Working together: Coworking space, commercial kitchen in works for former state hospital

  • Embroidery by Great Threads Embroidery for REMI in Amherst. Great Threads is a business located at 6 Berkshire Ave. in Belchertown that is part of the former Belchertown State School complex. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Examples of embroidery by Great Threads Embroidery is displayed at the business. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hope’s Kids Kloset, located at 6 Berkshire Ave., which is part of the former Belchertown State School complex, sells donated children’s clothing and toys to benefit Hope United Methodist Church in Belchertown. It is run by Debbie Ewing. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gary Ewing walks through Hope’s Kids Kloset. The store sells donated children’s clothing and toys to benefit Hope United Methodist Church in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gary Ewing, who is the owner of Great Threads Embroidery, removes backpacks from an embroidery machine in his business. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gary Ewing, the owner of Great Threads Embroidery, stands beside an embroidery machine in his business. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Examples of embroidery by Great Threads Embroidery is displayed at the business, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. Great Threads is a business located at 6 Berkshire Avenue in Belchertown that is part of the former Belchertown State School complex. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sarah Maroney, left, the co-founder of Belchertown Cultural Alliance, April Jasak-Bangs, president of the alliance, and Courtney Keating, vice president of the Belchertown State School Friends Association, stand Wednesday in a space they hope to renovate into a studio for artists at 6 Berkshire Ave. in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • April Jasak-Bangs, left, who is the president of the Belchertown Cultural Alliance, and Courtney Keating, who is the vice president of the Belchertown State School Friends Association, walk through a space where a commissary is envisioned, Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 6 Berkshire Avenue in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A kitchen is envisioned for this space next to a room that may become a commissary at 6 Berkshire Ave., which is part of the former Belchertown State School complex. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sarah Maroney, left, who is the co-founder of Belchertown Cultural Alliance, April Jasak-Bangs, center, who is the president of the alliance, and Courtney Keating, who is the vice president of the Belchertown State School Friends Association, chat in a space they hope to renovate into a studio for artists, Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 6 Berkshire Ave. in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sarah Maroney, left, who is the co-founder of Belchertown Cultural Alliance, Courtney Keating, center, who is the vice president of the Belchertown State School Friends Association, and April Jasak-Bangs, who is the president of the alliance, chat in a room that will provide shared office space, Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 6 Berkshire Avenue in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • 6 Berkshire Ave. in Belchertown, part of the former Belchertown State School complex, last Wednesday. The building is partially renovated. 8 Berkshire Ave., in the background, is another building slated for renovation. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/31/2019 3:09:02 PM

BELCHERTOWN — When members of the town’s Cultural Council floated the idea of a coworking space at the former Belchertown State School dormitory building last fall, they were blown away by the “really big response” on social media.

“It can be really isolating to work by yourself all the time, so it would create a really cool, community-focused space,” said April Jasak-Bangs, chairwoman of the Belchertown Cultural Council and president of  the newly-formed Belchertown Cultural Alliance. “And we’re hoping it will attract other businesses like cafes, restaurants … other things that can expand the offerings in Belchertown right now.”

If successful, the new space would be located on first-floor space being renovated inside a building at 6 Berkshire Ave. that already houses Hope’s Kids Kloset and Great Threads Embroidery on a portion of its second floor.

Additionally, the Cultural Alliance is moving ahead with a plan for a commisssary kitchen inside the building.

The recently formed alliance consists of a group of residents from Belchertown and surrounding areas who hope to revitalize the State School property for community use.

“The idea is to make sure that there aren’t sections of this building just sitting empty and only used part of the time,” Jasak-Bangs said. “The more space and collaborative effort, the better use we’re going to get out of this space.”

For alliance members, a coworking space and commercial kitchen stood out as ideal spaces to fill a community need.

“We’re sort of in this very large geographical town where there’s just a giant vacuum of places and venues and locations, so we’re trying to rectify that and try to pull something like this together,” she said.

A number of Hampshire County communities have adopted coworking spaces, with Click Workspace in Northampton, AmherstWorks in Amherst and Tapwork in Hadley taking off in the area.

Commercial kitchens have not seen the same surge in popularity in Hampshire County, with the closest facility located in Greenfield at the Franklin County Community Development Corp. The kitchen will be set up for local food makers to rent commercially certified cooking and storage space for their small food business, Jasak-Bangs said. The Cultural Alliance is also interested in partnering with Belchertown High School’s special education program to provide a space for students to practice life skills in the kitchen.

Redevelopment, memorial

The Belchertown State School, which opened in 1922 as an institution for children with developmental disabilities, shut down in 1992 following a decades-long history of serious human rights violations.

Since the institution’s closing, the town’s Economic Development Industrial Corporation has attempted to tap into the property’s business potential. Assisted living community Christopher Heights currently operates on the property, and Arcpoint Brewing Co. and Belchertown Day School are also set to join Christopher Heights in the developing neighborhood, known as Carriage Grove. In 2017, Belchertown receieved a $3 million grant from MassDevelopment to help establish the neighborhood.

As the town strives to make use of the property to attract more businesses to Belchertown, others have called for greater efforts to also commemorate the painful history that took place on the property. Former State School residents, families and other advocates have sought to establish a permanent museum and memorial to the Belchertown State School residents on the property, particularly focusing on the institution’s former administration building as a possible location for a museum documenting this past.

A museum is “still in the planning stages,” said Kate Anderson, a mental health and institutional historian and president of the Belchertown State School Friends Association, but her group hopes to establish the museum in the former administration building.

The museum would include photos and documents from the State School and show “the evolution of state schools into special education,” Anderson said, while the planned memorial, which is being overseen by the town’s Historical Commission, would be located elsewhere on the grounds and incorporate stairway steps and a cupola from former State School buildings if possible.

“We’re excited at the prospect of State School history having a home that also supports people with disabilities,” Anderson said.

Jasak-Bangs agreed.

“We’re really hoping to save (the buildings), restore them, and bring them back from such a negative past and have them do good again,” she said, “and have them reincorporated back into our community in a way that includes everyone.”

Correction: This story has been updated the reflect that the Belchertown State School Friends Association is overseeing the creation of a museum, while the town’s Historical Association is working to establish a separate memorial elsewhere on the former State School property.Jacquelyn Voghel can be  reached at jvoghel@ga zettenet.com.


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