Evolved — and evolving — in Springfield

Photo: Mamava manufacturing of pods. Courtesy photo.

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine

Springfield’s economy has evolved — and is evolving,” said Bob Flint, executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corp., which serves 10 towns in southern Windsor County.

The community had moved on from the machine tool industry by the time Goldman Industrial Group went bankrupt in 2002. He said the bulk of the layoffs happened in the late 1980s and 1990s.

In his opinion, the Springfield region is similar to other Vermont communities.

“I think there’s angst about inflation, but it hasn’t really hurt anything yet, knock on wood,” Flint said. "Employment remains stable, even if everybody would love to find more workers and housing for those workers.”

With a workforce participation rate of approximately 57%, the region could benefit from employment growth, Flint said. At the same time, officials are thankful their communities haven’t experienced widespread layoffs or unemployment.

Mamava co-founder Sascha Mayer, left, speaks at a 2022 open house at the company’s Springfield production facility as Vice President of Manufacturing Joe Wright, co-founder Christine Dodson and Executive Vice President of Operations Mark Wiggins look on.   Photos Courtesy of Mamava.

 

Mamava co-founder Sascha Mayer, left, speaks at a 2022 open house at the company’s Springfield production facility as Vice President of Manufacturing Joe Wright, co-founder Christine Dodson and Executive Vice President of Operations Mark Wiggins look on.   Photos Courtesy of Mamava.
 

Photo: Mamava co-founder Sascha Mayer, left, speaks at a 2022 open house at the company’s Springfield production facility as Vice President of Manufacturing Joe Wright, co-founder Christine Dodson and Executive Vice President of Operations Mark Wiggins look on. Photos Courtesy of Mamava.

The Black River Innovation Campus, an entrepreneurship program that combines the region’s tech expertise with Vermont’s unique lifestyle, is an important building block of Springfield’s next evolution, Flint said.

From its Park Street School headquarter in Springfield, BRIC operates office and co-working space, teaches entrepreneur courses, and has plans to renovate 60 Park Street into 24 apartments.

BRIC Executive Director Vin Fusca believes tech-based and tech-enabled businesses are a good fit for Vermont. They offer well-paying jobs, have a lighter environmental footprint than heavy manufacturing businesses, and are conducive to living the slower-paced yet culturally sophisticated lifestyle desired by so many of their workers. However, people need skills and access to resources to survive and thrive, he said. This is where BRIC can help create opportunities.

“Everything is touched by technology,” Fusca said. “I think you can achieve balance and keep the Vermont cultural lifestyle, respect for the environment and create opportunities to attract technology businesses.”

Photo: BRIC campus. Courtesy photo.
 

Photo: BRIC campus. Courtesy photo.

BRIC employs four people and has received two rounds of funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

EDA grants are matching grants, requiring recipients to find nonfederal monies to make their programs viable. These can come from foundations, institutions of higher education, state and municipal governments, private sources or other philanthropic entities, to name a few.

Under this model, the Black River Innovation Campus and Green Mountain Economic Development Corp. won a $3 million EDA Build To Scale Venture Challenge grant in 2022 to develop a BRIC Actuator technology entrepreneurship incubator/accelerator program in the Randolph region, and to support the creation of a Randolph innovation hub called Cultivator. (To learn more about this program and others, visit the BRIC website at www.bricvt.org.)

“We try to help folks understand the complexity of being a startup founder,” Fusca said.

Founding a startup can become all-consuming, he added. People need to find balance and community.

Three cohorts have moved through BRIC’s training programs. Participants have launched ideas related to bike equipment, increasing battery storage capacity and a nonprofit called Pop-up Adventure Play that offers programming and training around childhood play.

Photo: BRIC campus. Courtesy photo.
 

Photo: BRIC campus. Courtesy photo.

“I’m a big believer in Vermont,” Fusca said. “I want to build a future where there are opportunities to have a good-paying job, work in fascinating fields of technology and be able to live in a great place.”

When Taylor Drinker left her hometown of Springfield for college, she had no intention of returning.

The COVID-19 pandemic scuttled her plans. Today, she serves as executive director of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, where she has developed an entirely new appreciation for the city.

“Springfield is in an interesting position because it’s been down on its luck for a while,” she said. “And we’re in a bit of a renaissance right now.”

The town and organizations such as Springfield Housing Authority are renovating outdated buildings. Like most communities in Vermont, Springfield needs more affordable housing for its low- and moderate-income residents. Drinker said these residents also need better access to state programs and resources such as child care and public transportation.

This year, Drinker’s primary goal is to modernize the 108-year-old Springfield chamber. Plans include replacing the  1970s wood paneling in its offices and updating benefits for its 150 members.

Drinker said she appreciates the slew of Simpsons memorabilia left over from 2007, when Springfield was named the cartoon family’s hometown in a national contest. But 2007 was almost 20 years ago, and It’s time for something new to make the town shine.

On a recent Friday in February, Drinker is preparing for a meet-and-greet between the chamber’s Young Professionals group and candidates for selectboard.

It’s one thing to live in a town, Drinker   said, and another to understand how it operates. She wants fellow young professionals to understand Springfield and participate in all aspects of town life.

Drinker feels lucky to be living in Springfield now. Her older neighbors fondly remember the town’s heyday, before things began to decline. It was during this period marked by rampant crime and opioid addictions that Drinker spent most of her adolescence.

But she is convinced that better days lie ahead. That, in fact, Springfield is already bouncing back.

“It’s really primed for a successful next few years,” she said.


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