Construction employment expanded in 224 metro areas, declined in 64 and was stagnant in 51 between November 2013 and November 2014, according to a new analysis of federal employment data released today by the Associated General Contractors of America. Association officials said contractors in many parts of the country were benefitting from growing demand, yet labor shortages threaten to undermine the sector’s recovery. “It is good news that construction employment is now rising in two-thirds of the nation’s metro areas,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the association. “But now that the unemployment rate for construction workers has fallen to a seven-year low, it has become a major challenge to find qualified workers in many fields.” Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, Texas added the largest number of construction jobs in the past year (16,200 jobs, 9%), followed by Dallas-Plano-Irving, Texas (11,000 jobs, 10 %), Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, Ill. (9,100 jobs, 7%) and Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, Wash. (8,900 jobs, 12%). The largest percentage gains occurred in Pascagoula, Miss. (24%, 1,500 jobs), Fargo, N.D. (19%, 1,600 jobs), Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin, Fla. (18, 700 jobs) and York-Hanover, Pa. (18%, 1,700 jobs). The largest job losses from November 2013 to November 2014 were in Bethesda-Rockville-Frederick, Md. (-3,600 jobs, -11%), followed by Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, Ariz. (-3,000 jobs, -3%), Edison-New Brunswick N.J. (-2,700 jobs, -6%), Gary, Ind. (-2,500 jobs, -14%) and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla. (-2,500 jobs, -4%). The largest percentage decline for the past year was in Steubenville-Weirton, Ohio-W.Va. (-39%, -900 jobs), followed by Cheyenne, Wyo. (-17%, -600 jobs), Fond du Lac, Wis. (-15%, -400 jobs) and Gary, Ind. Association officials noted that most contractors report they are having a hard time finding qualified workers to fill key positions as demand rebounds. They cautioned that if labor conditions get even tighter, contractors will have to pass on new projects, and possibly delay existing ones, because of a lack of workers. Indeed, 25% of contractors reported over the summer they were already declining to bid on certain projects because of the lack of available workers. “It is time to start rebuilding the once robust career and technical education programs that used to exist in most school districts around the country,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer. “Without a solid network for preparing future workers, we are likely to spend much of 2015 talking about how the construction industry is failing to keep up with demand.”
WEST SPRINGFIELD — The Elite Baseball Development Program that helped develop Arizona Diamondback’s Nick Ahmed into the powerful shortstop he is today is coming to Palmer on Jan. 5. Conca Sport & Fitness, LLC (CSF) will be bringing its Conca Sports Performance division to AP Player Development in Palmer, located at 1 Chamber Road. Conca Sports Performance is the highly specialized athlete development division of Conca Sport & Fitness, LLC which offers sport-specific strength and conditioning. One such program, the Elite Baseball Development Program, has been offered at its West Springfield facility since 2009, training high school, collegiate and professional athletes. Athletes in Palmer and surrounding areas will have the same opportunity. With the dynamic collaboration between CSF and AP Player Development, athletes will now have the opportunity to train on and off the field, using AP’s outdoor and indoor resources. “Steve Conca has designed an Elite Baseball Development program that addresses the needs of players at all levels,” said Peter Fatse, owner and director of AP Player Development, LLC. “We’re pleased to have him bring Conca Sports Performance to our facility and provide the expert strength and conditioning for the talent we are developing.” The Elite Baseball Development Program includes individual assessments and program design, supervised strength and conditioning, and nutrition education. Pitchers and hitters are assessed using cutting-edge ZenoLinkTM 3D technology to create an accurate performance profile that serves as the basis for their training programs. These programs are tailored to the players’ specific needs, including strengths, deficiencies, and injury history. “What happens in the off-season is just as important, if not more so, than what happens during the season with regards to strength and conditioning,” said Steve Conca, MS, CSCS owner of Conca Sport and Fitness, LLC. “The proper program design can make all the difference on the field, and our Elite Baseball Development Program identifies the individual needs of the players to ensure they perform their best while reducing the chances of an overuse injury to the shoulder and or elbow.”
HOLYOKE — On Jan. 4 at 3 p.m., Allerton Kilborne will return to Holyoke to offer a special tour of his grandmother’s home and share his memories of living at Wistariahurst. When Kilborne enters the home on Cabot Street, it is like entering a time machine. Allerton lived at Wistariahurst with his grandmother, Katherine Skinner Kilborne, and a full staff, whom he remembers in detail and with great affection. So join him in a journey back in time as Wistariahurst comes alive with his memories. Acquiring its name from the flowering vine, the 26-room mansion features parquet floors, vaulted ceilings, elaborate woodwork, and two marble lions that have guarded the entrance since the late 19th century. The estate was kept in the Skinner family until 1959 when Katharine Skinner Kilborne and her three children gave Wistariahurst to the city of Holyoke for cultural and educational purposes. Registration for the event is suggested. Admission is $12 for the general public, and $10 members. For more information or to register visit wistariahurst.org or call the museum at (413) 322-5660.
SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C., today announced that attorney L. Alexandra Hogan has been appointed as the new vice-chair of the New England division of the International Women’s Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation (IWIRC). In 2012, Hogan was voted in to join the organization’s board of directors. The New England IWIRC is a networking organization pursuing the goal of creating a vibrant community of restructuring practitioners from every discipline. For more than two decades, IWIRC has been connecting women worldwide through a global membership of more than 1,200 attorneys, bankers, corporate-turnaround professionals, financial advisors and other restructuring practitioners. “IWIRC provides valuable networking opportunities and leadership roles on a global and local level,” said Hogan. “Whether members are just beginning their careers or they are looking to take their profession to the next level, IWIRC has a platform to help them get there. I am proud to serve on the board of an organization devoted to improving the professional opportunities for women in my field and I’m excited to take my own involvement with the organization to the next level as the vice-chair for the New England division.” Hogan concentrates her practice primarily in bankruptcy, litigation and business law. She graduated from Western New England University School of Law in 2008 with cum laude honors and from Bay Path University with summa cum laude honors in 1996. For the years 2011-2014, she has been selected by Super Lawyers as a Rising Star and a Top Woman Attorney. She also currently serves as vice chair of the Hampden County Bar Association’s Bankruptcy Division.
Hogan volunteers to the Financial Literacy Program for U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts and the Boston Bar Association to aid high school students in personal finance and also provides pro bono services through the Law Consortium for Western Mass.
A Primer on the New England Compounding Bankruptcy Proceedings
By STEVEN WEISS
New England Compounding Pharmacy Inc. (NECC) was a drug-compounding facility located in Framingham. Beginning in the fall of 2012, reports began to surface that patients across the country who had been given an NECC-manufactured product had contracted fungal meningitis.Health authorities soon determined that NECC’s products were, in fact, tainted, and NECC ordered a recall. However, considerable damage had been done. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eventually determined that, as of October 2013, 64 people had died, and 751 had become ill. At least 555 separate lawsuits have been filed against NECC, its officers, and others, which have been consolidated in federal court in Boston. Ultimately, approximately 3,350 people have filed claims for personal injuries allegedly resulting from the tainted pharmaceuticals.
Two weeks ago, 14 people, including the former owners of the company, were arrested on federal charges, including RICO charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations law.
As a result of the outbreak, NECC could no longer operate, and on Dec. 21, 2012, it filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in the Massachusetts Bankruptcy Court (the case is being heard in the Springfield session of the court). Not long after the case was filed, NECC’s management was removed and a Chapter 11 trustee (Paul Moore) was appointed to oversee the liquidation of the company, to collect funds to distribute to victims and other creditors, and to establish a plan to distribute those funds. During the course of the case, the trustee and lawyers representing victims reached settlements with NECC, its officers and directors, several affiliated entities, several insurers, and others, through which as much as $135 million has been recovered for victims.
Recently, almost two years after the bankruptcy petition was filed, the Chapter 11 trustee and the unsecured creditors’ committee filed a joint disclosure statement and a plan of reorganization for NECC. Under the Bankruptcy Code, the disclosure statement is intended to be something like a stock prospectus; it is intended to provide creditors with sufficient information to enable them to make an informed judgment about whether to approve the plan. After the disclosure statement is approved by the Bankruptcy Court, it will be distributed to all of NECC’s creditors, who will have the opportunity to vote on whether or not the plan should be confirmed by the court. The vote is ‘weighted,’ because it has to be approved by a majority of creditors holding two-thirds of the dollar amount on the ballots of those who vote.
The plan, while complicated, is essentially a ‘liquidating plan,’ so-called because it does not contemplate that NECC will reorganize and ever operate again. Instead, it provides a process for estimating and determining the amounts of the victims’ claims, as well as a mechanism for making distributions to victims. If the plan is confirmed, all of the funds from the settlements will be transferred to a tort trust established under the plan.
One of the potentially controversial features of the plan is that, if confirmed, it will provide releases to parties not just to NECC and the insurers who have funded the settlements, but also to third parties who are not in bankruptcy, and enjoin further suits against those parties. Courts across the country have reached different conclusions about whether such broad injunctive provisions are beyond the powers of bankruptcy courts.
The plan provides for a ‘claims-resolution facility,’ under which victims’ claims are evaluated and ‘scored’ based on seven base-point categories, such as whether NECC’s products caused death and the extent of surviving victims’ injuries, then possibly adjusted based on individual victims’ personal circumstances.
That will enable the tort trustee to assign a dollar value to each victim’s claim. Those claims will then be eligible to receive pro-rated distributions from the pool of funds in the tort trust. Because there are so many claims, the disclosure statement does not provide any estimate of what the total amount of claims is likely to be, so the disclosure statement also does not predict what percent dividend victims are likely to receive on their claims. But for purposes of illustration, if there are total claims of $270 million, each victim with an allowed claim would receive a dividend of approximately 50% (less attorneys’ fees, of course).
The disclosure statement acknowledges that it may take several years to fully determine the amount of victims’ claims. Thus, the tort trust allows the tort trustee to make an initial interim payment to victims, followed by a final distribution once all of the claims have been calculated.
The Bankruptcy Court has scheduled a hearing on whether to approve the disclosure statement for Feb. 24. Once the disclosure statement is approved, it will be served on all of NECC’s creditors, along with the plan, a ballot, and voting instructions. A hearing on whether the plan should be confirmed — and be binding on NECC and all creditors — will likely be held in the spring.
Attorney Steven Weiss is a partner at Springfield-based Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin. He concentrates his practice in the areas of commercial and consumer bankruptcy, reorganization, and litigation. Weiss supervises the firm’s bankruptcy, reorganization, and workout practice; represents creditors, debtors, and others in both commercial and consumer bankruptcy cases throughout Massachusetts; and has been a member of the private panel of Chapter 7 trustees for the District of Massachusetts since 1987, and also serves as a Chapter 11 trustee; (413) 737-1131; www.ssfpc.com
The Search is on for the Forty 4o Under Forty Class of 2015
“There were so many deserving candidates to choose from that it was really difficult to rate everybody,” said Rothschild, co-owner of the marketing firm chikmedia and a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2011.
“No two candidates are the same; everyone has different strengths or some sort of leadership role that’s a personal cause, or has done something different from the rest, so it was really tough having to assign a numerical score,” she added. “We had a lot of candidates who were involved in a half-dozen things, serving on committees, where someone else wasn’t as involved in local committees, but had one leadership role that was huge and super impactful in the community. How do you balance that?”
That’s just one question this year’s judges HERE will ponder as they sort through nominations for the class of 2015. Coming off a record number of applicants (more than 150) in 2014, the 40 Under Forty program shows no signs of slowing down as it enters its ninth year.
BusinessWest launched the program in 2007 as a way to spotlight the accomplishments of younger professionals throughout Western Mass. — not only their on-the-job achievements, but their often-extensive volunteer work with organizations that benefit their communities.
There were many motivations for creating the program, said BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien, listing everything from a desire to identify rising stars to encouraging individuals to get involved in the community and, in short, do the things necessary to become a 40 Under Forty winner.
“Within just a few years, 40 Under Forty became a brand, as well as a goal for many young people in the business community, nonprofit sector, and public-service realm,” said O’Brien. “It’s become a benchmark, if you will, a symbol of excellence that, above all, identifies someone as a leader.”
Over the years, the program has highlighted individuals from a wide range of businesses and industries, including nonprofits. In addition, a healthy number of honorees each year are true entrepreneurs, individuals who have taken risks, developed their own business plans, and built companies that in turn create jobs.
“It was very exciting for me to see a ton of people I had never heard of, people who had started businesses,” Rothschild said. “I had a very exciting and positive feeling reading about these talented individuals who choose to make Western Mass. their home. It resonated with me as a small-business owner. It was really inspiring.”
That process begins with individuals nominating the people who inspire them, either online HERE or with a nomination form found in this issue and subsequent issues.
Jim Sheils, partner at Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, also judged last year’s bumper crop of nominations, and was as overwhelmed — in a good way — as Rothschild.
“It really was a difficult process because all the applications we went through were pretty stellar,” he said. “It was so encouraging to see the type of young talent we have here in the Pioneer Valley, who will be up and coming in the business community. But it was also very difficult to go through them all and figure out who were 10s and who were less than 10s. Winnowing them down, I must have gone through the pile four times to make my final cut.”
In the end, Sheils said, “I was very pleased with the final 40. We’re very fortunate to have the level of talent and dedication we have in the community.”
With competition expected to be just as fierce this year, nominators have to raise their game, said Kate Campiti, BusinessWest’s associate publisher. “That’s where it starts, with the nomination. It needs to be complete, it needs to be thorough, and it needs to essentially answer the question, ‘why is this individual worthy of a 40 Under Forty plaque?’”
The nomination form requests basic information, said Campiti, and can be supported with other material, such as a résumé, testimonials, and even press clippings highlighting an individual’s achievements in their profession or service to their community. Nominations must be received by the end of the business day (5 p.m.) on Feb. 6. The five judges will then score those nominations, and the winners will be notified by mail by the end of the month.
The chosen 40 will be profiled in the magazine’s April 20 edition, then toasted at the annual gala reception on June 18 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.
“The gala has become a happening, a not-to-be missed gathering that is also the year’s best networking opportunity,” said Campiti, adding that those who wish to attend must act quickly, because the gala traditionally sells out weeks before the event.
Before people clamor for tickets, though, they tend to get excited about the nomination process, which, again, is fully underway.
“When I was a judge last year, people called me, messaged me, sent me e-mail — ‘did you see my application? I heard someone nominated me. I really want this award,’” Rothschild recalled. “It’s become this goal that professionals in the community strive toward. This is a huge event, a huge award, and I think anyone somewhat tapped into Western Massachusetts wants to put it on their résumé.”
Sheils agreed, and said he’ll be excited to read about the class of 2015.
“The qualifications of people applying, they cross all the fields — people starting businesses, people who have been with large businesses for a number of years, people with social-service agencies, who are very dedicated to what they’re doing and making a terrific impact on the region,” he said. “The talent pool is not going down; it’s going up. We haven’t exhausted it by any means.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]
The New Year Is the Perfect Time for an Audit of Your Practices
By SARAH G. TORRES, Esq. and KARINA L. SCHRENGOHST, Esq.
As the new year approaches, employers would be wise to include in their resolutions efforts to ensure compliance with the myriad employment laws affecting their business, including those related to sick leave, disability discrimination, sexual harassment, and wage-and-hour issues.
To accomplish this, employers can begin by conducting an internal audit of their employment practices with the assistance of employment counsel, including looking at their employee handbook and other policies and job descriptions, as well as planning supervisor training.
Employee Handbook and Policy Reviews
Is your employee handbook up to date? Employers should consider having their employee handbook and other policies reviewed on an annual basis by employment-law counsel to ensure they are compliant with state and federal law and recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions. For instance, just this month, the NLRB issued a decision permitting employees to use company e-mail accounts on their own time for non-business purposes, including discussing union organizing and work grievances.
Employers must be aware that these communications are protected in both union and non-union workplaces. Accordingly, employers may need to revise their computer-usage policies to comply with this decision.
Likewise, many Massachusetts employers will need to revise their current paid-time-off policies or create sick-time policies to comply with new sick-leave legislation that will go into effect on July 1, 2015. Under this new law, employers with 11 or more employees must provide up to 40 hours of paid sick time per calendar year. Employers with fewer than 11 employees must provide up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time per calendar year.
In addition, some Massachusetts employers with 50 or more employees will need to create policies or amend their employee handbooks to incorporate a domestic-violence-leave policy, if they have not done so already. This past summer, Massachusetts enacted a law that requires these employers to provide up to 15 days of leave during a 12-month period to employees who are victims of domestic abuse or who have a qualifying family member who is a victim, and to notify their employees of their rights and responsibilities under the law. The attorney general recently suggested that employers can meet the notice requirement under the law by including a provision in their employee handbook.
Also, employers with six or more employees are reminded that Massachusetts law requires annual distribution of your sexual-harassment policy.
Training for Managers and Supervisors
Do you offer your managers and supervisors regular training?
Creating or revising workplace policies to comply with new laws and regulations is only one preventive step. The next step is training managers and supervisors to ensure they understand these policies and their responsibilities under these policies, which is equally crucial. Employers should consider scheduling training for their management personnel on employment-law topics such as sick and domestic leave laws and the new NLRB decision related to e-mail communications, as well as refreshers on topics such as disability discrimination, sexual harassment, and wage-and-hour issues.
Many employment issues that eventually evolve into litigation stem from actions or inactions of managers or supervisors. Employers should regularly conduct trainings to give these key employees the knowledge and skills required to enable them to properly handle situations as they arise.
Review, Update, and Revise Job Descriptions
Do your job descriptions accurately reflect your employees’ actual job duties?
Job descriptions can be used as a basis for interviewing candidates, orienting a new employee, and evaluating job performance. In addition, an accurate job description listing the essential functions of a position will assist you when faced with requests for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sending an accurate job description to an employee’s medical provider will help you determine whether an employee is able to return to his or her position and what, if any, accommodations may be necessary.
An accurate job description with a detailed list of the essential functions of a position can also assist you with determining whether an employee is exempt from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This is especially important because the Department of Labor (DOL) announced this year that it will be reviewing these overtime exemptions and will likely be revising their regulations in 2015. Compliance in this area is particularly important because an employer who has been found to have misclassified an employee as exempt can be subject to significant penalties as a result of a DOL audit.
The cost of defending expensive litigation far exceeds the investment in taking proactive, preventive steps to reduce the risk of litigation. Therefore, employers should consider conducting an internal audit at the beginning of the New Year.
Sarah G. Torres, Esq. and Karina L. Schrengohst, Esq. are attorneys at Royal LLP, a woman-owned, boutique, management-side labor and employment law firm. Royal LLP is a certified women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]; [email protected]
Another Company Bets on Springfield
It has been written — and Aaron St. John believes it’s true — that economic development is a three-legged stool, with the legs being access to talent, quality of life, and access to capital. A region with all three, the theory goes, should be able to attract and retain businesses and, in some cases, foster entire industries.
When it comes to Western Mass., quality of life has never been in question. Families and employers alike praise the region’s lower cost of living than, say, Boston, as well as its natural resources, myriad recreation opportunities, and access to major highways and Bradley International Airport, just to name a few traits.
And the talent being pumped out by the Pioneer Valley’s colleges and universities is unquestioned; the challenge has always been keeping them in the region with attractive career opportunities.
But St. John, co-founder of video-game developer HitPoint Studios (see related story page 6), says accessing capital hasn’t always been easy for entrepreneurs in Western Mass. — but that’s changing. His company recently won $1.25 million in funding from River Valley Investors and MassMutual’s Springfield Venture Fund, two entities that provide capital for entrepreneurs and small businesses trying to grow in Western Mass.
And efforts to keep talent local have picked up steam in recent years as well, with the rise of entities like Valley Venture Mentors, Tech Foundry, and others dedicated to mentoring and training the kind of workforce that companies looking to locate or grow here will need.
HitPoint is only six years old, but its rapid growth and reputation in the social and mobile gaming world — and its rising image as an independent game developer — makes its move last week to downtown Springfield big news. More accurately, it’s one more headline in what has become a string of activity downtown, with entrepreneurs, established businesses, and colleges all clamoring to have a presence on or near Main Street.
But is Springfield really a better landing spot for a promising game developer than, say, Cambridge or Silicon Valley, just to name two regions where investors were actively checking out HitPoint? St. John and company co-founder Paul Hake say yes — and they believe there’s room for many other firms in their field to grow alongside them.
In fact, some are already here. Two years ago, Hampshire College hosted a symposium of area companies involved in video-game design and development, and the overriding message that day was that there’s no reason why Greater Springfield or the broader Pioneer Valley can’t become a recognized hub for that industry.
Cambridge didn’t become the impressive high-tech cluster it is today overnight. Neither did the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Both, however, took advantage, in various ways, of those three stool legs: access to talent, quality of life, and access to capital.
They also benefited from huge doses of creativity, vision, and entrepreneurial spirit, and we believe this region possesses those in spades. And every bit of news about a company growing in the Valley or taking a chance on Springfield only makes that clearer.
St. John said he wants people to look at his industry, and other high-tech clusters, and ask, “why not Western Mass.?”
Five Reasons to Be Optimistic About 2015
As the curtain comes down on 2014, a memorable year in many respects and one that produced large doses of momentum across the region, there are many reasons for optimism when it comes to the year ahead.
No one can truly predict what will happen regionally, nationally, or internationally in the months to come, but most signs are pointing to new levels of properity and vibrancy for the region. Here are five reasons for the business community to welcome the new year with its head up.
• An Improving Economy. Granted, not all businesses or business sectors saw bottom-line improvements in 2014, but many did, and both hard and anecdotal evidence reveals that something approaching real recovery may finally visit this region after steering clear of it since the Great Recession officially ended in 2009.
Indeed, jobless rates have improved, the housing market is slowly inching its way back up, and business confidence, as measured by Associated Industries of Mass. and other groups, has been steadily rising.
Even gasoline prices are cooperating in a big way. While they scare investors because of their potential to stifle the all-important energy industry, cheaper gas and oil are boons for consumers and business owners alike, and they amount to a huge stimulus package that puts money into the economy.
• The Casino. It will be at least two and a half years before anyone pushes the buttons on a slot machine, doubles down at the blackjack table, or brings a convention to the hotel being built by MGM. But one can already sense that the $800 million facility soon to rise in the South End is generating not only excitement, but opportunity.
Downtown Springfield’s commercial real-estate market is finally picking up steam; the long-suffering construction sector will soon have some long-term, lucrative work; and the tourism sector is aglow with expectation about what the casino will mean for the convention business. Meanwhile, the casino’s promise is spurring action on some long-delayed projects like the Court Square revitalization.
• Subway Cars. As we’ve written before, the announcement that Changchun Railway Co. will be building subway cars at the former Westinghouse site in East Springfield is positive news on several levels. It will bring jobs, and the kinds of well-paying jobs that everyone wants, but it has also brought a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that, yes, things like this can really happen here. And sometimes, developments like this one can give a region and its economic-development leaders a huge boost of confidence.
• A Surging University of Massachusetts. President Robert Caret announced recently that he will be leaving the university to take the helm at the University of Maryland. While that’s a setback in some ways — Caret brought strong direction to the school — UMass has in many ways reached a critical turning point when it comes to being the economic engine the state and this region always hoped it would be, and there seems little chance of it falling back.
While many of the recent developments at the school have involved Springfield, the impact is truly region-wide, with projects ranging from the High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke to the recently announced plans to establish a National Aeronautics Research, Development, and Training Center at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, with UMass Amherst as the lead institution. Expect more of the same in the months and years to come.
• A Focus on Entrepreneurship. This may well be the most compelling reason for optimism in the region, because this area will need much more than a casino to recover. It will need thousands of new jobs and opportunities to retain the young people who grew up here or attended college here. And the recent focus on fostering entrepreneurship — best exemplified by Valley Venture Mentors, its new accelerator program, and MassMutual’s Springfield Venture Fund — has the potential to provide both.
Springfield is not going to turn into Boston or Cambridge overnight, or even in a decade, most likely, but it will become a hub of entrepreneurial activity, and thus it can become home to dozens and perhaps hundreds of new startup companies.
For all these reasons and many more, 2015 is worthy of the growing sense of optimism this region is experiencing.
In Enfield, Growth Efforts Focus on ThompsonvilleEnfield town officials have had a revitalization plan for the village of Thompsonville for more than two decades now. It was created in 1992 after the former Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Co. was transformed into a 470-unit apartment complex.
Community Development Division Director Peter Bryanton said that Thompsonville was a thriving center in its heyday, with stores, eateries, and businesses that benefitted from the people who lived in the neighborhood and worked in the Bigelow factory. But after the mill closed in 1971, the area began to languish, and many neighborhood businesses closed their doors.
However, when construction on Bigelow Commons began, small businesses began to open again. “Town officials thought Bigelow Commons was a new starting point and formed a committee to work toward revitalizing the village. The Thompsonville Revitalization Strategy Plan was created as a result of their effort, and although it was a good plan, it was never implemented due to a lack of funding and resources,” Bryanton told BusinessWest, adding that updates were made in 2010.
But over the past year, a great deal of progress has occurred, and what was once a dream is fast becoming a reality. In fact, the town held a recent breakfast for commercial real-estate investors, developers, consultants, and other interested parties, which was attended by more than 100 people. The goal was to let them know about projects and new initiatives that have drawn residents and tourists into Thompsonville, and why it is has become a desirable investment.
“We told people what we’ve done and where we are headed, and we also created a book for them that shows every piece of property available in Enfield,” said Courtney Hendricson, assistant town manager of Development Services, adding that the impetus behind the recent initiatives was the announcement that a commuter rail line linking New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield will begin operating in 2016.
“Our plan revolves around building a new, multi-modal transit center that will include commuter rail and bus service; we know that many people want to live near these stations,” she said. “Rail service will make it easy to get to different places without owning a car, and surveys show that people in their 20s and 30s overwhelmingly want a walkable lifestyle. There is generally a 30% increase in property values within a half-mile of a transit station.”
Bryanton agreed. “Revitalization is finally happening; five years ago it was just an idea, but now it’s a reality. Once Enfield has commuter rail service, it will become a destination for people looking for a lifestyle based around public transit — we just need to get the transit center built,” he said, adding that it will be located in the former Westfield Casket Hardware building on 33 North River St.
He added that the four-story structure, which sits on the Connecticut River, is owned by Enfield Community Development Corp. and is in good shape.
“The ground floor will be used as the entranceway to get upstairs to the second floor, where the rail platform will be located. The third and fourth floors will be turned into loft apartments,” Bryanton said, adding that a portion of space on the first and second floors will also be designated for mixed use, which will allow people to shop, eat, and do business at the station.
However, land is needed to build a parking lot and a bus turnaround, and the town has been negotiating with Northeast Utilities about a plot adjacent to the building that was once home to a power plant. It is contaminated, so the negotiations are focused on who will pay for the cleanup, which will likely be a joint effort financed with brownfield grant money and funds from NU.
“In addition to the parking lot and bus turnaround, we also plan to build a new riverfront park on the property,” Bryanton said.
Town officials are lobbying the state and federal government to get funding to build the transit platform. “State officials told us they will build it after the rail service begins, but that means it would not stop in Enfield when it starts up, which is key to our development focus,” Hendricson said.
However, work is progressing, and Connecticut recently launched the Hartford Line. The commuter rail service will use Amtrak’s New Haven–Springfield Line and supplement existing intercity rail services between the two cities. The project is a joint venture between Connecticut and Massachusetts, with support from the federal government.
Once the line is operational and the transit platform has been built, Enfield officials say, they plan to focus their efforts on promoting public transportation, which will help spur private investment in the village.
Hendricson said the town’s economic-development efforts rest on five pillars.
The first is an initiative called Riverfront Recapture, which involves capitalizing on access to the Connecticut River. “It’s our greatest natural resource and borders many of our neighborhoods as well as downtown Thompsonville, so we feel it has a lot of potential,” she explained, adding that the town plans to build a hiking and bicycling trail along the river, extending from Fresh Water Pond to the business corridor and down to the river. It is currently in the design stage.
The second and most important pillar is the revitalization plan for Thompsonville. “But we don’t want to ignore our other neighborhoods, which include Hazardville,” Hendricson said, noting that lessons learned from a successful streetscape plan implanted there, as well as from projects completed in other areas of town, will be employed in Thompsonville’s revival.
She also stressed that town officials feel it is important to celebrate the businesses that stayed open after the Bigelow carpet factory closed and have done well.
The fourth pillar is to continue to attract new businesses and retain the 3,000 companies that make Enfield their home. “They include many Fortune 100 companies,” said Hendricson. “We share the headquarters for MassMutual and are home to the headquarters for the North American and South American branches of Lego. The Hallmark Distribution Center and Advanced Auto Distribution Centers for the entire East Coast are also in Enfield, and we have many small, mom-and-pop businesses and home-based operations.”
Finally, town officials also plan to take advantage of the traffic that the MGM casino in Springfield will generate. “We believe Enfield could serve as a secondary destination because we have so many retail businesses and restaurants,” Hendricson said, discussing how the commuter rail platform in Thompsonville will play into the equation.
The revitalization of that village is being done in stages. The infrastructure around Fresh Water Pond, located in the center of the neighborhood, has been upgraded with new lighting, benches, planters, and trash receptacles. “We are also working to improve a walking path around the lake,” Hendricson said. “It is an ongoing effort.”
Engaging the interest of businesses and residents is another element in the plan. “It’s critical to make sure the neighborhood meets their needs,” she went on.
Hendricson noted that Thompsonville contains many multi-family homes, and although officials hope new residences will be built, they want to retain the character that was established when the carpet mill was thriving. “We’re not looking to change the proportion of multi-family housing. But we are looking to increase the number of housing options, so people can choose to live in a loft apartment, a multi-family residence, or a single-family home,” she told BusinessWest.
Town officials have staged new events over the past year to attract people to the center. The signature event was a Community and Farmer’s Market, staged from June through October on Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m. in front of Fresh Water Pond. There were 30 to 40 vendors each week, including artisans, farmers, food trucks and community groups, said Hendricson, adding that the market was a great success and went far beyond expectations.
Festivals were also held for families on Earth Day and Halloween, which generated positive feedback, while a presentation for business owners allowed officials to share their vision for the future. “We gave awards to businesses who have been in Thompsonville for years; we wanted to recognize and thank them. We plan to do this annually,” Hendricson said.
In addition, land was set aside to create a community garden. “There were 50 plots, and we asked people to pay $25 to become a member. They received soil and seeds, and they shared equipment. The town provided water, porta-potties, and security cameras, and a master gardener from the University of Connecticut gave a weekly seminar,” Hendricson said. “The garden was run by volunteers, and people are already asking if we are going to do it again next summer. We’ve been really working to engage the community.”
Another initiative, which focused on the use of alternative transportation, proved highly successful. Called the Magic Carpet Shuttle, it’s a bus service that takes people through the town with a number of dropoff spots. It connects to the Hartford Express (run by the Connecticut Department of Transportation) in the Macy’s parking lot.
“We started the shuttle to prove that residents will use other modes of transportation, but it has taken off beyond our expectations,” said Hendricson. “We expanded the route and the hours because 100 to 150 people ride on it every day.”
The success of these programs is being used to show investors that the outlook for Thompsonville is bright. “We’ve been meeting with developers in Greater Hartford and Springfield who are looking for opportunities,” she went on.
The town is also in the process of changing the zoning in the village, Bryanton added. It is mostly residential, but will soon have more areas designated for mixed-use development.
Town officials believe their vision for Thompsonville will be realized over the next few years.
“We’ve done our homework and are making it into a desirable destination by bringing back its economic vitality,” Hendricson said. “There is so much potential, and I can easily picture it becoming a walkable, safe, attractive downtown for tourists and residents. I have no doubt it will happen.”
Bryanton agreed. “It’s been a long process to get where we are today, but we are finally on the doorstep,” he said. “We have a vision, and we know that, once the transit center is in place, people will come here.”
Enfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1683 in Massachusetts; annexed to Connecticut in 1749
Population: 44,654 (2010)
Area: 34.2 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $29.13 (plus fire district tax)
Commercial Tax Rate: $29.13 (plus fire district tax)
Median Household Income: $69,356
<strong>Family Household Income: $80,997
Type of government: Town Council; Town Manager
Largest Employers: MassMutual; Hallmark Cards Distribution Center; the Lego Group
* Latest information available