In the 1920's the Commonwealth of Massachusetts acquired some 800 acres of land in Belchertown for the development of a "State School for the Mentally Retarded". A fine "Campus" was built containing some 40 buildings, with an extensive farm operation. Red brick colonial buildings were erected for housing, feeding, training and supporting up to some 1000 residents. At times, employment reached over 1200 people from Belchertown and surrounding communities. The "Farm Operation" produced, with the aid of the retarded residents who worked the farm, sufficient food to support the School and other similar state facilities. A large food processing building, handled the farm's products for immediate consumption or for preserving for future use.
The building of the State School in Belchertown was a major uplift to the local economy and provided full and part-time employment for many Belchertown residents. The community's economy was sound, and unemployment was unheard of. With State Retirements, many residents enjoyed a secure "Old Age". The "Campus" became a beautiful tree-shaded park with lovely, well maintained buildings, providing services such as "Sunday Movies" to the entire community. Those working with the Residents frequently developed deep rooted and affectionate, supportive relationships – and many fond memories. Life was good for Belchertownians!
The 1970's however saw a series of state wide lawsuits between Residents' Guardians and the Commonwealth over institutionalization of the Residents. In fact the lives of those cloistered away from society, sometimes drugged to control behavior, was less then ideal in this otherwise bucolic environment. Separation from society was deemed inappropriate by the courts, which ordered closure of some 12 major State School facilities, and a number of minor facilities, replaced with construction of many new individual "community living units" throughout the Commonwealth
The word "closure" was received in Belchertown in the late 1970's and folks began to retool. Future use of the facility was open to public suggestion, and a "Reuse Committee", the forerunner of today's EDIC, was formed to develop a plan for the facility. There was general agreement that what ever replacement came in, it must be designed to expand the tax base and employment opportunity. In 1992, the Commonwealth offered to reuse and reconstruct the facility as a Minimum Security Prison, and, after much heated discussion (and emotion!), the State's offer was declined by residents in a general ballot vote. At the 1992 May Annual Town Meeting, voters, under authorization of MGL Chapter 121 of the General Laws of the Commonwealth, authorized the formation of a Belchertown Economic Development and Industrial Corporation to undertake development of a reuse plan for the State School campus.
The 1990's saw a lot of "studies", mostly resulting in reuse of the State School as some form of residential living facility, possibly with businesses incorporated, mostly designed for support of an aging population. However, any "residential" use in an otherwise fast growing community did not sit well. Increased Tax Base with jobs was the town's priority. Little happened until the beginning of the 2000's, when the EDIC Directors negotiated a "Purchase and Sale Agreement" with the Commonwealth and became the owners of record of some 300 acres of land with buildings (The remaining adjoining acreage went to the Commonwealth's Department of Agriculture and was leased for 15 years to the New England Small Farm Institute).
The Town, in need of land for schools, recreation and municipal services, acquired three parcels of land from the Commonwealth in the 1980's and 1990's. Two of these parcels now contain a new Middle School, Elementary School, indoor pool, and organized recreation playing fields. The third parcel was obtained by the town with five buildings and is now in use for three renovated elementary school buildings, a Recreation Department Office and Teen Center, Public Access Cable TV Center, American Legion facility, and, with the addition of two newly constructed buildings, a Senior Center and Police Station
Upon the transfer of the State School property, consisting of three separate parcels, plans began in earnest for "Cold Spring Business Park". Much of the property had been zoned either Light Industrial or General Business, with a small portion, known as Foley Field, remaining in an agricultural zone. The EDIC began several approaches, designed to prepare the site. Several public hearings held by the BEDIC showed citizen expectations to support a resurrection of the "Campus", with an attempt at saving as many of the buildings as possible. Large "Box" facilities were deemed undesirable. A public ballot vote supported an Assisted Living facility and Nursing Home, with some 60 age restricted condos on the Agriculturally zoned "Foley Field".
A newly authorized "Business and Technology Park" overlay zone was deemed to be most supportive of smaller business operations, and held incentives that were designed to encourage business development with the least amount of "bureaucratic hassles", by gaining pre-approvals from key town boards. The Planning Board approved the BEDIC's request, and all State School land zoned General Business and Light Industry came under the Business and Technology Park overlay zone.
The BEDIC also gained state approval in 2002 to become a part of the existing Quabbin Valley Economic Target Area. Subsequently, the State School parcels were approved and designated by Town Meeting to be an Economic Opportunity Area, a designation authorized under Mass General Law, Chapter 40, sec 59, (see www.state.ma.us). Developers of State School property, under this law, make take advantage of the opportunity to negotiate with town officials, and secure Town Meeting approval for desirable tax incentives.
New businesses can receive State Tax Incentives, including 5% Investment Tax Credit and 10 % Tax Credit for refurbishing a "two-year or more" abandoned building. The Developer can negotiate a Tax Incentive Finance agreement with the town, applying for Municipal property tax incentives such as Special Tax Assessments (A phased –in assessment of the total value of the property) OR Tax Increment Financing Agreement (bleeding in the new tax base to 100% over 5-20 years). Finally, Federal 20% Historic Tax Credits may also be available for refurbishing existing historic buildings.
The BEDIC's land came in three distinct parcels, referred to as Parcels B, D & E. Parcels D & E contained no buildings. Parcel E, containing 43 acres, was sold to a Developer for the Cold Spring Business Park now under development. Parcel D, containing 52 acres (including 20 wet land acres) is under agreement with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority for development of a regional Intra-model Transportation Center and the future Eastern Hampshire County District Court House. The possibility exists for other State service centers to follow along with facilities for expanded services in support of the Court. Parcel B contained a combination of open land, some 30 existing structures, 22 acres of Agriculturally Zoned land and some 30 acres of wet land being designed now as a public park.
The BEDIC began active efforts to develop Parcel B in a manner designated by the Town Meeting mandate. Through the town's Council on Aging, and the efforts of it's Committee on Assisted Living, a developer was identified to bring into being a 60 unit Assisted Living Facility, re-developing the former Infirmary and Hospital Buildings, along with 60 new Age Restricted Condos. A Nursing Home provider is now being sought, to be a part of an "Aging in Place" continuum.
Three phases of development for Parcel B are anticipated. Phase One, now in the development stage, would have two entrance roads totaling 1800 feet, with lots containing vacant land or land with buildings. Tighe & Bond Engineering, Inc. was retained to prepare detailed engineering design plans, which were presented to, and approved by, the Belchertown Planning Board in 2003. These plans, now recorded in the Registry of Deeds, enable the BEDIC to begin selling parcels to interested businesses in 2004. Phase Two, will connect the two entrance roads into a 3000 foot long, 28 foot wide improved road, creating a modified "Town Center By-pass" from State Route 202, north to Jackson Street, and, with town effort, eventually connecting with Route 9 to Amherst. Phase Three will create a westerly loop road of some 1500 feet, and will be developed as required
Negotiations for lot sales are now under way with a number of businesses, and construction is expected to begin in 2004. New road improvements, including an extra wide 28 foot, 35 mile per hour design-speed road, on a heavy duty base suitable for trucks, are also expected to begin in 2004.
Eight inch water lines will connect to the Town's new and expanded pumping and storage facilities, and will replace existing ageing lines through Phases I & II, with connections to the town's system at both ends. Similarly new twelve inch gravity sewer lines will connect, in Phase I & II, to existing town sewer lines at both ends, leading to the Town's new $10 million state-of-the-art treatment facility
Designed storm drains and related control facilities will be installed to engineered plans and town approved standards for some 3000 road feet, containing storm runoff on-site.
Remaining infrastructure, including three phase underground electric service, designed by Mass Electric, telephone cable, and fiber optic communication cable will service all segments of Phase I & II
While lots, containing open land or land with existing buildings, have been identified on drawings, actual lot surveys await the desires of purchasers. Lots tend to be seen in 1 to 3 acre parcels, but can be designed for larger parcels, such as the Assisted Living Facility, as needed.
Development of Parcel B is seen as following the general design of the former State School Facility. On the southern end, along the entrance road from State Route 202, open space with high visibility supports retail business. The south end building complex – Administration Building, School Building, G building Dormitory and areas/buildings bordering town operations, support higher end office and the Assisted Living Development. The former campus center area, composed of two industrial training buildings, commissary building, several cottages and dormitories, support mixed use, such as restaurant, services, etc. The west side composed of cottages and dormitories overlooking the Pioneer Valley and Holyoke Range support up scale business use as envisioned in Phase III. The rear of the campus, formerly the more industrial support areas of the Heating Plant, Laundry, Maintenance Building, Receiving and Store House, and the area abutting the Railroad, support Light industry.
Insuring compatibility in use, and transition between the varying envisioned segments is important in planed land use, and will guide the BEDIC Directors in placing businesses. The former State School design and layout supports this use process, and is largely being followed for the property's next life.
The vision of the Town Meeting in 1992, and restated in subsequent re-approvals and public meetings, has guided the Directors of the BEDIC in their planning. Local Boards have reviewed these plans and have been most supportive. Tighe & Bond Engineering, an established and experienced firm, brings in the technical skills required in insuring quality structural design and infrastructure support. Ambiance is important, and architectural design standards, developed by the Corporation, should not only insure compliance with citizen expectations, but provide a healthy, supportive and desirable business environment for new and growing businesses, in a rapidly growing residential community, while ultimately meeting the designated goals of providing jobs and expanding the tax base in a community compatible, and business desirable setting.
Parties interested in contacting the Directors of The Belchertown Economic Development and Industrial Corporation may do so by contacting the office of the Board of Selectmen at 413-323-0403.
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