SPRINGFIELD – Chris Russell believes the conditions that some people see as challenges in downtown Springfield are actually opportunities.
The new executive director of the Springfield Business Improvement District
(SBID) readily acknowledged the issues facing downtown that include the traffic and parking complications due to reconstruction of the Interstate 91 viaduct and the proposed MGM casino, public perceptions of safety and rebranding the Entertainment District to the Dining District.
He said the SBID and its partners want to “open people’s eyes to what’s here again.”
Questions and concerns about downtown re-emerged last week with the surprise closing of the Student Prince restaurant. Peter Picknelly, CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines, has announced he will be buying the famed eatery
For many people the SBID’s bets known program is the Stearns Square Concerts series, which kicked off June 26 drawing thousands of people to downtown.
Russell explained the SBID is responding with a three-year strategic plan. Although still in its draft stage, the plan would include an updating of the SBID’s website and social media strategy; rebranding and marketing downtown Springfield; hiring of a new cultural director as a liaison between the SBID and the newly formed Central Cultural District; architectural up-lighting and floodlighting of sidewalks for improved safety; creating more pedestrian-friendly crossing zones; adding bicycle racks to downtown; work with Massachusetts Department of transportation for improving the accessibility to the riverfront; finding and allocating grant money for storefront improvement; support events to increase retail customers; and considering the possibility of including the MGM casino campus into the SBID.
“We really want to market Springfield,” he said.
On parking, Russell understands that Interstate 91 will be less appealing for commuters to Springfield once construction begins, but he believes it will have less effect on diners and visitors to evening events.
With the Interstate 91 construction will come the closing of several parking garages. The construction of the MGM casino would also have an impact on parking by eliminating a number of private lots on State and Bliss streets. Russell explained the SBID would work with the city’s Office of Economic Development and the Springfield Parking Authority in finding solutions.
He said that downtown has “a surplus on parking,” and the elimination of the existing lots would allow commuters to “see another side of Springfield.”
Russell explained that MGM has announced it would build its parking garage first and allow its use to compensate for the loss of the surface lots.
He noted the influx of construction workers would be a good thing for the downtown. “For every negative, there is a positive,” Russell added.
The goal of having people park in new or different lots as well as other initiatives including a way-finding system “to get people to move around the city,” he explained.
Russell said a Dining Committee is in the works to look at redefining the district and address both long-term and contemporary issues facing restaurateurs.
Russell emphasized the members of the SBID “need to be working together, to be more efficient with what we have.” He used, as an example, a problem at Theodore’s on Worthington Street. Employees were parking in metered spaces on Worthington Street near the restaurant. Working with the Springfield Parking Authority, Russell found a solution by establishing an affordable rate for the employees at an under-utilized parking lot further up on Worthington Street.
Part of what Russell hopes to accomplish is to make the downtown appealing to young professionals as a place to work and live.
“This should be a hub for young people to start their professional career,” he said.