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Opinion
Ten years ago, the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School was still very much a dream for its founders. But now, its student body, as well as its reputation for excellence and creativity, is growing. The school, in a new home in South Hadley, is embarking on a capital campaign designed to make the PVPA’s next act as exciting as the first.

Upon an initial walk-though, the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School looks much like any other high school. Students are hunched over books in classrooms and study halls, listening to iPods in the halls or pausing at the vending machines to talk to their friends.

Soon, though, subtle differences are noticeable. A Spanish class is held in a new theater, adjacent to the stage. A math class is one room over from a course in costume design, where the beginnings of Technicolor creations are fed into sewing machines.

A student on her way to class suddenly, randomly twirls, books in hand – a dancer’s spin to pass the time, or maybe some extra practice for an upcoming quiz.

From his new office on the first floor, Bob Brick, the school’s administrative director, observes all of this with a look of satisfaction. Only one semester into its 10th year and celebrating a new home in South Hadley, where the school recently relocated from Hadley, PVPA, a public charter school, has grown incrementally from its beginnings in 1996.

“Many people still don’t know we exist,” he said.

But the school is the culmination of a long-held dream for Brick. And the combination of PVPA’s move to South Hadley, the occasion of the school’s 10th anniversary, and its consistent success academically is beginning to move the school to center stage in Western Mass., and that’s a move that Brick hopes will help underscore PVPA’s unique mission.

Act One

Brick has been involved since PVPA was just a kernel of an idea – he founded the school along with educational director Ljuba Marsh. Previously, both had long careers in human services, but also in educational innovation – a fact they realized after knowing each other for years.

Brick was a founding member of the Project Ten experimental college at UMass Amherst in 1968, an attempt at revolutionizing the college experience. Similarly, Marsh has been involved with educational reform for more than 40 years, working with a number of institutions with a focus on academic and artistic integration.

“It had always been my dream to found a school that valued the performing arts, and it turned out it had always been a dream of Ljuba’s as well,” Brick said. “We never knew that about each other. But once we did, the process began to move very quickly.”

Coinciding with the Mass. Educational Reform movement, that process began with a call to the State Department of Education, initial approval, and that first class of freshmen in 1996, which included Brick’s daughter, now enrolled in medical school.

The PVPA now boasts a student body of about 400 in both middle school and high school, 40 full-time faculty members, and an additional 60 or so part-time faculty members and administrative staff. And Brick said he doesn’t want to see the school’s enrollment numbers grow too much more – that would affect the personal attention and small classes that are central to the school’s mission. But this year, the school received applications from more than four times the students it can accommodate – 300, with only 70 open slots available.

No auditions are necessary for admittance to the school – students are accepted based on a lottery system — but Brick says the large number of applications adds to the credibility of PVPA, and further bunks any notion that performing arts-based schools are heavy on creativity, but soft on academics.

In actuality, PVPA’s curriculum is one of the most stringent in the state, requiring students to attend classes for eight hours a day. Five of those hours are reserved for traditional, academic courses, and the remainder of the day is devoted to a variety of courses in performing arts, ranging from dance, theatre, and music to costume or set design.

“Everyone has to do eight credit hours per semester, four years of language, three years of lab sciences, and three consecutive years of a foreign language,” Brick explained. “In addition to performing arts requirements in their chosen concentration, students must also complete an internship and hours of community service. That’s not to mention the commute many of our students have.”

High school and middle school students from across the state are welcome to apply to PVPA, although Brick said special priority is given to those living in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Still, even across Western Mass., the school’s reach is extensive – the current student body hails from 60 cities and towns from east of Worcester to the Berkshires. Many commute to school an hour each way.

“They want to be here,” Brick said. “They’re a happy group of students, and many are in the beginnings of very strong careers in the performing arts.”

And the academic model at PVPA, which puts emphasis on creative, critical thinking is working, he noted.

“We value the individual needs of every student,” said Brick, “both academically and creatively. We work toward goals with the understanding that without the arts, most people aren’t complete … and our kids get into great colleges, and study both the performing arts as well as more traditional subjects. Our MCAS scores are some of the highest in the state.

“High school can be a very negative experience for people who are different,” he continued, shifting his focus from the academic success of the PVPA to the social aspects of high school life. “At some public schools, for instance, male dancers get shoved in lockers. Here, they’re gods. And everyone has something that makes them special, and that is appreciated.”

Set Design

Over the past decade, the school has existed at varying levels in terms of both its physical and academic presence in Western Mass. Brick explained that the school once offered only the ninth grade, sending students to different public or private schools for the remainder of their education. PVPA soon expanded, however, to include a full four-year curriculum in 2000 (the seventh and eighth grades were added in 2004) and to hold classes within several historic buildings on Route 9 in Hadley.

But Brick said the school was quickly outgrowing its facilities, and plans have been in motion for some time to relocate the school to a larger, more-consolidated location.

“Students had to walk 15 minutes sometimes to get to classes,” he explained of PVPA’s former digs. “They were rushing from building to building, crossing Route 9 … it could be awful, especially in the winter.”

Brick said the PVPA actually made five different attempts to relocate, conducting feasibility studies at three potential sites and actually purchasing 20 acres of land in Hadley with the hope of developing it at a later date – that land is still owned by PVPA, and Brick said the school is now planning to sell it.

None of the first four locations were suitable for a school, but a fifth option in South Hadley, situated on a hill on Mulligan Drive adjacent to the Ledges Golf Club, proved to be more promising. The property in which the school now operates had been vacant for years, having once served as a research and development facility for a chemical engineering firm, Intelicoat Technologies (formerly Rexham Graphics).

“It had been sitting around for five years, empty,” said Brick. “I don’t know exactly why … I can only surmise that the building hadn’t been right for a new business because it’s quirky – it’s only suited for certain uses, it’s big, and it’s sort of hidden up here.

“But for a charter school with students from all over the region, it’s perfect,” he added. “We’re four miles from I-91, there’s plenty of space that can be converted for specialty uses, parking, and plenty of land surrounding us. We saw very early on that this could work.”

The building and the land it occupies were purchased from Joe Marois, president of Marois Construction, in 2005. After examining the building and its potential for housing a performing arts school, Brick said PVPA soon began the process of purchasing the site from Marois and hiring his firm to renovate it – a $4.5 million endeavor.

“We used funds from some long-term fundraising we had been involved with, and a tax-exempt loan from MassDevelopment,” said Brick, adding that the renovation of the building was extensive. “In the end, we renovated about 98% of this building – we gutted it, added a third floor, installed new electric and plumbing systems, and an elevator.”

In actuality, the school’s new home encompasses less area than the former location in Hadley – about 50,000 square feet. But Brick said the space is better suited for academic use, and the students are, for the first time, under one roof.

“There is much more usable space,” he said. “We have three dance studios with sprung floors, a theatre, two sound studios, insulated rooms for music classes, a set design and costume shop, and a chemistry lab, all brand new and all in one building. It’s a huge improvement.”

And Brick said they’re not done, either. The school is currently in the middle of a capital campaign, raising money for a new, 450-seat theater at the school. Brick said he hopes to break ground on the project within the next two years, with the help of continued support from area organizations, businesses, and individuals.

He said the school has benefited from the financial help of what he terms “a few angels,” but added that there is still a need to increase the school’s visibility within the region’s business community, in order to continue to develop both the school itself and its unique curriculum.

He explained that the PVPA model is so different from most, it can cause some confusion – many people don’t realize that the school is a six-year, academic middle and high school that is open to any student with an interest in the performing arts. Fewer realize that the school has an exceedingly young alumni base that is, for the most part, still unprepared to give back substantially to their alma mater, unlike more-established specialty schools, public or private. After only 10 years in existence and only six including graduating classes, most PVPA alumni are still in college or starting their first jobs.

It has become part of Brick’s general duties to market the school as well as its needs, speaking to professional organizations such as rotary clubs regularly.

“It’s one of the most difficult needs we have to translate – that of the need for private support, even though we are a public school,” said Brick. “It’s similar to the challenges that all public schools face – yes, we receive support from the government. But it doesn’t cover everything, especially with the extended curriculum. We can use that support.”

Fame Seekers…

As the bell rings at PVPA and students begin to filter into the halls, Brick pauses to listen to the voices in the hall.

There’s the usual chatter, but it’s punctuated by bits of song, excited gossip about upcoming auditions, and the swinging whoosh of the theater door … little bursts of creativity, further cementing Brick’s dream in reality.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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After more than 30 years in business, the commercial real estate development firm of Development Associates has a keen understanding of the Western Mass. market, the emerging business sectors, and challenges facing area business owners. Armed with that knowledge, DA is forging ahead with a number of projects, many speculative in nature, designed to give new and evolving businesses the space to grow.

Fanning a stack of four-color postcards like a hand in a poker game, Ken Vincunas, general manager of Development Associates, said the cards are a small representation of DA’s growing presence in the region; they announce newly completed building projects and new space for lease across Western Mass.

“We have so many things going on right now that it can be hard to see what, if any, areas we’re missing,” he said.

Indeed, the company has its fingers spread across a large portion of the local landscape, and is continually expanding an already broad portfolio that includes the construction, renovation, brokerage, leasing, and management of properties from Connecticut to the Berkshires and beyond.

Based in Agawam, DA operates as a commercial and industrial real estate, construction, and development firm. Vincunas represents the second-generation management of a company started by his father and partner Edward J. O’Leary.

For the past 15 years, Development Associates has developed a strong foothold in the development of build-to-suit and multi-tenant lease facilities across the region. The company currently owns and manages several properties in Western Mass. and more than 1.1 million square feet of leased space in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Today, business is brisk at DA. Several projects are in various stages of development across the region, ranging from new construction of office and industrial facilities — such as two projects underway in Agawam and Chicopee — to renovations to the leasing and management of existing properties.

The company’s diversity, both in terms of the types of work it handles and the wide array of business sectors it serves, has yielded keen insight into the state of the local economy, current trends and challenges, and prospects for future growth and economic development.

Overall, Vincunas sees strong organic growth in a number of sectors, especially health care, retail, and education, but also recent struggles in efforts by area economic development leaders to bring new employers to the area.

BusinessWest looks this issue at DA’s strong track record in property development and management, and how it is responding to recent trends and growth opportunities with confidence, in for the form of spec building that many developers shy from, and imagination.

Strong Suit

Vincunas doesn’t take the old Field of Dreams outlook — ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But he does believe that if he builds the right facility in the right location, then business owners will come, look, and often lease several thousand square feet of space.

This is what the company is currently doing in two area industrial parks in Agawam and Chicopee, and what it has done through much of history.

“We have space of all kinds for all people in all areas,” he said. “We have a commitment to the area and its businesses, and we’ve been able to serve those businesses well … many tenants in our buildings will work with us when they’re ready to expand, and relocate into other buildings that we own or have recently constructed.”

And that’s an area that is also strong for DA – the construction and renovation of buildings at some new, key locations. One will be located at Silver and Suffield streets in Agawam, near the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, and will include 25,000 square feet for lease. The project, dubbed the Agawam Crossing Professional Center, is expected to commence in June, with space available for professional offices and specialty retail.

Also under construction in Agawam is a 20,000-square-foot industrial flex building on Gold Street that Vincunas has targeted for light industrial, manufacturing, service, R&D, or distribution uses.

In addition, DA is building a 42,500-square-foot facility in Westover Airpark North on Griffith Road in Chicopee, which is geared toward office and light industrial uses, and has development sites available on about 25 acres of land on Route 10 and 202 in Westfield near Barnes Municipal Airport.

A Finger on the Pulse

All of the buildings are expected to house several tenants across a wide spectrum of industries, but as the health care sector strengthens in Western Mass., so do the numbers of businesses moving into larger office spaces. The Agawam Crossing site, for instance, is expected to house several medical offices – either physicians, dentists, and other health care professionals or satellite businesses such as legal services, medical equipment firms, or staffing firms.

“The interior can be finished to suit, and we hope to attract medical businesses because Agawam is in need of a purely professional building,” explained Vincunas, adding that other sites are also seeing strong interest from the medical community, including the Griffith Road site in Chicopee, which is slated to become the new home for Hudson Home Health Care, currently located in Agawam.

On a larger scale, New England Medical Practice Management (NEMPM) recently signed a three-year lease at the Greenfield Corporate Center earlier this month; 2,550 square feet will be used as office space where NEMPM provides medical practice billing services. A veteran’s outpatient medical clinic, as well as the Visiting Nurse Association have also located in the 145,000 square foot Greenfield Corporate Center, and some office space remains for lease.

In the future, Vincunas said he hopes to beckon more health care and medical businesses to Western Mass., by providing them with appropriate space for their needs — be it getting started or taking a venture to the next level.

In South Deerfield, for instance, an industrial center adjacent to route 116 has ‘high technology’ space available, appropriate for office, lab assembly, clean manufacturing, or medical production.

“We hope to bring some of the biotech industry to the area with properties like the one in South Deerfield,” he said, referring to a sector that many economic and regional planning groups, including the Regional Employment Board (REB), MassDevelopment, and the Economic Development Council (EDC), have targeted as possible areas for new growth in Western Mass.

Overall, Vincunas said most of the growth in the region has been organic, a trend area development leaders would like to change.

“One trend we see is that people aren’t generally coming to Western Mass. from other places looking for industrial space,” said Vincunas. “We’re just not attracting people from other areas right now.”

What’s more, the cost of doing business – from fuel costs to engineering expenses – is rising, and that’s putting a crunch on the entire commercial real estate industry.

“High commercial tax rates are also having an impact in many communities,” he said, noting that this has spurred a trend toward development in outlying suburbs, such as Greenfield, East Longmeadow, and Southwick, where tax rates and the cost of real estate is often lower.

A Hand in the Future

“We have to keep our eye on potential new uses and new creative ways to fill and manage our properties,” said Vincunas, noting that this helps DA-owned and managed properties remain viable and relevant in various economic climates and to many industries. “A lot of factors might keep people from coming here, but with good buildings in good locations, there is always at least some healthy turnover within those buildings regardless of the economic climate.

“We have many resources for many industrial opportunities,” he continued, “so a primary focus for us now is to continue to serve and invest in the area by providing quality space and bucking the negative trends.”

Fanning that set of announcement cards on the table in front of him, Vincunas said DA’s hand looks good … but as far as its role in the region goes, they’ll continue to aim for a full house.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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Steve Sobel says it’s much easier to give advice than take it. Fortunately, he took some of his own.

He was working as director of special education in the Hadley school system in the mid ’80s when he started moonlighting as a motivational speaker. His talks would vary with the audience and the specific goals for an event, but there were general themes, or messages, left with those in attendance.

One, in particular, was the thought that, no matter what one’s age might be, time is always relatively short, and thus one should make the most of it. Another is to develop a passion for what you do — or find something else.

“If you love what you do and you believe in what you do, whether you’re a company or an individual,” said Sobel, “that greatly enhances your chances of becoming successful.”

And it was with that mindset that he quit his full-time job, with its good salary and benefits, and went about making motivational speaking his career — and his passion.

It hasn’t always been easy, but he has no regrets. And the same could be said for most of the hundreds of thousands of people who have heard him over the years. This is a diverse population, and includes everything from patients at the Holyoke Soldiers Home to sales executives at MassMutual; professional athletes to area chamber of commerce members.

The shelves in Sobel’s cramped, window-less basement office in the Converse Business Park in Longmeadow tell part of the story. They are full of the small tokens of appreciation from client audiences— mugs, pens, a sleeve of golf balls, a clock, hats, shirts, you name it. But there are other, more significant gestures as well, including one of Sobel’s favorites.

It’s a mini-basketball signed by former Longmeadow High School and University of Connecticut hoop star Kevin Freeman with a note: “Thanks for the strength.”

Sobel provides strength through a number of messages about life and work. He tells audiences to enjoy their journey, whatever it may be, to treat people as they would want to be treated, and to be careful about which molehills they make into mountains.

And he always reminds people never to take themselves too seriously.

That’s one of the many points made during a presentation he calls Laugh More and Live Longer. It’s a talk on the power of lightheartedness, said Sobel, who urges audience members not to die from “terminal seriousness.”

No Laughing Matter

Sobel remembers the call from the coach of the 1998-99 Harvard men’s hockey team.

The squad was 0-8 and morale was as low as the team’s place in the standings. The coach was hoping Sobel could speak to the players and somehow motivate them to achieve more of their potential.

He agreed to try, and started by watching a few hours of practice.

“When I met with them, I told them they were skating as if they believed that life owed them success,” Sobel told BusinessWest. “I told them they weren’t skating with passion and playing as if they didn’t need to do much to win — and that’s why they were losing.

“I looked at the seniors, and said ‘this is your last dance,’” he continued. “I said, ‘shame on you, because a cancer survivor would put his arm around you and tell you the clock is ticking.’”

He then turned up the heat a little more with some rehearsed anger.

“I kicked a chair and said ‘I’m disgusted, I’m leaving and going home,’” he continued, adding that his words and actions must have inspired them because the team turned its season around and wound up in the playoffs. “I told them they had to play hard — every game and every minute. I later turned that message into something I used for a customer-service seminar, where I told them they had to treat each and every customer the same way — as if they were the most important customer.”

The Harvard assignment is like many Sobel has had over the years, in ways that range from his often-philanthropic compensation rates — NCAA rules forbid the school from paying him directly, but he received perks ranging from tickets to game to a chance for his son to skate with the team at practice — to his habit of taking messages sent to one group and borrowing from them for the next audience.

Sobel has been honing his motivational speeches and building his reputation nationally for more than 20 years now.

It started small, with talks mostly to school groups and sports teams — a shooting guard in college, Sobel has coached a number of basketball squads over the years and remains active in youth athletics. In time, he was discovered by the business community, for which he crafted talks on everything from the importance of teamwork to reducing stress in the workplace.

“Eventually, I ran out of sick days, mental health days, and personal days,” he said when describing his transition from part-time to full-time motivational speaker, a second career that was forged in many ways by his work in education.

Sobel spent four years as principal of Springfield’s Kathleen Thornton School, which takes what Sobel describes as “seriously disturbed” youngsters ages 5 to 13 from public schools across the state.

“That was a platform from which I learned a lot about behavior, life, and what it meant to have a staff full of morale,” he told BusinessWest, “because we were working with some very difficult clients — they were our customers.”

From Kathleen Thornton, Sobel went to the Hadley School System, where he served as special education director from 1983 to 1986 at the same time as he was gaining a reputation as an effective motivational speaker.

He said it was difficult in some ways to leave the steady paychecks and benefits that come with work as a school administrator, but, ultimately, he applied the messages from his speeches to his own life and career and made what he considered an obvious choice,

The list of organizations, associations, and corporations that Sobel has addressed gives an indication of how he has evolved from local fixture to national resource, and how his business has grown steadily in the process.

The roster of corporate clients includes Western Mass. companies such as MassMutual, Milton Bradley, Mercy Med-ical Center, and Lenox American Saw. But it also includes national giants such as AT&T, Anheuser–Busch, HBO, Pfizer, Xerox, GE, and even Readers Digest.

The list of associations meanwhile, includes everything from the Wisconsin Occupational Therapy Assoc. to the Alabama Society for Radiologic Technologists; the North Carolina Society for Respiratory Care to the Florida Health Information Management Assoc.

Sobel customizes talks for each audience, but has several themed, often highly interactive, presentations. They include:

• Yes You Can — How to Live Your Greatest Dreams and Get What You Want of Life, which he describes as an uplifting presentation that provides inspiration and direction to “go beyond what you think you are capable of”;

• Dancing with Wolves — How to Deal Superbly and Creatively with Difficult People. Audiences can learn about the most effective strategies for dealing with wolves, as Sobel, calls them, you can make life miserable for people at home and work;

• Relax! —Otherwise You Might Die All Tensed Up, which provides lessons in stress reduction that Sobel describes as “life and career savers.”

• Confidently Navigating and Riding the Winds of Change. Popular with many business owners, the presentation offers strategies on embracing change and using it positively.

There are other talks, including Team Power, Visionary Leadership — Only the Bold Need Apply, and Customer First, that are appropriate for many different types of audiences, said Sobel, who told BusinessWest that he averages about three speaking engagements a week, a number that provides a decent income and time to balance work and life.

“I don’t like all the travel … it does get tiring,” he said. “But I like everything else about it. It’s a fun job to go do every day.”

Indeed, there are rewards well beyond the financial compensation, he said, adding that he is continually fueled by comments about how his words have helped people — in their careers and in life.

“That’s the best part of this,” he said, “knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life.”

The Punch Line

Indeed, when asked to describe his work, Sobel said that’s a difficult assignment.
“I touch lives … I guess that’s the best way to put it,” he said. “I help people feel good about themselves, their lives, and their work. I tell them to never underestimate the difference they make in someone’s life.”

In the course of doing so, Sobel provides some laughs, as well as that strength that Kevin Freeman referred to.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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The holidays have come and gone, and many times with that go our generous spirit and feelings of goodwill. Kind words or gestures and attitudes of gratitude are few and far between.

Believe it or not, the lack of positive sentiment can affect many aspects of a business, including safety, morale, employee retention, productivity, customer satisfaction/loyalty — and the bottom-line.

A recent survey conducted by Gallup of some 4 million workers on the topics of recognition and praise delivered startling results. According to the poll, the number-one reason people leave their jobs is that they don’t feel appreciated. In fact, almost two thirds of those polled said they received no praise or recognition for their good work, with an estimated 22 million workers presently disengaged or extremely negative in their workplace.

The cost to organizations from negativity and lost productivity is staggering. Between $250 billion and $300 billion per year is lost, and these figures do not account for absence, illness, and other problems that cause workers to be disengaged from their work and their companies. According to another study, negative employees can scare off every customer they speak with — for good — not to mention the negativity they spread to other employees. The contagious effects of disengagement and negativity are realistically costing the U.S. economy trillions of dollars.

While professional athletes know that ongoing acknowledgement and celebration improves ‘on-the-job’ performance and momentum, most workplaces do not foster opportunities for recognition. Unfortun-ately in today’s fast-paced and measured business world, we focus on how much still needs to be accomplished today, this week, this quarter, etc. and don’t take the time to recognize how much has already been accomplished. Businesses tend to operate from a deficiency mentality which can be draining to its workforce.

The late Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., considered the grandfather of positive psychology and the father of strengths psychology by the American Psychological Associa-tion, believed that everyone has a proverbial bucket of emotions and a dipper which they can use to either fill or empty others’ buckets. Through his research, by filling the buckets around you, your own bucket benefits and your overall outlook is improved. It creates a ripple effect. Even the mere observation of a good deed can have a positive impact on bystanders.

By one study’s count, each of us experiences approximately 20,000 individual moments every day; some negative and some positive. The key is to increase the ratio of positive interactions to negative. Clifton believed the magic ratio is five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. While some individuals have a genetic predisposition to being negative, several studies suggest that positive emotion can improve and optimism can be learned, regardless of an individual’s innate starting point.

To prevent ‘bucket dipping,’ start by increasing your own awareness of how often your comments are negative. Keep track and modify as necessary. Investing in a coach can help create this sometimes difficult behavioral shift. However, toomuch of a good thing can also be detrimental. It has been found that 13 positive interactions for every one negative interaction could actually decrease productivity.

In order for appreciation to be truly meaningful, it needs to be genuine, timely, and specific. Therefore, managers should beware of randomly throwing around generic phrases such as ‘good job’ or ‘well done.’ Generic phrases are meaningless and may actually have a counter effect to their original intention. The receiver may wonder why this time they received the praise when they did nothing different than any other time. What about the job or task was good? How did their attitude, behavior, skill or talent improve the situation?

Identify the specific action or behavior and provide the feedback in a timely manner; otherwise, it may lose its impact. Fans don’t wait until the end of the game to acknowledge a good play; neither should managers. Don’t force recognition — make sure it is genuine and deserved.

Focus on what employees or peers do right rather than where they need improvement. Our culture tends to be weakness- and negative-focused. Make a point of catching people doing well and discover the power of reinforcing these good behaviors. Provide opportunities for employees to excel and play to their strengths. Adhere to the Platinum Rule – “do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

Individualization is the key when it comes to filling others’ buckets. While some people may enjoy being praised in front of a group, others may cringe at the thought of being publicly recognized. Customize the method of praise to the individual. What type of recognition or praise is preferred; public, private, verbal, written, or other? What form of recognition is motivating; a note, E-mail, title, gift certificate, etc.?

Gifts are almost always welcome. A recent poll showed that the vast majority of people prefer gifts that are unexpected. Again, personalization works best. When you take the time to provide an employee with a gift that reflects their interests, they feel valued and cared about. If you are not sure, ask them. Gain an understanding of the individual; their style, preferences, interests, strengths, talents, etc. and make note. A little effort goes a long way.

Besides creating a positive work environment with better business results, positive emotions can improve your overall health, increasing your life span by 10 years as well as increasing your productivity, fueling your resilience, and broadening your thinking. Be conscious of your interactions with others and look for opportunities to turn negative interactions into positive. You’ll be amazed as your personal and business ‘buckets’ runneth over.

Lynn Turner is an executive coach and owner of Ironweed Business Alliance, a coaching and consulting firm specializing in leadership development, team building and work/life balance strategies. She is also the host and producer of a local radio talk show/Web site Business Link Radio; (413) 283-7091.

Departments

Political journalist Howard Fineman addresses the overflow crowd in attendance for Outlook 2006, the Affiliated Chambers’ annual start-of-the-year lunch staged Feb. 10 at Chez Josef. In addition to Finemans’ humorous and insightful keynote, attendees heard outlook addresses from Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and Northampton Mayor Mary Claire Higgins.


After 5
The Affiliated Chambers of Commerce staged its February After 5 networking event at Tower Square. At left, visitors crowd the booth of Silver Sponsor Springfield Teachers Credit Union.


Above, are Donna Fink, marketing coordinator, Mary Orr, media coordinator, and Brad Dakers, annual campaign coordinator of Mercy Medical Center, a member of the Sisters of Providence Health System and Catholic Health East, and the After 5 Presenting Sponsor.


Class Act
From left, LynnHuong Ly, UMass Amherst senior assistant director for Undergraduate Admissions, advises STCC graduate Danae L. Thomas and STCC student Katharine Collins about transfer opportunities. UMass and STCC have announced a new outreach partnership aimed at providing STCC students who wish to continue their degree studies with easier access to the Commonwealth’s flagship state university at Amherst.

 

Departments

Business Confidence Continued to Erode in January
BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Mass. (A.I.M.) Business Confidence Index lost 1.9 points in January to 54.7, a third consecutive loss that has left the monthly index at its lowest point since November 2003. There are rising concerns among employers about economic conditions in the state, especially as national growth appears to be weakening, according to Raymond G. Torto, co-chair of A.I.M.’s Board of Economic Advisors and Principal, CBRE Torto Wheaton. Torto added that employers surveyed were somewhat more positive about the situations of their own operations in the face of the slowdown. Confidence was off in January among both manufacturers and other employers. Manufacturers were on balance negative in their assessment of current and prospective conditions within the state, and expect national conditions to deteriorate as well. Readings were somewhat weaker outside Greater Boston, where confidence has declined in five of the last six months. Large employers were more positive than others on most questions. Rising energy costs, interest rates, and health insurance premiums erode both consumer and business confidence. The monthly survey of A.I.M. member companies across the state asks questions about current and prospective business conditions in the state and nation, as well as for their respective organizations. Readings above 50 on the 100-point scale indicate that the state’s employer community is generally optimistic, while a reading below 50 reflects a negative assessment of business conditions.

Five-Year Watershed Action Plan Underway
WEST SPRINGFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), in partnership with the Westfield River Watershed Association and ESS Group Inc., has been awarded a contract under the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs to develop a five-year watershed action plan for the Westfield River. Created by watershed partners, the action plan will outline various issues and priority areas over a five-year period, charting a course of action for state agencies, watershed communities, and other decision makers within or related to the watershed. A steering committee is currently being formed to guide development of the action plan. Current members include The Nature Conservancy, the Westfield River Wild and Scenic Advisory Committee, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources, UMass Amherst and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. In addition, each of the 28 communities in the watershed has been asked to appoint a representative to the steering committee. A series of three public forums will be conducted this spring to solicit public comment and feedback on the plan. For more information, contact PVPC Senior Planner Anne Capra at [email protected] or (413) 781-6045.

Public Input Needed Online for Update-Use Plan on Land-Use Plan
WEST SPRINGFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission invites public input via an online survey in the development of Valley Vision 2, the update of the region’s land use plan. Valley Vision 2 maps out a vision for smart growth in the Pioneer Valley based on more compact forms of development in and around existing community centers and preserved open space in outlying greenbelts. Public opinion is vital to developing this update, and PVPC relies on participation by citizens throughout the region in shaping the future vision of its landscape. To read the draft plan and take the survey, visit www.pvpc.org. For more information, contact Chris Curtis at the PVPC, (413) 781-6045,
or [email protected].

Mass. Hospitals Voluntarily Post Staffing Plans
BURLINGTON — Massachusetts hospitals delivered on the “Patients First” pledge beginning Jan. 27 to voluntarily post their staffing plans for public viewing. Through a Web site, www.patientsfirst ma.org, and notices in hospitals, consumers can now find the number and type of caregivers assigned 24/7 throughout each hospital in the state. A special consumer brochure, “It Takes A Team,” is also available at every hospital and explains the many professionals involved in patient care. The staffing plans that are posted on-site in each hospital and on the web will provide an overview of the staff available in each hospital unit, including RN’s and allied health professionals. In addition to the staffing plans, hospitals will document the quality of their care using a common set of nationally recognized measures. A pilot test of some of those quality measures is now underway, under the supervision of a team of leading patient care experts. The quality reports on all hospitals should be available by the end of this year.

Survey: Most Downsized Execs Anticipated News
HOLYOKE — The majority of recently downsized executives polled weren’t surprised to find themselves in career transition, according to a survey of 1,202 outplaced managers by Lee Hecht Harrison. Nearly 80% of executives anticipated their organization’s downsizing, and 57% weren’t surprised to learn they were among those to be laid off. Additionally, 35% of respondents said they had been downsized before and 65% had survived a previous downsizing with their most recent or prior employer. The good news for outplaced employees is that a significant number have become savvy about the changing world of work and have taken steps to ensure their future employability. For example, within the two years prior to their downsizing, 57% of respondents had updated their resumes, half pursued some form of career or skill development, 46% actively maintained their networks, and 44% explored other employment options. Lastly, one reason respondents had generally positive impressions of how their former employers handled their downsizings could be that they had received outplacement services.

Ashe: Housing Market Will Remain Strong in 2006
SPRINGFIELD — Residential real estate once again was the backbone of the U.S. economy last year, and in Hampden County, 2005 was statistically similar to the record-breaking year of 2004, according to Donald E. Ashe, Hampden County Register of Deeds. The number of deeds recorded in 2005 was only 0.7% less than the previous year. The total amount of money collected in 2005 did, however, increase by 3.6% over the prior year. The total number of documents recorded during 2005 was 122,837 and the amount collected from fees was $22.2 million. The most noteworthy change from 2004 to 2005 was the substantial decrease in attachments and foreclosures, according to Ashe. He predicts that the area housing market is in the process of “changing from record sales and double-digit price increases to a more stable condition.” Overall, Ashe said that the fundamental conditions in the housing market are strong and real estate activity will remain healthy in 2006. In other news, Ashe reported that the satellite office in Westfield completed its first full year of operation and collected more than $1.2 million in revenue and recorded more than 10,000 documents.

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Chuck Swider is a Chicopee native who has seen the city go through many ups and downs.

He’s hoping to give the community a shot in the arm with a new development project, slated to begin this spring, that could bring some new jobs to the city while bolstering efforts to spark improvement of Chicopee Center.

Construction is slated to begin on a two-story, 12,000-square-foot commercial building by April or May, on the corner of West and Center streets, adjacent to the route 391 on- and off-ramps. A specific end-use for the building has yet to be determined, but Swider is focused on exploring options in health care, and is now working to recruit tenants in a variety of medical fields, ranging from primary care to physical therapy offices, and everything in between.

Swider began acquiring the property – the site is actually eight separate parcels that have been combined into one – about six years ago. Now, the slightly sloping hill includes a farmhouse and a small, rickety barn that will be leveled, but also a billboard advertising for tenants in the proposed building.

Swider has received approval on site plans for the new building from both the city and the state (Center Street is a state-owned roadway), and is now in the process of securing the necessary building permits, with the goal of beginning construction in a matter of weeks.

He hopes to complete construction on the building by fall of this year, and secure occupants by spring, 2007.

“There have already been some inquiries,” Swider said, “and we have the support of the mayor (Michael Bissonnette) in this. I don’t foresee any major problems at this point. The mayor’s office understands the importance of developing Chicopee center to the entire city, and has made it a top priority.”

Preliminary plans for the building include the incorporation of medical offices as well as retail space, and plans have also been mulled for a possible café-style restaurant on the premises.

Health and Wealth

Swider said he’s most interested in securing tenants in the health care sector in order to capitalize on what he considers the region’s strongest business sector.

“This location is phenomenal, because it serves as one of the primary gateways to the city,” said Swider, who lives, works, and owns property in Chicopee, in addition to currently serving his second term on the Board of Aldermen. “There is an ongoing effort to continue to update the center of Chicopee and to blend new buildings and businesses with the old. Reaching out to the larger medical community in Chicopee, Springfield, Holyoke, and West Springfield is a great place to start. It’s my hope that we can reach out to that community and even become an outreach post for a larger organization.”

That idea has already drawn some interest; last year, plans were drafted for a new suite of offices operating under the auspices of Holyoke Medical Center, which mulled using 6,000 square feet on the second floor at the property. HMC later chose a different location on Front Street in Chicopee, which included more square footage. Swider said that, while his own project was not chosen by HMC, he was not entirely disappointed by the end result.

“They chose to stay in Chicopee in a location that ultimately worked better for what they want to do,” he said, “and that’s still great for the city.”

But he added that the plan itself was indicative of exactly the type of use he’d like to see on the West and Center street corner. With the top floor occupied by medical offices, the ground floor would be open for any use, including the proposed café, a plan that Swider said he still hopes will materialize.

“We would have a built-in lunch crowd from the staff upstairs,” he said, “and I also think the center could absolutely support more specialty eateries. Chicopee center needs more diversity in general, and new restaurants might help to achieve that.”

Healthy Alternatives

Swider noted that while he is targeting health care related businesses, he won’t rule out other potential uses for the building.

“We went into this with the hope that the majority of our tenants would represent the medical field,” he said. “But we will absolutely consider anyone who is interested in relocating to our city.”

The law field, for instance, is one that might be tapped as construction moves forward, Swider said.

“A law office at this location would have easy access to several courts,” he explained, listing facilities in Springfield, West Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee. “That would be attractive to several tenants, and it remains very much a possibility.”

That pliability is part of Swider’s larger effort to be part of an overall revitalization of the city, he said, adding that he hopes the development will be a part of Bissonnette’s ‘Bosch to the Bridge’ development focus.

The mayor has pledged that economic development outside of the Memorial Drive strip will represent a major portion of his work during the first year in office. That plan includes a long-range endeavor to spur development in abandoned mills including the American Bosch plant, and through the corridor that connects the Bosch to the former Uniroyal property adjacent to the throughway once known as ‘the singing bridge.’

Promoting Wellness

“The mayor would like to see some of the business now strong in Springfield’s North End, and that includes the medical businesses, extend further across the Chicopee line,” Swider explained, adding that some Chicopee business owners and residents are beginning to refer to that expansion as ‘the New North End.’ “A big part of that initiative is going to be adding a diverse set of businesses to Chicopee center.”

Swider added that he supports the mayor’s focus on bringing development to Chicopee, as well.

“He is dead-set on positive development projects, and that will only help building developments like my own,” he said. “It’s imperative that the city is on board with these types of projects, because it only helps to underscore one major fact: Chicopee is alive.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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Pedro Caceres says today’s businesses are — or should be — in a constant state of transformation.

“There is no time to rest,” said Caceres, vice president of Operations for East Longmeadow-based Hasbro Games. “That’s because the competition doesn’t just come from the company across town, but from companies around the world.”

This state of heightened competition, and the need for companies to respond to it, provided ample motivation for Caceres to step forward and assume a lead role with what is being called the Division of Business Excellence within the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield.

The DOBE, as it’s also called, is a mostly volunteer-led agency and the successor group to a membership-based organization known as the Springfield Area Council for Excellence. SPACE, as it was called, operated for more than a dozen years before ceasing operations last spring in favor of the new model for a business excellence division.

The ensuing months have been spent putting together a product and an operating strategy, said DOBE Executive Director and ACCGS Vice President Deb Boronski, who told BusinessWest that the group will roll out its ambitious plans at the chamber’s annual spring trade show on April 5 at the MassMutual Center.

Offering a preview, Boronski, Caceres, DOBE’s chairman, and other members of the group’s advisory board, said the new business excellence division will endeavor to fill the large void left by the demise of SPACE and, in so doing, help companies effectively compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

“There is a definite need for an organization that will promote business excellence and provide resources for area companies,” said Jeff Glaze, president of Westfield-based Decorated Products, who will lead the DOBE’s Business Process Improvement Team. “That’s why we came together … to address that need.”

John Maybury, president of East Longmeadow-based Maybury Material Handling and leader of DOBE’s Business Transformation team, agreed. He told BusinessWest that SPACE was created to help area businesses — and the region as a whole — remain competitive. It carried out that assignment through roundtables, assistance with implementation of specific excellence programs such as Kaizen, Six Sigma, and others, and creation of the Business Excellence Award, which provided a platform from which to promote excellence and show how area companies were achieving it.

The DOBE wants to do all that, said Maybury, but in a different format, one designed to reach a much broader audience.

Indeed, while SPACE tended mostly to its members — which numbered over 100 at its height — the DOBE will provide services and referrals for every company in the region, he said.

“We need to figure out how the Pioneer Valley and the Northeast as a region can stay competitive as we face wage issues, insurance issues, energy issues, and pressure from competition around the world,” he said. “We can do that by collaborating and working together to solve common problems.”

BusinessWest looks this issue at how the DOBE will carry out that challenging assignment.

Business Plan

Caceres told BusinessWest that after he attended an early meeting staged to outline what the new business excellence division would do and how it would do it, he came away impressed with the chamber’s intentions and desire to continue the work carried out by SPACE.

But he thought the DOBE lacked needed structure, and he set out to provide some. He was joined by Maybury and Glaze, also long-term SPACE members, and, working with Boronski, they have spent the past several months setting a tone and an agenda for the division.

The first step was creation of an advisory board, which includes several area business leaders. That group then went about generating a portfolio of events and activities that would enable the DOBE to meet its primary goal — becoming an effective resource for business owners who recognize the need for continuous improvement and need help to achieve it.

The DOBE will provide that help on a number of levels, said Maybury. First, it will conduct informational programs on specific issues and products in the broad realm of continuous improvement. It will also work to create an environment in which companies can share knowledge and experience in ways that make the region as a whole more competitive. The excellence division will also link business owners with consultants who will provide assistance on a fee-for-service basis.

Prospective consultants were being interviewed by the advisory board earlier this month, said Boronski, noting that a list of “excellence associates,” as they will be called, will soon be finalized. These individuals will provide direct support for implementation of a number of business excellence strategies, including lean manufacturing, Kaizen, the Japanese continuous improvement model, Six Sigma, various customer-satisfaction-improvement efforts, and others.

Lastly, the group will work to reintroduce and reinvigorate the Pioneer Valley Business Excellence Award, which was last awarded in 2004. Maybury, whose company won in the manufacturing category in 2002, described the process of applying for the award as a valuable learning experience.

“It helped make us a better company because we learned a lot about ourselves,” he said, referring to the review process carried out by a team of judges. “It was an awesome experience for everyone involved. We want more companies to benefit as we did.”

Entries for the award had dwindled in recent years, perhaps because of the time-consuming nature of the process, said Boronski, adding that organizers will seek to simplify it in an effort to prompt greater participation.

Re-establishing the PVBEA will be one of the duties assigned to the DOBE’s Business Transformation unit. That branch will have a number of sub-teams, including ones focused on small businesses, research, development, and innovation, and strategic sales and marketing. The Business Improvement Unit, meanwhile, will have teams focusing on lean enterprise, quality systems, “people development,” and top management.

The broad mission for all the teams is to promote the sharing of resources, said Glaze, noting that this is a key ingredient in efforts to enable the region to remain competitive.

“Sharing experiences and collective knowledge is important — that’s how all of us can get better at what we do, whether we’re in manufacturing or the service industry,” he explained. “The whole, in this case our combined knowledge, is truly greater than the sum of the parts.”

A long-time SPACE member, Glaze said that group was instrumental in helping his company, which produces nameplates, decals, and other promotional products, to incorporate continuous improvement programs and thus more effectively compete with competitors in China and elsewhere. But he said the membership fees charged by the group often served as a barrier, especially for small companies.

“What we’re doing is removing that barrier,’ he said, “and, in the process, creating opportunities to make programs available to all chamber members.”

Getting in Gear

Reflecting on the work performed by SPACE, Caceres said it was invaluable in helping companies operate in that state of continuous transformation he described.

“SPACE may be gone, but the need is still there and it’s real,” he said, explaining his commitment to the DOBE. “Comp-anies are in permanent need to re-examine how to improve, and it’s our mission to help them do it.”

For information on the Division of Business Excellence, contact Boronski at (413) 755-1309, or[email protected]

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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There is considerable excitement in Springfield about the industrial park planned for an 86-acre parcel next to Smith & Wesson — and with good reason. It has been quite some time since a large tract of land was primed for development in the City of Homes, and there are great expectations about job creation, tax revenue generation, and a much-needed dose of good news.

But as city leaders and Mass-Development, the quasi-public agency hired to act as project manager for the initiative move forward, they must do so with both caution and patience. Memorial II could become a key component in the city’s broad economic development strategy, but only if that precious land is put toward uses that will bring significant long-term benefits, not short-term gains.

Springfield needs both jobs and tax dollars, but what it really needs are new jobs — not positions merely shuttled from one side of the city to the other or even from another Pioneer Valley community — and those proverbial good jobs at good wages; many of the jobs created in Springfield in recent have been in the tourism and service sectors, which are generally not high-paying.

And this is where the patience and caution come in.

MassDevelopment and Springfield’s leaders could probably fill Memorial II very quickly — the shortage of developable land in this region, especially parcels with easy access to major highways is nearing the critical stage. But, as we said, this is not a job to be done swiftly; it’s one to be done properly.

And it may take some time to do that, because attracting new jobs to a region is much more difficult than moving existing ones across town.

For evidence of this, one needs only look at the Chicopee River Industrial Park, a facility that straddles the Chicopee-Springfield line and is currently being earmarked for companies from outside the Pioneer Valley, and preferably those in technology-related sectors. At present, there is but one tenant, Convergent Prima, which has been alone in the park for nearly three years.

There are many possible reasons why the Chicopee River park has been slow to fill up — everything from the decline of the tech sector in recent years to the highly publicized fiscal and social problems facing Springfield. Whatever the reason, the Economic Development Council of West-ern Mass. is sticking to its guns and preserving those parcels for what can truly be described as new jobs.

Long term, this seems to be a sound strategy.

Doing the same with Memorial II will not be easy. Already there is talk that the site could become the next home of Performance Food Group (PFG), the giant food distribution company currently located on Taylor Street. Moving PFG a few miles down Route 291 would solve that company’s needs for larger quarters, but would it bring long-term benefits for Springfield and the region?

Probably not, especially since these are not those ‘good jobs’ that everyone wants Memorial II to generate. However, if Springfield faces losing PFG, its jobs, and tax revenue (taxes are paid on all those trucks that run in and out of the plant) if the company cannot expand elsewhere in the city, then one could make a case for allowing the company to move there.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, because there are other, better uses for that property.

These include light industrial operations, research and development facilities, and companies in emerging technologies such as the biosciences and medical device manufacturing.

Waiting for such opportunities will be difficult; there is enormous competition regionally and nationally for such jobs, and Springfield is at somewhat of a disadvantage due to its current fiscal and public relations problems. And it is these very same problems that will put enormous pressure on City Hall and MassDevelopment to fill Memorial II and fill it quickly.

We believe that this would be a mistake, because the tract is essentially Springfield’s last large piece of zoned, developable real estate. It is an enormous asset and it should used prudently, and not for any perceived quick fixes.