

This includes the former Michael's Market at 92 Main St., which has been closed since 1995 and remains boarded up, right at the gateway to the shopping district.

There is also an open space where the Cowan Block burned down 15 years ago. The Domino's Pizza on Bridge Street, located next to Crack of Dawn for the last 10 years, recently closed. Its windows are covered with newspapers. Notes tell customers to go to a Domino's in Chicopee.

One characteristic of the Falls, Connie Clancy notes, is the large number of renters, with apartment buildings such as Parkview Apartments among the three- or four-story buildings jammed together with little open and green space between them.

This makes their dependence on a park area like the Beachgrounds more important, and really unlike other parts of town.

"These are some of the only blocks in town with multifamily dwellings," Clancy said.

Clancy said the changes have also meant more people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds now make their homes in the Falls. The population is increasingly diverse.

Socially, the Falls has changed some, too. The churches remain, but are no longer as isolated from each other, as their leaders now meet on a more regular basis to forge relationships among their members. These churches also come together each spring to help sponsor the annual Canal Village Potpourri, where a neighborhood-wide tag and craft fair festival takes place.

---- Once upon a time
The Falls was once a downtown location where virtually all of one's needs could be met without having to travel far.

For those who grew up in the neighborhood, this meant having everything within walking distance of their homes.

"You didn't have to go very far to get anything," said Connie Clancy, who makes her home on School Street.

Bill Cary, who now lives in Florida, calls the area between the former Cowan's drug store and Schiffner's Newsroom the "shopping neighborhood," differentiating it from the "sports neighborhood" along the river and the "early chum neighborhood" near his childhood home.

Duncan, who was raised on Bardwell Street in the 1940s and 1950s, notes that the Falls once had many more active businesses.

Schiffner's Newsroom was where he started delivering the now defunct Holyoke Transcript, making $6 a week, including tips. Inside Schiffner's, children could buy ice cream for a nickel, or a bag of penny candy.

There was also Billy Miller's Barber Shop and Conti and Vito's, where one could get fruit, ice cream or coffee and doughnuts. Lane's Market, now occupied by The Roost, was the place to do grocery shopping. It had a memorable deli. "They had the world's best meats," Clancy said.

There were two drugstores, Dietel's at 16 Main St., which closed in 1995, and Cowan's.

In those days, Boulais said people cared about their properties and how they looked and took pride in the neighborhood.

Through the 1960s, masses of people came into the Falls each day, including the countless factory workers at the old Texon plant and the paper mills, such as the Ames Brothers Paper Mill, which developed continuous roll production.

With the Town Hall doubling as the high school into the 1950s, many students would come to the Falls from South Hadley center and Granby, and patronize local establishments during lunch.

Boulais said he didn't have to leave the Falls for any of his family's day-to-day needs. When people in the Falls needed to get other items, they wouldn't hesitate to go into Holyoke, where buses ran twice an hour, Clancy said.

The Falls even had its own practicing dentists and doctors, and its own fire station, where every night the firefighters would ring the alarm at 5:45. This is now the Old Firehouse Museum.

But despite the downtown feel, and the industry, the Falls in those days was also more rural. Clancy recalls that the early paper routes she had on Bardwell Street ended where the road ran into large swaths of farmland that have since been developed into housing lots and condominiums.

On the upper end of the neighborhood, Clancy remembers Street Supply Lumber, where her father was employed. Along with lumber, it sold hardware and gifts.

---- Lost luster

In the middle of the afternoon Friday, a steady stream of traffic can be seen passing through the Falls along Route 116 heading to and from Holyoke by way of the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

But on Main Street, in the downtown Falls business district, the traffic is much lighter. Parking spaces abound. There are few people out on the streets.

For Brian Duncan, one of the unfortunate things about the Falls today is that what should be the gateway to this center village includes the boarded-up Michael's Market and an adjacent triangular-shaped area of grass. This, he said, is where Cowan's drugstore and a postal substation were located, with several floors of apartments above, before the block burned down.

"When you come across the bridge, it's the first thing you see," Duncan said.
Duncan observes that the places he remembers along Bridge Street - luncheonettes, markets and smaller stores, all of which were owned by local people and relied on Falls residents for patrons - are now all gone. In their place are a gas station and liquor store, the types of businesses more dependent on commuters.

Children could once be seen playing near what is now the Old Firehouse Museum, or closer to the riverfront, or even next to St. Patrick's Church, where a field has been replaced by a parking lot.

On this afternoon, though, no children are out and about.

Walking along Main Street, Duncan points to the large field where the Arcade building once stood, housing a variety of stores and residents before it, too, burned down, never to be replaced.

Closer to the center, the storefronts and buildings are much the same, but are now run under different names and put to different uses.

Schiffner's on Bardwell Street is now the Stop & Go. Billy Miller's Barbershop has been replaced by River's Edge Hairstylists. And a paint store with fishing and hunting supplies is now the Suds Your Duds Laundromat.

But where Dietel's was for decades is now an empty storefront, something Duncan hopes might change.

With any luck, the Texon redevelopment and the parks might bring in more people to the Falls - and revive some of this once-prized neighborhood's lost luster.

Falls district's target: economic revival
by Scott Merzbach

SOUTH HADLEY - Several development projects in the works and a potential designation as an economic target area may one day restore the vitality to the once commercially robust neighborhood of South Hadley Falls.But how soon this will happen could hinge on the proposed redevelopment of the former Texon plant, a five-story brick building off Canal Street that hugs the Connecticut River just below the Holyoke Dam.
Preliminary plans presented by Holyoke developer Herbert Berezin this year show a restored building featuring 60 apartments, with the ground level containing shops and a restaurant.

"I would hope the proposed Texon building project would go through. I think that would be a great stimulant for down there," said McDowell Drive resident Brian Duncan, who grew up in the Falls.
Longtime Falls resident Connie Clancy supports the project. "That's something we need desperately, to do the revitalization," she said.

One of Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi's priorities is redevelopment of the Falls. The economic target area is designed to give businesses incentives to start up, locate or expand in the Falls. "With the economic target area, we have the tools to hopefully make good progress," Vinchesi said.

Vinchesi understands, though, that plans to restore the Falls have been proposed over the years, and in the early 1990s an extensive streetscape plan was completed at the same time as the building of the new $17.8 million Veterans Memorial Bridge that connects to Holyoke. This, though, has done little to change the face of the neighborhood.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what sort of rejuvenation can take place," said Wayne Boulais of The Knolls. "It would be wonderful not only for the people who live there, but for the town as a whole."

Boulais said if the Texon project is completed, it could pave the way to having a first-class restaurant and other shops.
W. Ken Cordes, owner of the 61-year-old TechFab business on Canal Street, would be right in the midst of the planned Texon redevelopment. He is a bit more skeptical. "I'd like to see the area improved, but I don't know if there is enough of anything left down here to attract people to come here," Cordes said.

Louis Conti, a lifelong resident of the Falls, said the priority of any redevelopment should be providing more parking places for visitors so they can more easily eat at restaurants and shop at stores.

"It's the parking that's the problem," said Conti, the former owner of the Crack of Dawn restaurant on Bridge Street. "If you had the parking, it would be a goldmine."

-Other projects
Even if the Texon redevelopment proposal unravels, there are other plans designed to attract visitors to the Falls. Chief among them: two new parks that are mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of the relicensing for Holyoke Gas & Electric.

Ted Belsky, who has worked to get the parks off the ground since joining the Bicentennial Park Committee in 1975, said if the Texon redevelopment moves forward, the Falls will get a shot in the arm and boost its chances of filling vacant retail space.

"It will be a tremendous asset to the area," Belsky said. "I think it will transform the cultural and economic dynamic."
The parks are being developed to showcase remnants of the historic South Hadley Canal, the first commercially navigable canal in the country. The 21/2-mile canal, built in the mid-1790s along the Connecticut River from an area adjacent to the Beachgrounds north to Cove Island, was designed to facilitate the movement of goods up and down the river.

Belsky said the two parks will restore a portion of the historic canal that is buried near the Texon plant, while other parts of the canal that are still visible will be cleaned up.

One of these parks, called Riverside Park, would start at the parking lot across from the Egg & I restaurant on Main Street and would have walking trails with interpretive signs, benches and picnic tables. It would provide better access for those who want to fish on the river.

The second, which would be open for tours with park interpreters, would show the 1830s gatehouses that helped raise and lower water in the canal. A platform would protrude out over the river to view the dam.
While this will be attractive, whether it will be good for business is unclear. "Parks along the river would make a nice visual from my building, but more traffic in my area will only make it more difficult for us to have trucks coming to and from our plant," Cordes said.

The only park now along the canal is the northernmost lookout, which connects to paths with wooden bridges and access to the Connecticut River, where people can launch non-motorized boats.
Meanwhile, the South Hadley Supportive Housing project, a 45-unit, two-story building, is being built across the street from this park.
"We're delighted with that, we couldn't ask for better neighbors," Belsky said.

This facility at the corner of Canal and West Summit streets is considered a key to the revitalization, Vinchesi said, because it means more people will be living in the Falls and may depend on nearby businesses. "I'm hopeful that this will transition into the need for services in the Falls," Vinchesi said.

-Beachgrounds work

Improvements at the Beachgrounds recreational area are the third leg in the enhancement of the Falls. The Selectboard is seeking a $700,000 urban self-help grant that could improve the baseball fields, basketball courts and parking and add a walking trail around the perimeter.

Already, the town is committed to getting an $80,000 splash pad constructed next year that will get families with younger children back to the park after the recent closing of the wading pool.

Clancy is also optimistic the town will move forward with adopting the Community Preservation Act. A portion of a surcharge that would be appear on tax bills could be used for recreational activities, including places along the river in the neighborhood.

The public library on Bardwell Street will also be expanded or relocated sometime in the future. Last enlarged in 1974, a $40,000 planning and design grant will be used to study what to do next with the building.

"All of those things would be good for the Falls to regenerate some commercial activities down there," Boulais said.