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General Manager Mike Filomeno

General Manager Mike Filomeno

The modern auto dealership — marked by drive-in service areas, well-appointed waiting areas, and high-tech touches — have become standard in the industry, and Ford demands no less of its showrooms. Marcotte Ford, with a 50-year history on Main Street in Holyoke, was especially in need of such a makeover, and the family that owns it is set to unveil its new HQ this summer, bringing the company’s look and feel firmly into the 21st century.

When Marcotte Ford reopens its dealership on Main Street in Holyoke this summer — after a year spent in temporary digs across the street — it will be the culmination of two complementary visions: Ford’s on one hand, and the Marcotte family’s on the other.

“It’s been a long, long road to get where we are today,” said General Manager Mike Filomeno. “Obviously, Ford has a rebranding and a new look that they want, to refresh the whole facility and make it more customer-friendly. Then there are all the touch points we’re going to have — a brand-new shop, all-new equipment, indoor delivery areas for the customers to pick up their cars, all kinds of new technology to make the experience more user-friendly.

“It’s like a McDonald’s,” he went on. “Do you want to go to the old McDonald’s or the brand-new one that has the wi-fi and the TVs and the multiple drive-thru lanes? That’s the philosophy. People want to go someplace that’s new. They want new technology and a new experience.”

What both Ford and the Marcotte family are looking for is the fulfillment of two goals that seem contradictory, but really aren’t, and are being reflected in dealership remodels across all brands: to make it easier and quicker for customers to get in and out when buying or servicing a vehicle, but also making the space more welcoming during the time they have to be there.

To get to that point, Marcotte has spent the last year doing business across the street, in the former location of Gary Rome Hyundai, which relocated to a much larger lot on Whiting Farms Road in 2016.

It’s been cramped, Filomeno said, but much better than working out of temporary trailers. To ease the burden on a smaller service area, Marcotte has sent much of its heavy-duty repair work down the street to its commercial truck center, which opened in 2015.

“When this became available, we ended up buying this place,” Filomeno said. “That was perfect timing. It was empty for a while, and we reached out to Gary Rome and talked to him about renting some space, and he needed to do something as well. So we made a deal last June to move over here.”

Come this summer, the year spent in cramped quarters will have been worth it, Filomeno said, with the opening of the 40,000-square-foot, $8 million facility, which will include a 24-bay service area, including a dedicated space for vehicle inspections. As for the former Rome location, it will become Marcotte’s commercial-sales location, bringing to four (along with the neighboring Paper City Car Wash) the number of Marcotte-owned properties along a half-mile stretch of Route 5.

“We haven’t had that prime A location in the automotive world, as far as being on Riverdale Road or King Street in Northampton, where there are multiple franchises and people can go to one from another,” he noted. “But we have been a destination dealer, and we’ve done that by taking care of the customers, having good employees, and going the extra mile for people.”

New Look … and Taste

Doing all that will be easier in the redesigned Marcotte Ford headquarters, which reflects the types of features Ford demands in all its new stores, Filomeno said.

“They want to have the branding in the façade out front, and they want all the touch points to be user-friendly,” he explained. “We’ll have the indoor drive-through, where you bring in your car and drop it off, and service will come out to you to write it up. We’ll have a customer waiting area with a big TV there, and wi-fi hotspots where they can sit while they’re in the customer lounge.”

On the service side, customers have long been able to get a loaner vehicle when they bring their car or truck in for service, and Marcotte will continue with that service, he added, while employees will appreciate the state-of-the-art, climate-controlled shop decked out with new equipment.

The company is especially excited about LugNutz Café, a restaurant that existed in the former building, but will be significantly expanded in the new one.

LugNutz Café initially served breakfast two days a week for employees and customers, but will be expanding to breakfast and lunch six days a week, featuring sandwiches, wraps, soups, pizzas, and breakfast items like omelettes.

“Bryan came up with the idea, and people loved it,” Filomeno said. “With all the employees we have all day long, come lunchtime around here, we have Chinese, pizzas, and grinders being delivered here, or people going out for food. Now they’ll be able to eat right here. That’s another good service that people will enjoy — I think it’ll be a wow factor.”

Company President Mike Marcotte said customers will appreciate the new touches, from the drive-through service lane to interactive screens in the sales offices to help them quickly access information.

Marcotte expects to unveil its 40,000-square-foot renovation in August, followed by a September grand opening.

Marcotte expects to unveil its 40,000-square-foot renovation in August, followed by a September grand opening.

“The building was 50 years old, and we’ve added on, but now it was time to do a refresh,” he said. “It’s definitely more customer-oriented, with better flow and more technology.”

Filomeno said the dealership aims to be different because other Ford dealers have a similar look. “So we’re making it our own with the LugNutz and some of the other things we’re doing to make ourselves stand out.

“It’s more than the tile and furniture Ford wants,” he went on. “We’re looking forward to some new ways to do business, taking care of the customer, getting them in and out of here, both on the service and the sales side. People want to come in and buy a car in an hour and get through it. They don’t want to wait four hours. So that’s what we’re migrating toward.”

Marcotte agreed. “We feel like buying a car should be a fun experience, not stressful, even though it’s most people’s second-biggest purchase after their house,” he said.

It’s also a different sales experience than it used to be, thanks to the internet. “People do a lot more research before coming in, before they even contact us,” Marcotte noted, noting that the visit is still crucial, because vehicles today are so loaded with high-tech safety equipment and other features that customers still want someone to demonstrate everything they might be able to utilize.

The new facility will reflect those high-tech advances as well, Filomeno said. “Our vision is to have the grand opening come the fall, once we’re fully established, and have a soft opening around August. We have to get in there and get everything working.”

Family Legacy

Marcotte’s grandfather, Al, opened his namesake dealership in 1961 at a different site in Holyoke before moving to its long-time location on Route 5 in 1967. Bryan eventually joined the team, followed by Mike a generation later. Today, the dealership employs a number of other family members, including Filomeno, who married into the Marcotte clan.

It’s a company with not only family ties, but deep community roots as well, Filomeno said, noting that Marcotte Ford has supported a number of local nonprofits over the years, from Kate’s Kitchen and Providence Ministries to the baseball teams customers’ kids play on.

“You can only do so much, but we try to be as generous as we can because it does make a difference,” he added. “You’ve got to support the community you work in. So we’ve made a conscious effort to make sure we do that on a regular basis.”

With a 56-year history behind it, Marcotte said, the dealership felt it was past time to make the changes almost ready to be unveiled across the street.

“We’ve been looking at this for several years,” he said, noting that it’s a good time to reinvest, with sales — particularly the truck business and the commercial side — booming.

“Business has been good. We’re just always trying to find ways to find more business,” Filomeno noted, adding, however, that he’s unsure how people will react to Ford’s decision to discontinue some lines.

“That’s a challenge for us, because people are asking why and what’s going on, but I think they’re trying to get rid of some of the less-profitable cars and concentrate on more of the profitable items and come out with some new products. There’s a new Echo Sport, we’re going to have new Rangers, some new Broncos coming in.”

Meanwhile, people’s driving habits are different than before, with younger drivers more willing to rideshare and use public transportation — not to mention the prospect of autonomous cars, which may someday significantly impact people’s decision to even own a car. So it’s important, he said, for dealers and manufacturers to anticipate possible trends while continuing to focus on what they do well.

“There’s some uncertainty as far as what’s coming, but our bread and butter has been the truck line and SUV line, and that has been very strong,” he said. “There have been other changes in the industry, too. Right now gas is going up a little, and interest rates are going up a little. People have been spoiled for years, when we gave them 2%, 1%, 0% financing, and, that’s not always there now. You have to just adapt.”

With 142 team members across all facets of the company, there’s been plenty of adapting and moving around while the main site has been given over to construction over the past year, Marcotte said, adding, however, that employee morale has remained high during the transition.

That’s important, Filomeno added, because, while the internet has helped the company sell outside the local market, it’s still a company built on customer service.

“Although Ford has got a great product, you can’t say you’ll never have a problem with a car,” he told BusinessWest. “But if you do, we try to make that experience as positive as we can. That’s been the forte of our business model all along.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Tale of Two Cities

Connecticut has had its share of economic challenges in recent years, including a slow but steady outmigration of residents. Many might not be aware, however, of how stark the differences are between Connecticut and Massachusetts when it comes to long-term job recovery from the Great Recession — including Springfield’s relative strength when compared to Hartford. Farmington Bank’s economic adviser recently broke down the numbers, painting a picture that should be encouraging to those north of the border.

As an economic adviser for Farmington Bank, Don Klepper-Smith spends most of his analytical energy on Connecticut, but when he compares that state’s recent performance with its neighbor to the north, the numbers are stark.

“When we talk about Springfield and Hartford, I think the analogy ‘tale of two cities’ is appropriate,” Klepper-Smith said during a recent Farmington Bank webinar on the national and regional economy.

Since the low point of the Great Recession in 2009 — when unemployment spiked across the U.S. before the gradual recovery kicked in — the Greater Springfield area has created 32,000 new jobs, while Greater Hartford has created 37,000.

“So you’ve got close to 70,000 new jobs in the I-91 corridor between these two areas,” he noted. That’s all good. “But when we look at them in the context of our job-recovery rate, you can see Springfield is clearly outperforming Hartford — and looking a lot like the nation.”

The key takeaway is how much of the 2008-09 job losses have returned, he explained, and that’s where Springfield has really outpaced Hartford. While Hartford is now 4,200 jobs above full recovery — that is, above where the job picture stood in March 2008, before the economy collapsed — Springfield is 16,600 jobs above that line. To put it another way, Hartford has recovered 112.7% of its recession-era job losses, while Springfield has recovered 209.2%, gaining back its losses more than twice over. The national recovery figure, by the way, is 217.8%.

“When I think of Springfield, two words that come to mind are ‘stellar performance,’ with a job recovery rate that’s about twice that of Hartford,” Klepper-Smith said. “I think Hartford has its own challenges. We know the fiscal situation there has been tenuous, but I think economic-development policies are the reasons why Springfield is doing as well as it is.”

That’s good news for Springfield, which has been on a hot streak of good economic news for some time now, with the MGM Springfield casino at the forefront of that. But the numbers also reflect an overall disconnect in the way Massachusetts and Connecticut have respectively recovered from the economic downturn of a decade ago — and it’s a striking gap.

Tale of Two States

It’s hard to believe, Klepper-Smith says, that the U.S. recovery from the trough of the recession is now nine years old.

“The average postwar recovery is five years, so we’re getting a little bit long in the tooth here, and we’re looking for what could go wrong and trying to keep a positive attitude as we move through the balance of the year,” he went on. “Looking at the tea leaves and looking at the fundamentals, I’d say there’s a two in three chance we go forward with positive but slower economic growth — in the 2% to 2.5% range.”

Don Klepper-Smith

Don Klepper-Smith says economic-development policies have contributed to Springfield’s recent successes.

Yet, Connecticut continues to struggle — in fact, Hartford is among its strongest metropolitan areas in job growth, putting the rest of the state into stark relief. “State budget issues have undermined business confidence and promoted outmigration,” Klepper-Smith said, noting that the Nutmeg State has been shedding 428 people per week on average to other states.

“But as we go forward,” he said, “it boils down to consumers. Right now, what are consumers going to be doing for rest of 2018?”

Consumer confidence is rooted firmly in job creation, he was quick to note on more than one occasion. And Massachusetts job creation has been running circles around its southerly neighbor for much of the past decade.

Let’s go back to job-recovery rates, this time on the state level. Connecticut peaked at 1,713,000 jobs in March 2008, dropped to 1,594,000 by the following year — a 7% erosion — and has returned to a level of 1,687,000 jobs. That’s a recovery rate of just 78%, far below any other New England state.

“We seem to be stuck in this 80% range for job recovery, and right now we’re the only state in New England not to see full job recovery,” Klepper-Smith said of Connecticut. “I’ll be honest: I don’t see that number going above 100% any time soon. I don’t see robust job growth materializing any time soon.”

Massachusetts, in contrast, has been a model of recovery. From a 3,331,000 peak in 2008, the Bay State fell to 3,191,000 jobs at its 2009 trough — a 4.2% erosion — but now stands at 3,645,000, a whopping 322% recovery rate.

“In Connecticut, I’d have to use the word ‘lackluster’ for job recovery,” Klepper-Smith said, projecting that state likely won’t reach full recovery until 2020, several years after Massachusetts did so multiple times over.

The good news locally, he said, is that the Knowledge Corridor — the amorphous region stretching from Greater Hartford to Hampshire County — is doing well, even on the Connecticut side.

“We’ve got varying degrees of both strength and weakness. What we can say is the regional economy in the I-91 corridor is clearly performing well,” he noted, adding that the total non-farm job-growth rate is currently 0.8% in Hartford and 1.2% in Springfield, while the national figure is 1.6%. Again, Hartford pales in that comparison, but it’s behind only Danbury (1.0%) among Connecticut’s metro areas.

“I think the Connecticut economy seems to be moving sideways more than anything else, with pockets of both strength and weakness. We’re seeing signs of decelerating in many of the economic metrics we have,” Klepper-Smith said, noting that Connecticut’s gross state product ranks 49th nationally, ahead of only Louisiana.

“I’m hoping we can make some progress there as we move into 2019. We’re underperforming in job growth and income creation — and job growth will be what it’s all about. Jobs, jobs, jobs — they’re so important because of income, spending confidence, tax revenue, and all those linkages.”

National Picture

Nationally, Klepper-Smith said, the U.S. continues on a moderately positive path, growing at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 2.2%, though inflation — and rising costs of gas, healthcare, and home prices — are a concern.

“One of the things we can all agree on is that there are some pros and cons of living in an interconnected global economy,” he said. “And in economics, there are always tradeoffs; there’s never really a sense of clear winners and losers. Sometimes we have to wait and see how that all shakes out.

“But what we do know is what’s going on with the consumer sector,” he went on. “Consumers are so important to what’s going on because personal consumption accounts for roughly two-thirds of real gross domestic product.”

On one hand, he said, consumer-confidence measurables are strong — up 8% from last year and approaching 1990s levels, which is encouraging. But that trend could be tripped up by any number of factors.

“What we do know is that consumer fundamentals are being pressured, and risks to the current business expansion are becoming imperiled with rising energy prices, higher interest rates, and the expectation of higher healthcare costs heading into 2019. I think that’s a table setter for where we are, with the consumer feeling a little more squeezed and a little less comfortable compared to where we were back in March.”

Klepper-Smith expects the Fed to move with caution for the rest of the year. “We can now say the Fed sees rising inflationary pressures, and I honestly don’t feel they’re going to be aggressive on rate increases going forward. We’re probably not looking at more than two rate increases for the balance of 2018.”

If there’s one indicator to watch closely through the rest of the year, he said, it is, quite simply, how are consumers feeling? “One of the factors is the fact that the labor markets themselves have not shown meaningful progress. What that means is that we have not seen meaningful growth in consumer spending power.

“People ask me, ‘why doesn’t this feel like economic recovery the way I understood it in the past?’” he went on. “The answer is that we haven’t seen robust growth in consumer spending power.”

Back to Work

That comes down to jobs, of course, and Klepper-Smith admitted his dampened enthusiasm is mainly due to what he sees in Connecticut — which, again, puts Massachusetts in a very good light when it comes to its continuing recovery and expansion after the Great Recession.

“The good news is that we’ve seen job recovery in both regions, but I think that the problems that we have in Hartford are a bit more pronounced on the fiscal side, and I don’t think they’ll be going away any time soon,” he concluded.

It’s a sobering reflection of the myriad factors at play in creating an economic outlook — and a reminder that, even on the most challenging days in Massachusetts, things could be a lot worse.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Exit Strategy

Lise Lawrence

Lise Lawrence, in the study where a professor has disappeared — and visitors must learn why.

Escape Games have been growing in popularity across the U.S., but the Pioneer Valley lacked such an attraction until siblings Lise Lawrence and Tom Dahl opened Puzzled Escape Games at Eastworks in 2016. Since then, they’ve offered several levels of challenge to friends, families, and even companies that take advantage of the activity as a team-building experience. And an experience it is — one that can be as tense and unnerving as it is entertaining.

Picture this: you’re on vacation in Mexico, you visit a tequila distillery, drink too much questionable tequila, pass out, and wake up chained to the wall in a Mexican drug lord’s basement. Now, you have to figure out how to get out in just one hour, before he comes back.

That may sound awful, but plenty of people are happily signing up for the experience — well, minus the tequila.

Indeed, that story is the setup of “Escape from Escobar’s,” one of three escape-room experiences at Puzzled Escape Games, which recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at Eastworks in Easthampton.

Lise Lawrence, who launched and manages the attraction along with her brother, Tom Dahl, recently gave BusinessWest a glimse of what visitors experience on a daily basis, showing how a group of individuals are handcuffed to the wall in a dungeon set, and can’t reach each other — but each has a different perspective on the rest of the room, and they must work together to figure out how to free themselves, first from their shackles and then from the chamber itself.

“You have to communicate,” she said. “People in the front of the cell can see things the people in the back can’t.”

Lawrence, who has a background in film, and Dahl, an actor and screenwriter, established the first escape room in Western Mass. with the goal of building something different than the typical model of ‘find the clues, escape the room’ — even though there’s plenty of that.

“All these places are fun, but what we really pride ourselves on is storylines and set decoration and experience,” she said. “We want to create that real experience, where the only ones who can get you out are you and your team. If you’re alone, you can’t get out of your handcuffs; you need the other people.”

Of course, a game that starts with the claustrophobic tension of a dungeon and handcuffs might not appeal to everyone, which is why Puzzled offers two other experiences: “Find the Professor of the Occult,” and “The Lost Wand,” which appeals to the younger set.

In the former, players enter a large study lined with bookshelves, a desk, and several other items. “The professor’s gone missing, and his housekeeper heard a loud thunder noise, and she went in to investigate, and he was gone,” Lawrence said. “So you’re a paranormal investigator, and you have to figure out what happened to the missing professor.”

In each case, the scenario is introduced by a ‘game master’ who becomes part of the story before leaving the players to their own devices. “That’s another thing that sets us apart from other escape games, where it’s like, ‘OK, go in there and figure it out.’ The moment you walk in the door, you’re aleady engaged with us.”

In its two-plus years of operation, Puzzled Escape Games has engaged a steady flow of participants looking for a different type of activity. For this issue’s focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talks to Lawrence about why it’s fun for people to exercise their brains in this way — and why they keep coming back, only to be trapped again.

No Simple Escape

Anyone who thinks these games are easy can think again, Lawrence said — about 20% of teams manage to escape Escobar’s dungeon within the hour allotted, and about 30% figure out what happened to the professor and make their way out of his study. For the rest, well, answers are given to those who want them, while others choose to come back and try again.

“Surprisingly, people usually aren’t disappointed,” she said. “They’re like, ‘oh man, how far did we get?’ You can come back for half price if you want to play the same room again. Or we show you the rest of the tricks.”

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate the teams who completed the challenge the fastest.

Dahl and a screenwriting friend based in Toronto — he and his wife are also partners at Puzzled — came up with the idea of launching an escape room after visiting several and realizing Western Mass. didn’t have such an attraction.

“They said, ‘we can create an experience without cell phones. We can have people work together and have fun using different parts of their brain,’” Lawrence recalled. “They noticed the biggest thing, when you go to other escape games, is that it’s not heavy on storyline. A lot of times, there’s not a lot of intro. We thought, ‘how could we make it a fully immersive experience?’

“That’s why, when you walk through the door, you’re immediately part of the adventure,” she went on. “The game masters are acting with you. As you’re asking, ‘oh, what does this open?’ and finding clues the puzzle, you’re also learning about what happened to the professor. Why did he disappear in the first place? You’re building the storyline. We have set designers on staff, so we’ve created a theater set, so you feel even more immersed in the experience.”

“The Lost Wand,” which opened in December, caters more to kids with its wizarding-school theme (shades of Harry Potter), but mostly draws adults, just like the other two games. It’s also easier than the other two, with a roughly 80% success rate; when kids play, certain puzzles can be switched out for easier ones, and the pass rate jumps to 100%. A wizard-themed party room adjoining the puzzle room hosts theme birthday parties and other events.

Yet, kids do surprisingly well in the other games as well, Lawrence said, especially “Find the Professor.”

“Funny enough, they do amazing in that room because it’s so academic,” Lawrence said. “I was hosting a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, six of them, and they got out. Kids that age might look for things we might not even think about.”

Still, kids dig “The Lost Wand” for the appeal of sitting in a Potteresque classroom, which sits just beyond a lobby filled with board games, tables, and quirky décor — and that’s part of the experience, too.

“It starts with our lobby. The doors are open, and sometimes people come in just to hang out and play board games,” she explained. “We have our wizarding music playing in the background, we have our fun lights, and this is a great place for people to ramp up and get ready for their game.

“Then,” she added, “the game master comes out and does the intro: ‘this is the Massachusetts Academy of Magic.’ Then the door opens, they enter, and their game experience begins.”

In all three games, teams may ask for up to three clues during the hour when they get stuck. “You agree together you’d like a clue, and you press the doorbell. Monitors are watching through cameras, so we have eyes and ears on you, and we give you the best clue possible.”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand” is packed with games to pass the time while waiting for the main event.

Everyone gets one extra tip in “Find the Professor,” however — the hundreds of gold-colored books lining the long wall of shelves aren’t clues at all, and the game master says as much, to avoid having teams waste time on them.

“We tell people these gold books are just set decorations, and you don’t have to look in them or behind them,” Lawrence said. “Some people are like, ‘no, they lied to us.’ But we just don’t want to waste your time. Trust us, focus on other things around the room.”

You’re in the Picture

Lawrence draws on her experience creating film festivals to craft a much more interactive type of experience at Puzzled, while most of the staff have backgrounds in graphic design, painting, set design, and the like. The window in the “Lost Wand” classroom is a colorful, painted dragon’s head, and it’s illuminated at night, so visitors see it from outside Eastworks.

It’s not just families and groups of friends who take part in the games; companies have visited as team-building exercises, which is an especially good use of “Escape from Escobar’s,” with teamwork absolutely necessary to escape those initial handcuffs. “We really push to get groups and companies that want to have a fun activity that also enhances team building and communication. This is a great room for that.”

As for other visitors, they appreciate a different experience from the usual night out, even though not everyone is sold right away.

“A lot of times, there’s one person that’s dragged in, saying, ‘I would never choose to do this on a night out.’ Those are my favorite customers because they soon realize it’s not what they think. I was one of those. It took me two years before I did one because I didn’t want to get locked in a room; I didn’t want to feel stupid.

“But one moment can change all that,” she went on. “If they’re the one that finds the first clue, all of a sudden they’re part of that team. Now they’re the ones that get excited, like ‘wow, I had no idea that was going to happen.’ Most people walk out happy. This isn’t for everybody, but it’s for most.”

Because two of the games require at least four players, sometimes strangers are tossed together, depending on who shows up and when. “Those groups usually have the highest escape rate because there’s different minds in there all working together,” Lawrence said.

It’s fun to make progress on the puzzles, she added, even if the end result isn’t a timely escape — and, hopefully, it’s fun mixed with actual thrills. “In Escobar’s, people start thinking, ‘what if I really went on vacation and this happened?’ It’s freaky. People sweat because it gets intense.”

What she hasn’t sweated is launching a startup with Dahl, even after both had heard it’s not a good idea to be, well, handcuffed to one’s sibling in a business venture. But they’re close and get along well, she said.

“We both went to the performing-arts high school in Hadley, so we’re local, and it’s nice to create something artistic and bring something back to our community,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s literally the basis — how can we provide a fun, immersive experience for people? It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding. That’s why we do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers, and in collaboration, when it comes to promoting a city and its region.

As executive director of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, Moe Belliveau has a good view of what has become one of the region’s more unique and energetic small cities.

“There’s a lot of great stuff here, different stuff,” she told BusinessWest. “I think Easthampton has a very eclectic flavor to it, and that just continues to grow. I believe the community really enjoys that about itself and embraces that part of themselves, and helps to nurture that. It’s lovely to be a part of that.”

From its well-established arts culture to its rehabilitated mill complexes to its walkable, dog-friendly downtown, she said Easthampton is, quite simply, a place residents and businesses are happy to call home. “We even have a pond in the middle of our city — who else has that?”

It’s also a community where a raft of businesses have launched recently — many of them catering to leisure time and quality of life, like arts establishment #LOCAL Gallery; restaurants like Daily Operation, a casual eatery, and Kisara, a Japanese and Korean barbecue; and additions to Eastworks like Prodigy Minigolf and Gameroom, the Coffee Mill, and Puzzled Escape Games.

“I like to say that Easthampton’s hip, cool, wow, and now — as is its chamber,” said Belliveau, who arrived to lead the body four years ago after a stint with the Westfield Business Improvement District. Since then, she has been leading a shift from simply organizing events to a more holistic, collaborative approach that brings value to chamber members and creates more vibrancy in the town’s business community.

In short, the chamber has become not only more member- and community-focused, through events like ‘listening lunches’ with area businesses, but also more collaborative with other area communities and their chambers.

“We’ve continued with our listening-lunch program because it’s a good opportunity for us to hear not only what people like, but what people are perhaps yearning for in their chamber, and how we might be able to do things differently — or even to be made aware of things we might not know about. It’s helpful.”

One development from those sessions was the chamber’s universal gift card, which is redeemable at dozens of area businesses. “The chamber gift card was a direct development from that collaboration, and that continues to grow; it’s really popular,” Belliveau said. “I’m very excited and very proud of that.”

It’s one way Easthampton’s is creating energy and buzz in its growing business community — and it’s far from the only way.

Regional Approach

Take, for example, a new partnership with the Amherst Area and Greater Northampton chambers, called the Hampshire Regional Tourism Council. Among its first accomplishments was the publication last September of the first Hampshire County Tourism Guide, a colorful, comprehensive compendium of the three communities’ restaurants and hospitality businesses, tourist attractions, recreational opportunties, shopping and wellness options, and more.

“I’m really very proud of this; I don’t know how many tourism guides actually have this look and feel,” Belliveau said. “As Easthampton continues to grow into — or already is — a destination city, it’s a really great tool that highlights who we are, what we do, and why we do it.”

The concept behind the three-city collaboration is that Easthampton, Northampton, and Amherst are all known for arts and culture, food, and a generally eclectic mix of businesses that both serve residents and draw tourists — but they’re different from each other in many ways, too, and by promoting themselves as one mini-region, the hope is that all will benefit.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $16.00
Commercial Tax Rate: $16.00
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., Williston Northampton School; National Nonwovens Co.
*Latest information available

“Don’t we all have our own flavor?” she asked rhetorically. “Yet, we add to each other’s energy and strengths, and we work quite well together. We enjoy partnering, and we do it quite often during the year. We’re looking to publish our second edition this coming September, so we’re currently pulling that together.”

Such collaborations, Belliveau said, have always been important to her. “I feel like we all have our own voice and our own character and identity, but I think when we come together, we add value for our members, and there’s strength in numbers.”

Another example is “The Art of Risk,” a women’s leadership conference the Greater Easthampton Chamber presented last fall in collaboration with the Greater Holyoke Chamber. It featured keynote speaker Angela Lussier, founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, a business devoted to helping women find their voice.

“That event was a sold-out success, so we’re looking to do that again,” Belliveau said, referring to the second annual conference, slated for Sept. 28 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, featuring keynoter Valerie Young, an author and public speaker who’s also an expert on the impostor syndrome, a common psychological pattern that breeds doubt and fear in potential leaders, and keeps them from realizing their potential.

The event will also feature morning breakout sessions in “The Art of Self-promotion,” “The Art of Leadership,” “The Art of Balance,” and “The Art of Storytelling,” followed by an afternoon panel featuring local women sharing personal stories of personal or professional risk.

Other workshops organized by the chamber, both alone and in collaboration with other groups, have convinced Belliveau there’s an appetite for such outreaches, especially those that are interactive in design.

“It’s really helped me to see what kinds of information the business community finds helpful. It’s not just sitting all day listening, but adding tools to their toolbox,” she told BusinessWest.

“I like to say it’s not your grandfather’s chamber anymore,” she went on. “What’s really very exciting to me, in addition to these events, is the relationship that we’ve been able to foster and nurture with the city. We value them, and they value us as contributing partners to the economic-development team. So that’s been pretty exciting.”

Art of the Matter

Even the city’s cultural events reflect this desire for collaboration. For example, #LOCAL Gallery will open a new exhibit on July 14. The 12 artists displaying their works in “An Excursion in Color,” organized and curated with the help of color consultant Amy Woolf, will be joined by Prindle Music School owner Dan Prindle and musical guests to provide entertainment. Meanwhile, flowers from Passalongs Farm & Florist will add more aesthetic appeal to the event.

“There’s a lot of great partnerships, a lot of great collaborations going on,” Belliveau said. “A lot of nonprofits like to collaborate and work together, from the schools to the arts community. I really enjoy being a part of that.”

The city also continues see a continued reuse of old mill buildings — as one example, Erin Witmer opened the Boylston Rooms, a quirky meeting and event space, in the Keystone building on Pleasant Street last year. Meanwhile, Easthampton’s three breweries — Fort Hill, Abandoned Building, and New City — continue to grow, while Valley Paddler, launched last year, has been a success offering paddleboats for use on Nashawannuck Pond.

An eclectic mix? For sure. Bealliveau says Easthampton is a community that continues to attract residents and businesses to its navigability, the services offered by a wide range of small businesses, its focus on the arts as an economic driver, and much more. And she plans to continue bringing as many of those entities together as she can.

“Nobody needs to be out in front, if that makes any sense,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re all running in the same race. Actually, it’s not even a race. The goal is the same, and we all have our different perspectives on that, which just makes the endgame all the richer. And I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. It’s exciting.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment

Shades of Gray

Free Speech in the WorkplaceRecent high-profile issues around free speech in the workplace — from the NFL’s new national-anthem policy to ABC’s blackballing of Roseanne Barr — have elicited much debate in the public square, with the point often made that private-sector employees have no right to free expression. But that’s not exactly true — or, at least, it’s not as black-and-white as some might believe. That fact creates uncertainty for employers, who must balance their own interests with their employees’ very human desire to speak their mind.

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, backed by 31 of 32 owners, announced a new national-anthem policy last month, they hoped it would quell an issue that seemed to be dying down on its own.

They were wrong, to judge by the wave of debate — in the media, online, and among players — that followed, and promises to bleed into the 2018 season. Even President Trump, whom the NFL hoped to placate with the new policy, only intensified his tweeted attacks on players and teams — a tactic he knows plays well to his base.

The new policy removes the existing requirement that players be on the field during the playing of the national anthem, but does require that players who are on the field must stand, and authorizes the NFL to fine teams whose players violate this policy. Supporters of forcing players on the field to stand have repeatedly argued — in internet comment boards and elsewhere — that private employees have no free-speech rights in the workplace.

But is that true?

To a significant degree, it is, area employment lawyers say, but the issue is far more gray than the black-and-white terms on which it’s often debated.

“Obviously, the Bill of Rights is a constraint on government action; clearly, the First Amendment doesn’t restrict what a private-sector employer can do or not do” when it comes to establishing workplace rules, said Timothy Murphy, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser. “And, if you think about it, the vast majority of employees work in the private sector and are at will, and can be terminated for any reason, as long as it’s not illegal.”

However, he went on, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), employees are generally protected when speaking out on issues that impact the workplace. In other words, companies can’t just fire an employer over anything he or she says on social media, even criticism of the company itself — particularly if that criticism specifically targets an employee policy or the workplace environment. In fact, the NLRB has likened such talk to water-cooler chatter, only in a more public forum.

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy says private-sector workers have far fewer free-speech rights than public-sector workers — but that doesn’t mean they have no rights.

“If you’re taking a knee because you’re concerned about police brutality, are you making a statement on an issue of mutual concern that impacts your workplace?” Murphy asked. “The NLRB does tend to take a broad view of what impacts your workplace. Would something like that be viewed as protected speech under the NLRB? I don’t know.”

Because the NFL’s anthem-policy changes were not collectively bargained with its unionized workforce, they may be susceptible to legal challenge, notes Michael McCann, a sports-law expert who writes for Sports Illustrated. But, intriguingly, free expression of this kind may find even more protection now than before, if a player chooses to file a complaint, because he could argue that kneeling is also a protest against an onerous, hastily implemented workplace policy.

“Players could argue that such a change will impact their wages, hours, and other conditions of employment,” McCann notes. “To that end, a player could insist that, while the new policy does not lead to direct league punishments of players, it nonetheless adversely affects the employment of players who do protest in ways that violate the new policy.”

It’s just one example of many of the ways in which free speech in the workplace is an amorphous beast, pulling in competing issues of discrimination, harassment, and other labor laws.

“That’s why people like me have jobs. The law provides a lot of areas for employers to get in trouble doing things that seem like common sense,” said Daniel Carr, an attorney with Royal, P.C. “It’s entirely reasonable for employers to think employees being critical of them at work are guilty of some egregious conduct, but they may not realize that criticism does contain some protected rights.”

Power to the People

Because the NLRB has established a bit of a record on this front, the issue of speaking out against an employer on social media is a bit clearer right now than other, related situations.

“Generally, if the speech is oriented toward addressing some workplace condition or benefit, if it’s targeted toward concerted activity for the mutual benefit of workers, that can have the largest amount of protection,” Carr said. “But it’s sometimes unclear where the lines are. If you say, ‘company X is awful,’ well, how are they awful? Do they treat their employees badly? That might be protected.”

Daniel Carr

Daniel Carr says employees generally have the right to speak out about work conditions, but it’s sometimes unclear where the lines are.

Even without specifics, he went on, the NLRB has often come down on the side of employees, he noted. For example, saying “the products they sell are terrible” might be protected if someone works on commission, and the product really is terrible, so they don’t sell a lot of them.

“My thinking is, if you work for company X, you couldn’t go online and say, ‘do business with company Y.’ That crosses a line,” he added. “But the NLRB does have a lot of protections for employees criticizing their own companies, and even moreso if the criticism is based on the way employees are treated, or other conditions of employment.”

What to make, then, of the NLRB’s statement in January that Google didn’t violate labor laws last summer when it fired engineer James Damore? He was terminated after distributing a memo criticizing the company’s diversity program.

He filed a complaint, and Jayme Sophir, associate general counsel with the NLRB, concluded that, while some parts of Damore’s memo were legally protected by workplace regulations, “the statements regarding biological differences between the sexes were so harmful, discriminatory, and disruptive as to be unprotected.”

Sophir made it clear that, in this case, an employer’s right to enforce anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies permits it to restrict the kinds of speech that could lead to a hostile workplace.

“Where an employee’s conduct significantly disrupts work processes, creates a hostile work environment, or constitutes racial or sexual discrimination or harassment,” she noted, “the board has found it unprotected even if it involves concerted activities regarding working conditions.”

Indeed, Carr noted, as one example, employers are expected to grant accommodations for religious expression — certain dress codes, or short breaks for prayer — but not necessary for proselytizing to co-workers.

“There’s a lot of gray area where somebody’s religious beliefs may conflict with somebody else’s protected rights,” he said. “For example, if you have a religious belief against gay marriage, you don’t necessarily have the right to advocate for that in the workplace, where you might potentially discriminate against a gay employee. There are a few areas of anti-discrimination law where one person’s right conflicts with another person’s.”

Even clearer are employers’ rights when it comes to online speech by employees that has nothing to do with work conditions but theatens to cause the company embarrassment or reputational harm — such as ABC shutting down its hit show Roseanne last month after its namesake star, Roseanne Barr, fired off a racist tweet comparing Valerie Jarrett, a prominent African-American woman, to an ape.

Barr’s case is muddled by the fact that the public doesn’t know what stipulations she might have agreed to in her contract — and, considering her past tendencies to be controversial, such stipulations would probably be a wise move by the network.

“That certainly deals with a private employer’s ability to sanction speech it doesn’t agree with,” Murphy noted, adding that employers have much more to worry about in this realm than it did a decade or more ago. “These days, reputational damage can go viral at the drop of a hat, and employers want to be able to act to protect their brands.”

To measure the speed at which this can happen, look no further than the Justine Sacco debacle of 2013. A senior corporate communications director for IAC, an international media firm, she began tweeting travel-related jokes from Heathrow Airport while waiting to board a flight from London to South Africa. The last one was a joke intended ironically: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she turned off her phone. By the time she turned it back on in Cape Town, she was famous.

Although Sacco had only 170 Twitter followers, tens of thousands of angry responses to her ‘joke’ flooded Twitter, and she even became a trending hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet — all in the space of a few hours. By day’s end, IAC had fired her. She’s certainly not the only employee to run afoul of an employer’s right to protect its brand through such a termination; Barr is just the latest in a long string of cases.

Public or Private?

It’s clear, Carr said, that private-sector employees need to be more careful about what they say than government employees, who do have greater protections.

“It is true that the First Amendment does not apply to private actors; there has to be a government actor. And there’s even some gray area in terms of what is and what is not a private employer,” he said, citing, for example, the example of a private contractor working on a government project.

“It gets tricky because these free-speech kinds of issues are often less about free speech and the First Amendment and more about labor law,” he said, citing, as one example, anti-discrimination laws that protect employees against being fired for religious reasons. “You don’t have an unfettered right to political speech in a private workplace, but there may be some overlapping and intermingling of, say, political speech with protected speech.”

For example, he noted, “the policies that political figures make do often affect the workplace, and insofar as employees have a right to engage in concerted activity, that can become a gray area. For example, somebody is advocating for a candidate that is proposing to pass anti-union legislation, then you’re clearly intermingling political speech with issues of labor law.”

Murphy noted that these issues tend to proliferate around election time, and employers often handle them on an ad hoc basis as they arise. “Employers want a civil workplace, but they don’t want to seem like heavy-handed censors. I’ve never seen a policy that deals with talking politics or the issues of the day at work; in general, employers say, ‘for everybody’s sanity, let’s try not to ratchet this up too much.’ Because these issues reflect society, and there can be a lot of hard feelings.”

On the matter of off-duty speech, on the other hand, employers are often taken aback by what the law and NLRB rulings actually say, Murphy said. “Is off-duty misconduct something employers have a right to weigh in on or sanction? Most employers say, ‘yes, we do, if it impacts our reputation or customers.’”

Some wrinkles of labor law have decades of case guidance behind them, Carr noted, while others are fairly new — social media being a prime example. “As each successive change in the law occurs, there’s a huge lag in getting guidance from judges. And for every law that’s passed, it’s impossible for us to predict all the possible eventualities. That’s what the judicial system is for — to interpret the law and define those edges.”

That said, he added, there has been a feeling in the legal world that the NLRB under the current administration may be amenable to clawing back some of the speech protections it originally granted employees.

“The pendulum is swinging back a little bit,” Murphy agreed. “They’re actually looking anew at some of those decisions and rules about employers’ handbooks and social-media policies. Generally, under the NLRB, you can speak out about matters of mutual concern among employees. But that’s fluid.”

At the end of the day, he went on, employers simply want a productive workforce and resist anything that might stir the pot, whether it’s a peaceful demonstration in favor of racial justice, an unhinged tweet that promotes racial strife, or something in between.

“There are people who say we’ve become less tolerant as a society and we’re not respectful enough of opposing viewpoints. They say, ‘get out of the bunker and listen to your employees; you don’t necessarily need to be censors,’” Murphy said. “But an employer’s primary responsibility is to protect that business and brand. That’s what they’re up against.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Creative Economy

Art and Commerce

Mary Yun

Mary Yun on the ground floor of Click Workspace’s Market Street location.

Co-working spaces — offices where members share physical work areas and office technology and supplies — have become an increasingly popular model for small, particularly solo, businesses in the region. Mary Yun, executive director of Click Workspace in Northampton, had a broader vision, helping to grow a center that brings economic energy to the city, but also builds on its cultural vibrancy through the arts. A rapidly growing roster of members testifies to the success of that vision.

Mary Yun remembers the days when fax machines were considered modern technology, and so much that has happened since — from e-mail to social media to 24-hour, mobile access to limitless information — has only served to make it easier for people to work pretty much anywhere.

“Remember telecommuting? Everyone was like, ‘that’s amazing; I can work in my pajamas.’ Everyone thought it was great,” said Yun, executive director of Click Workspace in Northampton. “But the further and further technologically advanced we get, the less human contact we have.

“That’s why co-working spaces have become so popular, because people need that,” she went on. “The more technologically advanced we get, the more we need spaces like this for people to physically gather, whether it’s for work or for other reasons.”

Yung has been a key figure in the dramatic expansion of Click, which launched in a 1,000-square-foot facility behind Sylvester’s restaurant back in 2011. An architect by trade, she created Market9.5, LLC in 2012 so she could purchase and develop a 9,000-square-foot building at 9 1/2 Market St., which Click has called home for the past two years.

Remember telecommuting? Everyone was like, ‘that’s amazing; I can work in my pajamas.’ Everyone thought it was great. But the further and further technologically advanced we get, the less human contact we have.”

“We have such a wide range of professionals here, from people who are sole proprietors, like myself, to people who work as consultants to firms in other parts of the United States and the world,” she added, referring to Click’s 98 members, soon to be 100 with two pending additions. “Then we have people of all different age groups. Right now, we have a huge amount of members with small children.”

Those tend to disperse around 4 p.m. each day, she noted, while others may work well into the night; Click is a 24-hour operation.

But why bother being a member at all, with modern communication turning any home into an office? There are a few reasons, said Sofia Nardi, Click’s member advocate.

“A lot of people don’t find themselves productive at home,” she told BusinessWest. “They see laundry, start to do laundry, and stop working. Or their TV is there. A lot of people feel that a shared space is more conducive to working. When you see other people working, you get to work.

Click has cultural force through its promotion of the arts.

Click has become not just a home to small businesses, but a cultural force through its promotion of the arts.

“The second reason,” she went on, “is that a lot of remote workers are looking for a community and looking for co-workers to talk to during the day, even if they don’t interact with them on a daily basis.”

The basic concept behind co-working is simple. It’s a workspace where people can share a table or an office; access fast Internet service and shared resources like a copier, conference rooms, and audio-visual equipment; and make the kinds of connections that inspire further growth and success.

Yun had a broader vision, however, when she came on board — one centered around the arts as an economic driver.

“When Click was founded, it was mostly geared toward entrepreneurs. I knew a couple of the founding members, and they came to me and said, ‘help us grow.’ And this building was on the market, so I said, ‘this is a perfect location. We want to stay downtown,’” she recalled.

“I also said, ‘I want to rebrand Click. I want to open it up not just for entrepreneurship but for all kinds of professionals, a broader group of users. But the bigger thing is that the rebranding involved the ability to do cultural events and welcome the community in.”

That has proved to be a critical factor in Click’s growth, simply by using the arts — gallery shows, music performances, literary events, and the like — to emphasize Northampton’s cultural heritage while exposing new faces to Click’s eclectic space.

For this issue’s focus on the creative economy, BusinessWest visits one of the Valley’s many burgeoning co-working centers to explore why it has grown so quickly in recent years, and why the shared-workspace model is so appealing to the area’s business people who plant roots there.

Out of the Ghetto

Click’s co-founders — Ali Usman, Lisa Papademetriou, and Rocco Falcone — drew inspiration from much larger projects such as the Cambridge Innovation Center and the Innovation Pavilion in Colorado, which Usman also founded. Their original space included a main room with several tables and three small offices, and growth was definitely limited.

That led to some healthy connections between members, Yun said; in fact, they couldn’t be avoided.

“That happened very easily because it was packed,” she said. “It was like a ghetto; everyone was forced to interact. We had people packed in, four to a table, working away, and you knew everyone’s business.”

Looking across Click’s main room during BusinessWest’s visit, as about a dozen members quietly worked, heads in their laptops, she noted that density has certainly decreased, which has its pros and cons.

“When we moved here two years ago, all of a sudden it was like living in the suburbs. Like, you know who lives in that house, but you don’t have to deal with them,” she said by way of analogy. “As we start our third year in this space. I’m hoping we grow in density in the open office space so that we’re an urban community — but not a ghetto. And with our open office-space membership growing, we’ll see more of that happening. The analogy of urbanism is really the best thing to describe what we’re going through as we grow into this space.”

In designing the four-story facility — with its blend of shared workspaces, private offices, and shared offices, with membership options starting at $195 per month and rising from there, depending on how much space and privacy is desired — Yun said it was important to create a place where people would want to gather, and she feels the former antique store on Market Street accomplishes that goal.

“It’s very comfortable, very intimate. We’ve tried to keep the charm of this building, which was built in the ’20s as a warehouse facility. Since then, it’s gone through various changes,” she said, pointing out the glass-walled offices designed to take advantage of the natural light from Click’s storefront.

Sofia Nardi

Sofia Nardi stands in front of the wall of company logos greeting visitors at Click’s entrance.

Nardi explained that the building is locked to outsiders, and members can give visitors a guest code to get in. Several conference rooms of different sizes are available to members for three hours at a time (longer for a small fee), and everyone has access to the shared office equipment, the basement kitchen and lounge, a shower for those who bike to work or visit a gym on the way in, and even a small room with greenscreen paint on the walls for video production.

Meanwhile, members access perks like reduced-rate gym memberships, hotel stays, and airport parking, to name a few, through area partnerships Click has forged, and member events throughout the month range from ‘Chew,’ a community lunch, to weekly yoga sessions to monthly happy hours, explained Nardi, whose roles at Click since coming on board in January include managing administrative functions, accounting, office operations, purchasing, and troubleshooting routine problems with equipment and maintenance, as well as serving as the first point of contact for all inquiries and visitors.

Art of the Matter

But what really has Yun and Nardi excited is the range of activities aimed at bringing in visitors. The space can be rented out for recitals, team-building exercises, and corporate parties, and Click maintains a steady flow of art displays through Arts Night Out events as well as music performances, with much of the ticket and art sales directly benefiting the artist.

“The first floor doubles as event space,” Nardi said. “It’s about getting people into this space and experiencing art and culture in Northampton.”

Yun said the space was designed specifically to facilitate such events.

“When we do art openings for Arts Night Out, we’ll have a guy come in to play the piano, and people walk in, and they’re surprised. It’s something you don’t necessarily expect.”

In addition, she noted, “because we have the rotating art, members that normally would not look at art are looking at art. That was one of my personal missions: trying to get more integration of culture, arts, and music into everyday life for everybody. Because it’s really disappearing.”

She explained that, when she moved to Northampton about 18 years ago, there were more small, “pocket” venues where people gathered to listen to live music. “Now it’s gotten a little more gentrified in Northampton, and those little spaces have kind of disappeared. So, having seen the evolution of that, it’s like, ‘oh my God, I don’t want Northampton to become just another New England tourist town.’”

Avoiding that fate, she said, requires a combination of professionals working downtown, not on the city’s fringes, and creating more vibrancy after hours through cultural events.

“People need that human interaction,” Yun said. “When people come for events, the first time they’re here, they’re like, ‘wow, this is amazing,’ and they might not even see it as a co-working space, since we move all this furniture out.” But when they do realize what the building has to offer an entrepreneur or creative professional, they may return during the day, asking about membership.

“I think what sets us apart from some of the other co-working spaces is that we really do have a mission to become embedded in this community,” she said, noting that renting out the conference rooms to area organizations is another way of bringing people inside. When they do, she noted, they’re immediately met by a wall of names and logos of member businesses, prominently displayed at the entrance.

“That’s the first thing they see because that’s what it’s all about. It’s a great physical space, but it’s really about the community of memberships we have,” Yun said. “If you want to keep Northampton downtown viable for anything, so that it just doesn’t become just another tourist town, you have to keep businesses here. There are towns like Northampton around, but it’s a challenge.

Part of the Whole

Click is a nonprofit organization, Yun said, but more importantly, it’s a collective and a place where professionals can collaborate — or, echoing Nardi’s observation, just hunker down in a place more conducive to working than beside the TV or a load of dirty laundry.

“If you have a membership here, you’re part of this whole community of Click, and you share all the resources. It’s totally convenient,” Yun said. “Plus, you can open a business and put all your energy into growing the business and not have to worry about the facilities. When you’re starting out, who can afford to have all the equipment, all those startup costs?”

Click has made forays into presenting professional-development events, but Yun admitted it’s more difficult these days to draw attendees, since so much information about … well, everything, really, is readily available online. “The best thing that happens here professional-development-wise is members making connections.”

Two years into the new space, Yun is glad she took on the challenge of converting an old building downtown into a bright, modern space — complete with fiber-optic service, a totally new HVAC system, and other amenities — that today’s professionals, whether remote workers, sole proprietors, or road warriors in need of a home base, can feel comfortable working in.

There’s a reason, she said, that co-working spaces — from Colab Design in Easthampton to the Writer’s Mill in Florence; from AmherstWorks to CoWork Springfield — have been popping up across the region, and succeeding. To many, that model simply makes more sense than working alone.

“We don’t compete with them,” Yun told BusinessWest. “We just make ours the best we can.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]