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Innovation

$ 3 million earmark will spur more development at Springfield innovation center

Digital renderings of the proposed Park Street School renovations, a project of Black River Innovation Campus. Courtesy photo / BRIC.

With a $ 3 million earmark secured by US Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., And almost $ 2 million more from the state, leaders of the Black River Innovation Campus in Springfield hope it can spur further revitalization downtown.

The money will update the 500-seat auditorium and gymnasium inside the Park Street School, a multi-use building that now houses 6,000 square feet of campus’s workspace, plus Springfield School District administrative offices and a podcasting studio.

“It gives us a more modernized space to host people for events, as well as for our program we call ‘Actuator,’ which is our hybrid incubator accelerator program for scalable tech companies,” said Trevor Barlow, executive director of the Black River. Innovation Campus, known as BRIC.

The federal money, distributed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be used to bring the space up to fire codes, upgrade the HVAC and electrical systems and address accessibility issues, Barlow said.

BRIC envisions transforming the Park Street School into a 90,000-square-foot live-work center with 24 apartments, entrepreneurial workspace and the tech infrastructure needed to train a new generation of Vermonters for the 21st-century workforce, he said.

The building is located within walking distance of the downtown area that was once a major manufacturing hub, but has been battered by the opioid epidemic and decades-long loss of industry.

According to Barlow, the combination of Covid-19 and climate change has drawn an influx of new residents from urban centers such as Boston and New York.

“All of them have told us that, in doing their research, BRIC was a key element to them locating regionally, just knowing that there were those types of things happening,” he said.

BRIC’s Actuator – the program for scalable tech companies – has already begun supporting companies working in medical technology, waste management automation, and wearable technology, Barlow said.

Matt Dunne, founder of the Center for Rural Innovation and a BRIC board member, hailed the multiuse nature of the Park Street School.

“It’s intended to create a home for innovation-based jobs and entrepreneurs, and housing for folks who are wanting to participate in those kinds of new economy jobs,” Dunne said. It will also create “public facilities for recreation, and for live performances, and gatherings,” he said.

“It’s rare to see that kind of comprehensive redevelopment plan, particularly in all in the same building,” he said.

Springfield’s fiber-optic gigabit broadband service via VTel inspired Dunne and others to market the town as a potential destination for remote tech workers. Dunne also pointed to Dartmouth College, 40 miles up Interstate 91 in Hanover, New Hampshire, as a selling point for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“There are the ingredients to make (Springfield) exciting for people to be there,” Dunne said, “and the kind of amenities that will be provided by a fully renovated gymnasium and performing arts center will only add to that. I think people like being involved in a place that’s clearly moving in a positive, exciting direction. “

Dunne grew up in Hartland and served as a state senator for Windsor County. He watched and contributed to the revitalization of White River Junction, once a struggling former railroad town, now a rejuvenated arts hub with a young contingent. He sees Springfield following a similar path.

Digital renderings of the proposed Park Street School renovations, a project of Black River Innovation Campus. Courtesy photo / BRIC.

One challenge facing BRIC is finding the rest of the money needed to create housing and further renovate the workspace inside the Park Street School. Because the space serves so many purposes – housing, tech, arts, athletics – supporters have had difficulty tapping into pots of money devoted to specific needs.

Yet Dunne sees the BRIC’s interdisciplinary approach as the fundamental strength of its mission. “If you’re doing true ecosystem development, you have to do all the pieces,” he said.

In addition to the federal dollars, $ 1.2 million in brownfield revitalization state money received by the Springfield Regional Development Corp., a nonprofit that supports development in southern Windsor County, will go toward the Park Street School project for cleanup costs.

The building – part of it dating from the 1890s and the rest from the 1930s – has asbestos in some areas, and the site needs some cleanup because of its past uses, according to Bob Flint, executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corp.

Springfield also received a $ 500,000 community block grant that will go toward bringing the Park Street School up to fire codes, Flint said.

Renovations funded by the earmark and state grants should begin by the end of the year.

BRIC’s visions for the Park Street School are ambitious and will take time. But progress is underway, its organizers said, and they’re asking for patience for their plans to pay off.

“When you’re trying to get people to believe that this kind of thing can happen, especially when they have faced such economic hardships and disappointment, that can be hard,” Dunne said. “But folks in Springfield are committed to this.”

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