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Features
The Pieces Are Finally Falling into Place for Holyoke?s Victory Theatre
Setting the Stage

Donald Sanders is convinced that the Victory Theatre will not languish in faded glory, but will be relevant again.

The Victory Theatre has long been a valued part of Holyoke’s past, hosting everything from celebrated singers to Oscar-winning films to high school graduations. Making it a real part of the city’s future has been a 30-year challenge met only with frustration. But a new group, the Mass. International Festival of the Arts, a Holyoke-based performing-arts organizer, has secured ownership and believes it has the friends — and the funds — to finally turn the lights back on.

These days, with red plywood covering all window openings, it might not look like much. But at the Victory Theatre at the corner of Suffolk and Chestnut streets in Holyoke, the magic always came from what is within.

“No expense was spared in materials,” said Donald Sanders. “Staircases are Vermont marble, paneling is rare Brazilian mahogany, windows were made by Tiffany. The exciting thing is that, as we’ve gone through the building, going through the layers accrued over the years, we’ve discovered the original silk wall covering, most likely made by the Skinner family. It is basically intact, stretched on frames over felt and cloth, just the way it was done at Versailles.”

Sanders is the executive artistic director of the 16-year old Mass. International Festival of the Arts (MIFA), a Holyoke-based performing-arts organizer with a history of bringing world-class acts to the Pioneer Valley. Past features include Mikhail Baryshnikov, the National Ballet of Cuba, and players from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, among many others.

Talking with BusinessWest recently, Sanders proudly described the chronology of the Victory Theatre, happy to add the latest chapter in a saga that has spanned close to a century. As of last December, MIFA is the newest owner of the former jewel in the crown of the region’s theaters.

Other attempts have been made to revitalize the structure since the house lights dimmed for the last time in 1979, from homegrown initiatives to a venture funded by the Armand Hammer exhibition of paintings in the city’s Heritage State Park in 1987. None have succeeded in opening the doors.

But Sanders said that important work was set in motion by each one of these steps along the way, and that the theater will not languish in faded glory and the forgotten memories of the city. With ownership now secure, and more than half of funding for a bill totaling $27 million underway, the Victory plans to open its doors to a theater-going public 92 years after the first opening night, on Dec. 30, 2012.

BusinessWest talked recently with Sanders and MIFA’s managing director, Kathy McKean, both basking in the knowledge that, as the banner outside the building proclaims, “Victory is ours!”

Curtain Call

To say that Nathan and Samuel Goldstein built theaters is an understatement. The Goldstein Brothers Amusement Co. was the leading theater impresario of its day in the first decades of the 20th century.

Based in both Springfield and Holyoke, the brothers are responsible for some of the area’s most-cherished venues: the Calvin in Northampton, the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, and a string of long-gone palaces of performing arts in Springfield, Westfield, Ware, and elsewhere. The Holyoke Transcript Telegram of February 1926 valued their business at close to $3.5 million, a staggering sum for the time.

When the business and civic leaders of Holyoke, among them the Parson and Skinner families, decided that Holyoke needed a world-class theater, it was the Goldstein brothers who got the call. What they built in the Victory Theatre was nothing short of their finest achievement. Preeminent theater architects Mowll & Rand from Boston designed the structure, and on opening night on Dec. 30, 1920, Eva Tanguay, a singer Sanders describes as the Madonna of her day, performed. In its heyday, everyone who was anyone took the stage at the Victory.

Sanders said that the legacy of the Goldstein brothers’ building continues to impress. “The quality of the workmanship, down to the bricklaying … all the engineers comment on it,” he said. “It’s also one of the first uses of steel beams to create a fan-shaped auditorium. No obstructions whatsoever, and the beams support the dress circle, what people call the lower balcony. It’s an amazing building.”

Designed at first to be, in Sanders’ words, a “Broadway-style” theater, the Victory was, over the years, slowly turned into a movie house, to reflect changing tastes in entertainment. But for Sanders, he knew the moment he first saw the inside that this was no ordinary hall.

“It isn’t a provincial theater house,” he explained. “The volume of the space is magnificent. For those of us in live performance, you know it the moment you walk in. The focus is entirely on the stage. I was totally flabbergasted that it was in there. Going by there, from the outside, you don’t have the sense of what is in that footprint.”

A 1942 fire damaged the interior of the Victory, which was redecorated to reflect the times. Sadly, very little photographic record exists of the interior prior to the redesign, and both Sanders and McKean said that a current appeal is for anyone with images in their family’s possessions to step forward.

The Show Must Go On

The Victory’s history went on to mirror its home city, and declining fortunes led ultimately to the theater’s closing its doors for the last time in 1979. Unlike the numerous other theaters in this once-elegant city, the Victory was spared the wrecking ball, and for many residents the allure of the building continues to be a powerful force that can’t quite be identified.

Local writers have waxed nostalgic about the Victory, linking it to the city of their childhood memories, halcyon days involving many other ghosts of downtown Holyoke past. McKean said that every time she goes over to the structure, once the door opens, people stop and say, ‘I remember when.’

“Every single time,” she said.

Almost immediately upon its closing, local grassroots efforts went into action to keep the Victory from suffering the same inglorious fate of its contemporaries. The Victory Theatre Commission began raising money in 1980, and it received money from the Armand Hammer exhibition, which went into the important first steps of architectural evaluation.

Those initial funds removed asbestos and shored up the failing roof, but the final price tag, $8 million, was just too much for the group. McKean said that it was important to put that bill into perspective.

“It was at a time when downtown, and the idea of downtown, was not high on the priority list,” she explained. “There were so many other issues facing the city that a theater, and what to do with it, wasn’t going to get the attention, especially with such a price tag.”

MIFA’s involvement with the theater is a story of chance occurrences that ultimately bring about the brightest lights in the Victory chronology. Sanders first became acquainted with the theater in the early 1990s, when a small performance was staged in the lobby.

After hosting the Cuban ballet at the Academy of Music, he realized that a larger venue would be necessary to garner the type of talent MIFA vies for. The Northampton venue seats 800, while the Victory can seat 1,600. He contacted the ‘Save the Victory’ organization, but the word was that it had gone as far as it could.

At that time, MIFA’s long-term strategic planning called for a permanent home in the Pioneer Valley. Sanders remembers thinking that the Victory, with its awe-inspiring possibilities, was too great to ignore. In 2003, the decision was made to make the landmark that home.

MIFA partnered with Nessen Associates out of Boston and Architectural Heritage Foundation, two firms with a successful history of historic restoration. Nessen has completed theater renovation projects in Worcester, at the Hanover, and at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Meanwhile, AHF is a pioneer in urban redevelopment, responsible for the landmark Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market revitalization.

After years of leasing the structure to MIFA, the Holyoke City Council finally agreed this past September to sell the structure to the organization for $1,500. On that day, Sanders wrote on the MIFA blog, “let the fun begin!”

The fun, as in fund-raising, will be a daunting task, but not insurmountable. Nearly 60% of the $27 million price tag will come from Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp. funds, similar to multi-million-dollar theater projects in Pittsfield and Worcester.

McKean noted that the project in Worcester is a bellwether for the Victory. “It’s interesting in that the Hanover Theater has become very successful, and business around it has increased. Not only is the theater doing well, but they’re seeing an increase in restaurants, and foot traffic, that they didn’t see.

“The Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp. did a study, which told them that the number-one stimulant for downtown rejuvenation was theaters and performing-arts centers,” she continued. “This was not an organization naturally drawn to the arts, but it did put an emphasis on their importance.”

At this stage, just under $11 million needs to be raised to ensure the opening night of Dec. 30, 2012. Sanders and McKean both agree that the Victory is finally in the forward motion of renewal. “We have everything in place, and we know what it’s going to cost,” Sanders said. Fund-raising, and ‘friend-raising,’ is the next stage. He expects that the former will come about like other projects have, with the usual mix of corporate and individual donors. Friend-raising, however, might be unique to the theater so ingrained into Holyoke’s civic identity.

“If everyone who loves the theater made a contribution from $10 on up, and the community who really wants this becomes involved, it would be great,” he said. “Holyoke doesn’t have a lot of corporations, and the Skinners and Parsons are gone.”

McKean said that the biggest challenge she faces isn’t fund-raising, but rather making sure that the city understands what the Victory will mean as a city resource. “We’re not going to drop something down into the city and then expect it to be a part of the community,” she explained. “People remember Saturday-afternoon movies, Holyoke High graduations. We want that too.”

Sanders said that, when he heard about the Nessen brothers’ interest in Holyoke, he knew that the project was finally possible, and that it heralds a success not only for the theater, but also for the city itself. When the doors to the theater opened for the first time to the public in September 2008, Sanders said he expected 10 or 15 people to show up. “It was a rainy and cold morning. I didn’t know what to expect. There were people coming in steadily all day.

“There’s been so much hope and disappointment in the past,” he continued, pausing to reflect upon the Victory’s future. “People want that theater back. They don’t necessarily know why, but it is a powerful entity. We finally have the expertise to make it happen. For me, personally, that is wonderful.”

Features
Valley Communications Remains Focused on the Big Picture
Sound Business Strategy

Jim Tremble (right, with Bob Tremble, left, and Pat Parente) says Valley’s 65 years in the industry gives it a competitive advantage.

Jim Tremble can tell you that the old adage, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ easily applies to his business.

As president of Valley Communications Systems Inc., he is one of six second-generation Trembles to carry on the company started by his parents in 1945. What began as a small retail photo shop has grown to become one of the pioneering distributors of communications equipment and services in New England.

The business has stayed in the same location in Chicopee, just off I-291, for the past few decades, yet from that same location new products and services have been added to the Valley roster almost as soon as they’ve become available.

Tremble said that, because of the company’s reputation, with 65 years in the industry, when manufacturers have something new to offer, it’s usually Valley who gets first crack at it. “Being in business as long as we have gives us an advantage,” he said. “And we have developed a relationship in each of our disciplines. We’ve represented the top manufacturers of each of them at one time or another. When a manufacturer has a new product and wants representation in the New England area, they come to us first. This isn’t bragging; it’s a fact.”

While Tremble could easily brag about the strength of the family business, he joined his brother Bob — who, along with brother Mike, heads the video, A/V, and data/imaging department — to describe how the company that began with a spirited young couple became the successful enterprise it is today.

Mother Knows Best

When Rita and Ed Tremble first hung out their shingle on State Street in Springfield, the pair sold photographic equipment. Ed ran the front of the house, while Rita took care of both the bookkeeping and the nuts and bolts of the business. Jim and Bob credit her vision for the company that Valley Communications has become today.

“She was the instrument of change,” Bob said. “She recognized technology and decided that it was something that we wanted to be a part of almost immediately. She called in manufacturers, and, lo and behold, we were suddenly part of the security business, or the telephone business.” Looking back, that foresight is nothing short of spectacular.

Within four years, a new branch opened on Belmont Avenue in Springfield. From there, Jim counted off the services that his parents added to their portfolio, essentially adding up a roster of the history of the 20th century’s communications industry.

First branching out as a holding facility for New England Telephone’s 16mm films for elementary classrooms, the pair segued into intercom systems for those schools. When Valley decided to add commercial sound systems to their roster in the late 1940s, it became the go-to resource for professional installation. The Eastern States Exposition’s Coliseum was outfitted by the Trembles, and later, they worked on both Springfield and Hartford’s Civic Centers. Jim estimates that 80% to 90% of all churches in Massachusetts and Connecticut have had Valley Communications install their sound systems.

When Rita decided to add security to her portfolio, the company installed residential and commercial cameras and touch-tone entry pads. Within 10 years, the focus shifted to larger applications. “And we’ve been doing that for the last 40 years,” Jim noted.

A landmark FCC deregulation decision in the late ’60s, known as the Carterfone Act, allowed non-AT&T phones to connect to that company’s communications grid. Jim said that this legislation was immediately embraced by Valley. “Because we were already doing work over lines like intercoms and such, it was a natural for us to get into that.”

The company’s history tells of the challenges they faced in those early days taking on Ma Bell head to head. Valley contended with what it calls “mysterious” accidents, cut wires and cables, uncooperative operators, and many court cases, all without hindering its role as David to AT&T’s Goliath. From that contentious beginning, according to company records, Valley “is nationally recognized as one of the largest independent telephone interconnects in the communications industry.”

Currently, the largest account for Valley is the Mass. State Lottery Commission. “If you’re familiar with Keno,” Jim said, “Valley installs at least one monitor in connection to the data computer in every restaurant, bar, and grocery store that sells and plays Keno. The new Daily Race Game, started about a year ago, is now an offshoot of that.”

The beginnings of the company might be humble, but the current business, with more than $25 million in annual sales, is anything but. Jim is happy to mention that, of the 106 employees, many have been with Valley for decades.

Securing Success

Keeping abreast of technology in the highly competitive and constantly evolving field of communications can be a daunting challenge. But Jim said that Valley confidently keeps appraised of the latest and greatest, and described his simple yet secure methods.

“We learn from what we see and read, and we keep up with the industry forecasters — looking three to five years down the road,” he explained. “We listen to the manufacturers that we align ourselves with. They are developing new products, and that affects them more than us. We get it from our salespeople; they are out there seeing what people want and need. We get it from our competitors. Sometimes that’s your best clue to what’s going on. If someone gets the jump on you, well, you’re going to find out what that is.

“Those four key methods keep us tapped into the vein,” he said.

Responding to comments about the economic conditions of the past year, Bob proudly stated that “the business part of it, from 1945 to now, can be summed up as easily as this — every single year we’ve made a profit. While some years might have been better than others, that has always been the case.”

This past year’s performance was helped by solidification and expansion of a new division for the company, one focused on business security, something Valley has always done, but, until recently, on a relatively small scale.

“About six months ago we decided to start a separate department to forge that division forward,” said Bob Tremble. “So in October of this past year, the division took off, and already we’ve had about $1 million in sales.”

In addition to security at the former federal building at 1550 Main St. in Springfield, Valley is handling security systems at a county jail outside Boston, all of the WNEC campus, “and just this morning,” Bob added, “we got a job for a high school in Connecticut.”

Jim explained how the new security division is an example of ongoing expansion and diversification, a trademark for his business. “Instead of saying, ‘how can we cut back?’ and ‘where do we have to cut jobs?’ we’ve said, ‘how do we increase the number of jobs, and increase our income?’”

Bob agreed, adding that “we knew there was a lot of business out there; what we needed to do was to position ourselves, with the proper people, talent, and resources, to go out there and get that business. And it is working.”

Back to School

Another important product category for the company, one that’s really exploded over the past 10 years, is the SMART classroom, Bob explained, using the brand name for what is known in the industry as interactive white boards. Chalkboards are destined to become another academic relic of earlier centuries.

The product looks like a white, dry-erase panel about six feet square, with a data projector mounted above. That white surface promises to be one of Valley’s next great contributions to its clients.

“There are about 53,000 classrooms K through 12 in Massachusetts, and about 32,000 in Connecticut,” said Bob. “We have put smart classrooms in about 20% of them, so we look at about 80% to go. That’s a lot of boards.

“When we started to put these into the classrooms,” he continued, “we thought, ‘what a great product.’ The teachers can link their computer up to it, and the board itself is touch-sensitive — you can write on it with your finger.”

While the newer crop of tech-savvy teachers might be as familiar with computers as their students, earlier generations found the tools foreign, Bob said. “About three or four years into our putting these boards in, we went back to the schools to see how the teachers were using them. We thought it would be a good exercise. We found out that, in many cases, the boards were used simply as a white chalkboard, or a projection screen — not the purpose for them. It was an awakening for us.”

In true entrepreneurial fashion, a need was identified, and a solution quickly addressed. A training program for the SMART boards was established, with courses offered in all the disciplines and educational levels that would be working with the equipment. The training became a division known as Valley Academy. Those same teachers who relied on their older lesson plans, perhaps resistant to this newfangled device, discovered how it could improve their lessons and better involve tech-oriented students.

Because of the success of both Valley Academy and those teachers spreading the word out in the field, Bob said that there was an explosion of additional sales. Parochial schools in the Boston area have been programming a set number of boards to be installed in their schools every year until all classrooms are outfitted, and new construction often designates them. Smiling, Bob said his goal is to see those other 80% of classrooms with SMART boards.

Local Heroes

While Valley may have a geographic market all over New England, both Trembles emphasized that this company is, and will always be, a local business.

“We’re a private institution, not a worldwide entity,” Jim said. “We know that New England is our territory, and we want to do the best possible job that we can in that area. In my lifetime, I don’t want to be a national company. I eat and sleep in the area that I sell my products. I run into the people that I do business with, and I want to continue to be proud of what I’ve done for them.”

For Valley, he stressed, the relationship with the client begins after the product or service is sold. “It doesn’t take much magic to sell something,” Jim said. “Anyone can do that; you lower your price and get it out there. It does, however, take something to carry on after the sale.”

Looking ahead, the third generation of Trembles is busy on the front lines, just like the generation before them. Both men have sons that work for Valley, both in the Chicopee facility and out in the field. While Ed passed away some time ago, Rita, at age 93, still comes in once a week to check up on her children. They laughed when the subject of succession to the next generation came up.

“It’s a little early to tell what will happen,” Jim said. “But there are 48 grandchildren, so there’s a lot of good talent to pick from.”

One thing is certain: the field of communications will be changing. But when Valley says that it too has evolved apace with technology, there’s 65 years of proof to the statement. The Trembles’ method of business might be old-fashioned in a rapidly changing world, but Jim summed up how it’s a success.

“The same customer that bought a system from us in 1950 is still doing business with us today,” he said. “That, to me, is the key that keeps my blood running. It’s a great comfort that these people let us continue to do business the way we were taught to do it back in 1945.”

Uncategorized

Over the course of the past 18 months or so, business owners and managers quoted on the pages of BusinessWest have spoken with what has seemed like one voice about the Great Recession and their strategy for living through it. The exact words varied, but the general theme was the same: to make the best of a bad situation while positioning the company in question for when the recovery comes and individuals and businesses start spending again.

And by positioning, these business owners meant everything from rightsizing their operations to introducing new products and services (yes, it’s possible to do that in a recession), and keeping the company visible through effective marketing and branding — something that must be done, somehow, even when times are tough.

While appropriate for businesses of all sizes, this approach also applies to municipalities, and especially the city of Springfield, which emerged from control-board oversight last summer and is seemingly primed for a rebound — only it’s difficult to launch any kind of surge when unemployment is hovering around 10% and most business owners still lack the confidence in the economy that is necessary to take major steps such as expansion and relocation.

So Springfield finds itself in the same situation that many businesses are in — making the most of a bad situation and doing that ‘positioning’ work for when conditions improve. This, in a nutshell, is the assignment facing Mayor Domenic Sarno as he begins his second term in office (see story, page 6). He told BusinessWest that his administration isn’t sitting on the sidelines waiting and hoping for the recovery to begin; rather, it’s doing what it can in this recession, while also taking steps that may help it maximize the opportunities that should develop when that aforementioned confidence is restored.

And while progress has been made on a number of fronts, from public safety to vibrancy in the central business district, there is much work to be done, as the mayor said repeatedly. And much of this work comes in the form of branding, marketing, and addressing Springfield’s ongoing public-relations problem.

As we said, there has been some progress in many areas, such as downtown, where the quick retenanting of the old federal building, now known as 1500 Main St., kept an important structure from going dark and has the potential to help many still-struggling businesses downtown. Also, UMass Amherst has agreed to move one of its departments into a building in Court Square, the start of what could be a much larger partnership.

Meanwhile, a second tenant has been secured for the Memorial II industrial park near Smith & Wesson. FW Webb will build a distribution facility there that will bring new jobs to the city and possibly create more momentum for the park. On the marketing and branding front, city officials staged another successful developers conference late last fall, opening some eyes to potential development opportunities in the process.

Many attendees at that conference were somewhat surprised at the level of vibrancy they saw, an indication that Springfield clearly has some work to do to repair the considerable damage done to its image by years of headlines about ineffective government, financial chaos, and how the once-proud center of manufacturing and innovation was decades removed from its best days.

Indeed, the perception of Springfield as a struggling city with unsafe streets and underperforming schools is certainly Sarno’s biggest challenge moving forward, because, in many ways, perception is reality.

Which brings us back to that word positioning. To be properly positioned, the city needs to have a number of pieces in place — from sites that can be developed to schools that can produce a large, reliable workforce; from neighborhoods that people want to live in to a downtown that is alive more than eight hours each day.

If the city can continue to make progress in such areas, it can, like many of the businesses in this region, be ready to seize the moment when the Great Recession is definitely — and definitively — behind us.

Uncategorized
A Rescue Mission for Education

Forty years ago, I changed schools. On the south side of Chicago, my school had few books, 40 children in a classroom (most of us poor), teachers whose role was mainly to keep order, and police at every intersection of the halls. The school I changed to was a private New England prep school with small classes, longer school days, teachers with the latitude to innovate and experiment, and high expectations for each child.

I still want to change schools. But private schools are not the answer. Public schools are where most children get their education, and they should be consistently excellent.

The Legislature is now in final deliberations on a new education bill I filed last July that will close, once and for all, the pernicious achievement gaps that damage the lives of low-income, special-needs and minority children. I applaud the House and the Senate for bringing us to the precipice of real and lasting reform.

The bill promotes the creation of ‘Innovation Schools’ — a new type of public school with more autonomy and flexibility. It authorizes a targeted lift of charter-school caps in the Commonwealth’s lowest-performing school districts, allowing only those charter operators with a proven record of successfully serving high-needs students. Most important, it expands the ability of local superintendents or the commissioner of education to intervene in low-performing schools by providing new tools to attract the best and brightest educators, and new supports to help teachers, students, and families overcome the disadvantages of poverty.

Changing schools rescued me 40 years ago. This bill is a rescue mission for every child in the Commonwealth trapped in an underperforming school. It’s all about the kids. And our future.

Some have portrayed the bill as a showdown between union and management interests — a debate focused on adults and not children. Both sides of the debate have occasionally fallen back on entrenched positions where the goals of compromise and common purpose become harder to reach. Our children can no longer afford that kind of debate.

Seventeen years after the passage of landmark education reform in the Bay State, it is past time we launch the next chapter of reform. We need to give educators and leaders in our lowest-performing schools the kinds of supports we know can make a difference. We need to give students more time in school and the health and human services necessary to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and other conditions that interfere with their readiness to learn. Whatever gets in the way of that has to yield.

And, yes, sometimes that may mean changing the principal or a teacher or some of the rules governing a handful of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But this is not too much to ask to ignite a lifelong love of learning in a child, and is long overdue. And it can and will be done in ways that are respectful and transparent. Tinkering at the margins of underperforming schools, only to see them continue to languish, is no longer acceptable.

Urgent problems, especially ones that involve children, demand urgent and new solutions. Now is no time for us to retreat to our familiar foxholes to fight the same, tired battles. We can deliver the next great stride forward in a quest to deliver on the promise of American public education: an excellent school for each and every child. That is a more important educational, economic, and moral imperative than the interests of any adult. v

Deval Patrick is the governor of Massachusetts.

Departments

Ringing In the New Year

The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield staged its second annual New Year’s Eve celebration at the Marriott in downtown Springfield. Nearly 300 people joined in the festivities. Clockwise, from left, the clock strikes midnight; from left, Scott Monson, Katie Duby, Chris Duby, and Lisa Monson; the cake art, provided by Artful Presences’ Janel Gurney, bears the words that form the YPS slogan; from left, Emily Fialky, YPS President Jeff Fialky, event co-chair Pam Thornton, and Maureen and Joe Picknally; from left, Dan Bessette, Jim Arnold, Ben Garvey, and Trevis Wray.

Departments

Security Summit

Jan. 27: The Massachusetts Information Security Summit (MassISS) will be featured at the Sheraton Springfield. Sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Assoc. and Associated Industries of Mass., the daylong program will highlight key aspects of the new state and federal information-security laws. Sten-Tel Transcription of Springfield and Peritus Security Partners of East Longmeadow are jointly hosting the summit. In addition, speakers and industry vendors will focus on providing objective information to help attendees develop a comprehensive compliance strategy. Breakout sessions will feature presentations by government and industry experts. For more information, visit www.massiss.org or call (888) 228-8646. For information on summit partners, visit www.sten-tel.com, www.peritussecurity.com, or www.massbar.org.

Rick’s Place Benefit

Feb. 6: The Wilbraham Country Club will be the setting for the second annual Heart to Heart fund-raiser to benefit Rick’s Place Inc. Established in memory of Rick Thorpe, who died in Tower Two of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Rick’s Place Inc. was created to provide a supportive, secure environment where families can remember their loved ones and avoid the sense of isolation that a loss can produce. Rick’s Place offers biweekly bereavement support at no cost for families with children ages 5 to 18. Tickets for the 6 to 11 p.m. fund-raiser are $50. A silent auction and raffle drawing are among the highlights of the evening. Underwriting and corporate sponsorship opportunities are also still available. For more information or to make a tax-deductible donation to Rick’s Place, call Shelly Bathe Lenn, executive director, at (413) 348-3120, or visit www.ricksplacema.org.

Berkshire Job Summit

Feb. 19: The Crowne Plaza in Pittsfield will be the setting for the first Berkshire Job Summit, a think tank of top employers in the region who will discuss a collaborative growth strategy, region-specific strengths and weaknesses, and potential action plans geared toward ending hiring freezes and steering Berkshire County toward a sustainable economic recovery. A letter to recruit employers to take part in the summit can be read at www.berkshirejobsummit.com. In addition to employers, members of local, regional, state, and federal government are invited to participate. For more information, send an e-mail to [email protected].

Women’s Professional Development Conference

April 30: Bay Path College will host its 15th annual Women’s Professional Development Conference at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (413) 565-1000 or visit www.baypath.edu.

Chamber Delegation Trip

May 17-19: The Mass. Chamber of Business & Industry is leading a delegation to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Annual Small Business Summit in May. Seminars include ‘Government Policies and How Business is Responding,’ ‘TradeRoots,’ ‘Leveraging Social Media to Build New Relationships,’ ‘Temperature Check: Free Enterprise in the Current Political Climate,’ and ‘Economic Outlook.’ In addition to seminars, several networking events include breakfasts, cocktail receptions, and a Technology Center exhibition. Accommodations are planned at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. For more information, contact Debra Boronski-Burack at [email protected].

Features
This Western Mass. Institution Makes a Fashion Statement
Company to Watch: A.O. White

Lewis White, owner of A.O. White, pictured with his wife, Kathy, says the most successful retail stores know when the time is right to reinvent themselves.

Evolution. Lewis White used that word early and quite often as he discussed the business, A.O. White, started by his father more than 60 years ago and that he took over in the early ’90s. He also used it to describe the retail industry, fashion, attitudes about dress, and even that relatively new and ubiquitous industry term ‘business casual,’ which both women and particularly men struggled to get their hands around when it came into prominence in the mid-’90s.

“We pretty much built a business on what’s called business casual,” he explained, “because guys coming out of tailored clothing and the business uniform didn’t know what to do. I gave seminars … I went to companies and talked to people about what was good, what wasn’t, what you could and couldn’t do. People were in Never Never Land, not knowing what was appropriate.”

In each case, including business casual, the evolution continues, said White, as he explained in depth how the store his father started in downtown Springfield to sell men’s tailored clothing is now operating in the center of East Longmeadow and sells mostly women’s attire. In short, A.O. White has changed to adapt to all that evolution taking place in society and retail, he said.

“Today, we sell everything from $2,500 sheepskin coats to Red Sox T-shirts,” he said, “and very often to the same customer.”

Tracing the history of the company, White said his father, Albert Oscar White, opened the men’s clothing store that took his name and initials in the late 1940s. He moved several times, always within downtown Springfield, and eventually settled in what was then known as Baystate West (now Tower Square) not long after it opened in 1967. The elder White would go on to be the first general manager of that retail and office facility.

In the early years, his store sold tailored items — suits, jackets, and trousers — made by some of the finest clothiers of the time, including many names that have disappeared from the fashion landscape. “It was a great store,” said White, “one of the finest in the country.”

Albert Oscar White eventually diversified into women’s clothing (he took a vacant storefront in Baystate West above his men’s store for this second venture, A.O. White for Women), and it was this aspect of the business that his son essentially took over and refined, focusing on working women, which was a new trend in the retail sector.

In 1983, the company continued its evolutionary process by opening a store in the Longmeadow Shops called A.O. White Sports, which, as the name suggests, sold casual, sporty clothing for both men and women. And when downtown Springfield started to become much less of a retail center (part of that business sector’s evolution in the wake of the Holyoke Mall and other facilities like it), A.O. White first closed its women’s store downtown (in 1991), and then its men’s store (in 1993).

The Longmeadow store then became the sole location, and it continued to change with the times, focusing increasingly on women’s clothes and moving out of tailored men’s clothing entirely.

When asked to describe the sum of what’s offered today, White thought for a moment and said, “a carefully selected and well-edited collection of casual and dressy clothes for men and women that basically covers every aspect of someone’s lifestyle.

“I sell everything from upscale yoga pants and active sportswear for men and women to dressy separates and tops — we dressed a lot of people for New Year’s Eve,” he continued. “This is probably the only store I know of where you can get a Red Sox sweatshirt and a crystal-trimmed silk tanktop sold to the same person. The common denominator is quality.”

Over the past few decades, White and his wife, Kathy, have helped men adjust to business casual — meaning, among other things, life mostly without ties — while also continuing to edit the selections that go on the shelves and racks.

“We’re still evolving and still changing,” said White, noting that the move to the East Longmeadow Center Village was part of that process. The new location, which features large amounts of natural light, gives the store a new look and atmosphere.

“I was ready to do something fresh and new,” said White. “I think that you have to reinvent yourself in retail every so often, even when times are good. If you look at the stores that have gone out of business, I think it’s because they didn’t do that.”

When asked to recall the landscape when he first started with the family business — meaning the scene downtown and the large number of competitors that existed back then — White started talking nostalgically about a bustling central business district. And when he started naming those competitors — from the old Forbes & Wallace and Steigers to Joseph’s and Paramount Clothes — White paused for a moment and said, “I’m really dating myself.”

Perhaps, but when recounting more than 60 years of life in the clothing business, one has to go through a lot of history — and evolution.

— George O’Brien

Features
Integrity Development & Construction Builds a Name for Itself
Strong Foundation

Peter Jessop, president of Integrity Development & Construction

A summer job more than 30 years ago turned into a career for Peter Jessop, who launched Integrity Development & Construction in Hartford and later moved the business to Amherst. In those three decades of building homes and businesses, he has seen abundant change in his industry, from a computer revolution to an increased focus on environmental impact. Throughout it all, he says he’s tried to build a reputation that lives up to his company’s name.

Construction wasn’t exactly Peter Jessop’s first plan for his life.

In fact, back in the 1970s, he was working at Hartford Hospital, partway through a master’s degree in hospital administration, when that field started to seem unsatisfying.

“I had a lot of ideas about how a hospital should be organized and run, but I realized I was trying to shift the Titanic; it wasn’t going to move very much,” he said. “Between government regulations and the general inertia of a 3,000-employee operation, I couldn’t move it the way I wanted.”

Meanwhile, Jessop had worked as a carpenter during summer breaks from college, and he always enjoyed the experience. From there, an idea — and a construction business — eventually grew.

“It took me a little while, but I started working on some smaller projects with people I knew in the Hartford area, and it blossomed into a slightly bigger operation, and that blossomed into an even bigger operation,” he said. “I did a lot of low-income housing, tax-credit deals in Hartford, Bridgeport, even Arizona.”

That proved to be a bit too much travel, he decided. “Fortunately, we’ve enjoyed good success working within an hour of our office.”

That was the case for more than a decade working in Hartford, and remained true when he moved his operation, Integrity Development & Construction, to Amherst in 1992.

His first project there was Pioneer Valley Co-housing, a living community that melds private condos with communal space to create a unique sort of planned neighborhood in North Amherst. Jessop lives in the complex, too, and built his company’s headquarters there as well.

As in Hartford, Jessop has balanced residential building and remodeling with commercial, industrial, and institutional projects, from Northampton Brewery to a new building at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley.

“The wonderful thing about this business is the tremendous amount of variety,” he said. “Every project we do is different, and we always get to meet new and interesting people. It’s wonderfully varied that way — which wasn’t the case early in my career.”

Indeed, while hospital management left him feeling stifled and bored, as president of Integrity, “I feel we make a difference in people’s lives in terms of the way they live.”

In this issue, Jessop talks with BusinessWest about Integrity’s steady growth, how the construction industry has changed over the years, and those difference-making moments that convince him that he made the right career decision three decades ago.

Greener Pastures

One example of making a difference is energy efficiency, which has long been a priority for Integrity and has since become industry dogma. All the units in that first co-housing project were designed as Energy Crafted homes, a status that preceded today’s Energy Star designation.

“There’s an emphasis on energy efficiency in the building trades,” Jessop said. “We’re pretty conscientious about air seals, insulation, window packages, appliances — everything that goes into making a building as energy-efficient as possible. A lot more people are doing photovoltaic and solar-related projects; that continues to be strong, and that’s a good thing.

“I think this is a very exciting time to be in business,” he continued. “We have a lot of opportunities to raise people’s consciousness about energy use and siting of buildings. The whole field is changing, moving toward a greater awareness of how building affects the global environment.

“Some people think driving cars is a horrible thing,” he continued, “but a much greater percentage of greenhouse gases come from buildings than cars, so making our buildings more efficient, thinking about things like deep energy retrofits, will make a difference for our children and our children’s children.”

This increased focus on the environment is only one way the building trades have shifted in the past 30 years.

“The industry has changed a lot since 1979,” Jessop said, noting, as one example, that materials are different, with much more engineered lumber being used, offering higher performance and a healthier ecological impact.

“And, certainly, the use of computers and the amount of information generated digitally has radically changed the business,” he said. “We’ve moved from doing everything on paper and pencil to a digital world. Of course, every industry has seen that, and contracting is no different.

“It’s been a blessing,” he continued. “Everything from accounting to drawings to project management and communications with clients — we still produce paper, obviously, but much of our work is done digitally. That saves a lot of time and makes us more efficient and makes the industry more professional.”

Jessop came back to the notion of professionalism more than once during the interview. It’s an element he said is reflected in the company’s name, and also echoes a more-savvy clientele.

“Customers are more sophisticated, which forces us to be more professional,” he told BusinessWest. “And we certainly take pride in our level of professionalism — in our presentations to clients, our contracts and documents, and our knowledge of the industry.”

Even professional journals, he noted, have become more sophisticated. And, not surprisingly, “I think tradespeople are more knowledgeable than they were 30 years ago. They’re more cutting-edge —from the technological point of view, obviously, but also just in general knowledge. These kids seem brighter, more on top of things than they were 30 years ago.”

What does that all mean for builders? “You can’t relax,” Jessop said. “People know better what they want, and the Internet has opened up a whole host of opportunities for folks to learn about things.

“Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” he added, “and we’ve occasionally had to set clients straight on information they learned on the Internet that might not be accurate as our take on the situation. But there’s nothing wrong with an informed consumer. They help us stay on track, help us stay professional.”

Work and Play

Integrity tackles plenty of design-build work, but also works with local architects, reflecting a willingness to work within a client’s needs and budget, Jessop said.

“We have a great respect for architects and do many projects with an architect; I’m a believer in good architectural services. But some projects don’t need the services of a full-scale architectural firm.”

Many home-remodeling projects fall into that category. “Renovations have always been a strong part of our mix,” he said. “We find it a wonderful challenge working with older buildings, adding on or making interior spaces more functional. We enjoy that process. Some builders don’t have the patience for that; it’s a slightly different animal.”

For one thing, unlike new construction, there’s the issue of working around a family who actually lives in the space, kids and pets often included. But it’s an expertise that has proven valuable in the Hampshire County region, where new building space is at a premium.

“In this area, land is relatively costly, and there aren’t tons of land available to build new construction,” he said. “A lot of people are finding that an investment in their current homes is a much better way to go. They may like their neighborhood, they like the school system, but they need more space. So they reconfigure the space they have, put in a new kitchen or new bathrooms.”

The ability to take on many different kinds of projects allows a builder key flexibility during an economic downturn when all contractors need to be nimble, Jessop said. “We’re in the midsize of construction companies — not big, but not two guys in a pickup truck, either. The ability to be flexible, and be able to do anything from smaller projects to $2 million to $3 million projects, is certainly a benefit.”

As for that recession, Jessop said the Western Mass. region is fortunate not to experience the economic peaks and valleys — and the resulting rollercoaster of real-estate valuations — seen in other parts of the country, and added that the many colleges and universities clustered in and around Amherst also provide some stability for his industry, as people are constantly moving into and out of the area.

“There has been enough work to go around, and although the last year or two has been tough on everybody, we’ll turn the corner on that,” he said. “We’re proceeding apace, booking work for the spring and summer.”

Indeed, while business could certainly be better across the industry, Jessop is confident that his company’s diversity and reputation will continue to see it through.

“There are a lot of good builders around here, but I don’t think you can work here in the Valley without having a decent reputation,” he said. “People know we’re trustworthy, and that word gets around and helps you stay in business.

Even the need for modern tools such as a Web site hasn’t changed that.

“Our Web page is nice, but it’s a bit of a glorified electronic yellow pages,” Jessop said. “Our work comes from architects who know us, people in the community who know us, past clients who refer us, and other personal contacts we make.”

He believes in that personal touch, and doesn’t think a Web site can tell everything about how a company does business anyway.

“You might find a doctor online, but would you stay with him just because you found him on the Internet — or because you like this person and trust him? When people work with us, they understand they can trust us.”

That’s a reputation to build on.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

Departments

Ten Points About : Home and office security

By DAVID CONDON

1. Landscaping and lighting. Ensure that all entrances and windows are well-lit. Using motion-activated lights is an excellent deterrent. Keep bushes and shrubs small so a burglar can’t hide behind them. Plant bushes that grow thorns, whenever possible, below windows.

2. Locks. To resist breakins, buildings should have deadbolts on all outside doors. Areas with glass, such as doors or windows, should have locks designed to keep a burglar from breaking the glass and reaching in to gain access.
3. Keys. If you are going to give copies of your keys to employees, neighbors, relatives, or others, install locks that have key control so individuals who receive keys will not be able to make copies without your knowledge and authorization.
4. Doors. A lock is only as good as the door on which it is installed. Make sure that your doors are properly maintained.

5. Burglar alarms. Alarm systems are very easy to use, and new technologies have reduced the frequency of most false alarms. An alarm system can notify the proper authority in case of breakins, fire, flooding, medical emergencies, or carbon-monoxide detection.

6. Safes. Safes come in many different shapes, sizes, and types. When selecting a safe, you need to consider what you are planning to put in it. Things to consider are whether or not you need burglar protection, fire protection, or both, and where you are going to locate the safe inside your home. Fire safes by themselves will not protect media such as CDs, flash drives, and other electronic items, so additional protection is required.
7. Access control. Locks will keep a door secure, but they will not tell you who unlocked it or when. Access control can give you information on which employee or family member is coming and going, and when.
8. Cameras. Recorders are now digital and can store months of recorded footage. If something is stolen, use the video footage to find out who took it and when. Cameras come in many different sizes and styles.
9. Fire extinguishers. Fire extinguishers should be close at hand in commercial buildings and homes. Seconds count when fighting a fire, and a fire extinguisher can be the difference between a small mishap and a devastating loss.

10. Fire alarm. An often-overlooked area is having your fire-warning system tested. Commercial buildings are required by law to be tested at least annually. Smoke detectors should be of the photoelectric type to ensure early warning of most home fires. Check and replace your batteries once a year.

David Condon is chief operating officer at Northeast Security Solutions Inc; (413) 733-7306; [email protected]

Features
Comcast Program Helps Low-income Students Become Computer-literate
Bridging the Digital Divide

From left, high-school students Esther Njeri, Shemron Ross, Melissa Philogene, and Tevin Jones work together on a community-service project.

It’s called the Digital Connectors Program, and, as the name implies, it is designed to help connect young people, specifically those in low-income areas, to digital technology. In Springfield, the program is opening eyes — and also opening doors to opportunity.

It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and several teenagers are intently focused on computer screens at the Urban League in Springfield.

They are researching violence and its causes, studying the consequences of smoking tobacco, visiting college Web sites, and creating and editing public-service announcements and films.

Several months ago, the majority of these teens used the computer only to network with friends via Facebook and MySpace accounts. But today, thanks to the Comcast Digital Connectors Program, they have become proficient in broadband technology and are using their newfound knowledge to pursue personal goals and make a difference in Springfield.

The purpose of Comcast’s program is to help young people in low-income neighborhoods become computer- and broadband-literate and develop leadership skills that will allow them to become ambassadors and share their knowledge with their families and community.

“My friends told me about this, and it sounded fun and interesting,” said 15-year-old Gladys Kibunyi. “I wanted to become involved in something that could help me build my future and help me figure out what I want to be when I grow up. This will help me get ready for college and choose what college I want to attend. In this program, I can do community service or do volunteer work, learn how to get scholarships or grants, and meet important people and make the right connections.”

Kibunyi’s sentiments mirror those of other program participants. “I didn’t know much about computers before I became part of this program,” said 16-year-old Esther Njeri. “I want to become a computer engineer, and this will help me with my future. It has also taught me about teamwork and how to work well with others.”

The group recently used flip video cameras donated by Comcast to film themselves passing out informational packets to people in the downtown area. The packets contained a list of community resources and were provided by the Shannon Foundation’s Anti-Youth Violence Campaign.

They are also promoting the Urban League’s Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program and developing a TV show, which they hope will air on Comcast’s Springfield access channel as well as the Digital Connection’s Web portal.

“It’s a talk show about violence prevention,” said Leon Cosby, director of the Urban League of Springfield Digital Connectors Program. “We want to get them active in areas where they want to see change. We also hope to get some local radio stations to air their public-service announcements.”

The program was set up for 25 students, but word of mouth has made it so popular that about 40 teens have become involved. Comcast provided the computers they work on as well as broadband service at the Urban League.

“Each teen has their own Web page where they post videos and talk to students in other Comcast groups in the country,” said Cosby. “Leadership skills are built into the program. These teens could be anywhere, but they are here doing something constructive and building relationships with each other.”

Classes began last April, but the program’s curriculum has expanded and was recently finalized. Cosby has adapted it to their needs, making sure to focus on the core areas of competency.

The majority of program participants are from New Leadership Charter School. The Urban League was instrumental in its establishment in 1998 and continues to be involved with education and leadership and development programs there.

“Our goal is to have these students become ambassador advocates,” Cosby said. “Once they have this knowledge they will be in a position to help others, and will also be on a level playing field with other teens.”

National Initiative

Comcast has made a national $1.2 million commitment to sponsor its Digital Connectors initiative for three years, beginning in 2009. The company plans to implement the program in 22 cities across the nation, but chose Springfield, Washington, D.C., and Houston to launch its pilot programs.

“The Comcast Digital Connectors initiative began with our desire to promote the importance of digital-literacy skills that are necessary for students to realize their potential,” said Doug Guthrie, senior vice president of Comcast’s Western New England region. They took action by forming a partnership with One Economy Corp., which began a Digital Connectors program in 2002, which identifies talented young people, immerses them in technology training, and helps them build leadership and workplace skills.

One Economy’s program is active in more than 20 rural and urban areas across the country. But since Comcast is the largest residential broadband provider in the country, combining resources will allow the program to grow quickly.

Its new curriculum, which was just released, has expanded the subject matter to be mastered from four to 12 areas of competency. Participants will be educated in leadership and diversity, personal development, workforce development, financial literacy, community mapping, digital literacy, hardware and networks, software and programming, media production and civic journalism, the environment and sustainability, service and global engagement, and teaching and facilitation.

The program, which contains testing to ensure that students are meeting benchmarks, is aimed at address what experts call the ‘digital divide.’

“For cities like Springfield, the digital divide is not about access to broadband service. It’s about the adoption and the development of digital-literacy skills that will be necessary for these kids to realize their future potential,” said Guthrie.

Henry Thomas, Urban League president, agrees.

“Knowledge is power,” he said. “Being connected digitally is critically important to the quality of people’s lives and gives them an advantage. Although digital connectivity is almost essential for work or college, the digital divide is very substantial.”

A recent national study showed that 80% of Caucasians have computers and are connected to the Internet, while 55% to 60% of Latinos have those resources, but only 46% of African-Americans have the same advantage. “We are the ethnic population that is the least connected,” Thomas said, adding that inner cities are heavily populated by African-Americans and Latinos, and 85% of Springfield’s Mason Square residents are African-American.

Thomas cites two reasons for the digital divide. The first is affordability, while the second is that many people aren’t aware of the value computers and broadband can add to their lives. Unfortunately, childen in these families often fall behind.

“Children in families who don’t have computers or haven’t adopted broadband lack a major source of information and technology that they need to be competitive in the academic arena,” he said.

Local Partnership

Thomas was delighted when Comcast approached him and proposed using the Urban League as the setting for its pilot program. Comcast has provided funding and support for the league’s programs in the past, including a computer-skills training program that took place about three years ago.

“They were familiar with our mission and understand the impact we are having in the community,” he said, adding that Comcast has relationships with many of the 101 Urban Leagues across the country. “We were honored to be part of the initiative.”

The students have done so well that Comcast made a DVD of their program for distribution to new markets. Thomas is proud of this and proud that students are sharing their new skills with others. “We will increase the collective functioning within the inner city to the extent that we can establish value in being digitally capable and proficient, so that people can be on even ground as it relates to educational and workforce-development issues,” he said.

The students are very appreciative of the opportunity and growth they have experienced since signed on as Digital Connectors.

“I haven’t seen any other programs like this,” said 17-year-old Ceeja Brice. “It’s been a very great learning experience and very valuable as our world is headed toward technology. I actually feel a lot smarter than I did before. Now I know what computers are capable of.”

He has gained knowledge about how to utilize the Internet to search for jobs. “The One Economy Web site has job-search tools, and I have shown the site to several people, including my mother,” he said. “She used it, and it was a new resource for her.”

Brice is editing a public-service announcement the teens are creating about violence. “It is never the answer to where you want to be,” he said. “People are being killed or sent to the hospital because of violence.”

His life goal is to own a music business, and he has learned that the Internet can be a useful tool for conducting surveys about new musicians and music. “This is making a huge difference for me,” he said.

Kibunyi is producing a public-service announcement about tobacco use. She has also taught her mother how to use the Internet and is excited about coming into contact with a whole world of new people and opportunities.

“She’s building her network,” Cosby said.

It’s a network that will continue to grow, city by city, across the nation as students in communities spread the word about the benefits of being a Comcast Digital Connector.