Home 2007 August
Opinion

There is considerable speculation going on these days about who holds the cards — figuratively speaking — when it comes to casino gambling in the Commonwealth and the prospects for it becoming reality.

Is it Gov. Deval Patrick, who leaned against the concept of gambling as a candidate during last fall’s campaign, but may be may be more open to the concept now that he has an aggressive list of projects to advance and few revenue sources at his disposal? Or is it Attorney General Martha Coakley, who must set down the rules by which casino owners can operate and has cautioned that casinos are “not some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow”?

Most would say it’s House Speaker Sal DiMasi, an historically strong opponent of casinos who’s been quiet of late as the governor, AG, and seemingly everyone else in Boston awaits the results of several studies on gambling being conducted concurrently.

From our view, though, it’s the residents of the state that do, or should, hold the trump card in this highly combustible debate. None of those aforementioned elected leaders will stand against casinos if they’re convinced that the majority of voters and decision-makers are for them. Whether that majority exists is still a matter of opinion, but we believe it should.

Why? Because the debate has, in our opinion, shifted on casinos — from whether they’re a good thing for society in general (of course not) to what the state should do now that casino gambling is a firmly entrenched part of that same society.

In other words, the debate isn’t about revenues any longer, it’s about common sense. Can a state desperate for revenue to fund new ventures in education, transportation, and economic development — and with a real dearth of creative and/or politically attractive ideas for funding them —afford to lose out on perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue now going to neighboring states?

We believe the answer is ‘no.’

Our stance on casinos hasn’t changed in more than a decade. We view it as a less-than-ideal source of revenue and jobs, but one that should nonetheless be pursued because no one in this state seems to have a better idea, and no one wants to pay higher taxes. Cynics would consider casino gambling a tax — one that would disproportionately impact lower-income, less-educated residents — and it may be just that. But it would be a tax that could improve the lives of most state residents while directly impacting few.

We are perhaps more vocal in our support of casinos now because we have seen Patrick’s wish list and are intrigued by it. The list includes early childhood education for everyone, free tuition at community colleges, and proposals to build and repair college classrooms and laboratories, repair infrastructure, and spur economic development and new business sectors. We’d like to see these proposals funded, and without sinking the state deeper into debt in the process.

Opponents of casinos are right when they say these operations are not cure-alls, and they have a point when they observe that casino gambling will probably bring the state only between $150 million and $450 million annually — numbers that represent a tiny fraction of the state’s $26 billion budget.

But this is revenue that the state will probably not gain from any other sources beyond higher taxes, which are unlikely given the current political climate, and could advance some of the governor’s proposals.

And that’s why it’s time for the state — meaning its residents and elected officials — to go all in on casino gambling.-

Departments

Grant Writing Workshop

Sept. 6: The Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast will present a free workshop titled Writing a Successful Workforce Training Grant from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. The workshop is designed for individuals who have never written a grant. To register or for more information, contact Sue Miller, director of Training and Development, at (877) 662-6444, ext. 313, or visit www.eane.org. The Employers Association of the NorthEast is located at 67 Hunt St., Agawam.

Family Business Program

Sept. 20: Greg McCann, author of When Your Parents Sign Your Paycheck, will be the guest speaker at a dinner forum hosted by the UMass Family Business Center, from 5 to 8:30 p.m. at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center in Northampton. McCann works with family businesses in the areas of succession, communication, conflict resolution, gender issues, and development of the next generation. He will speak on what family business owners should be saying to the next generation about the company and their possible future with it — and when and how they should be saying it. To register, or for more information, contact Ira Bryck at the center; (413) 545-1537.

AIM Executive Forum

Sept. 28: The Associated Industries of Mass. Executive Forum will host Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi for a lively discussion of critical business issues facing the Legislature during the fourth quarter of 2007 at its breakfast and networking meeting. Registration, breakfast, and networking begins at 8 a.m. at the Westin Hotel, 70 Third Ave., Waltham. Speaker DiMasi’s presentation starts at 8:30. For registration information, call Julie Fazio at (617) 262-1180 or Chris Geehern at (617) 834-4414, or visit www.aimnet.org

Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame Dinner

Oct. 4: The Western Mass. Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame will honor its Class of 2007 at its Eighth Annual Induction and Banquet at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House. The event, one of the region’s largest networking events, will start with a reception at 5:30 p.m. and dinner at 7. This year’s inductees are: the Bassett family (Bassett Boat Company), the Falcone family (Rocky’s Ace Hardware), Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), the Gordenstein family (Broadway Office Interiors), Charles and Merriam Webster, and Noah Webster (Merriam-Webster Inc.), and the Roberts family (F.L. Roberts). Tickets are $150 per person; tables of 10 are $1,500. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 730-6157.

Six Flags CEO to Address AIM

Nov. 9: Marc Shapiro, president and CEO of Six Flags Inc., will outline his managing style for overseeing the world’s largest regional theme park company during the Associated Industries of Mass. Executive Forum meeting at the Westin Hotel, 70 Third Ave., Waltham. Registration begins at 7:45 a.m., followed by the program from 8 to 9:15. For registration information, call Julie Fazio at (617) 262-1180 or Chris Geehern at (617) 834-4414, or visit www.aimnet.org

Bright Nights Ball

Nov. 17: East Longmeadow-based Hasbro Games will be the sponsor of the 2007 City of Bright Nights Ball, which will take on a Monopoly theme. The event, the major fundraiser for the Spririt of Springfield, which puts on the annual holiday display in Forest Park known as Bright Nights, will take place in the ballroom of the Sheraton Springfield at Monarch Place. The black-tie event features a gourmet dinner, dancing, and the opportunity to win and purchase some fabulous items. Guests will be able to purchase Monopoly deeds, everything from Baltic Avenue to Boardwalk, and redeem them for prizes. Bidding on five showcase items will begin online in early November and be completed the evening of the gala. Other premium items will be sold in an online auction. Auction items will be announced at a later date. In addition to Hasbro Games, the City of Bright Nights Ball is being supported by Baystate Health, Health New England, MassMutual Financial Group, and Sheraton Springfield. Tickets to the 12th annual City of Bright Nights Ball are $500 per couple. Tables of 10 are available for $2,500. For more information, contact the Spirit of Springfield at (413) 733-3800.

Cover Story
Nadim Kashouh Has More Cafés Lebanon on the Menu
August 20, 2007

August 20, 2007

Nadim Kashouh says he’s always had a “passion” for sales — and also a fondness for the restaurant business. He’s blending both in a growing venture called Café Lebanon, although now he needs to use the plural when referring to his entrepreneurial exploits. He started in downtown Springfield, expanded into Northampton, will open soon in East Longmeadow, and is now eyeing the West Hartford market. Such growth stems from having a good product and knowing how to sell it.

Nadim Kashouh has traveled a long road to get to where he is: status as an up-and-coming restaurateur in the Pioneer Valley.

From a geographic standpoint, the trip has included stops in Monrovia, Liberia in West Africa (where he was born); Bmakkine, Lebanon, to which his family moved in 1974; Roslindale, Mass. (where he lived for a time with his sister, who emigrated a few years before he did); Nashua, N.H.; and a few other communities in Eastern New England before coming to the Pioneer Valley.

Meanwhile, career-wise, he’s logged time, though sometimes not much of it, as a line person in a Jewish deli, short-order cook, car salesman, and jewelry store assistant manager.

In all of those scenarios, he was working for someone else — something Kashouh (pronounced ‘cashew’) ultimately decided he didn’t want to do anymore. That decision came in the spring of 2000, soon after an acquaintance urged him to take a look at the Café Lebanon restaurant on State Street in Springfield, which had just closed its doors because, in Kashouh’s view, its owner couldn’t turn what seemed like vast potential into profits.

He thought he could do better, and his track record to date shows that his judgment was pretty good. After enjoying initial success at the State Street site, he relocated the restaurant to a Main Street address formerly occupied by Tilly’s. In 2005, he opened a second Café Lebanon on Conz Street in Northampton, and later this year he will open a third in the center of East Longmeadow, at the site of the former Wild Apples eatery. And he’s already looking hard at the West Hartford market and opening a restaurant there.

This isn’t a chain, said Kashouh, stressing that, while each facility will have roughly the same menu — dominated by Middle Eastern staples ranging from lamb kabobs to grape leaves — they will have their own identity and target audience.

The Springfield location does better with the lunch crowd, which features both those working downtown and others attending meeting and conventions in the city, he said, while the Northampton location fares better with dinner and those willing to travel to sample that community’s eclectic mix of eateries. The planned East Longmeadow facility will join a growing list of restaurants in that town and target both lunch and dinner crowds from several mostly residential communities.

Kashouh described his first several years as a restaurant owner as an education — one that is certainly ongoing — and acknowledged that there is a learning curve that most not in this business wouldn’t appreciate.

“It is a very tough business,” he said, acknowledging that longevity is hard to achieve because of the level of general competition, swings in the economy, and the fickleness of the dining public. “The key to success is a consistently good product and attention to every detail.”

Out on a Lamb

Kashouh told BusinessWest that while there is a sizable Lebanese population in the region, he’s not relying on it for his livelihood.

“They don’t go to restaurants very much,” he explained with a laugh that speaks of personal experience, “because they’re got a wife or a mother or a grandmother who cooks for them. They’re enjoying home-cooked meals — they don’t need to go to a Lebanese restaurant.”

Apparently there are enough area residents of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean descent, or that enjoy food from those regions, to enable two Café Lebanons to thrive, and for Kashouh to be confident enough to open a third and make preliminary plans for a fourth.

They are drawn by the menu, complete with a number of recipes Kashouh has collected from his mother and other relatives, but also by ambience and special programs, such as belly dancing, comedy, and Arabic music. The Springfield location, for example, features several wall murals, painted freestyle by artist Clint Magoon, that present an Arabian Nights feel, if not exactly an accurate representation of Lebanon.

“We don’t have deserts, and we don’t really have camels — there are some, but they’re for the tourists,” said Kashouh, as he pointed to another feature painted on one wall that is also slightly out of place (although not to him) — his Jack Russell Terrier, aptly named Jack.

All this might have been hard to imagine in 1990, when Kashouh, with but one suitcase and $500 given to him by his uncle, landed in New York and made his way to Roslindale and, soon thereafter, a job at the Jewish deli. No fan of politics, to use his own words, he sought to escape the turmoil that then defined Beirut, only a 20-minute drive from Bmakkine, and considered returning to Liberia. But civil war had broken out there, so he instead sought much higher ground.

After working a few jobs in the restaurant sector, for which he developed a liking and an understanding, Kashouh, who had what he called a passion for sales, sought to indulge it. He thought about opening an import-export business, but couldn’t get that off the ground and instead segued into automobile sales. His first experience was neither fulfilling nor profitable, but theorizing that it might be the dealership and not the business, he tried another, this one in Nashua, N.H.

And he found out it was, at least for him, the business after all.

It was in Nashua that he met Eli Hannoush, one of eight brothers who emigrated with their parents from Zaleh, Lebanon in the late ’70s and would later go on to create one of the largest jewelry store chains in the Northeast. Eli talked him into working for the chain’s Nashua store as an assistant manager, which he did for a year before taking the same role at stores in Saugus and then Peabody, Mass.

Kashouh eventually left the Hannoush jewelry chain and went to work for another, E.B. Horn, in Boston. He spent two years there, but was becoming increasingly determined to scratch his entrepreneurial itch.

“I always wanted to have my own restaurant; I always enjoyed cooking for people and catering to people,” he said. “And I said, ‘maybe I should go into business for myself.’”

He did so with the help of another Hannoush brother, Norman, who first suggested to Kashouh that he look at a building the Hannoushes owned in Salem, N.H, then a Chinese restaurant, as the site for an eatery with his name on it. He looked, but determined the storefront needed more work than his budget could afford.

“That was on a Monday,” said Kashouh, adding that Norman Hannoush quickly moved the conversation to the Café Lebanon in Springfield, opened by Lebanese native Marie Zaide, which had gone out of business the previous Saturday.

After surveying the property and gauging the market, Kashouh decided to take on the challenge — creating Nadim’s Café Lebanon, which would open three months later — with plenty of confidence and some practical experience from which he thought he could build.

“When you have a passion for something, you can learn it,” he said, referring in this case to the restaurant industry, but implying any sector. “And I’m still learning today; it never stops, really.”

Appetizing Proposition

Surveying the local restaurant landscape, Kashouh sees plenty of competition — but little if any in his specific niche, one that he is determined to exploit.

“I think there’s a great market for this kind of restaurant here,” he said. “People can only have so much Chinese or Mexican, or whatever. They’re going to want something different.”

Kashouh provides it with a menu that is Middle Eastern in nature, a cuisine that he describes with two simple words: “fresh and healthy.” The menu includes traditional favorites from that region, including lamb, chicken, and turkey kabobs, grape leaves, tabouli, and rice pilaf, with baklava, rice pudding, and other stalwarts from that part of the world for dessert.

The appetizer list is topped by something called Kibba Naya (for Friday and Saturday dinner only), which is freshly ground raw beef mixed with wheat germ, onions, and Lebanese spices, and topped with olive oil. The list also includes hummus, Baba Ghannouj (roasted eggplant), grape leaves, spinach pie, meat pie, Kibbie Krass (hand-rolled ground meatballs with wheat germ, stuffed with sautéed meat, onions, pine nuts, and spices), and Makanik, Lebanese sausage sautéed with lemon juice.

There are also combo platters named for Middle Eastern cities past and present — Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Byblos, and Anjar — and the traditional Lebanese “full maza,” a four-course dinner.

Kashouh had such good success with that menu in Springfield that he opted to open a second location in Northampton two years ago, or roughly the same time he was moving the Springfield facility from State Street to Main Street, where he has more room and is closer to the downtown office towers.

The Northampton location has enjoyed steady if unspectacular growth, he told BusinessWest, while Springfield has done well with its predominantly luncheon business, something he expects will improve if and when new ownership of the neighboring Sovereign Bank building (now known as One Financial Plaza) succeeds in improving on its 40% vacancy rate.

While downtown Springfield is showing signs of improvement, in terms of image and the perception of crime, there are many who are still reluctant to come into the city at night, said Kashouh, adding that this phenomenon is part of the reason why he is opening a third location in East Longmeadow, which is quickly becoming another restaurant mecca.

“East Longmeadow is fast becoming the new Northampton — there’s a lot of new restaurants opening there,” he said, citing a new Spoleto’s, Fusion, and others. Such a proliferation of eateries makes a community a good spot, he said, because although there is plenty of competition, the city or town in question becomes a dining destination.

The third Café Lebanon, due to open this fall, intends to be a big part of that mix, he said, noting that the location provides ample room for dining and other programs — belly dancing has become a permanent fixture in both Springfield and Northampton, and it will in East Longmeadow as well.

As for West Hartford, Kashouh said he has always drawn well from the Northern Conn. area (he tracks the calls for reservations through a dedicated phone number), and, while he believes many from those communities will travel to East Longmeadow, they will be better served, and he will draw more of them, with a restaurant in the Hartford area.

Desserts and Deserts

When asked about the restaurant business in general, Kashouh sounded like someone who had already learned many lessons in seven years.

“Business is up and down, but generally pretty good,” he said. “But you have to work hard all the time. You have to keep yourself above the others, somehow.

“We can’t do that just by offering a Lebanese or Middle Eastern menu that no one else has,” he continued. “It goes well beyond the food; it’s all about making sure the customer is satisfied.”

His success in that regard can be measured in many ways, but mostly by the fact that there are now several Cafés Lebanon with Nadim’s name on them, and more on the drawing board.

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

Sections Supplements
The Many Issues in Negotiating Commercial Real Estate Leases

Commercial leases are not simply contracts; they are often roadmaps to both a landlord’s and a tenant’s future business plan for a particular premises.

Thus, both parties should exercise due diligence and take ample time to contemplate, discuss, and include within the lease all such matters that could arise during tenancy. If one distills the complexities of commercial real estate leasing to the most basic notion, the most important thing to remember is that nearly everything is negotiable for both sides.

Unlike residential real estate leases that are strictly governed by statutes and case law, the world of commercial real estate leasing is generally left to the landlord and tenant to decide. As a result, the commercial lease agreement is the bible when it comes to the landlord’s and tenant’s respective rights and responsibilities for the lease term.

How much of a ‘template’ lease is negotiable by each respective party? That often depends upon the leverage of the market and of the property being leased. For example, if the market has a significant amount of space for lease, the tenant will likely have more ability to dictate lease terms. Conversely, in a market where one particular piece of property is unique, or where the market has high occupancy rates and thus a smaller inventory of available space, a prospective tenant may find itself with less bargaining power.

Here are some considerations relative to issues that tend to emerge during lease negotiations.

Use of the Property

Regardless of market conditions, it is essential that the landlord and tenant contemplate each aspect of the tenant’s business, what the tenant’s needs will be during the lease term, and how the tenant’s use will comply with the rights, requirements, and remedies of the landlord.

For instance, if the prospective tenant intends to operate a retail store or anticipates significant customer visits, the lease should contain a specific provision governing parking spaces reserved for the tenant’s customers’ use.

In addition, if a tenant is operating, for example, a coffeehouse and bookstore, then perhaps the landlord and tenant should re-evaluate leasing the adjoining space for use as a home theater/electronics demonstration business. Since the use of the leased premises is often restricted by the terms of the lease, the tenant should ensure that the intended use is specified and permitted.

Term

The term (length) of a commercial lease is determined by its starting date (commencement date) and its date of expiration. While a lease may have a specific commencement date, it is not uncommon for a tenant’s obligation to pay rent to be delayed for a month or two, which may be referred to as the “rent-commencement date.” The lease term may consist of an initial term with optional renewal terms of an equal or shorter duration than the initial term. To avoid any misunderstandings, is often helpful to set forth actual calendar dates, including day, month, and year.

Operating Expenses, Taxes, and Utilities

Each lease should specify the party responsible for the operating expenses, e.g. maintenance of the leased premises, taxes (or tax escalator), and utilities. These costs, both individually and collectively, can be significant, and should be discussed by the landlord and tenant at the beginning of negotiations to ensure that all parties are in agreement from a budgetary standpoint.

What are the landlord’s maintenance obligations? Are they restricted to structural issues? How about the HVAC system, snow removal, and landscaping? These are just some of the issues that should be specified in the lease, including a clear understanding of which party is responsible, and at what cost, if any, to the tenant.

Very often, a tenant will pay a proportionate share of common operating costs in a building with multiple tenants. In this case, the lease should include the proportionate share as a numerical percentage (e.g. tenant’s proportionate share shall be 43%) of the total leaseable space in the premises, to avoid ambiguity.

Building Systems

As an offshoot to operating expenses, the lease should also clarify the party responsible for providing and maintaining building systems. In New England, where both summer and winter represent extreme temperatures, a tenant should ensure that the HVAC system in the leased premises is sufficient to support its needs.

Also, if the tenant will have an ongoing obligation to maintain the system, he may consider having an inspection performed prior to the execution of the lease to evaluate efficacy.

Tenant Improvements

It is common for a tenant to perform some customization prior to opening the leased premises for business. This could be minor, like painting, or significant, such as installing a kitchen or other trade fixtures. The tenant should bear in mind that, during this period, he could conceivably be paying rent, even when the business is not open for business and there is no incoming revenue. With this in mind, the tenant should consider negotiating postponement of the rent commencement date during his renovation/improvement period.

Lease Rates

A major consideration for each party to be mindful of relative to rent is the consideration of the rent that will be paid over multiple “terms.”

For instance, if a lease is five years in duration with rent fixed at $1,000 per month, and the lease allows for two renewal periods of 10 years, the rent may be fixed for the entire 25-year period. Such a lease could ultimately end up being impractical to a landlord who may have the space leased for less than market rate. Accordingly, a lease should contemplate the potential need for a rent escalator after a certain period of time so that the landlord is assured that the rent obligations of the tenant remain consistent with the appreciating value of the leased premises.

Assignment/Subletting

While at the time the lease is negotiated, a tenant expects to occupy the leased premises for the full period of the lease, it is often the case that unforeseen events in the tenant’s business modify reality. For instance, a tenant may merge with or sell its business to another party, or it may have a need for less space in year five than it had in year one.

A tenant should realistically contemplate its business needs on a going-forward basis, and negotiate the lease terms accordingly. If there is a likelihood that the tenant’s space needs may be less at some point, the ability of the tenant to sublease a portion of the leased premises to another subtenant is ideal. Also, if a tenant merges with or sells its assets to a third party, the tenant will want the ability to assign its rights in the lease to that third party.

Parting Thoughts

This summation is certainly not exhaustive, but it serves to illustrate that commercial leases are not merely contracts, but truly roadmaps, which must be read and understood so that both parties can get where they want to go, and without getting lost.

Jeffrey Fialky is an associate with the regional law firm Bacon & Wilson, P.C., who specializes in business, corporate, municipal, and real estate law; (413) 781-0560;[email protected]

Departments

Seven Proposals Received for Union Station

SPRINGFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) has received seven proposals for transportation and redevelopment planning for Union Station, according to Mary MacInnes, PVTA administrator. MacInnes said the proposals show that the Union Station project “is back on track.” The next step in the process is a due diligence review by the Selection Committee to ensure submitted responses contain the information required from the request for qualifications (RFQ). The committee will review the proposals, rank them, and select at least three finalists who then may be interviewed, according to MacInnes. The finalists will be ranked in order of qualification, and the committee will present the ranking to MacInnes. Members of the selection committee include industry and business professionals from Amtrak, Greyhound, the New England Black Chamber of Commerce, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, and the PVTA. MacInnes expects the award to be made by the end of September. Firms submitting proposals were Lozano, Baskins & Associates, Watertown; HDR Architecture Inc., Boston; Finegold Alexander, Boston; SEA Consultants Inc., Cambridge; STV Inc., Boston; Nelson/ Nygard Consulting Associates, San Francisco, Calif.; and HR&A Advisors Inc., New York.

Near-term Home Sales Hold in Modest Range

WASHINGTON — The housing market will probably hold close to present levels in the months ahead, according to the latest forecast by the National Assoc. of Realtors. Existing-home sales are forecast at 6.04 million in 2007 and 6.38 million next year, below the 6.48 million recorded in 2006. New-home sales are expected to total 852,000 this year and 848,000 in 2008, down from 1.05 million in 2006. Housing starts, including multi-family units, are likely to total 1.43 million in 2007 and 1.40 million next year, below the 1.8 million units started in 2006. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is forecast to average 6.7% in the fourth quarter and then ease to the 6.5% range next year. The National Assoc. of Realtors represents more than 1.3 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.

AIM’s Confidence Index Back Up in July

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 3.4 points in July to 57.6, more than recouping June’s decline, according to Raymond G. Torto, co-chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors, and principal CBRE Torto Wheaton. Since April, the Index has followed an up-down-up pattern, with June’s loss virtually cancelling out May’s gain, and July’s rise returning to the higher level — above a year before (55.4), and close to the reading of July 2005 (57.8). However, the July survey was conducted before the new wave of uncertainties, particularly around the mortgage situation, that produced sharp drops in the equity markets, added Torto. Confidence levels were virtually identical in July among manufacturers (57.5, up 3.3) and non-manufacturers (57.8, up 3.6), with manufacturers more positive than others about conditions for their own firms and sales trends, but less so about recent hiring. A strong gain in confidence outside Greater Boston (+5.2) and a lesser rise within the metro area (+1.9) similarly left that split close to even (57.4-57.7). Larger firms were more optimistic than small and medium-sized employers.

Nominations Sought for ‘Super 60’

SPRINGFIELD — The Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield Inc. is seeking nominations for its annual Super 60 awards program. The aim of the program is to celebrate the success of the fastest-growing privately owned businesses in the region which continue to make significant contributions to the strength of the regional economy. Nomination forms are available at the Chamber offices, 1441 Main St., Suite 136. Completed nomination forms must be received at the Chamber offices by Aug. 31. The Super 60 awards will be presented at the annual luncheon and recognition program on Oct. 26 at Chez Josef in Agawam. For more information on the nomination process, call the chamber at (413) 787-1555.

Eatery Closes Downtown Location

SPRINGFIELD — Gus & Paul’s restaurant recently closed its doors after 10 years at Tower Square, while the original Gus & Paul’s Delicatessen and Bakery on Sumner Avenue remains open. Lee L. Weissman, a co-owner of the downtown eatery, expressed his regret in having to close the restaurant in a letter to the city, and noted he hoped to sell the business. Weissman added he has begun a new career as a professional fundraiser and found it difficult to also oversee the restaurant operations. More than 20 employees lost their jobs in the closing; however, Weissman said with his family’s connections in the restaurant business, he is anticipating helping most or all of them find new jobs. Fred G. Christensen, senior property manager of Tower Square for CB Richard Ellis, said he is optimistic a new tenant can be found in the near future to take over the Gus & Paul’s site.

Study: More Employees Working Remotely Today Than Five Years Ago

MENLO PARK, Calif. — The proliferation of wireless technologies and feature-rich Internet applications is making it easier for information technology (IT) professionals to work outside of the office. A new study by Robert Half Technology shows that telecommuting is becoming more commonplace among IT professionals. Nearly half (44%) of chief information officers (CIOs) surveyed said their companies’ IT workforce is telecommuting at a rate that is the same or higher than five years ago; only 3% said IT staff work remotely less frequently today than five years ago. Improved retention and morale and increased productivity were cited as the greatest benefits among firms that allow telecommuting. While telecommuting can benefit employers and employees alike, it’s important that companies have the appropriate infrastructure in place to facilitate staff working remotely. For example, nearly a third of CIO’s (31%) surveyed felt that telecommuting employees generate too many security risks because they need to access elements such as corporate networks, systems, and intellectual property off-site. The national poll includes responses from more than 1,400 CIOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies with 100 or more employees.

Ivanhoe Restaurant Closes

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Steve and Ron Abdow, owners of the Ivanhoe, recently announced the closing of the landmark restaurant on Riverdale Street. According to the Abdows, a recent decision by their abutter to no longer lease parking spaces to the Ivanhoe was the catalyst in the decision to close. Since its inception, the Ivanhoe had 113 parking spaces at its disposal; however, 62 spaces would soon no longer be available as the abutter plans for future development of its site. The Ivanhoe was opened in 1967, and the theme was based on the time of Sir Ivanhoe and the Knights of the Round Table, with gothic arches and features reflective of that period.

Small Business Applications Sought for Law and Business Clinic

SPRINGFIELD — The Western New England College Law and Business Center for Advancing Entrepreneurship is now accepting applications from entrepreneurs seeking law or graduate business students to serve as consultants for their business during the fall semester. The opportunity for this free service is limited to those businesses that need consultation regarding a discrete topic. This service does not include litigation needs. For more information, contact Aimee Munnings at the Law and Business Center for Advancing Entrepreneurship at (413) 736-8462, or E-mail [email protected]

Survey: Companies Ineffective at Rewarding Good Performance

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Workers who feel their good work often goes unnoticed may have a case. More than one-third (35%) of professionals polled recently said businesses are ineffective at rewarding their employees’ strong performance. Meanwhile, 30% of managers surveyed agreed. Businesses need to make retention an ongoing priority, according to Diane Domeyer, executive director of Office Team. Rewarding employees for their accomplishments enhances productivity, reinforces positive behavior, and builds staff morale and loyalty, she added. Domeyer noted that firms that fail to reward great work risk losing employees to businesses that do invest in recognition programs. The surveys were developed by Office Team and reflect responses from 150 senior executives at the nation’s 1,000 largest companies, and 534 full- or part-time workers 18 years of age or older and employed in office environments.

Sections Supplements
After Some Uncertain Years, the Village Commons Makes a Comeback
Jeffrey Labrecque

Jeffrey Labrecque says good relationships with tenants are helping move the Village Commons complex ahead.

Ten years ago, the Village Commons in South Hadley was having more than its share of problems. Tenants were unhappy, or else they were moving out; the stores inside weren’t what many had hoped for, and a feeling of unrest was settling over the architecturally striking shopping center owned by Mount Holyoke College. There’s been a quiet turnaround in recent years, however. Occupancy has improved to 100%, and management is involving tenants in a greater number of decisions. Now, some say ‘the Commons’ is starting to feel like the bustling retail and business center it was
always supposed to be.

Jeff Labrecque, COO for Center Redevelopment Corp. (CRC), the management firm that handles operations at the Village Commons in South Hadley, says he’d sooner hold a bottle-and-can drive than ask the shopping center’s owners for an influx of cash.

That sentiment was born, he said, from a time, not so long ago, when The Village Commons survived only when financed by its corporate parent and neighbor, Mount Holyoke College. And it has only been strengthened by a subsequent turnaround the Commons has orchestrated.

“At one time, we were draining funds from Mount Holyoke to survive,” said Labrecque, noting that when his current management team was formed, a goal was set to redefine the complex as one that could stand alone on its own two feet.

“The arrangement we made was that we would not borrow from Mount Holyoke,” said Labrecque. “That earned us the respect of the tenants, and now, 10 years later, we require no money from the college, and we never want to ask.”

Mount Holyoke College made a sizable investment in the Commons in the early 1980s to improve South Hadley’s town center and create a more welcoming atmosphere for both potential and current students, faculty, and their families, as well as general visitors.

The original vision of quaint, upscale shops and restaurants that would draw visitors from near and far has proven, however, to be largely unrealistic. But there is life in the Commons — spawned by a workable mix of office, retail, and residential tenants — and a great deal of optimism for the future.

BusinessWest looks this issue at how the picture continues to change, and for the better.

Making Change

Beyond ownership, Mount Holyoke has little involvement on a regular basis, said Labrecque. CRC handles day-to-day management of the complex, which hosts 56 businesses and 19 residential units and is led by President James Carey, who was appointed to his post in 1996. Labrecque was promoted to his current position at the same time, having previously served as director of operations at the Commons, and administrative assistant Trish Neiland rounds out the sparse team.

The Commons has navigated its share of bumpy roads since its inception, especially in the mid- to late ’90s. In addition to a lack of self-sufficiency, many storefronts were vacant, and, according to some tenants, that was due to a lack of a clear vision and a cohesive management plan.

Darby O’Brien, owner of Darby O’Brien Advertising, located in Building 9 of the Commons, was vocal about the center’s issues in 1997. At that time, O’Brien had been a tenant for six years, and told BusinessWest that the shops had “no buzz” and that the complex had “lost its soul.”

But he doesn’t feel that way now. O’Brien’s sentiments toward the Commons have become more positive, and he said it’s the development’s new management that has made a difference.

“I’ve been critical in the past, but things are moving well, and that’s because of the front office,” he said. “We’ve been here since this building went up, and when we first showed up, there was tenant unrest. But now, it feels like a neat little community. Jeff Labrecque is hands-on and non-stop; he understands small businesses, and really, it’s been calm ever since he stepped in.”

O’Brien said he gets the impression that through careful perseverance and hard work, many of the Commons’ issues are being resolved, or at least addressed.

“Several businesses are thriving here, expansions have happened … I noticed that the landscaping is really up to speed, and (CRC) seems to be employing local, independent companies. I think things have come together. I wondered back then how it would happen, but now I don’t even think about it anymore — this is a relaxed, fun, little neighborhood, and it feels good to be here. A lot has changed.”

Scrapping the Original Plan

LaBreque agreed that the climate at the Village Commons has in fact shifted, and while challenges remain, including the maintenance of architecturally unique buildings with unique problems, there are several positives to report.

For one, the complex is on more solid financial footing than it was 10 years ago — overall revenue at the retail stores ticked up by 3%, on average, over last year, while the restaurants averaged a 1% increase. Occupancy has also improved dramatically over the past decade. Between 1997 and 1998, CRC increased occupancy from 70% to 90%, and the Commons has been fully occupied since Sept. 11, 2002.

Currently, the ratio of office tenants to retail businesses is about one-to-one, and that’s one example of a change to what Labrecque refers to as “the original plan” for the property, which leaned more heavily on retail operations than office use.

“The original business plan that was put together was more retail and restaurants than office space,” he said, “but we’ve moved more toward office leases because those and residential rentals create stability and constant, consistent revenues.”

The original plan also included attracting upscale, trendy retailers proffering high rents. And while attracting quality tenants is still very much an objective, the focus on recognizable names and high-end merchandise has softened. Labrecque said the businesses that were expected simply never came, and many might not have even considered the Village Commons an adequate location.

“Tenants and Mount Holyoke were sold a bill of goods that didn’t play out,” he said. “For one, national tenants were promised, but the buildings here just weren’t built to attract them — they need space, on one level. There are 11 Victorian, all-wood, free-standing buildings here that are like houses — the largest space is about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, and that’s why there’s no CVS here.”

Labrecque added that high vacancy rates became the root of other problems on the property in the late ’90s, some of which CRC is still working to correct.

“When the original plan didn’t come together, people were upset,” he said. “Tenants were unhappy, and the college was unhappy. Management wasn’t performing — they started treating it like a mall, affixing marketing fees on top of tenants’ rent.”

To begin a return to health, CRC did away with marketing fees and rents based on projected percentages of business when Carey took over as CEO, and instituted gross leases instead.

Lebrecque added that current lease rates are on par with similar markets. “ It is fair to say that the current rents are lower than the projections presented to the owner by the developer some 19 years ago,” he said.

New Day Dawning

That change, plus an overall shift to better incorporate tenants into the decision-making process at the Commons, has helped some businesses feel the same sense of inclusion that O’Brien cited as a benefit that once seemed lost.

Royanna Law, owner of Arts Unlimited, an art gallery offering framing services, retail sales, and corporate art consulting, relocated her operation to the Commons from Chicopee eight years ago, and characterized her decision as “wise.”

“The move to the Village Commons has proven to be a great place to have a business, and I really enjoy the people I work with, as well as my faithful clientele,” she said.

Law was one of the businesses that was able to expand recently within the complex, adding a gift gallery three years ago. Labrecque said hers is an example of how CRC is working with tenants to both retain them and strengthen the Commons as a whole.

“What we’re doing now is building from within,” he said. “We have a core group of tenants, and we are working to find out who needs what — expansions or changes, for instance — before going outside.”

As another example of renovations and expansion, Labrecque said the Commons will soon be seeing tenants leave for the first time in five years; 60 Minute Photo is closing its doors in response to increasingly sparse business for photo developers, and Saia Jewelers will also be leaving the complex soon.

But instead of viewing the changes as a dip in business, Labrecque sees an opportunity. The open space will allow for an office expansion project as well as a renovation of the Odyssey Bookshop, the Commons’ first tenant, and he expects the complex to be fully occupied again within a few months.

“We have an understanding of the types of businesses that do well here, and as such, we are also more discerning with leases,” said Labrecque of the decision to invest in existing tenants, rather than scramble for new ones. “We don’t fill empty spaces with the first offer we get to save face. That affects our overall stability, and just causes a lot of in and out.”

Moving forward, there are some concerns to address; the Commons is not located in a particularly high-traffic area, he said, so it must be marketed as a destination to thrive. Conversely, the shops’ parking lot is proving to be too small of late, and CRC and Mount Holyoke are also looking into a parking expansion to better accommodate shoppers, although that plan is only in the fledgling stages.

“Most of our tenants’ sales are good, but we’ve noticed they’ve maxed out,” said Labrecque. “We’re still looking at ways to pay for that investment; steel and concrete are so costly now — it will probably be some sort of platform, not a garage, and we’re asking our tenants for input on that.”

But Labrecque said infrastructure issues are his biggest challenge now, with repairs surpassing utility costs in his budget.

“The expenses keep growing. Our tenants provide us the revenue we need for upkeep, but we still spend every dollar we take in — we don’t have ‘plenty of money,’” he said. “We’re constantly correcting building issues, and it’s our largest budget buster. We’ve probably spent more than a half-million on builder blunders.”

Those issues include roof failures and water damage that began in earnest about eight years ago, with no signs of abating.

A Penny Saved Is a Penny Spent

In addition, the Commons faces retail challenges that continue to affect most small businesses and collections thereof, such as the pressure created by big-box stores and national chains that provide both convenient locations and, often, lower prices. It’s a reality, says Labrecque, that at this point in American business must be accepted.

“The nature of the business is delicate,” he explained. “The picture isn’t always great. It gets tiring at times, but it’s always challenging, and that’s what keeps us moving.”

Progress comes slowly, but there are no can drives in sight, and that’s Labrecque’s most oft-used benchmark.

“We don’t have a dime to save,” he said, “but we do have a dime to spend, and that means we spend that dime on improvement.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Features
Use Them to Solve Problems, Not Track Performance

It’s yet another weekly management meeting. Everyone shows up, sits down, and takes their turn in reporting progress on assigned projects. At first glance this looks like a great way to ensure accountability for performance, but could it be sabotaging your company’s future success?

How can this be? Surely something as simple as meeting to track performance is basic MBA 101 on how to run a company, right? Well, some CEOs disagree. By challenging the assumption about these types of meetings they’ve found something remarkable — competitive advantage.

It’s not that tracking performance is wrong, but there are other ways to issue status reports on projects more efficiently. E-mail, intranets, and old-fashioned paper can allow data to be absorbed more quickly than verbal presentations at meetings. Why not use the invaluable time in management meetings for what we wish we had more time for — solving problems?

This sounds great except for one snag — the problem is we don’t like revealing problems! We’d rather reveal our “great performance.” Divulging our problems could make us look weak or incompetent, or diminish our demonstration of “brilliance” to those who could promote us. Moreso, it could open us up for retaliation or manipulation!

Of course there are organizations where these could be real fears, but cultures like these have deeper problems than ineffective use of management meetings. For the rest of us, using meetings to share and solve problems versus displaying our ‘great performance’ may offer a better opportunity to improve such performance.

Examples of organizational successes using this methodology are buried in the literature, from examples of ‘skunk-works’ projects to the recent success of Toyota. For example, one manager at the Toyota Georgetown plant used his time in management meetings to demonstrate his good performance on projects he was assigned until plant manager Fujio Cho (now the chairman of Toyota worldwide) said to him, “we all know you are a good manager, otherwise we would not have hired you. But please talk to us about your problems so we can all work on them together.” Of course, the rest is history now that Toyota has surpassed GM. Could it be that Toyota’s meetings were different than GM’s?

Problems Versus Performance

Meetings that focus on problem-solving versus reporting on good performance seem to offer companies key benefits, such as:

More efficient use of time. Time is scarce and getting moreso. Companies that use face-to-face time for problem-solving exploit the power of human dialogue versus wasting it on monologues. They create solutions and address decisions on the issues that matter. Project status reports are important, but this one-way data can be transferred using other more efficient means. Time is money. Where do you want to spend it?

Higher motivation. Solving problems generates more positive energy than status reports do. Celebration and acknowledgement of good performance should be done, but in more meaningful ways then self-proclamation in short slots of meeting agendas. When a strong staff is free to expose real issues and work on them, it pulls the team together and lessens the effect of demoralizing egos on the organizational agenda.

Profits. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how Toyota got to the top. Continuously seeking improvements by finding and resolving problems enhances competitive advantage in any market. Tolerating a culture that avoids this in order to ‘look good’ or satisfy personal interests guarantees a dramatic financial failure. This has toppled the largest of companies, some whose executives are now facing prison time.

Make It Happen

Shifting your company’s culture to embrace problem-solving meetings can be tough. It takes more than an E-mail announcement or a speech. Some ideas include:

  • Assess management meetings you are now attending and determine if they really are necessary. If not, distribute data or information from those meetings using other methods.
  • If the meeting is important, shift the agenda from focusing on performance accolades to sharing and solving problems.
  • Challenge those who “don’t have problems.” Are they playing hard enough? Are they holding their cards too close to the vest?
  • Notice the level of defensiveness in the culture. Are people coachable? Can they disclose issues easily? Can they take feedback without it seeming so personal?
  • Start leading by example. Surface your problems first! This last idea could be difficult, but it shows you are serious. And it allows you to start challenging the group.
  • Start asking questions like: “Even though we are performing well, what’s not working or can be improved in your department?” “What is your greatest personal challenge or concern we should be talking about today?” “Where in your area are you having the most problems?”

This doesn’t mean that project performance status shouldn’t be on the agenda. A few accolades can be appropriate, but surfacing and focusing on problems and projects which are off-course so that the group can work together on resolving them is critical for sustaining competitive advantage and profits.

Is this something that everyone is ready for? No. It requires a strong, confident staff. Only solid teams thrive in an open and supporting culture. On the other hand, weak teams don’t have the courage to disclose their issues and accept help. But then, if that’s the case, perhaps you have another problem.

Don Schmincke is a business consultant and author of the CEO bestseller, ‘The Code of the Executive.’ He has worked with the U.S. Navy Fleet Readiness, DuPont, IBM, Miller Brewing, and other organizations;www.sagaleadership.com

Departments

The following Business Certificates and Trade Names were issued or renewed during the month of August 2007.

AGAWAM

Agawam Auto Mall Inc.
825 Springfield St.
Matthew Falkowski

Aspen Global
41 Belmont Ave.
Len Matz

Canterbury Café
369 Walnut St.
Randy Bianchi

Custom Maid Etc
641 Springfield St.
Julie Demos

Integrated Wealth Strategies Group
62 Suffield St.
Mark Van Valkenburg

Look Clean Commercial Services
1 Belden Center
Trina Gomes

Michael Kelleher Graphic Design
67 Hunt St.
Michael Kelleher

National Entertainment Productions
27 E. Castle Hill Road
Brent S. DeSellier

AMHERST

Dixie Brown
52 Valley View Circle
Sarah D. Brown

Jenness & Company
97 Southpoint Dr.
Lindiwe Jenness

The Parsonage Bed & Breakfast
1170 North Pleasant St.
Linda Olf

CHICOPEE

JPV Design/Paint
380 East Main St.
Joseph Paul Viens

Nicole’s Transcription Service
87 Putting Lane
Nicole M. Boisvere

Sam’s Food Store
1031 Chicopee St.
Faisal R. Khan

EASTHAMPTON

CNA Trucking
49 Mt. Tom Ave.
Ryszard Marcinowski

Five Star Remodeling
17 East St.
Kevin Perrier

Good Ink
17 Center St.
Amy Brown

EAST LONGMEADOW

Added Attractions
2 North Main St.
Carol Kononitz

GREENFIELD

At Your Service Billing
81 Wisdom Way
Elizabeth Serrano

Balin Painting Co.
15 Summer St.
Petru Balan

Pioneer Valley DingDong
267 Main St.
Joanne Kostidos

Valley Homework
45 Russell St.
Todd B. Clark

HADLEY

Longview Farm
14 Barstow Lane
Steven N. Barstow

Norma’s Notions
16 East St.
Norma Kostec

HOLYOKE

American Red Cross, Pioneer Valley Chapter
45 Lower Westfield Road
Richard A. Lee

Dock’s Classics
31 Jackson St.
James D. Perry

Egito Cleaning Service
73 Woodland St.
George M. Lewis

Fitzgerald’s Inc. of Holyoke
224 Westfield Road
Michael J. Fitzgerald

Ken’s Auto Sales
921 Main St.
Kenneth M. Cushman

Kim’s Nail Salon
98 Lower Westfield Road
Tong To

Marinello & McKenna
1500 Northampton St.
Marita Marinello

Personal Touch Caterer
250 Whitney Ave.
Susan Peloquin

Solstice Marketing Concepts
50 Holyoke St.
John Judge

Quik & Clean Coin-op Laundry
337 Appleton St.
Jacquelyn Scarfo

LONGMEADOW

Carman Associates
541 Laurel St.
Tracy E. Carman

Decosmo Construction
49 Cobblestone Road
Ted J. Decosmo

The Associates
63 Porter Lake Dr.
Thomas H. Snelham

Winchester Auto School
180 Academy Dr.
Joseph Maruca

Yelena Kofman Nailcare
17 Pioneer Dr.
Yelena Kaufman

LUDLOW

Garand Building Maintenance
115 State St.
Richard Garand

Hair West Designs
322 West Ave.
Christine D. Peacey

NORTHAMPTON

Ink Solutions
12 Main St.
Serges LaRiviere

Principle of Prediction
93 South St.
Jackson R. Jones

Salon Maria @ Shear Extreme
4 Old South St.
Maria Amarosa

Sparky’s All American Food
241 Main St.
Brian A. Benavidez

PALMER

Dream Catchers
1438 Main St.
Charles L. Hood Jr.

Palmer Sales Co. Inc.
1158 Park St.
John Boone

Skura Welding & Fabrication
2 Skura Lane
Thomas L. Skura

 

SOUTH HADLEY

Offensive Tie Music Production and Publishing
29 Camden St.
Charles Sokol

Mane Tamers
6 Hadley St.
Kathleen M. Rogers

Volpe Nails
580 Newton St.
Wendy Mailhott

SOUTHWICK

BC Enterprises
3 Depot St.
Brian Coughlin

Delreo Home Improvement
131 North Lake Ave.
Gary Delcamp

SPRINGFIELD

A and A Auto Brokers
57 Marble St.
Rufino Perez

A Master Plan 4 U
43 Ferris St.
Denise Mari Stewart

Admark Transportation
786 Newberry St.
Rene Romero

Baystate Visiting Nurse
50 State St.
Ruth Odgren

Bellucci Salon
1498 Allen St.
Maria J. Serra

C & M Concrete
27 Continental St.
Steven W. Miller

Charming Designs
377 Belmont Ave.
Miry H. Correra

City Mini Mart
150 Belmont Ave.
Asad Mahmood

Cricket’s Corner
414 Chestnut St.
Christine M. Howe

Da Shop
21B Rutland St.
George Bell Jr.

Dambrov Appraisal Group
45 Weymouth St.
David Dambrov

Duane’s Power Washing
347 Newbury St.
Duane M. Dowd

Elegancia Barber Shop
234 Orange St.
Alexandra Torres

Gamehunters
511 Belmont Ave.
Vien Nguyen

Get Rite Home Improvement
104 Bristol St.
Gregory Dwayne Brown

Hancock St. Market
260 Hancock St.
Jorge Severino

Herks.com
87 Ingersoll Grove
Paul Anthony Nuckols

Illusions
884 Summer Ave.
Angelic Santiago

Indian Orchard Grill
89 Main St.
Kenneth W. DeMars

J. Lo Home Improvement
21 Standish St.
Jorge Ivan Lopez

Jao Technologies
214 Chapin St.
Javier A. Olivera

Kaezee Property Management
50 Campechi St.
Kurt Pinnock

Kevin’s Signature Towing
14 Lockwood Ave.
Kevin John Lizak

Life Supply
271 Carew St.
John Francis Margeson

M & M Consulting and Engineering
16 Marsden St.
Richard Samuel

Madeline Vazquez
35 Ledyard St.
Madeline Vazquez

WESTFIELD

A-1 Nolan Realty
350 Elm St.
Steven Rovithis

Campus Software Solutions
207 Munger Hill Road
Michael Merigan

David E. Kingsley Electric
28 Governor Dr.
David E. Kingsley

Father & Son’s Sport Cards
22 School St.
Robert Saunders

Jani-King
15 Scenic Road
Guy Larkins

J.L.R. Transcription
93 St. James Ave.
Julie Rucki

Mesmere’s Attic
71 Elm St.
Tanya Rogalski

Westfield Auto Mall
82 Springfield Road
Michael Merigian

West Poured Concrete
196 Russell Road
Raymond West

WEST SPRINGFIELD

Century Buffet
247 Memorial Ave.
Xue Ling Ye

Consolidated Edison Energy Massage
15 Agawam Ave.
Kim C. Marsili

Fireside Designs
1769 Riverdale St.
P&P Marketing

Geraldines
1519 Elm St.
Morse Hospitality

Ideas Marketing Services
191 North St.
General Services

Macadvocate
1267 Riverdale St.
Robert Gerald

Price Rite of West Springfield
1106 Union St.
PRRC Inc.

Royal Nailes
25 Riverdale St.
Hoang Vo

Russo Opticians Inc.
1025 Westfield St.
Karen Drudi

Westside Shearing & Demo
190 Day St.
Gregg J. Villenueve

Opinion
The Drive Toward Fuel Economy

Over the past two decades, the automotive industry has been ablaze with innovation — from cars that park themselves to cars that ‘clean up’ after themselves. Literally, the automobile has grown smarter as technology has enabled manufacturers to rethink their old ways. Unfortunately, the foresight ends there.

Recently, two bills designed to increase fuel economy standards in the U.S. were introduced in the House of Representatives and promptly shot down. With them, the hope that industry standards would finally catch up with innovations in the field diminished as well. Indeed, Congress has dragged its feet for far too long in forcing automakers to improve fuel economy.

Unfortunately, this latest retreat in Congress is not the first time proposed changes — changes so minor they were not nearly enough to begin with — have hinted at improvement, only to fade rapidly. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush suggested a 4% annual increase in the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by 2017. His words did little to catalyze any concrete change. Later, a proposal to increase fuel economy standards by 4% annually from 2020 to 2031 died an early death in the House. In short, the U.S. is no better off today than it was 20 years ago as far as fuel efficiency is concerned.

Compare the U.S. to similar economies: European fleets already average 43 miles per gallon, and Japanese fleets are reaching 50 miles per gallon. While there are only two car models in the U.S. that achieve greater than 40 miles per gallon (both hybrid vehicles), there are more than 113 such vehicles in Europe.

The most astounding fact is that many of the European high-fuel-economy vehicles are produced by U.S. carmakers. How can the government let manufacturers continue to convince the nation that a fuel economy of more than 35 miles per gallon is difficult to achieve? Any rational person should not be willing to accept these manufacturers’ excuses.

If existing technology for vehicles with higher fuel economy has succeeded in Europe and parts of Asia in terms of both safety and commercial profit, why not implement policies to make similar vehicles more accessible in the U.S.? The success of the Toyota Prius and other hybrids across the U.S. shows that there is verifiable demand for more fuel-efficient cars.

Equally important is the fact that hybrid technology is not the only way to reach higher fuel economy; nearly 50% of the cars sold in Europe are clean diesel. Such models not only provide a much higher fuel economy than gasoline models, but also run faster and more efficiently and last longer.

A closer look at the diesel industry shows that innovations such as the nationwide availability of low-sulfur diesel and the commercial success of diesel particulate filters (which remove more than 99% of pollutants from diesel exhaust) have made clean diesels cleaner than other vehicles on the road. They also provide nearly 20% to 30% better fuel efficiency than gasoline engines, and low CO2 emissions.

Clearly, the barrier to improving U.S. fuel economy is not technological; the real obstacle is lack of political will. Automakers are demonstrating a remarkable ability to resist any changes in mileage standards, and instead are producing larger and heavier cars with unnecessary amenities, such as chilled glove boxes. A better way to improve fuel economy would be for the government to let market forces do the work, which is what Europe has done so successfully.

Like Europe, the U.S. should price fuel at its actual cost. It is estimated that the U.S. government subsidizes fuel at a cost of roughly $3 to $10 per gallon, if one considers all the tax breaks accorded to the oil companies as well as the costs associated with regulatory oversight, pollution cleanup, and liability. The real price of gasoline in the U.S., without the subsidies, would not differ much from the $6 per gallon in Europe.

What would you drive if you had to pay more than $100 the next time you filled up your tank? I know that I would look for better performance with higher fuel economy.

Bilal Zuberi is vice president at GEO2 Technologies Inc. of Woburn. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.

Sections Supplements
Is Application of the Bay State’s Anti-SLAPP Statute Too Broad?

In 2006, concerned citizens of the town of Falmouth filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court seeking review of a decision of the state Department of Environmental Protection. The suit named both the department and the town. The town responded with counterclaims against the plaintiff/citizens for malicious prosecution and abuse of process, essentially claiming that action was only brought as a tactic to delay the community’s plan to construct a sewer collection and treatment system.

What makes the case remarkable was the town’s aggressive choice to counterclaim against its residents for protesting proposed land development. The trial court recently dismissed the town’s counterclaim under the provisions of the anti-SLAPP statute and awarded the plaintiff/citizens $30,000 in fees expended in defense of the town’s counterclaims. This case demonstrates how the reach of the anti-SLAPP statute has evolved.

In 1994, Massachusetts enacted the so-called anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (anti-SLAPP) law. Since then, the statute has been widely used in many circumstances perhaps never envisioned by the original lawmakers

The Mass. Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) describes the original legislative purpose behind anti-SLAPP as a quick method to dispose of meritless suits brought by large private interests intended to deter or punish common citizens from petitioning the government in lawful exercise of their political or legal rights. Plaintiffs in SLAPP lawsuits commonly allege that the defendant defamed them, maliciously prosecuted claims, or otherwise unlawfully interfered with the plaintiff’s business interests.

When the first cases involving anti-SLAPP reached the trial court, many judges inferred the existence of a requirement that the matter involve a matter of ‘public concern.’ The SJC subsequently rejected that narrow interpretation of the statute, finding that the Legislature specifically considered and rejected such a limitation.

As a result, Massachusetts appears to be the only state instituting anti-SLAPP that failed to include public concern as an element of the petitioning activity. Thus, the Bay State’s anti-SLAPP statute has been invoked in such cases as a trademark dispute between corporations; a dispute between two psychiatrists, one of whom rendered an unfavorable expert opinion concerning the other’s medical practices; a lawsuit between a divorced couple over the veracity of the ex-wife’s claim of physical abuse; and breach-of-contract actions between commercial landlords and tenants. While important to the litigants, these cases are hardly the David v. Goliath scenarios involving political rights that the law was arguably initially aimed at.

When a defendant’s right to petition clashes with a plaintiff’s right to recover for injury allegedly caused by the defendant, the power and breadth of the anti-SLAPP statute becomes clear.

The statute identifies five types of actions that broadly define the right to petition, which the law is intended to protect. They include what most would agree is classic petitioning activity, such as: making statements at a legislative hearing, voicing one’s opinion regarding an issue under consideration in a governmental proceeding, making statements aimed at encouraging governmental review of an issue, and enlisting public participation to affect governmental review. The definition also contains a catch-all clause protecting “any other statement falling within constitutional protection of the right to petition government.”

The protection provided by the anti-SLAPP statute (G.L. c. 231, §59H) allows defendants in SLAPP suits to file a special motion to dismiss the case early in the proceedings. If the defendant can show that the plaintiff’s claims of harm are solely based on the certain petitioning activities described above, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the following:

• That the claimed petitioning activities are devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law; and
• That he or she has suffered harm.

If the plaintiff cannot meet this burden, the sanction is that the plaintiff’s case is dismissed, and costs and attorney’s fees incurred by the defendant in bringing the special motion to dismiss are awarded. Some argue that because of the broad language used in the statute, the Legislature has created a cure that is worse than the affliction.

Since 1994, more than 600 decisions involving the anti-SLAPP statute have been reported. Use of the anti-SLAPP statute is widespread because it is broadly phrased to apply to almost any enterprise or action where business activity, citizens’ interests, and government regulation or control do or could possibly intersect. The language of the statute provides the special motion-to-dismiss remedy to a defendant who claims her actions are based on the exercise of her “right to petition under the Constitution of the United States or of the Commonwealth.”

In January 2007, the SJC re-examined the anti-SLAPP statute in Cadle Company v. Schlichtmann. Schlichtmann was engaged in a lengthy legal battle with a debt collection agency, Cadle, over certain debts allegedly owed.

Interestingly, Schlichtmann was the attorney featured in the book A Civil Action and portrayed by John Travolta in the movie of the same name. Schlichtmann also represented clients who allegedly had been victimized by Cadle’s “fraudulent business practices.” He allegedly made numerous statements to the news media claiming Cadle was doing business illegally, using strong-arm tactics, hiding assets, and that the principal of Cadle was a fugitive from justice.

Schlichtmann also set up a Web site that described Cadle as “a collection arm of a fraudulent enterprise” whose “sole purpose and intent … is to defraud consumers and businesses.” The Web site provided links to news articles containing Schlichtmann’s statements, copies of demand letters, court pleadings and documents, and contact information for Schlichtmann’s law firm.

Based on the content of the Web site, Cadle filed suit against Schlichtmann alleging defamation, libel, tortuous interference with advantageous contractual business relations, and unfair and deceptive trade practices. It sought monetary damages and a permanent injunction against Schlichtmann for maintaining what it claimed were false accusations on his Web site. This lawsuit demonstrates the clash of rights that the anti-SLAPP statute is intended to address.

Certainly Schlichtmann had the right to petition the Commonwealth to take action against Cadle. Meanwhile, Cadle had the right to try and prevent or recover for damage from what it claimed were demonstrably false statements.
The SJC concluded that Schlichtmann had created the Web site “at least in part to generate more litigation to profit himself and his law firm.” Based on that finding, the court ruled that his special motion to dismiss was properly denied because the statements were published not as a member of the public who had been injured by the alleged practices, but as an attorney advertising his legal services.

It is this type of mixed-motive scenario that forces courts to make difficult decisions between one person’s right to petition and another’s right to prevent or obtain relief for damages caused by dissemination of false information. To further complicate these issues, the court’s decision is usually made shortly after a suit is filed and before a plaintiff is fully able to develop the factual basis of its claim through discovery.

The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute was passed despite then-Gov. William Weld’s veto, which described the statute’s effect as “a bludgeon where the scalpel will do.” It cannot be denied that anti-SLAPP has altered the legal landscape in Massachusetts. It is a potent weapon for those who are petitioning for change while seriously affecting the ability or willingness of people to bring suit for defamation or injury to business interests.

As a practical matter, the anti-SLAPP statute seems to give the upper hand to a defendant. If the plaintiff fails in her attempt to exercise her rights, she must pay the defendant’s attorney’s fees and costs. No such risk exists for the defendant if the special motion to dismiss is denied.

This reality, coupled with one’s ability via the Internet to widely disseminate information, creates challenging issues for lawyers, litigants, and the courts, for which there are no easy answers.

Robert S. Murphy Jr., a partner at Bacon & Wilson, P.C., is a civil litigator with extensive experience in representing both plaintiffs and defendants; (413) 781-0560;[email protected]