By Kathleen Mitchell, BusinessWest magazine
Bela Breslau opened Bela’s Bed and Breakfast in June, and the Deerfield entrepreneur has already had guests from as far away as Korea. “I’ve met the nicest people. They have come here from New York City for a wedding and for events such as school graduations,” she said, adding that her business has done well and she has received support from area residents. “The town officials here are positive to work with, and everyone has been very thoughtful because they want you to succeed.
“Deerfield is a really good place to do business,” she added, explaining that she and her husband, Stephen Bliss, also own and operate a martial-arts school on their property, where they teach the Japanese body movement known as shin tai do.
The couple moved to Deerfield from San Rafael, Calif. in 2004, and they love the town. “It’s a beautiful place with a lot to do and see,” Breslau said.
Carolynn Shores Ness, who was on the town’s Planning Board for 21 years, has had a seat on the Board of Selectman for 11 years, and is chair of the Board of Health, says the Breslaus’ story has been repeated many times in this community, and location is one of many reasons why.
“A lot of traffic comes through town, and we have a lot of tourist attractions,” she said, noting that Deerfield is a crossroads for Interstate 91, Routes 5 and 10, and Route 116.
Max Hartshorne agrees. “We really do promote Deerfield as a tourist destination,” said the former owner of GoNomad Café, who now owns a travel publishing business he operates from his Deerfield home. “Tourism here is strong. Yankee Candle is the number-two destination in the state, Historic Deerfield is legendary, and Deerfield Academy is really pretty.”
Gideon Porth says Deerfield’s access to highways and land availability are two factors that make it an attractive location for agricultural businesses.
Shores Ness said that, while the town has but 5,100 residents, 2 million people visit Yankee Candle each year. She also cites Historic Deerfield, which includes the Memorial Hall Museum and Flynt Center of Early New England Life, which feature constantly changing exhibits and workshops; Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory and Gallery; and Mount Sugarloaf Park in South Deerfield, “which has absolutely wonderful views and allows people to walk the length of Pocumtuck Ridge,” as other popular tourist attractions.
In addition, there are the annual Old Deerfield Craft Fairs, which take place every spring and fall and draw between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors, along with the town’s Music in Deerfield chamber series and its gun clubs.
“The Franklin County League of Sportsman’s Club is here, and the South Deerfield Rod and Gun Club are also important to the community,” said Shores Ness, adding that the latter holds fishing events and turkey shoots. “There are also a lot of cultural activities that happen here year-round. And we have three boarding schools with a lot of activity, as well as many nonprofits.”
Room for Growth
Many of the town’s businesses have expanded over the past few years, and an expedited permitting process for a town-owned, 16-acre tract of land with sewer and water hookups has been approved for commercial or industrial use.
Opportunity also exists in a variety of other areas. “There are empty buildings downtown, and plenty of space is available,” Hartshorne said. “Although it’s a very sleepy downtown, a lot of traffic passes through it.”
“Permitting here is really easy, and people are friendly and helpful. It’s a crossroads town, taxes are really low, and the town officials are interested in helping new businesses grow.”
Shores Ness said space and buildings are also available in the town’s industrial park. And although the tourist business makes up a large part of the town’s economy, the East Railroad Yard has undergone tremendous growth. Recently, the town was able to fill up a large part of this park with an industrial manufacturing company.
The town’s agricultural base has always has been strong, and Hartshorne said town officials are looking to the future. “Some farmers have approached them about growing marijuana, and their response has been positive.”
Shores Ness added that UMass has active agricultural and turf programs in town. “They have really ramped up, and there are a lot of experimental fields and classroom research being done in Deerfield,” she told BusinessWest.
Gideon Porth agrees. In 2004, he purchased three acres of farmland in Deerfield and began an enterprise known as Atlas Farm. It has doubled in size every year, and Porth recently purchased an additional 45 acres and opened a year-round farm stand that sells the organic produce grown on his 95-acre property, along with other local products.
“Business has been good, and we have definitely exceeded our sales estimate,” he said, adding that the town’s access to highways and resulting proximity to metropolitan markets such as Boston, where he does a lot of wholesale business, makes it an even more attractive place to establish a farm.
“The town is very supportive of agriculture, and this is one of the few spots in New England with prime land and soil for growing vegetables,” said Porth, who came to the area from Boston when he was a graduate student at UMass Amherst.
In addition, the town takes a proactive stance on capital improvements. Current projects include the replacement and relining of sewer lines as well as streetscape planning being done for the village of South Deerfield.
Shores Ness noted that Deerfield is a green community and has signed up with the Hampshire Power Municipal Aggregation group, which will eventually allow the town to buy power at a discounted rate. In addition, a stretch energy code was approved during a recent town meeting; it requires the use of energy-efficient measures in renovations and new construction. “We also encourage conservation throughout the town,” she said.
Measures have also been taken to mitigate the effects of weather emergencies, such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and the freak Halloween snowstorm the same year, which had an adverse effect on land and property in Deerfield.
Town officials have applied for grants to do restoration work along the Deerfield River. “And we’re working with FEMA and MEMA to become a more resilient community so we won’t be as affected by weather events. We also offer a free, drive-through flu clinic on Oct. 6 at Yankee Candle,” Shores Ness said, adding that several hundred volunteers work with the town’s medical disaster-response team.
Laurie Nivison, director of marketing for Historic Deerfield, said Champney’s Restaurant inside the Deerfield Inn reopened in April after being closed for 18 months as a result of flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
“The restaurant and inn underwent extensive renovations and restorations. We expanded the tavern area from 10 to 20 seats, have a new menu, and are farm to table. We have partnerships with local farms and get our pork and beef from Yazwinski Farm in Deerfield,” she said, adding that they also serve beverages made at Berkshire Brewing in Deerfield as well as other local breweries.
“Even though Deerfield may seem like it’s off the beaten path, people come here year-round,” she continued. “Historic Deerfield gets about 15,000 tourists each year, and it’s a really vibrant community; people don’t realize how much there is to see and do in town. It’s a great place to come and spend the day.”
Hartshorne said the fall is a busy season in town, but winter is also fruitful because people drive through Deerfield or pass by on their way to ski areas in Vermont.
“There are also events such as a bike ride known as D2R2, which attracts about 1,500 cyclists every year,” he said, adding that cyclists have their choice of an 80- or 100-mile route.
In fact, there is so much to see and do that, in 2008, Hartshorne worked with the tourist attractions in town and created the website deerfieldattractions.com to allow people to find out about the fairs, shopping, dining, recreation, museums, and other activities that take place in Deerfield throughout the year. He also coordinated an annual Tag Sale Day that takes place the first Saturday in October.
“We try to get everyone in town who is holding a tag sale to do it on that day,” he explained. “We created a Google map on the website every year so people can find where the sales are.”
Shores Ness says many businesses in Deerfield have formed strong partnerships with the town, and it’s a reciprocal arrangement, as officials do all they can to help them.
“People here communicate well with each other, which is something we have encouraged,” she said. “There is a constant stream of really interesting and exciting things that are always happening in Deerfield. It’s just a wonderful place to live and work, and we welcome new neighbors and want to keep and encourage the businesses that have made a long-term commitment here.”