Home 2010 May (Page 2)
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Home Sales Rise in April

SPRINGFIELD — Home sales in the Pioneer Valley increased 23.4% in April, from 299 to 369, over the same month in 2009. The median price brought by those homes, however, fell slightly by 1.1%, from $182,000 in April 2009 to $180,000 last month. In Hampden County, sales were up 20.1%, from 214 in April 2009 to 257 in April 2010, while in Hampshire County, sales were up 17.5%, from 63 homes in April 2009 to 74 last month. And in Franklin County, sales were up 72.7%, from 22 to 38.

Business Confidence Index Rises Slightly

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Mass. Business Confidence Index rose seven-tenths of a point in April to 47.5, 12.1 above its level in April 2009. “Progress continues to be slow, with setbacks along the way, but there’s no doubt that 12 gains in 14 months represents a trend toward recovery,” said Raymond G. Torto, global chief economist at CB Richard Ellis Group Inc. and chair of AIM’s board of economic advisors (BEA). “Respondents to our survey remain notably more positive about business conditions for their own operations than about the general business climate in Massachusetts and the nation.” Torto noted that AIM members rate business conditions within the Commonwealth slightly better than those prevailing nationally. “This has been true consistently throughout the recession and now as we head into recovery,” he said. “The Massachusetts economy has by no means escaped the full impact of the downturn, but some other states have fared much worse, and we have significant assets, such as our education system and research base, that provide a strong foundation for recovery.” The AIM Index was 2.6 points below its level in April 2008, when it was last above 50 (neutral), and off 6.4 over three years. The highest reading in its 18-year-plus history was 68.5, attained on two occasions in 1997-98; its all-time low was 33.3 in February 2009. The Massachusetts Index of conditions within the Commonwealth added 3.6 points in April to 44.2, as the U.S. Index of national conditions gained 1.7 points to 40.6. “A plurality of survey respondents [52%] put in-state conditions in the ‘average’ range, but only 9% called them ‘good,’” said Fred Breimyer, regional economist for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and a BEA member. “Even for six months out [October], only 24% foresaw positive general business conditions in Massachusetts, and the national number [21%] was lower — so this shapes up as a slow recovery from a long recession.”

Lighthouse Celebrates Silver Anniversary

SPRINGFIELD — Members of the Lighthouse community, supporters, mental-health advocates, and community leaders gathered to celebrate the organization’s silver anniversary on May 12 at the Springfield Sheraton Monarch Place Hotel. The anniversary celebration featured remarks from Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, city of Springfield Equal Opportunity Officer Daniel Hall, and Lighthouse members who highlighted the significant impact that the organization has made on the city and region. In fiscal year 2010 alone, Lighthouse members earned $13.2 million in wages and contributed significantly to the local and statewide economies. Established in 1985 by Human Resources Unlimited, Lighthouse is an internationally accredited and certified rehabilitation organization. Lighthouse supports men and women who are recovering from mental illness by helping them return to work, school, and their community.

SHA and Partners Open New Health Care Center for Forest Park Seniors

SPRINGFIELD – The Springfield Housing Authority (SHA) has joined forces with area health care, civic, and nonprofit organizations to start a new health care center for seniors living in the Forest Park neighborhood. The Forest Park Manor Activity Center, which held a grand opening on April 23, provides medical and health services such as blood-pressure screenings, nutritional programs, and physical-fitness instruction, including low-impact exercise classes. “This center provides an array of much-needed health care services and benefits to seniors, both in the Springfield Housing Authority and the surrounding community,” said SHA Executive Director William Abrashkin. “This is tangible evidence of the success of collaborative efforts. Several organizations pooled ideas and resources to make the Forest Park Manor Activity Center a reality. We all feel that this is just the beginning, and we look forward to joining together again in the future for the benefit of our community.”

Features
Slice California Caf? Looks to Rock in a Resurgent Holyoke
Star Quality

Chuck Hebler believes in the revitalization of Holyoke, and hopes Slice can be a part of it.

Chuck Hebler toured with some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll. Today, he wants to be part of something big in Holyoke.

“We were one of the first backstage caterers that toured with bands back in the 1980s. We would go from city to city with a band,” said Hebler, who first prepared meals for musicians on the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour in 1989 and followed that with the U.S. tours of the Beastie Boys and Nirvana, among many others.

Hebler left the road in 1997 to settle down in his native Berkshires, opening the successful Napa restaurant in Lenox. But he was eventually drawn to downtown Holyoke — specifically, the growing Open Square development in a row of former mill buildings — where he opened Slice California Café last year, serving and delivering breakfast and lunch, with an eye to expanding to dinner service in the future.

“The goal is to take this from an obscure café in an obscure area and develop it into a Napa,” he said. “I want people to appreciate what I’m doing here and expand it as Holyoke expands.

“I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time,” he added. “Open Square will develop over the next 10 years, and we’re going to be part of that development.”

As part of its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest takes a look at Hebler’s former life on the road and his plans for the future in a city he believes in.

That’s Entertainment

Hebler grew up around show business; his family did prop and wardrobe trailer rentals for ABC Studios in Los Angeles, and he spent a lot of time on TV sets.

“I saw the caterers on set, and I got interested in catering, the backstage side of it,” he told BusinessWest. But after graduating from culinary school, he turned to a different side of entertainment, cultivating opportunities to tour with rock bands as their backstage caterer, beginning with the Stones.

He wasn’t working directly for bands, but for production managers who represented a host of acts — and once that relationship was established, the sky was the limit. Hebler collected plenty of memories during those years, and also an appreciation for the professionalism of the artists who sat at his table.

“Mick Jagger liked steamed whitefish, steamed rice, steamed vegetables,” he said. “Red wine and white wine, but nothing in excess. He was super fit and had a personal trainer” — not surprising for someone who has since fronted a rock band well past middle age. Hebler also praised Jagger’s bandmate Keith Richards as “the nicest performer and most sincere person I worked with. He notices everyone, and he’s one of the truly genuine people.”

But he had similar words for a host of other artists — Billy Joel, Elton John, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, David Bowie, and Carlos Santana among them — and said most veteran stars are far more human, easygoing, and grateful than their public image might suggest. He recalled staying late after a Fleetwood Mac concert for an after-show dinner, and Christine McVie sent his staff a case of shirts and hats as thanks. “It’s 99% fun stories,” he said.

“Everyone in the industry realizes that, to keep your success and longevity, it humbles you. To hold on to what you have, I believe that humbles you. As soon as you start acting like, ‘hey, I’m a rock star,’ then you’re fading, you’re a one-hit wonder.”

On the contrary, the artists he worked with tended to be down-to-earth, Hebler said, remembering how Neil Diamond — sans toupee, cigar in hand, wearing a robe and Gucci slippers — would come around and ask, “Chuckie, what are we having for dinner tonight?”

When he wasn’t touring, he had plenty of opportunities to cater individual shows in the LA area, as well as for companies like Universal Studios and Western Digital.

But when Hebler’s daughter was ready to start kindergarten, he wanted to shift gears and settle down to a more consistent lifestyle. So in 1997 — following a catering gig at the 30th-anniversary Woodstock festival in New York — he bought a building in Lenox and turned it into Napa.

Taste of California

“We wanted to have some stability,” he said, and he found it — along with success, in the form of steady business at Napa for 12 years (with $1 million annually in sales) and an A rating from Zagat.

Napa was a medium-priced restaurant, with entrees selling between $14 and $26, and characterized by the California cuisine he was taught on the left coast. “It’s things like fresh salsas, avocados, seafood items, Cal-Tex food — which is Mexican-style food with a California twist — and regional foods.”

In fact, the emphasis on local foods that characterizes many restaurants in Western Mass. is a trend that began in California in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Hebler said, and it’s an ethos echoed in the Berkshires, as well as the Pioneer Valley.

“This region is amazing for its resources for local meats and local produce,” he said, adding that he’s in the process of choosing a local family farm with which to partner on vegetables for Slice. When his venture expands to a dinner menu, he hopes to get as much pork, beef, and chicken locally as possible, too. “I really want to be that kind of restaurant.”

But he also wanted to be part of something bigger. And when John Aubin, owner of Open Square, pitched him an open space, he was intrigued by the possibilities.

“He explained the area and what’s going on down here, and it was exciting. It seemed like something that was really starting to take off,” Hebler said, citing developments like the coming high-performance computing center and other ongoing efforts to breathe new life to the nation’s first planned industrial city.

“John has a vision, and we’re part of that vision,” Hebler said. “We’re trying to live the Open Square dream, so to speak.”

And he believes that small steps can make a big difference in a city, citing the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, whose redevelopment was a catalyst to bring the whole downtown to life. He sees similar potential in the ongoing restoration of Holyoke’s Victory Theatre.

“When that happens,” he said, “you’ll see a nice flow of customers from outside Holyoke, and I think that’s going to be beneficial to this whole area, and more restaurants will start popping up — maybe even restaurants that are tired of paying huge leases in Northampton, and want come be a part of what’s emerging here.”

He doesn’t think Holyoke will ever replace what Northampton brings to the region culturally and culinarily, but he believes its story might mirror what happened in the Paradise City, which was lined with empty storefronts only a generation ago.

“This would be such a complement to Northampton,” he said, “and everything in between is some of the best real estate in Massachusetts, and a great lifestyle.”

And Hebler is feeding those taking part in that rebirth, offering soups, sandwiches, burgers, salads, quesadillas, and daily specials ranging from pot roast to baby-back ribs — all marked by that emphasis on fresh ingredients he learned long ago in California.

Rocker at Heart

Hebler hasn’t sworn off the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle forever. Since settling in Massachusetts, he’s catered one-off shows for the likes of Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen — not to mention the Pope during his visit to Giants Stadium — and was offered a gig on the last Red Hot Chili Peppers tour.

He turned that down, choosing instead to continue focusing on cooking locally. But, having maintained connections with tour managers in New York and Boston, he doesn’t rule out future possibilities.

“You never know,” he said. “I could become a delinquent again. My midlife crisis.”

For the time being, “I want to develop this into something nice,” he said of Slice. “We have our great little breakfasts, lunches, and lattes, but that’s just the beginning. We need to keep on our game.”

Sales were adequate to sustain the endeavor over the first year, and as the customer base grows through word of mouth, Hebler is cautiously looking to the future — not just of Slice, but of Open Square and the vitality it could lend to this city.

“We have a seed in the ground, and we’re expecting it to grow,” he said. “No one knows what will happen next, but it’s been a pleasant surprise so far.”

For those invested in Holyoke’s future — both literally and figuratively — that’s a slice of good news indeed.

Joseph Bednar can be reached

at[email protected]

Features
New Attractions, Pent-up Demand for Fun Fuel Optimism in the Tourism Sector
Turn for the Better?

Mary Kay Wydra says deep budget cuts are forcing the Convention & Visitors Bureau to watch every dime when it comes to marketing.

By most indications, consumers are getting tired of having their vacations and day trips become victims of the recession. Many area attractions are reporting increases in visitorship as the large and important tourism sector heads into its busy season. This positive news is juxtaposed against severe budget cuts at the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, which means curtailed marketing at a time when the region could use all it can get. Overall, though, there is general optimism for the sector and the year ahead.

Mary Kay Wydra says that, for every $1 invested to promote tourism, there is a $40 return to the economy.

That’s why Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), was stunned last year when was she learned the state was cutting the bureau’s budget by 75%. “There are 128,000 jobs in Massachusetts dependent on the tourism industry,” she told BusinessWest. “Tourism is about jobs that range from taxi-cab drivers to people at front desks. And jobs are part of the economic recovery.”

The massive cut reduced the GSCVB’s marketing budget from $468,000 to $132,000, which is the lowest number it has had to work with since 1992.

So the bureau has had to be creative and make every dollar count. And the stakes are high; the recession has taken its toll on many attractions, but there is a general feeling that conditions are improving and people are seemingly more willing to spend money on entertainment. Some early numbers from some of the larger tourist venues, such as Springfield Museums, Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory, and Six Flags indicate that visitorship is rising over last year’s levels.

This would be a good year to have a substantial marketing budget, said Wydra, but that is not reality, so the bureau must spend what it does have in a scientific manner.

The GSCVB began its efforts by having marketing director Michele Goldberg conduct a survey of members, asking them to help prioritize their needs. Target markets have always included Southern Conn., Greater Boston, Hartford, and Upstate New York, so when members expressed a desire for more online marketing, Goldberg complied, although she cut out New York.

The bureau also created 25 partnerships with key players in the tourism industry, offering them the opportunity to be part of a cooperative funded largely by private dollars. “It allows an area attraction to take the lead role on our Web site, which cross-promotes other attractions,” Wydra explained. “We have facilitated it and funded it to the extent that we can, and been able to seed the program.”

This represents a very different tactic for the bureau, because, in the past, it leveraged state money to get private money. It also laid off employees and cut some forms of advertising entirely, such as purchasing a page in Yankee magazine.

Its other major marketing tool is the soon-to-be-released annual guidebook. In addition, the bureau is using Facebook, Twitter, and a blog that features prominently on their Web site.

“We have definitely taken a more proactive approach to public relations,” said Wydra. Measures include more press releases and talking to motorcoach opearators monthly, suggesting ideas such as a tour of the region’s country stores.

“We’ve had to be creative in our marketing strategies, but we are fully optimistic we will see an uptick this summer in tourism,” Wydra said. “The concept of staying close to home and enjoying local attractions was at its height in 2008 when gas was over $4 a gallon. People cut back on hotel stays, and last year the trend continued.

“But I think there is a pent-up demand for summer vacations, just because people have cut back for two years. Plus, national indicators show we are slowly growing out of the recession,” she continued, noting that hotel occupancy has increased since October and Greater Springfield has outpaced the state as a whole.

Wydra said ‘new’ is an important word in tourism, and the area offers that. The enshrinement at the Basketball Hall of Fame has moved to August with a full week of activities, Springfield Musueums has a new addition, and Barnes Municipal Airport will host an airshow this year.

Hands-on, experiential activities are another draw, and the region welcomed zip lines at Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoors last spring. “Berkshire East has already expanded and surpassed its goal,” Goldberg said.

Wydra said the bureau has done as much as possible to deal with the budget cuts. “We have a strong marketing program, but if we had received more funding, we would have been able to do more,” she explained. “Being very creative and very collaborative have been our key watchwords.”

View to the Future

While Wydra grapples with her budget challenges, those running area tourist attractions are being guardedly optimistic about 2010. Early numbers are positive, and if gas prices don’t go much higher, they predict that trend will continue, due largely to a combination of new or improved attractions and that aforementioned pent-up demand for holidays.

Holly Smith-Bove, president of Springfield Musuems, says overall attendance has continued to rise throughout the recession. She attributes this in part to the new Museum of Springfield History, which opened in October 2009 and has attracted new audiences to the Quadrangle complex.

The project, which entailed a $10 million renovation of the former Verizon office building on 21 Edwards St., began before the recession and and continued during the downturn. The lower level contains the Springfield History Library and Archives, while upper levels are home to a Rolls-Royce collection and the collection from the former Indian Motocycle Museum.

“There are many people who are followers of these brands,” said Smith-Bove, adding that the museums’ demographics have changed since the new facility was built. “Our adult audience is increasingly significant,” she said.

The museums have also seen an increase in demand for group tours. Marketing efforts include a recent membership drive via mailings that went out to 30,000 households. “We have backed that up with traditional advertising. We are also very involved with Twitter and Facebook,” Smith-Bove said.

So far, their efforts have been met with success. “We hope to continue the trajectory we are on. We have increased our attendance by 300% this year,” Bove-Smith said. “It’s been wonderful.”

Special summer attractions should draw crowds, she continued. “We have a really amazing exhibit in the Fine Arts Museum by New York Lego artist Nathan Sawaya, titled “The Art of the Brick.” It will take up most of the second floor and has generated a lot of excitement in other venues.”

Kathy Miller, general manager and special-events coordinator for Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in South Deerfield, is also optimistic about the busy months ahead, mostly because the first months of the year have been solid. “Between 2008 and 2009, we were at an even pace and were able to stay consistent,” she told BusinessWest. “But in 2010, our numbers have been up, which is wonderful.”

The conservatory has paid close attention to its marketing strategy, however. “We thought a lot about it and have kept a very close eye on it,” Miller said. “What we found is that, even though the economy took a downturn, people still need to do things for themselves that are nurturing, relaxing, and that don’t break the bank. And we fit that bill.”

On Mother’s Day, the facility reported a 60% increase in business over that same holiday last year. It held a special Mothers Day dinner promotion in the restaurant, and has done all it can to make it attractive and affordable.

“It has a warm atmosphere. We offer home cooking with huge portions and reasonable prices,” Miller said. “It has only been open four years, and we have seen a steady increase in customers every year. We attribute it to word-of-mouth referrals, along with TV and newspaper ads.”

This year marks Magic Wings’ 10th anniversary, and as public awareness grows that it is open throughout the entire year, many people have used the space for baby and bridal showers. “It’s one of the things that has helped us, in addition to our butterflies and animals,” Miller said.

Magic Wings and Lupa Zoo in Ludlow recently partnered to create a traveling show, in hopes that it will bring attention to both attractions, and the butterfly conservatory is part of a two-year-old Deerfield Attractions initiative. Those efforts include advertising via the Web site deerfieldattractions.com. “We want to let people know that we’re only a half-hour from Springfield and there is a lot to do here,” Miller said.

Waxing Optimistic

Yankee Candle in Deerfield saw a slowdown in traffic after the recession hit. “The end of 2008 was very tough, as was as the first half of 2009,” said CEO Harlan Kent. “But we were actually positive in the fourth quarter of last year for the first time in nine months. We felt good about that.

“Traffic is up,” he said. “But people are being very thoughtful in terms of spending and are sticking to a budget, although we have been able to entice them a little bit.”

Such enticements include new attractions in the flagship store. In addition to being “the Disneyland for candle lovers,” the company added a Pandora store, a Dylan’s candy store, and a Popcornopolis, Kent said.

“We call it retail-tainment, and have stores within our store. We have new ones planned and are in the process of opening up something different every three months.”

Other initiatives include hands-on activities, such as Wax Works, which opened a year ago and allows visitors to create candles and wax sculptures. “We add a new activity every few months,” Kent said. “Since people are staying closer to home, we hope to attract them with these kinds of exciting attractions.”

The company opened 39 new stores in 2009, keeping with its average during the past five years. “We expect to see some moderate growth as the economy improves, and are continuously investing,” Kent said.

On May 15, the company celebrated a complete makeover of its home store and continues to add activities, such as a three-day Longaberger Basket festival in June and a 5K run to benefit the American Heart Assoc. in August. There have also been adjustments to the menu at Chandler’s restaurant, which Kent said fared pretty well in 2009. “We are doing more advertising this year, getting back to more normal levels.”

Larry Litton, president of Six Flags New England and a board member of the GSCVB, said the recession didn’t significantly impact business at the park. Still, the management team took a very proactive approach.

“We have done very well. We ran some tremendous promotions that were sensitive to the fact that money was tight,” he said. In 2009, these promotions allowed adults to pay the same entry price as children. Those promotions are continuing this year, and the park is also offering its lowest season-ticket price since 2004.

Weather plays a significant role in its attendance, but in the end, Litton believes it boils down to the value offered. “We are the largest theme park in New England and have the number-one steel roller coaster in the world,” he said.

The facility’s water park boasts new attractions, including a Johnny Rockets restaurant, and management is bringing back popular events, such as the Glow in the Dark parade and a Starburst Concert Series, with acts that appeal to teens.

“We have made a lot of changes over the last four or five years to broaden our appeal and added a lot of show products for younger children,” Kent said. “If anyone hasn’t been here for four or five years, they would not believe the changes in the property. We started this year off very strongly and are expecting a huge year.”

Still, marketing dollars spent by the Convention and Visitors Bureau help area attractions significantly, and Wydra, Kent, and other board members have gone to Boston to discuss the tourism budget in recent weeks. “There is no better investment than tourism,” Kent said, “and we hope our message resonated with the Legislature.”

Departments

The following building permits were issued during the month of May 2010.

AGAWAM

Genesis Health Ventures
67 Cooper St.
$20,000 — Revise exterior ramp layout to accommodate deliveries at dialysis center

Southgate Plaza
858 Suffield St.
$25,000 — Minor renovations for building-code upgrade

AMHERST

Pioneer Valley Living Care
1 Spencer Dr.
$15,000 — Renovations

Town of Amherst Recreation
95 Montague Road
$36,000 — Roof replacement at Mill River recreation area

CHICOPEE

Charles Heath
650 Memorial Dr.
$530,000 — Renovation of the retail sales area and the tire-installation area

P.N.C.U.
46 Main St.
$23,000 — Construction of a file room on the second floor

W.A.C.E
326 Chicopee St.
$13,000 — Strip and re-roof

GREENFIELD

James W. Renaud
269 Federal St.
$3,450 — Remove and replace roof

Mark S. Donoghue
500 Main St.
$7,000 — Exterior renovations

HOLYOKE

Friendly’s Realty II, LLC
1745 Northampton St.
$22,000 — New roof and windows

NORTHAMPTON

Atwood Drive LLC
Atwood Dr.
$15,000 — Remove and replace six Verizon antenna panels

Christ United Methodist Church
271 Rocky Hill Road
$5,000 — New bell display tower

Colvest Northampton, LLC
327 King St.
$15,000 – Remove and replace six Verizon antenna panels

Winston Bennett LLC
142 Main St.
$1,500 — Add small room off existing office

 

Wright Builders
8 Moser St.
$70,000 — Construct four unit townhouses, foundation only

SOUTH HADLEY

Depetrillo Realty
775 New Ludlow Road
$18,000 — New windows

Mt. Holyoke College
1-3 Bridgeman Lane
$12,000 — Renovations

SOUTHWICK

The Shepard Corporation
320 College Highway
$137,500 — Self-storage units

SPRINGFIELD

BTA Group
1090 St. James Ave.
$84,000 — Tenant fit up

John Salema
1287 Page St.
$43,500 — Cosmetic remodel

Mass Development
1550 Main St.
$2,577,000 — Replace first-floor storefront, and interior and exterior improvements

MassMutual
1295 State St.
$200,000 — New roofing system

Picknelly Family, LLC
1414 Main St.
$42,000 — Renovations of fifth floor

United Bank
800 West Columbus St.
$13,000 — New ATM machine in front lobby

WEST SPRINGFIELD

380 Union St. Properties, LLC
380 Union St.
$15,000 — Add three antennas to telephone tower

First Hartford Realty Corp.
1106 Union St.
$750,000 — Alterations for supermarket

Scaper, LLC
120 Interstate Dr.
$2,500 — Add three antennas to telephone tower

Features
Glenn Edwards Believes the Time Is Right for His Springfield Properties
Main Street Building Block

Glenn Edwards is taking a glass-full-half outlook on prospects for commercial real estate in downtown Springfield, and especially his block.

It took Glenn Edwards a few years to put the entire block of buildings on Main Street in Springfield between Harrison Place and Court Street into his portfolio. He’s enjoyed mixed results since then, with the recession leaving ‘for lease’ signs in many windows along that stretch. And while the local market remains quite sluggish, he believes the time is right for him to fill some of those vacancies.

Glenn Edwards has his office in New York City, but he keeps close tabs on what’s happening in Springfield — and he should. After all, he owns all the buildings along the east side of Main Street between Harrison Avenue and Falcon Drive.

And for the most part, Edwards, who acquired those parcels between 2005 and 2007, likes what he’s hearing and reading about the City of Homes and especially its central business district. He’s actually pleased that the nearly vacant federal building will soon be almost full with Springfield School Department offices and other tenants (some downtown property owners were miffed that their buildings were not even given an opportunity to vie for that business).

Meanwhile, he’s encouraged by progress in Court Square, especially UMass Amherst’s decision to take one of the buildings there for one of its programs. He’s buoyed by some anecdotal evidence that the worst appears to be over for both the economy in general and the real estate market in particular, and, while he wasn’t thrilled to lose the Dennis Group as a major tenant in Harrison Place, he’s even finding something positive about that company’s relocation to the Fuller Block and the filling of that structure.

He believes all or most of the recent news bodes well for his efforts to lease up his properties, which include — in addition to Harrison Place, which has three vacant floors — what’s known as the Johnson’s Bookstore Building, Marketplace, the so-called Northwestern Mutual Building, and also 1341 and 1319-1331 Main St.

New life for the federal building and Fuller Block will add vitality to the downtown and leave two fewer options for companies that are looking to downsize, rightsize, find a better deal, or take an expansion plan off the back burner its been on since the recession hit high gear, said Edwards, noting that he believes there are many businesses in all these categories.

“As the economy improves, we fully expect Springfield to be part of the renaissance,” he told BusinessWest. “We expect to ride the next wave of real-estate activity.”

And within Edwards’ block of buildings, which together comprise around 45,000 square feet of available space in various shapes and sizes, there is “something for just about everyone,” said John Williamson, president of Williamson Commercial Properties, which is now handling leasing activities for the properties.

“We’ve have full floors in Harrison Place, including the first and second, which is some of the most visible space in downtown Springfield,” he said. “And we have a lot of other spaces with which we can be very creative.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talks at length with Edwards and Williamson about why they think they have the right places at the right time.

New Lease on Life?

Williamson joked that his new assignment with Edwards, for whom he handled the Harrison Place transaction in 2007, is essentially to “lease his way out of a job,” meaning to fill the properties in question.

As he goes about that task, he’ll face a good number of challenges, especially competition for tenants. Indeed, while some properties, like the Fuller Block and the federal building, are now effectively off the market, there are countless others in or near downtown with ‘for lease’ signs in their windows.

And, in many respects, this is still very much a tenants’ market, a phrase used repeatedly by brokers to imply that businesses that are ready and able to make moves can play those landlords with space to lease against one another and get some attractive deals.

But the biggest challenge may be that there are still not enough business owners and nonprofit managers ready to make those moves. In recent months, area brokers have used words like ‘quiet,’ ‘frozen,’ and ‘dead’ to describe the state of the local commercial real-estate market, and some have said that conditions now are even worse than during the prolonged recession of 20 years ago, when brokers could at least stay busy working for banks trying to rid themselves of properties on their OREO (other real estate owned) files.

However, the usually optimistic Edwards is seeing the picture a different way — with the glass half full, or at least approaching that level.

He said that activity has picked up in many of the markets in which he owns properties (that list includes municipalities ranging from Lynnbrook, N.Y. to Park City, Kan. to Clifton, Colo.), and that he fully expects that Springfield, home to perhaps the centerpiece of his portfolio, will eventually follow suit.

“It’s not going to be a tenants’ market forever,” he said, noting that, as bad as this downturn has been, it will be followed, like others before it, by a period when the laws of supply of demand will eventually begin to work in favor of property owners.

And he believes his block is well-positioned for the day when the pendulum starts to swing.

Granted, he has only what would be considered Class B space, or perhaps B+ in the case of Harrison Place, available to lease, but he notes that most Class A space in both the suburbs and downtown Springfield is occupied, and what isn’t — the vast majority of it is in 1350 Main St. or One Financial Plaza — is mostly being reserved for larger tenants.

So he believes this leaves opportunities for those properties across Main Street with the odd numbers, starting with Harrison Place.

Edwards acquired that landmark from the Picknelly family in late 2007, putting the entire block in his portfolio. The building was nearly full at that time, but the scene changed dramatically when Tom Dennis — who acquired the property in the late ’90s, built out the first two floors for his engineering firm, and later sold the property to the Picknellys — desired to once again own his space.

He departed for the rehabbed Fuller block in the summer of 2009, leaving one of those aforementioned ‘for lease’ signs in the front window at Harrison Place, through which countless pedestrians and motorists look every day.

That visibility, coupled with accessibility and pliable space, has attracted several tire-kickers, said Williamson, including a large law firm. He expects more tours in the weeks and months ahead as businesses look to take advantage of what is still, by and large, a tenants’ market.

The ultimate goal is to lease the first and second floors, both around 8,000 square feet, to one tenant. The best plan B is to find two full-floor tenants, he said, adding that there is flexibility for a number of other scenarios, but the preference is for larger tenants.

The same goes for the slightly smaller ninth floor, he said, adding that, overall, there is some 25,000 square feet, just over 33% of the total space, available in the building.

Moving south down what could now be called the Edwards Block, there are roughly 5,000 square feet available, or just under one-fifth of the total, in the Johnson’s Bookstore building, where Edwards and Williamson want to find more retail and office tenants to join FedEx Kinko’s, which moved in on the first floor last year.

There are nearly 6,000 square feet available (one-quarter of the inventory) at 1365 Main St., also called the Marketplace Building; all of the space, 5,298 square feet, in 1341 Main St., most recently occupied by Westfield Bank, which means it’s been vacant for some time; and just over 3,068 square feet in 1310-1331 Main, also known as the Peerless Building.

Overall, Williamson said his broad strategy for leasing up those buildings is “innovative,” and by that he means everything from imaginative lease deals that will serve both Edwards and his tenants to efforts to attract some of the many nonprofit groups operating in the Greater Springfield area, especially for the Westfield Bank building, which he believes is perfectly suited for one or, more likely, several such tenants.

“That property lends itself well to that kind of use,” he said, “and there are literally hundreds of these 501 C3s operating in this area.”

Space Exploration

When asked why he’s so bullish on the prospects for Springfield when others seem far less ebullient, Edwards says his attitude stems from seeing clear progress in several of the other markets in which he owns real estate.

“We’ve signed a number of leases over the past few months — there’s a lot of activity taking place,” he said. “We’re going to see that here, too. Tenants will be rightsizing and going from class C space to class B. Space will start to be absorbed again.”

Time will tell if — and when — he’s right about the Springfield market, but at the moment, Edwards likes what he sees. And he believes he’s well-positioned for when the turnaround begins.

George O’Brien can be reached at

[email protected]

Uncategorized
You Don?t Need a Crystal Ball to Figure Out What They?re Thinking

Construction companies need the support of their bonding company to sustain the growth of their business. As a result of the current economic realities of the construction industry, bonding companies are spending more time scrutinizing the viability of their clients’ financial future and operations before issuing a bond.

Here are the 10 topics you need to be prepared to address the next time you sit down with your surety agent.

1. Banking covenants. Bonding companies want to know that you are satisfying the covenants as outlined in your loan or line of credit documents. If you’re not meeting the covenants, you need to talk to your banker about rewriting the covenants or developing a strategy for meeting them. Bonding companies get concerned when they see that construction companies are not meeting their banking covenants.

In fact, this could result in an immediate end to a line of credit or an immediate call for repayment of a loan. Needless to say, without access to financing, some construction companies couldn’t afford to complete their work in progress. In the end, bonding companies want to see a positive working relationship with your lending institution.

2. Accounts receivable. Your accounts-receivable aging report will be examined throughout the year. What are bonding companies looking for? They want to make sure that you’re being paid for your work, and you have business systems, policies, and procedures in place to track and encourage timely payments. Before starting work for a customer, perform enough due diligence that would lead you and your bonding company to believe you’ll get paid for your work.

3. Accounts payable. Pay your bills in a timely fashion. Bonding companies assume that, if you’re not paying your bills in a timely fashion, you either don’t have the resources to do so, or you have weak internal business systems. Either way, that’s bad news.

4. Backlog. In construction, it’s all about the backlog. Really, whether you are an accounting firm, law office, or a construction company, a backlog of work secures the future of your business. The longer the backlog, the more confidence bonding companies will have in your business, and the more likely they are to insure the completion of your work. Keep in mind that bonding companies will look at more than the total number of jobs backlogged; they’ll look for the number of profitable jobs.

5. Strategic business plan. We all get distracted by today’s challenges, but taking the time to write a strategic business plan is good for the future of your business. And that’s just what bonding companies are concerned about — the future of your business. What are your short-term, mid-range and long-term goals, and what is your strategy for achieving them? Write them down. A good strategic business plan includes timelines and benchmarks to measure progress. If your bonding company comes in for a visit and asks to see your strategic business plan, be ready to share a thoroughly prepared document.

6. Profitable and cost-controlled work. Your bonding company wants to know that your jobs are profitable and that costs can be controlled as shifts in the market demand. So be prepared to show how you plan to profit from your work and control costs. In addition, if market conditions change, you need to have a plan in place to adjust. Take a proactive approach to challenges by implementing smart solutions on a timely basis.

7. Equipment. Equipment represents a major investment for most construction companies. The patterns of acquisition and disposition of equipment tell the bonding company a story. Be ready to discuss the reasons why you are either acquiring or disposing of equipment. If you’re stuck supporting debt for idle equipment, there may be creative ideas you could explore to turn idle equipment into a revenue source. Discuss strategies like this with your surety agent.

8. Loans from owners. As an owner of any business, when times are tough, you may have to loan your company money to help it through a temporarily challenging time. Don’t be surprised if loans you make to your company get subordinated to other obligations of the company and require approval from your surety before you get paid back. As an aside, be sure to consult with your accountant and attorney before loaning money to your company; there may be tax benefits or implications that deserve additional discussion.

9. Indemnity. Personal and spousal indemnity is becoming commonplace, especially if your surety agent considers a particular job to be a stretch for your company. Your bonding company sees more risk associated when you do work outside of your areas of expertise. With additional risk comes additional indemnity. If this sounds like you, be prepared to discuss why your company can meet its obligations even outside its areas of expertise.

10. Unexpected taxes. If your construction company (structured as a C-corporation) has adopted the completed contract basis of accounting for tax purposes, you may not be in a position to defer taxes to next year without a sizeable backlog. As backlogs at some construction companies aren’t so large, this could mean that those deferred taxes are payable now. Unanticipated, this could place significant strain on cash flow. Even if your deferred tax is at the individual level, as is the case with a flow-through entity, be prepared to discuss this issue with your surety agent.

Surety agents can be supportive in helping you grow your construction business. That being said, in higher-risk environments, they’ll need additional and more detailed information about you and your business.

Take a proactive approach in developing a positive working relationship with your surety agent. Get together throughout the year. Share your success stories and your challenges. Tell your surety agent what your company is doing to improve business processes and procedures, and what strategies you’ve put into place to control costs and become more profitable. When you and your surety agent are on the same page, that’s good for business. n

Joseph Spagnoletti, CPA, CCIFP is partner in charge of the Construction Services Group at Kostin, Ruffkess & Co., LLC, a certified public-accounting and business-advisory firm with offices in Springfield as well as Farmington and New London, Conn. Beyond traditional accounting, auditing, and tax consulting, the firm also specializes in employee benefit-plan audits, litigation support, business valuation, succession-planning business consulting, forensic accounting, wealth management, estate planning, fraud prevention, and information technology assurance;www.kostin.com.

Departments

ACCGS
www.myonlinechamber.com
(413) 787-1555

June 2: ACCGS Breakfast, 7:15 to 9 a.m., hosted by Springfield College. Cost: members $20, non-members $30.

June 9: ACCGS After 5, 5 to 7 p.m., hosted by the Delaney House, Holyoke. Cost: members $10, non-members $15.

June 10: ACCGS Annual Meeting, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., hosted by Springfield Marriott. Keynote speaker: Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal. Cost: members $40, non-members $60.

June 28: WRC 7th Annual Golf Tournament, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., hosted by Crestview Country Club, Agawam. Call the chamber for more information.

Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield
www.springfieldyps.com  

June 17: YPS Third Thursday, hosted by Pazzo Restaurant, Springfield. See chamber Web site for more information.

Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce
www.amherstarea.com

June 18: Breakfast, 7:15 yo 9 a.m., Town Common under the Taste Tent; sponsored by Dr. Hauschka Skin Care and Museums10. Cost: members $12, non-members $15.

June 23: After Five New Member Reception, 5 to 7 p.m. Recognizing J.F. Conlon & Associates; Prudential Sawicki Real Estate; Ziomek & Ziomek; Blair, Cutting & Smith Insurance. Sponsored by Whirlwind Fine Garden Design, Center for Extended Care, and Greenfield Savings Bank. Cost: members $5, non-members $10.

Chicopee Chamber of Commerce
www.chicopeechamber.org
(413) 594-2101

June 9: Golf Tournament, 10 a.m. shotgun start, hosted by Chicopee Country Club. Cost: $125 per golfer, includes 18 holes with a cart, lunch with a beer or soda, dinner, and golfer’s gift; $20 for golfer’s package,  includes 25 raffle tickets and one mulligan; $115 for sign up to golf; $135 for sign up to golf and golfer’s package.

Franklin County Chamber of Commerce
www.franklincc.org
(413) 773-5463

See chamber Web site for information about upcoming events.

Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce
www.easthamptonchamber.org
(413) 527-9414

June 9: Networking by Night Business Card Exchange, 5 to 7 p.m., hosted and sponsored by Promark Graphics, Easthampton, co-sponsored by Riff’s Joint. Door prizes, hors d’ouevres, host beer and wine. Cost: members $5, non-members $15.

uJune 18: Wine and Microbrew Tasting, 6 to 8 p.m., One Cottage Street (corner of Cottage and Union streets), Easthampton. More than 50 wines and microbrews, fine food, raffle. Wine and microbrew sponsor: Westfield Spirit Shop. Food sponsor: the Log Cabin and Delaney House. Benefactor: Finck & Perras Insurance Agency. Cost: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Purchase online at www.easthamptonchamber.org  or call the chamber office. Proceeds to benefit chamber community programs.

Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce
www.holycham.com
(413) 534-3376

June 16: Chamber After Hours, 5 to 7 p.m., hosted by Wistariahurst Museum Carriage House, Holyoke. Sponsored by Vin’s Cloth Car Wash and Holyoke Gas & Electric. Presented by the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors. Cost: members $5, non-members $10.

Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce
www.explorenorthampton.com   
(413) 584-1900

June 2: Arrive @ 5, 5 to 7 p.m., hosted by Northampton Education Foundation, held at the Hotel Northampton. Sponsored by Dr. Hauschka Skin Care Inc., Greenfield Community College, and United Bank. To register, contact Jenna at (413) 584-1900 or [email protected]

u June 15: Meet & Eat, 7:30 to 9 a.m., hosted by Union Station, Northampton. To register, contact Jenna at (413) 584-1900 or [email protected]

Northampton Area Young Professional Society
www.thenayp.com
(413) 584-1900

June 6: 11th Annual A Walk/Run to Remember, 8 a.m. to noon, hosted by Hampshire Regional YMCA, Northampton. The Garden: a Center for Grieving Children and Teens invites participants to walk (1 mile) or run (5k) in remembrance, for health, or just for fun. Register online at www.signmeup.com/69175

Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce
www.qvcc.biz
(413) 283-2418

See chamber Web site for information about upcoming events.

South Hadley/Granby Chamber of Commerce
www.shchamber.com
(413) 532-6451

See chamber Web site for information about upcoming events.

Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce
www.threeriverschamber.org
413-283-6425

See chamber Web site for information about upcoming events.

Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce
www.westfieldbiz.org
(413) 568-1618

June 9: Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce WestNet (After 5) Networking Event, 5 to 7 p.m., hosted by Stevens 451, Westfield. Participants are invited to bring a friend and a door prize to highlight their business. Cost: members $10, non-members $15. For reservations, call (413) 568-1618 or e-mail [email protected]

June 11: Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce Spring Breakfast, 7:15 to 9 a.m., hosted by Stanley Park Pavilion, Westfield. Guest Speaker:Charlie Baker. Head Greeter: state Sen. Michael Knapik. Participants are invited to bring a friend and a door prize to highlight their business. Cost: members $20, non-members $25. For reservations, call (413) 568-1618 or e-mail [email protected]

Departments

Attorney Jeffrey Trapani, an associate with the Springfield-based firm Robinson Donovan, has been appointed to the Legislative Steering Committee of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield. Trapani, who has been part of the Litigation Department at Robinson Donovan since 2007, specializes in business, employment, and insurance law, and professional-liability litigation. As a member of the ACCGS Legislative Steering Committee, he will help research new and pending legislation and other legal issues that might affect chamber members.

•••••

The United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) announced that Sarah Tanner has rejoined the organization as Senior Vice President for Resource Development. Tanner leads and oversees strategies for UWPV’s workforce giving programs, including more than 400 private- and public-sector fund-raising campaigns. She is also responsible for United Way leadership programs and developing special giving initiatives in the 23 communities the UWPV serves. She previously worked in the United Way system for nearly 12 years before leaving for a stint as vice president of Community Development for Noble Hospital in Westfield.

•••••

Bart Bales, P.E. has joined Tighe & Bond Inc. as the firm’s new mechanical engineer and MEP manager. With a focus on high-performance, renewable-energy, and energy-efficient systems for buildings and facilities, Bales has more than 25 years of experience serving municipalities, public institutions, utility companies, and businesses. In addition to heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning projects, his portfolio includes energy studies and services, sustainable design and advising, energy efficiency and resource conservation, as well as commissioning. Bales is an active member of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Assoc. and has served on the NESEA board of directors and conference planning committees. He is also a member of the Green Roundtable, the Assoc. of Energy Engineers, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers.

•••••

The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. (MMWEC) announced the following:
• MWEC Director Jonathan Fitch, manager of the Princeton Municipal Light Department, was elected by the board of directors to the chairman’s post;
• Gary Babin, director of the Mansfield Municipal Electric Department, was elected by the MMWEC membership to a three-year term as director; and
• Jeffrey Cady, manager of the Chicopee Municipal Lighting Plant, was elected by the MWEC membership to a three-year term as director.

•••••

Sean Hemingway has been named director of the Center for Human Development’s juvenile justice programs based at the Westfield Youth Service Center. Hemingway was promoted to program director of the CHD Assessment Program and CHD Juvenile Justice Supports after serving as interim director of those two programs since December, while also serving as program director of CHD’s Adolescent Re-entry Services for the state Department of Youth Services Western Region.

•••••

James Hanifan, AIA, Vice President of Caolo & Bieniek Associates Inc. in Chicopee, was a recent keynote speaker for the University of Massachusetts Seminar Series “Designing for Sustainability in the Built Environment.” Hanifan is the project architect for the new UMass Amherst police headquarters, which will be the first LEED-certified project on the campus.

Features
Area Architects Have Designs on Business Improvement in 2010
Rough Drafts

Christopher Riddle, left, and John Kuhn say the recession has altered the landscape for architects in a number of ways.

The economic downturn hit the construction sector across the board, from builders all the way back to the architects themselves. While the historic effects are reportedly on the wane for this industry, local architects draw up their own tales of the Great Recession, and offer some thoughts on how they will recognize the signs of recovery.

Growing numbers of competitors from outside of the region, private-sector financing not readily available for new construction, and cutbacks in staff numbers and workdays … wait, wasn’t this just reported about the construction sector?

Recently BusinessWest spoke to the people holding the hammers about the nature of the building trades and how the economy was affecting them in unprecedented ways. While area tradesmen knew the news wasn’t very good, most reported on how they are successfully navigating these turbulent times.

However, another key component of the construction sector, the architecture industry, has also been finding its business hit, and hit hard, by many of those same forces, and they too have undertaken measures for successfully riding out the economic downturn.

John MacMillan is president of Rheinhardt Associates in Agawam. Like construction workers out in the field, he said that competitors from outside the area have been bidding on design jobs in numbers he’s never seen in his 25 years in the industry. “It’s very fierce,” he told BusinessWest.

But while industry analysts foresee the potential for grim times ahead in the construction sector, architects and those who monitor the industry have designs on a much better 2010.

Kermit Baker is the chief economist for the American Institute of Architects, and in that organization’s Billings Index, a monthly measurement of the number of projects ‘on the boards’ for architectural firms, he reported that, while billings were “at historically depressed levels in March,” that month’s confidence index of 46.1 reflected an increase from February’s 44.8.

This figure is the highest recorded since August 2008, and while an index rating over 50 is a mark of growth in the industry, March’s numbers indicate a four-point increase over the previous two months.

“We could be moving closer to a recovery phase,” Baker reported, expressing that old faithful known as cautious optimism. But he added that firms “are still reporting an unusual amount of variation in the level of demand for design services, from ‘improving’ to ‘poor’ to ‘virtually nonexistent.’”

It’s a familiar story for architects in Western Mass., who say their firms have faced challenges like nothing they’ve seen before. For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the blueprints for the business of architecture, and what designs some area firms have for a hopeful 2010.

Big Fish in a Small Pond

Leon Pernice has been designing buildings from his home office in West Springfield for close to 50 years — office buildings at the Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, several area churches, the municipal center of Brimfield, and numerous senior residential facilities.

Like everyone else, he said that competition has reached numbers that he’s never seen.

For such competition, he added, the number of jobs that his firm usually bids has dropped in reverse proportion. “There’s work out there,” he said, “but much less private work and more public. And when I say more public work, that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of it, though.”

For smaller projects, he said, firms are coming from far afield, which was once only the case for the largest regional jobs.

While large, high-profile projects typically had drawn architectural firms from all over the nation, something that Pernice said was perfectly understandable, “the top-tier projects are often financed by boards of directors or trustees who have different criteria for their selection process,” he said diplomatically, adding that he is unsettled by the fact that the smallest jobs also now see bidders from outside the area.

“When you have municipalities assigning their smallest work to architects out of the area … I don’t know how that works,” he said while shaking his head.

MacMillan agreed, noting that his firm has faced competition from outfits that never went after this market, meaning mid-scale to larger scale projects such as the Berkshire Medical Center, Belchertown Fire Department, Agawam police station, and currently the Holyoke Multi-Modal facility, among others.

“A lot of those offices are Boston-based or, in some cases, from New York. We never used to see them before,” he said. “We’re getting firms that used to work at a different tier — high-design firms from Boston or Cambridge, 100-plus offices with business-development staff and marketers.

“For ourselves, having this competition, with the bigger guys bottom feeding,” he continued, “we’ve had to shift some focus onto projects that used to be too small for us. That’s where we are now.”

Rheinhardt Associates has been designing for the public sector for more than 50 years, he said, and with stimulus projects and municipal upgrades that can’t be put off, that sector is where design work is holding steady.

In order to compete for the larger projects that come to bid, MacMillan said that his firm has taken a cue from the competition to remain a key player.

“We’ve teamed with larger firms,” he explained. “We realize that is what we have to do, because the day is not here where we can land the largest projects on our own, especially not with the competition.

“When the projects are local,” he continued, “that regional expertise is what we can bring to the table. Sure, it’s a smaller piece of the pie, but at the end of the day, we are supporting this firm competing against other large firms. This is unusual for us. In a better climate, the locals might carry the day entirely, but these are not the times for that.”

Back to School

As the current principal of Juster Pope Frazier Architects in Northampton, Kevin Chrobak said that some words of wisdom from one of the founders sketches out a winning plan for his firm.

“Jack Frazier used to have this saying, ‘you have to learn to enjoy the slow times as well as the fast times,’” he said.

As a means to that end, Chrobak said that JPF has a policy of “flex time” for employees, one of its techniques for riding out the economy. “It’s a win-win situation here,” he explained, “which gives people the ability to deal with their own schedules as they see fit. People have used flex time to spend more time with their families without really impacting our ability to do projects. It also makes them a bit more appreciative of working here.”

And during straightened times, he added, the firm doesn’t sweat the bottom line on a 40-hour workweek.

But JPF is fortunate as a smaller firm, with only six employees, not to be facing tough decisions at their drafting tables or their accounting ledgers.

“We have a strong portfolio of repeat clients, with decent projects,” he said. “But our size allows us to stay largely outside the harsh effects of the downturn. The bigger firms might feel the need to constantly bring in new projects, but we don’t really feel that burden.”

For a small office, Chrobak’s firm is responsible for numerous big-ticket projects, such as the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, the Longmeadow Fire Station, and the Springfield Visitor Information Center, to name just a few. He says that repeat clientele has been a major player in JPF’s strength and vitality through the recession.

“Having diverse clients and a diverse portfolio has helped us very well,” he said. But while his office stays busy with numerous projects, Chrobak said that he is aware that the number of projects in the area is small. “There’s just not a lot of new construction out there.”

UMass Amherst is consistently a source for much of the area’s vitality in design and construction, Chrobak said, adding that “they are a real boon to our firm as a source of design work for us, and the construction industry in general. They’re one of the few organizations that are doing any construction work on that scale. I don’t think they get enough credit for that.”

Christopher Riddle, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, made a wave-like motion with his hand to describe the variation he sees for this area’s architectural business, specifically addressing the market for educational work that has neither real highs nor lows. UMass and the overall strength of higher education has been a great lifeline for the region’s architects, he said.

“They have fluctuations, to be sure,” he said, “but they don’t go away altogether. They don’t go up and down with a great amplitude, but stay fairly regular with a consistent volume. A lot of our business is either directly or indirectly associated with the health of the education industry in Western Mass.”

Other sectors that are engaging projects are also known for their overall stability. Health care continues to draw new business, as does the transportation industry, which MacMillan said is responsible for a large part of his firm’s current planning.

In addition to the Maple Street project for the Holyoke transportation center, MacMillan said the PVTA is responsible for a good volume of work in rehabilitating many of its older structures. That repair and renovation market, he said, is a source of a lot of design work for many architects in the area.

Crediting UMass Amherst again, Chrobak applauded its House Doctor renovation program as a good source of work for many area firms, including his own for the past 20 years. Essentially it is a program whereby a small group of architects are hired on retainer to work on an equal number of projects for renovation.

“A lot of local firms really rely on that,” he said.

Sketching It Out

Riddle’s partner, John Kuhn, expects this recession to have a lasting impact on architecture.

“There is a shift toward sustainability and green systems,” he said. “And I think the days of subdivisions with McMansions on cul-de-sacs with funny names is over. That’s a completely dead market.”

In agreement, Riddle said that clients have had a renewed focus on buildings’ systems, with an eye towards energy efficiency and alternative means of making a building economically viable, not just at the ribbon cutting, but for a longer span of time.

Since the recession officially started in the fall of 2008, he said that KR has tackled four LEED-certified projects totaling $17 million. Its design for New England Environmental, an Amherst-based consulting firm, aims to be a LEED platinum structure, the highest level of certification.

Riddle said that energy systems are a particular interest of his, and he hopes this renewed enthusiasm drives more design projects in the future. “We spend a lot of time trying to optimize new construction,” he said, “trying to keep the energy consumption of new buildings down. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated new buildings are now. That’s easy. What you have to do is try to figure out how to deal with the enormous, vast numbers of existing buildings.”

Opting to look at the current market in a positive light, Kuhn said that “this recession brought a lot of creative change to the industry.

“It’s a very exciting time, in many ways, for architecture,” he continued. “The types of buildings that we’re working on, and the way we deliver projects, are all changing. The key is to stay nimble.”

Architectural Rendering

Responding to the positive forecast from the AIA, Kuhn said that he reads the industry reports, but he doesn’t take them too seriously.

“I don’t track the stock market,” he explained, “nor do I take to heart what I read on the front page of the paper. What I think of as indicators are the people you run into every day on a job site, what you hear from them at the coffee shops. What is the housepainter or carpenter or building owner seeing and saying?”

Those field notes are one way to find hope for an industry-wide turnaround, he said, but when all is said and done, he’ll know that business is picking up when the phones start ringing again.

Drawing upon the experience of increased firms at public bids, Pernice said that, for him, recovery will be manifest in smaller numbers of those competitors from out of the area.

“I’ll know it when you go to an open review session for a project to find eight people there instead of 28,” he said.

MacMillan said that his projections are for a flat quarter ahead, with his firm staying busy, but with smaller-scale and shorter-term projects than he is used to.

“We usually carry a backlog that’s anywhere from five to eight months,” he said, “and that’s very healthy. Today, it’s down to two months, max. When I start seeing a bigger backlog, I’ll feel comfortable.”

But echoing the hopeful uncertainty from most in this industry, he said that all it takes is one significant project to turn the tide altogether.

“That would be a huge bump for us,” he said. “So, it could be next week, or next month.”

Features
Hat Shop Owner Is Brimming with Confidence
Companies to Watch: BRIM AND CROWN

Richard Little wants to match people to hats — from those who have never worn one before to “absolute hatters” who don’t leave home without one.

Richard Little’s original plan was to open a men’s clothing store.

That was the thought process about seven years ago as he was pondering when and how to make the transition from corporate employee (he had worked for Verizon for many years) to small-business owner. But his research told him there was already enough, if not too many, of those establishments in the Greater Springfield area.

However, it also told him something else: that there was a real need for a hat shop to serve both men and women. “There wasn’t anything like this,” he said, waving his arm toward the front of the Brim and Crown shop on White Street in Springfield.

This need was complemented by what Little could only describe as a passion for hats, which he’s been wearing for as long as he can remember. “I decided that, if I was going to do anything entrepreneurial, it should be something I love. And I really love hats.”

Not only that, but he loves matching people, and their personalities, to hats, from individuals who have never worn one before (a large constituency) to those who wear one practically every day — a group he calls “absolute hatters.”

Not everything has gone exactly according to script for Little, who opened the doors in 2005, but, by and large, he’s doing as well as he thought he might when he put the Brim and Crown on the drawing board.

He’s been helped by a moderate surge in the popularity of hats, especially among younger professional men (more on that later), and also by the emergence of the Kentucky Derby party in recent years (hats are a mainstay for such events) as well as the race itself, and even some larger special functions like the recent fund-raising tea for Square One; many attendees bought hats from him for the occasion. Meanwhile, he’s been hurt by the recession. “I’m in the ‘want’ business, not the ‘need’ business; people don’t really need hats,” he explained, adding that, in most respects, this is a luxury item.

But it’s one that has certainly turned into a sound business opportunity.

Like the optician who adorns his shop with photos of models wearing glasses, Little has his walls covered with pictures of people decked out in all types of hats. Many are actual customers, including some who needed items for the Square One tea and this year’s Kentucky Derby parties. There are also some models, and even a few actors: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., in one of the famous scenes from the original Ocean’s 11, and also Johnny Depp wearing a brown felt model.

“He’s not a customer — yet,” Little said of Depp. “But I’m working on it.”

The current client list includes mostly Springfield-area residents, but there are some from Northern Conn. and others from Boston and other points east. “I get a lot of customers from the Boston area,” he said. “More than a few of them are salespeople out on the road. They’ve heard about me or found my Web site, and they stop by when they’re in the area.”

And while clients’ mailing addresses vary, so too do their wants and, on some occasions, needs. Many women need what Little calls “church hats,” which are worn regularly on Sundays but also on other special occasions. Meanwhile, more men are deciding that a baseball cap is not the way they want to go, or at least not the only way.

“A lot more men are wearing hats now, especially young professionals,” said Little. “I have a lot of doctors, lawyers, and business people as customers.”

Hats will likely never again be as popular as they were decades ago, when men wouldn’t leave the house without one, said Little, noting that, contrary to popular opinion, hats were on the way out long before President John F. Kennedy conducted business without one. “But they are making something of a comeback.”

And there are several reasons why, he said, listing everything from changing fashion trends to a run of gangster movies that bring hats back into focus. Even health issues come into play; indeed, as Baby Boomers age, many of them are hearing their doctors tell them to put something on their head if they’re going out in the sun, said Little.

All this adds up to more of that aforementioned matching of people to hats, he continued, adding that quite a bit goes into this process, from the client’s build to the colors they prefer to wear, to the image they’re trying to project.

“A hat has to fit someone’s personality because, while everyone can wear a hat, no one can really wear every hat,” said Little, who uses the word “hatitude” to describe those who make a proper match.

Those visiting the Brim and Crown will find ample opportunities to create a match, with a wide variety of selections on both the men’s and women’s sides of the store, and a host of well-known brands to choose from, including Stetson, Biltmore, Dobbs, Bailey, and Makins for men, and Toucan, Betmar, Ellie, and Christine Moore for women.

With any luck, this selection — coupled with all those trends, from Derby parties to men dressing up more — will create more absolute hatters.

—George O’Brien