Deerfield Promotes Itself as a Day Trip — and an Ideal Place to Live
By Joseph Bednar
article reprinted from BusinessWest Feb 2009
“Did you talk to Max?”
BusinessWest heard this question more than once when looking for business owners to talk about what’s happening in Deerfield.
The man in question is Max Hartshorne, owner of the GoNOMAD Café in the bustling, throwback village just off Routes 5 and 10 in South Deerfield, and it’s difficult to imagine someone more enthusiastic about his town and the opportunities it presents for residents, entrepreneurs, and visitors alike.
“I’ve had people come to the café and say, ‘I just moved to Deerfield, and I love it. This is fantastic. I can’t believe how nice it is here,’” Hartshorne related. “We have houses on the market like every town does, but last year, there were only three foreclosures in the whole town.”
People who live in Deerfield generally know about its roster of tourist stops — not just the Yankee Candle flagship store and the museum houses of Historic Deerfield, but the Magic Wings butterfly conservatory, Richardson’s Candy Kitchen, Antiques at Deerfield, and the New England Wild Flower Society’s Nasami Farm, just to name a few.
The longtime challenge, however, has been conveying the word to people outside this community of 5,000 that there is indeed plenty to do in Deerfield. To that end, Hartshorne organized Deerfield Attractions, a network of local businesses that market themselves collectively, through advertising, word of mouth, and a Web site (www.deerfieldattractions.com) that links to their individual sites.
“There had been several attempts in the past to have everyone grouped together, and this time it worked,” said Kathie Williams, owner of Richardson’s Candy Kitchen. “We’ve seen a positive effect right away, and people became interested in doing more group advertising.”
Williams said she’s seen a measurable uptick in traffic into town through that effort and events like last October’s townwide tag sale, which drew participation from more than 60 homeowners. Moreover, she said, businesses are able to track increased Web traffic on their sites due to the Deerfield Attractions central page.
“People who want to do a day trip can see what else there is to do,” she said. “When people come to Magic Wings, that brings them up our way. And Historic Deerfield has done more recently with family days and interactive programs, which also pulls people up to our end.”
“We want to give people many reasons to come to this area,” added Kathy Miller, general manager of Magic Wings.
“Yankee Candle is certainly the biggest draw, but once people get here, there’s so much to do within a five-mile radius. So we thought it was in our best interest to advocate for ourselves in a collective effort. We want to show people that there are so many things in this one area, and it’s well-worth it to stop by. You can spend a day, and we have hotels if you want to stay overnight. There are just a lot of unique attractions here.”
But Deerfield is more than a tourist spot, said Hartshorne — it’s also, thanks to its downtown village, a pleasant place to live. He’s getting the word out on that, too.
Welcome to the Village
It’s called South Deerfield Village Center, and Hartshorne says there are few downtowns like it anymore.
There are restaurants and taverns, hair salons, a hardware store, a grocery store, banks, a gas station, a video store, a pharmacy, and other amenities, all within walking distance of each other, with plenty of on-street parking. City and public-safety offices are nearby, as are schools and churches.
The village is one of the reasons people like living here, he told BusinessWest, and to promote it, he pushed Town Administrator Bernard Kubiak to erect signage directing motorists here, the goal being to pull in people who might know the town only as the home of Yankee Candle and other day-trip spots.
“Deerfield Elementary gets more resumes than any other school in the area,” said Hartshorne. “It’s a good school with good kids in a great town, and people want to teach there. I know a guy who had taught in another town, and he said the difference is unbelievable.”
To keep Deerfield vibrant, Kubiak and his staff have taken on a pro-growth mindset in attracting businesses to the town, he said.
“We’re creating a separate economic-development zone in Deerfield that’s distinct from the economic-development zone that encompasses all of Franklin County,” said Kubiak, one that will make tax-increment financing available to businesses looking to expand or make improvements.
“It’s difficult to pull these things together. The town does not have a planner or an economic-development specialist,” he noted. But Deerfield is seeking help from the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, MassDevelopment, and other regional and state agencies. “The town doesn’t have a defined role to play in business development, but we are working on that concept of an economic-development zone, and we’re paying attention to what the businesses here are doing in order to enhance it.”
In addition, because of something called the Community Preservation Act, a 3% tax on home sales (some of it matched by state funds) is set aside to purchase and preserve open space for recreation, said Hartshorne.
It’s all about raising the profile of Deerfield to make it more attractive to potential residents and business owners alike. “It’s a constant battle,” Hartshorne said of trying to convince out-of-towners that Yankee Candle isn’t the end-all of Deerfield, but simply a starting point. “Eight or nine out of 10 people who come to Yankee Candle turn right around and go back.”
Said Williams, “there’s plenty of variety here, but most of us are small businesses, and it’s nice to talk about similar issues and problems. People are dealing with the same economic climate, and that’s comforting.”
History in the Making
One newspaper advertisement issued by Deerfield Attractions promoted the town as a day-trip destination, with visitors able to hit multiple stops in one trip — a powerful message for families looking for less expensive ‘staycations’ closer to home during uncertain economic times.
Historic Deerfield — with its mix of 11 centuries-old houses converted into period museums — is a day trip in itself, and a different experience than ‘gated’ historical recreations like Sturbridge Village, because people actually live among the museums, said Michael Busack, public relations director.
The birth of the village as a period tourist attraction began around the 1950s, said Busack, when Henry and Helen Flynt, who had a son who attended Deerfield Academy, started collecting expensive antiques and period furnishings.
“Then they began collecting some properties here, starting with the Deerfield Inn, and started restoring some houses to preserve the history of Deerfield, and filled them with their personal collection” he explained. “And the town itself has a rich tradition of people looking to preserve the past. Eventually, it grew to something bigger than the Flynts.”
In addition to the preserved historic homes, the Flynt Center for Early New England Life is a modern building that sports additional collections of decorative arts, textiles, ceramics, and antique furniture. It adds up to a tourist draw, yes, but also one more charming trait for those who reside among the history.
“I think most of the people who choose to live here see it as a prime location,” said Busack. “You have some of the most prestigious schools in the country right here, and you’ve got one of the most historic villages here.”
Not to mention all the attractions on Routes 5 and 10, which may be a world apart from the museums of Historic Deerfield, but somehow complement them in a community so many would like to see become the region’s prime roadtrip destination.
“All offer a very different experience, and the goal has always been to let people know that’s a good thing,” Busack said. “In one day, you can experience many different things within a few miles of each other.
“I don’t think Deerfield has always been seen as a destination spot, but that’s changing,” he continued. “We want to keep it going, so we’re constantly coming up with new programs and family-friendly offerings to keep people coming back.”
That’s indicative of the seriousness with which Deerfield businesses typically treat their marketing efforts, Hartshorne noted.
“They realize we need to promote these things mutually,” he said. “There are tough times out there, but our employers are doing OK, and people are positive.”
People who talk to Max hear that all the time.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com