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Community Spotlight: Wilbraham

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith say they’d like to see more civic participation in policy discussions and planning town events.

Being pro-business, Jeff Smith says, doesn’t mean letting just any business set up shop in Wilbraham — but it does mean giving every business a fair shake.

Take, for example, Iron Duke Brewing, which is moving to town after a successful but eventually contentious stay at the Ludlow Mills. Because Wilbraham had no zoning for microbrew and brewpub establishments, the town’s Economic Development Initiative Steering Committee (EDICS) recommended a zoning change that eased the path for not just Iron Duke, but also Catch 22 Brewing, which is setting up shop at the former Dana’s Grillroom on Boston Road.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do,” said Smith, the town’s Planning Board chairman, giving one example of how a zoning change can have effects beyond its initial motivation.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22 Brewing] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do.”

“When somebody comes into town and is interested in locating a business here and we don’t have specific zoning for it,” he added, “the Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the town itself take a hard look at the zoning and say, ‘is this the type of operation we’d like to see here? Maybe we should put zoning in place, and we can pitch it to the town, and if it’s not appropriate and the town agrees, they can vote accordingly at town meeting.’”

The same thing happened when the town lifted a long-time moratorium on new gas stations. As soon as that happened, Cumberland Farms bought some real estate in Post Office Park along Boston Road, with plans to open a 24-hour facility.

“We tried to have some foresight,” Smith told BusinessWest, adding that the Route 20 corridor used to have five gas stations, but that number had shrunk to two since the moratorium went into effect. “We said, ‘OK, why don’t we allow gas stations?’ It was something a previous Planning Board had put it in, but we said, ‘why? Things have changed. Maybe this is a good time to take a look at this.’ And as soon as we did, Cumberland Farms came in and located here.”

Bob Boilard, who chairs Wilbraham’s three-member Board of Selectmen, said he’s not an advocate of locking up decent, buildable land in perpetuity, or keeping out entire classes of businesses for no reason.

“There’s got to be a common-sense approach,” he said. “There are people in town that would say, ‘let’s stop now. No more building in Wilbraham.’ But you can’t do that. You have to have a tax base and controlled growth to support the town. It’s a balancing act. Open space is great, and we do a great job with that, but we have to consider each individual thing that comes before us.”

Smith added that town officials try to be both reactive and proactive, recognizing current needs but also anticipating future ones. “We want more businesses and more enterprises to locate here in our business district.”

Open for Business

Boilard said the town has worked in recent years to streamline the process for businesses to set up shop there.

“Planning and Zoning have done a great job adjusting things to make it easier for businesses to come in, and when they do come in, they complement us on the ease of communication, the ease of getting things done,” he said. “We don’t put up brick walls every so many feet for these guys; we try to make it as easy as possible to come in and do business in Wilbraham.”

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.64
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

The nine-member EDICS has been integral to that effort, Smith said. “Let’s say you’re XYZ Inc., and you want to locate your business in Wilbraham. What do you do? What’s your first step? Where do you go? How do you know if there’s zoning for your business?”

One project the group wants to tackle is creating a comprehensive section on the town’s website to answer all those questions.

“They’re proposing updating the website to a more modern platform that’s more user-friendly, and then adding a business or a ‘locating your business here’ page that would essentially have a checklist: the first step is to talk to this person, here’s their phone number, here’s their e-mail.

“That way, people come in prepared,” he went on. “As a member of town government, we hate to have somebody come in unprepared and then have to tell them, ‘hey, you’re going to have to come back to the next meeting, and that’s a month away.’ So if they can get a lot of questions answered and come prepared, it’s smoother for everybody.”

The committee is also looking into creating marketing materials, both online and in print, outlining what Wilbraham has to offer — such as its access to rail and a single tax rate — that make it appealing to locate a business here.

Not every development proposal has gone according to plan. A recent effort to allow a mixed-use development in the town center, in the area of Main and Springfield streets, failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes.

“It’s a very sensitive area,” Smith said. “One thing I’ve learned in my six years on the Planning Board is that people are very hesitant to change. In the long run, I think we take our time in this town and we do things right, and the end result is good. But in the beginning, there’s an air of skepticism toward changing something — which I don’t think is a bad thing.”

But it can be tricky, he went on, when a developer wants to move forward with a proposal that could create added energy in the center, especially when other mixed-use facilities, grandfathered in when the town put a hold on others like it, already exist.

“People understand there’s some vacant buildings there, and we could make changes that would probably make them not vacant and make it more vibrant,” he explained, “but I think there’s a fear that would be a change they may not like. So we have to tread lightly and move carefully with the center of town and make sure we get as much input from the people of the town as possible.”

In the end, he said, town officials didn’t do the best job conveying why such a development would be a positive. “It was a close vote, which is good because there are a lot of people in favor of it, but at the same time it tells me we have more work to do.”

Changing Times

It’s a challenge, Boilard said, to build a more vibrant town in an age when people’s lifestyles have been altered by technology, declining school enrollment, and a host of other factors. “The generations are changing, and society changes, and that happens everywhere.”

For example, Smith said, the Boston Road business corridor was originally built around retail, but bricks-and-mortar retail establishments struggle in the age of Amazon, and the concept of what a downtown or business center looks like today has shifted immeasurably since the 1970s, or even the 1990s.

“When I was a kid, I would get on my bicycle — I lived near Mile Tree School — and I could drive to the center of town. My dentist was there, Louis & Clark filled all of our prescriptions, the gas station would fix your car or come jump your car in your driveway, my pediatrician was right on the road there, the post office was there, and the village store was there, selling sandwiches and stuff. Everything you needed was there.”

Today, he went on, “you don’t see as many kids out riding their bikes. Those things that I mentioned aren’t really there in one convenient package. Things are different. So we’re trying to put in or modify zoning, potentially bringing some mixed-use components or do something to revitalize those areas, and it’s tough to balance that with … I don’t want to say a fear of change, but there’s an apprehension toward change in the wrong direction.”

Boilard said Wilbraham remains an attractive destination for new residents, with a well-run and well-regarded school system, although real estate in town can be pricey. “It can be hard for new families to come in and be able to afford Wilbraham. I wish we could have an impact on that, but it’s the way economics and demographics are.”

That said, several new subdivisions have gone up in recent years, with a trend toward modestly sized houses, which are selling faster than larger homes, and developers are designing projects accordingly, Smith said.

“Residential growth, in my time here, has been pretty consistent — I would say slow but always moving in the right direction,” he explained. “There’s not a ton of available land in town. The last subdivision to go in was an old farm that was in a family for a long time, and it wasn’t being used as a farm anymore. So a developer purchased it and divided it up and put in a subdivision.”

Compared to other towns in the area, he went on, Wilbraham does a good job of protecting and managing open-space and recreation parcels. “Every time a parcel is brought to the town to be purchased or donated as open space, the town is seemingly in favor of those purchases.”

But controlled growth is the goal, he added, and a balance must be struck between commerce and open space. “There’s a tax base that has to be built, and we try to build it with as much business as we can. We’ve turned down pieces of open space offered to the town — ‘no, we’re all set; put it on the open market, develop the property and get some tax revenue going.’”

Getting to Know You

One area Wilbraham does need to improve, both Boilard and Smith said, is in the area of volunteerism and civic involvement.

“Town events are well-attended, and that’s great,” Smith said, citing examples like the Spec Pond fishing derby, the Run for Rice’s 5K, the Thursday night concert series, the revamped Peach Blossom Festival, and the Christmas tree lighting. “But I would love to see more participation in the planning.”

Boilard agreed. “People complain we don’t have an event, but nobody wants to volunteer to run it. It’s always the same core people stepping up to volunteer,” he said, adding that this trend applies to town-meeting attendance as well.

For example, a recent public hearing on raising the minimum smoking age in town to 21 drew mainly support from the residents in attendance. “Then the phone calls started rolling in — ‘I can shoot a bullet in the Army at 18; why are you doing this?’ I said, ‘where were you Monday night? Why didn’t you come in and talk to us?’”

Smith called the numbers at town meetings “painful” — particularly considering the work that officials put into preparing for them. “I like it when there’s an angry mob in here. That’s good. We want some feedback. But participation could be better.”

After all, he and Boilard said, engaged residents are informed residents, all the better equipped to steer Wilbraham into its next phase of controlled growth.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Back to the Future

Opened in 1956 and hardly touched since, Westfield State University’s Parenzo Hall will soon have a 21st-century feel and house 21st-century initiatives.

Ramon Torrecilha says that when it opened in 1956, Parenzo Hall, the first building on what was then Westfield State College’s new campus on Western Avenue, housed “pretty much everything.”

That included classrooms, the dining hall, a large auditorium, administrative offices — yes, everything, said Torrecilha, president of what is now Westfield State University.

Over time, many all of those facilities moved somewhere else. The dining commons went in Scanlon Hall, new classroom facilities were built, and a number of administrative offices were moved down Western Avenue to the building, acquired by the college nearly 20 years ago, that was once the world headquarters for Stanley Home Products, later Stanhome.

But Parenzo remains an important center of activity of the school, as home to everything from a gym to labs to gatherings in that auditorium. Yet, while still relevant, Parenzo needed a 21st-century feel, and, more importantly, a 21st-century function — or several of them.

It will get both as the university embarks on a $40 million project likely to commence in 2020.

Indeed, the building will be modernized and brought up to current codes. But even more importantly, it will be home to some forward-thinking initiatives, said Torrecilha, referring specifically to the planned Center for Innovation and Education and the Center for Student Success and Engagement.

The former will leverage technology and serve as what Torrecilha called the “nexus for innovative collaboration in Western Mass.” and partner with community colleges, K-12 school districts, and industry partners. The latter, meanwhile, will strive to improve student outcomes and also address the continuing decline in the number of working-age adults.

Parenzo’s auditorium was packed on July 10 as a number of civic and economic-development leaders, college faculty and staff members, and even some students were on hand to see and hear Gov. Charlie Baker and other members of his administration talk about the legislation known as H.4549, “An Act Providing for Capital Repairs and Improvements for the Commonwealth,” a bill Baker signed that afternoon amid considerable fanfare.

The measure authorizes nearly $4 billion to address statewide capital needs, including higher-education campuses, health and human services facilities, state office buildings, public-safety facilities, and courts.

Gov. Charlie Baker signs H.4549, which includes $21 million for Parenzo Hall.

When he was asked by BusinessWest what inspired state officials to direct $21 million of that money toward Parenzo Hall — an amount to be matched by the university itself — Torrecilha said it was much more than the need to put a modern face on a 62-year-old building that certainly needed one. “It’s never been renovated,” he noted. “We still have the original windows, there are ADA issues, and there are a host of other improvements that need to take place; it doesn’t even have air conditioning.”

Indeed, what certainly resonated, he said, was what the college intended to do with the new Parenzo.

And to determine what that new life would be, Torrecilha said he essentially “hit the road” and visited a number of the school’s partners — a large constituency that includes the four area community colleges, the K-12 community, especially in Westfield, Holyoke, and Springfield, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce — asking what they would like to see and gain from a new Parenzo.

“I asked, ‘how would a renovated Parenzo help you advance your mission,’’ he recalled, adding quickly that the respective mission vary, obviously, and that fact was reflected in the answers to that inquiry.

And it also reflected in the broad new strategic plan for Parenzo and the two new centers that will be based there.

The ‘Center for Innovation in Education and Industry Partnerships,’ is aptly named, he explained, because it will focus on the two distinct and equally important initiatives.

“We intend to work very closely with industry in Western Mass. so the university can partner with them in create programs and curriculum that support their operations,” he explained, adding that the EDC and the chamber will among the partners in this endeavor. “It’s about engaging with industry, doing needs assessments, and then turning to our faculty and programs and say ‘how can we help this particular industry in developing more skills and knowledge (in perspective employees) so the business is supported.”

The university, its faculty, and administrators already engage in such conversations with industry leaders, but the new center will take the dialogue — and the various forms of response — to a much higher level.

Meanwhile, the center will also focus on innovation in education, with a strong focus on technology, Torrecilha noted, adding that there are a number of significant changes taking place in how subject is taught — or can be taught — and the center will work to help WSU various partners, including the K-12 community and the community colleges, make the most of this technology.

“Because of technology, the learning process is being revolutionized,” he explained. “Today, there are digital laboratories, and the way we are teaching chemistry, physics, and even biology is changing. Those days when people would dissect a frog … all that can now be done digitally, and one of the things I’m envisioning is for the center to work with the K-12 community and our community college partners to set up that kind of exchange and partnerships.”

Torrecilha said that work will soon begin to blueprint what the new Parenzo will look like and how its spaces will be apportioned. He doesn’t have specific answers yet, but did say the school will make the very most of what is still a valuable asset.

“The building is 90,000 square feet, and we’re going to use every inch of it,” he said.

Thus, the building most associated with the school’s past, will play a very prominent role in its future.

— George O’Brien

Features

Bridging the Digital Divide

Aneesh Raman says business owners think Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users worldwide, is a valuable tool — even if they don’t always know how best to use it.

According to a 2017 survey, said Raman, who manages Facebook’s global economic-impact programs, more than 60% of small businesses in Massachusetts said Facebook is essential to their business, and 76% said the social-media platform helps them find customers in other cities, states, and countries.

“That’s encouraging data, but as you talk to them, you see a need for more training,” Raman told BusinessWest. “That’s why we’re coming to 30 cities to provide training for small businesses across a range of subjects. No matter what their skill level is — whether businesses are coming online for the first time or are online already — we can help them grow their business.”

Earlier this year, Facebook announced that Springfield had been chosen as one of 30 markets where the company will host its Community Boost program, created to help small businesses, entrepreneurs, and job seekers grow their business and develop new digital skills. Facebook will be in Springfield on Sept. 10-11, presenting workshops on a host of topics yet to be determined.

“Our mission at Facebook is building strong communities, and we believe at the core of strong communities are thriving small businesses,” said Raman, who is also a former journalist who worked as an international correspondent for CNN, as well as a former presidential speechwriter. “Small businesses are the engine of local economies. For years, we have worked with them, trained them online and offline, and helped them grow their business and help them hire more employees.”

Since 2011, he noted, Facebook has invested more than $1 billion to support small businesses. Community Boost is simply a more visible and direct method of doing so, and will focus on small-business training and digital acumen in general, rather than simply promoting Facebook, Raman said.

“Small businesses are the engine of local economies. For years, we have worked with them, trained them online and offline, and helped them grow their business and help them hire more employees.”

During its visits to 30 cities — including Houston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and many other metro areas much larger than Springfield — Facebook representatives will take a three-pronged approach to economic development, working with local organizations to provide digital skills and training for people in need of work, advising entrepreneurs how to get started, and helping existing businesses and nonprofits get the most out of the internet.

A broad survey conducted by Morning Consult and co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Facebook suggests that small businesses’ use of social media is creating new opportunities. For instance, in Massachusetts, 62% of surveyed businesses said Facebook is essential for their business; 76% said Facebook allows them to find customers in other cities, states, and countries; and 69% said they believe an individual’s digital and social-media skills are important when hiring.

A lot of people use Facebook for business reasons, but never any kind of training how to do it. They’re on their own,” said Paul Robbins, president of Paul Robbins Associets in Wilbraham and a communications consultant for Community Boost in Springfield.

“People feel like they’ve got this tool, but they don’t know how to use it, especially small businesses,” he went on. “Here in Springfield, we’ve got a very diverse community with a lot of small businesses. Even not-for-profits can take advantage of this free seminar. Anybody can come. The idea is to help people leverage it as a business tool.”

Logging On

Facebook pledged this year to train 1 million individuals and small business owners across the U.S. in digital and social-media skills by 2020. To do that, it will expand its in-person training programs, create more local partnerships, and build more e-learning resources.

The company cites projections that a skilled-labor shortage in America could create 85.2 million unfilled jobs by 2030, and says it is committed to helping close that skills gap and provide more people and business owners with the educational resources they need to advance at work, find new jobs, or run their companies.

Details on Springfield’s Community Boost event, which is free and open to small business and nonprofits, aren’t set yet; Facebook plans to announce a place, times, and course list at www.facebook.com/business/m/community-boost as September gets closer.

“The goal of the program isn’t to come and leave, but to kick off conversations,” Raman said, noting that Facebook has been talking to businesses and economic-development leaders on a specific program that best meets identified needs for small-business and digital-skills training in the Pioneer Valley.

“Small businesses and workers know they need skills. But they don’t always have help getting those skills,” he went on. “Once we know what the professional needs are, we’ll announce the registration date and courses online.”

According to the Morning Consult research, small businesses’ use of digital tools translates into new jobs and opportunities for communities across the country. And small businesses are the key driver, creating an estimated four out of every five new jobs in the U.S.

The survey revealed that 80% of U.S. small and medium-sized businesses on Facebook say the platform helps them connect to people in their local community, while one in three businesses on Facebook say they built their business on the platform, and 42% say they’ve hired more people due to growth since joining Facebook.

Businesses run by African-Americans, Latinos, veterans, and those with a disability are twice as likely to say that their business was built on Facebook, and one and a half times more likely to say they’ve hired more people since joining the platform.

Raman said small businesses have expressed a desire to learn more about using Facebook and Instagram, the photo- and video-sharing service owned by Facebook. “But we’re teaching skills that apply to any digital platform out there.”

After all, Robbins noted, “not everyone is digitally savvy. A small business may not have the digital skills people assume everyone has. Facebook is trying to demystify it to people, so they’re not afraid of it.”

Getting Social

Increasingly, businesses are embracing 21-st century modes of building their customer base. The 2017 survey by Morning Consult found that the use of digital platforms by American small businesses is ubiquitous — in fact, 84% of small businesses in the U.S. use at least one major digital platform to provide information to customers, and three out of four small businesses use digital platforms for sales.

Yet, businesses face challenges when it comes to the internet, with 57% of small businesses saying lack of familiarity with available digital tools is a challenge.

“At Facebook, we see a big opportunity to make a difference in partnership with local organizations and local officials,” Raman told BusinessWest. “We really do think there’s a skills gap, and by closing that, we can help expand economic opportunity in Springfield and across the country.”

But it’s not just employers the Community Boost program aims to reach. For job seekers, the program will provide training to help improve their digital and social-media skills. According to the research, 62% percent of U.S. small businesses using Facebook said digital or social-media skills are an important factor in their hiring decisions — even more important than where a candidate went to school.

Community Boost will also offer entrepreneurs training programs on how to use technology to turn an idea into a business, as well as ways to create a free online presence using Facebook.

And, of course, business owners will learn how to expand their digital footprint and find new customers around the corner and around the globe. Training will also include education in digital literacy and online safety.

“We also want to teach nonprofits to be part of the programming and how Facebook can help them learn the digital skills they need to increase donations,” Raman said.

Facebook strives to evolve Community Boost based on what it’s learning in its earlier stops. For example, in St. Louis, the first stop on the tour, the company learned exactly how wide the gap is between the digital skills job seekers know they need and the skills they feel they have. In fact, according to a survey there, 93% of job and skills seekers say digital skills are important when looking for job, while only 12% rate themselves highly in this area.

Managers also see gaps in the skills they need to grow their businesses, the St. Louis survey showed. For example, the majority of managers in that city said creating a mobile-friendly interface was important to growing their business, but very few saw themselves as proficient.

Springfield — the only New England stop for Community Boost — may not have the population of the major metropolitan areas on the tour, but Raman says the needs are universal, and Facebook wants a diverse cross-section of cities represented.

“Springfield has a vibrant small-business community with a diverse population,” he noted. “We think we can make a real impact here.”


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]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Agawam Mayor William Sapelli

William Sapelli inherited a long to-do list when he took on his new role as mayor, from infrastructure projects to economic-development concerns, and has only added more items to that list.

Very soon after William Sapelli announced he would be retiring as Agawam’s superintendent of schools — ending four decades of work in education — people started suggesting that he run for mayor that fall.

“They said, ‘you have the skill set — you have a $45 million school budget, which is half the town budget, you deal with 700 employees, you’ve negotiated five contracts, and you know all the city departments,’” recalled Sapelli, who took the suggestions under advisement and eventually took the idea to his family.

At first, he recalled with a laugh, he interpreted their unbridled support as perhaps a loud hint that they weren’t ready to have him home full-time. But soon they convinced him, as did others, that their backing was grounded in the belief that Agawam needed a change — and a fresh perspective — in City Hall. And that he could provide it.

Although he eventually embraced the calls for him to seek the corner office, Sapelli rejected recommendations that he formally announce his intentions before he actually retired almost a year ago (early July, to be exact) because he wanted to avoid any and all suggestions that he might be using the resources of his office as superintendent to help gain the mayor’s chair and focusing on his next job before he finished up in the one he was in.

“I got in late — I was really behind the 8-ball, and people said you can’t get in that late,” said Sapelli, who nonetheless triumphed in the September primary and then the November election. And he attributes that victory, in large part, to his message of needed change and the promise that he can provide it.

“This sounds corny, but I grew up here in town, and I care about this town,” he told BusinessWest. “I personally didn’t like the way things were going; it seemed that elected officials weren’t really getting along. It seemed like things were going off the rails — people not communicating, people sniping at each other — and I thought we could do better, and do better for Agawam.”

Five months in, he said the office is, well, busier than he thought it would be, in part because there are a great many meetings and official functions at which his attendance is required, or at least requested. But another big part of it is that Sapelli inherited a lengthy to-do list, and he’s only added more to it.

Among those line items are a host of important infrastructure projects, especially the rebuilding of the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam to West Springfield. There are also specific business concerns, such as the nagging question about how to inject new life into the tired commercial district known as Walnut Street Extension, home to the now-infamous Games & Lanes, which no longer exists; however, the problem of finding a new use for the property does.

And then, there are broader, more complex business and economic-development concerns, such as Agawam’s notorious — and in many ways debilitating — spot-zoning practices.

“There’s so much spot zoning in Agawam … our system is so archaic,” said Sapelli with some exasperation in his voice. “In most communities, it’s an issue; in our community … well, I’ve had the experts from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission get involved through a grant we received, and they used the word ‘unique’ to describe the problem.”

To address it, Sapelli has created a zoning-review committee, which is expected to make some recommendations in the months to come.

An even bigger issue — although the zoning problem is quite extensive — is the recognized need (on Sapelli’s part, anyway) to make the city more business-friendly.

Walnut Street Extension

Improving the Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution in Agawam.

“People ask how we can become more business-friendly, and one of the ways is to expedite the permitting process,” he explained. “From what I was hearing from individuals who came in and tried to start businesses and get permits for different things was that it took longer than they expected. I thought it was important to go out and try to make this community attractive to businesses.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with Agawam’s mayor (he’s no longer the ‘new mayor’) about the challenge he accepted and how he’s working to fulfill that campaign pledge of bringing positive change to the community.

Learning the Ropes

As he provided a chronology of a career in the Agawam school system that began when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Sapelli said there were a number of stops.

They started with a stint coaching junior-varsity hockey and substitute-teaching assignments at the high school. A year later, he was coaching the varsity team and teaching social studies at the junior high. Later, he taught science for six years, then became assistant principal at the middle school, then an elementary-school principal, assistant superintendent, and, starting in 2011, superintendent.

During the campaign last fall, he encountered — and earned a good deal of support from — people who were students during each one of those stops. When it came to people making such claims about the earliest stages of his career, he admits to having to take their word for it.

“People will say, ‘remember when I had you in school?’” he said. “And I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you looked like this when you were 10 or 12, so I don’t recognize you, but I believe that you were one of my students.”

Support from all those former students and colleagues was certainly a factor in Sapelli’s rather large margin of victory over former City Council President Jimmy Cichetti last November.

As was, he believes, the desire for change in a community that had seen little progress on many of the key issues facing it — and his ability to bring about that change.

“I really thought we could do a better job of having local, city, and state government be a kinder, gentler group, if you will,” he said, “and be able to have open, honest discussions and not take things personally.”

While working to stimulate change and progress, Sapelli is also leading efforts on a number of issues, or fronts, that, as noted, have challenged several of his predecessors.

At or near the top of that list is the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, the rebuilding and widening of which has been talked about for years. State funding has been secured for the project, and a bid should be awarded shortly, said Sapelli, adding that work was to have started this spring.

But it’s already late June, and construction still hasn’t started, said the mayor, adding that, since work is due to be halted during the 17-day run of the Big E — which is just a few hundred yards to the east of the bridge — in September, there is now a good chance the project may not see much progress this calendar year.

“They may be doing some preliminary set-up work this fall,” said Sapelli, adding quickly that there will be more definitive timelines for this project emerging shortly. “But I don’t think anything major will happen until next spring.”

The bridge, projected to be a two-and-a-half-year project, is an important initiative, he went on, referring to the traffic bottlenecks that are regular — and problematic — for residents and businesses trying to attract people to that area. And during the Big E, the traffic problems reach nightmare proportions.

To ease those problems, the city plans to improve not only the bridge intersection, but also the one a few hundred yards to the north at Springfield and Walnut streets.

Meawhile, improvement of another key intersection, in Feeding Halls on Route 187, is on the drawing board — it has been for some time, actually, said the mayor, adding that is part of approximately $8 million in road, sidewalk, and intersection improvements that will be undertaken city-wide.

While addressing those infrastructure matters, there are a number of specific business and economic-development-related issues that demand attention as well, said Sapelli.

Chief among them is the ongoing issue of Walnut Street Extension. The Games & Lanes property has been razed, said the mayor, and the property’s owner reports there has been some interest, but nothing likely to translate into redevelopment in the near future.

Meanwhile, that property is just part of the story. The Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution. Last spring, the City Council first rejected a $5.3 million streetscape-improvement project for that area and then a subsequent, scaled-down, $3.6 million initiative.

The strategy moving forward, said Sapelli, is to create what’s known as a DIF (district improvement financing) program for that area. With a DIF, a community can pledge all or a portion of tax increments — additional tax revenue stemming from development or increases in property value — to fund district improvements over time.

“That money gets set aside and earmarked strictly for development in that area that’s mapped out, and that area alone,” said the mayor. “It’s a way of creating a fund to improve that depressed area without using taxpayer dollars or increasing taxes on the people in that area.”

A DIF is a close cousin of the better-known TIF, whereby municipalities may grant property-tax exemptions to landowners of up to 100% of the tax increments for a fixed period. Agawam intends to use both DIFs and TIFs to generate economic development, said Sapelli.

Other specific initiatives include redevelopment of the former Buxton property, later Southworth Paper and Turners Falls Paper, on Main Street, said the mayor, adding that the emerging plan is to subdivide the sprawling plant and attract multiple tenants.

There are also the many smaller retail centers and strip malls within the community, he went on, adding that the town has seen some new businesses come in and fill vacancies, and the goal is to attract more.

As for work on the town’s archaic zoning, Sapelli said his administration is “attacking” the problem.

“It’s going to be a big job, so we’re taking it little bites at a time,” he noted, adding that the Planning Commission has been a big help in this regard. “But we’re going to get it done.”

By the Book

Sapelli said he’s not sure if he’s the only the school superintendent to move the corner office in this region in recent times. But he does know that his route is certainly one that’s not well-traveled.

As his supporters note, he brings considerable experience to the job and knowledge of city departments and how they operate. Those skills have certainly helped him make the transition and advance many different kinds of initiatives.

But his comments — and his body language — convey the message that behind every challenge … there are many more challenges.

He says he’s up for them, because of that dedication to the town where he grew up, and also because he brings a new school of thought to managing this community — literally and figuratively.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

An architect’s rendering of the Ludlow Mills complex, redevelopment of which is an ongoing process.

An architect’s rendering of the Ludlow Mills complex, redevelopment of which is an ongoing process.

Eric Nelson said he recently had cause to look over the occupancy permit issued to Westmass Area Development Corp. for the property now known as Ludlow Mills.

The date on the document — April 2012 — gave him both pause and more evidence that time does, indeed, fly.

Yes, it’s been more than six years since this ambitious project — a blend of both brownfield and greenfield development — was launched, and, for the most part, it is on schedule, said Nelson, president of Westmass for roughly half the duration of this effort.

And by on schedule, he was referring to the pace of development, or redevelopment, at this complex of 60 buildings and adjoining undeveloped land. When it started the clock back in 2011 when the property was actually acquired, Westmass said this would be a 20-year project that would generate $300 million in public and private investments, more than 2,000 jobs, and a more than $2 million increase in municipal property taxes.

To date, there have been several high-profile initiatives on the site, most notably the building of a new HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital ($28 million), WinnDevelopment’s overhaul of the structure known as Mill 10 into over-55 housing ($24 million), and several smaller developments.

And there is more on the drawing board, most notably WinnDevelopment’s planned conversion of Mill 8, the so-called Clock Tower Building — because it’s home to the clock tower that is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in this community — into a mixed-used project featuring commercial space on the ground floor and more housing in the floors above. That’s a $50 million project, according to current but very preliminary estimates, that was announced nearly two years ago.

“So far, we’ve either constructed or leveraged $127 million in private and public investments,” said Nelson, tallying up the two completed projects, the announced Clock Tower initiative, and a host of smaller line items, if you will, such as brownfield cleanup, infrastructure work, and other publicly funded initiatives.

The next key milestone for the project is the construction of Riverside Drive, which will open up approximately 60 acres of pre-permitted light-industrial property in the easternmost area of the mill site. A $3.5 million MassWorks grant from the state was earmarked for the project, and Westmass and town officials are working with congressional leaders to secure a matching $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to cover the $7 million cost of the roadwork.

The Ludlow Mills project is on schedule, if not ahead of it, in another respect, said Town Planner Doug Stefancik. This would be what could be called the trickle-down effect to the town and the region in terms of jobs and other benefits.

Doug Stefancik says the ‘trickle-down effect’ from redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills complex is already in evidence.

Doug Stefancik says the ‘trickle-down effect’ from redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills complex is already in evidence.

That list would have to include the riverwalk that was inspired by the project and has become a popular recreational facility within the town, as well as the jobs created and kept in Ludlow by the mill project (HealthSouth would certainly fall into that category), the new housing option of the form of Building 10 (many of those with that address were already town residents) and the promise of more at the Clock Tower Building, and early signs of additional vibrancy and new businesses to support those residents and business tenants at the mill.

“As the mills develop, they will generate additional interest outside that area,” he explained. “That’s because now, you’re putting people down at the mills; you have people who are 55 and over in that housing project, and that’s going to carry over into the community.”

Within walking distance, he added, are a post office, a library, restaurants and shops on East Street, and convenience stores. “There is a trickle down; people are getting into their routines [at Mill 10], and it’s going to be a positive for the whole area.”

The mill project is the story in Ludlow, but it’s not the only story, said Stefancik, adding that the community continues to add new residential projects — it has large amounts of developable land, and as the housing market continues to build momentum, more building permits are being issued — and there are infrastructure projects planned that should spur more private investment.

Chief among them is a $6 million project to improve the aptly named Center Street, the town’s main commercial throughfare and the one that handles traffic getting onto and coming off turnpike exit 7 (more about that later).

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus onto Ludlow and especially a project that recalls the town’s past and will play a huge role in its future.

Milling About

As he talked about the mill project, Nelson said there are obviously a lot of moving parts, and the broad goal is to keep the initiative moving so that those ambitious goals for everything from jobs to tax revenue can be met.

And the construction of Riverside Drive is a linchpin to those efforts, he said, adding that there is an existing road, but it is not adequate to support development of the 60 acres of greenfield in the Ludlow Mills master plan.

The MassWorks grant, secured with the help of State Sen. Eric Lesser and state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, was a big step forward in the effort to secure the needed federal funds, said Nelson.

“It’s a pretty effective argument when you can say to grant-funding agencies, ‘you’re going to pay 50% because there’s another entity that will kick in 50%,’” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a very competitive environment for grants, and it helps to have that kind of support from the state.”

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.01
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.01
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital; Mass. Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

As noted earlier, there has been considerable momentum created at the site since it was acquired by Westmass. The first triumph was the HealthSouth project, which amounted to new construction, but with use of many materials from the mill complex itself.

And last fall, the Mill 10 over-55 project opened to considerable fanfare. The complex is fully occupied, and there is, according to some reports, a lengthy waiting list for units that do become available.

Not all has gone according to plan, most notably the very public pending loss of high-profile tenant Iron Duke Brewery. A disagreement developed between tenant and landlord concerning the former’s taproom, which, Westmass argued, had become more of a tavern, attracting large numbers of patrons taking up a considerable amount of the mill’s available parking spaces.

The discord has been marked by acrimony, considerable press coverage, and even a little humor — Iron Duke created a brew called ‘Eviction Notice Black IPA’ at one point — and the company is apparently set to take its act to Wilbraham when its lease expires.

But there is still plenty of forward movement at the historic site, developed by Ludlow Manufacturing and Sales Co., which made a variety of products out of Indian-grown jute and employed more than 4,000 people at its high-water mark.

The goal moving forward is to have people working, living, shopping, dining, recreating, and receiving a wide range of services at the site, said Nelson.

And housing will be a big part of that mix, he noted, adding that the success story that is the Mill 10 project provides ample evidence that there is a need for more housing, including units in the affordable, or subsidized, category, and there are 68 of those among the 75 units at Mill 10.

Actually, what’s planned for the Clock Tower Building is what’s called ‘workforce housing,’ meaning that it will not be for those over 55 exclusively, and will be priced for teachers, firefighters, and others at the lower ends of the pay scale.

Nelson noted that $300,000 in Massachusetts historical tax credits have been secured for the project, said Nelson, an important foundation on which to build in the challenging task of financing the initiative.

Meanwhile, there are other forms of progress on the site, he said, including early movement toward locating a restaurant on the property, one that will have views of the river, and reuse of more of the so-called stock houses once used to store jute and other raw materials.

There are roughly 30 of them, and maybe two dozen are occupied by companies doing everything from precision machining to car-seat repair, said Nelson, adding that the goal is to bring more of them into use and thus continue that process of creating a critical mass of people and businesses that generates more traffic at the mill and, ultimately, more momentum.

“The residential component of Mill 10 presents opportunities for other uses that might come in there and pivot off that residential component,” he told BusinessWest. “If we get a critical mass, and HealthSouth certainly helps with this, we get more traffic, more interest, and more people are exposed to the mill; we’re trying to get more interest from that 8-to-5 window.”

And as momentum swells inside the mill, there is a trickle-down effect, said Stefancik, noting, as just one example, that the river walk has indeed become a popular new attraction in town.

“A lot of people now have that as part of their walking routine,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the amenity is drawing people of all ages and making the river something it really hasn’t been for some time — a community resource.

The town is looking to create more momentum with the planned reconstruction of Center Street (Route 21), a project that will include work on the roadway, shoulders, sidewalks, curbs, drainage, and more.

This will be a $6 million project that bring some inconvenience to people traveling on this main commercial throughfare, but ultimately, it will improve traffic flow through the city. Work is scheduled to start this summer.

Overall, there have been a number of new developments in recent years, he explained, listing everything from solar-energy installations — three of them in all — to new condominium and subdivision projects to another brewery, Vanished Valley, all providing ample evidence that Ludlow is a place where people want to live, work, and even generate electricity.

Bottom Line

Time really does fly, and the Ludlow Mills project offers plenty of evidence to that effect.

A project that was launched six years ago amid considerable fanfare and expectation is, as Nelson noted, on schedule when it comes to those measurables such as a jobs, tax dollars, and public and private investment.

It is also on schedule, as Stefancik said, when it comes to the trickle-down effect and creating more momentum within the community.

And, by all indications, the project — and the community — will only build on what has already been accomplished.

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

Features

The Fab Five

Scores submitted by a panel of three judges have determined the five finalists for this year’s Continued Excellence Award, an honor created in 2015 to recognize past 40 Under Forty honorees who have built on the business success and civic commitment that initially earned them that honor.

They are:

Michael Fenton, associate at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C.;

William Gagnon, vice president of Marketing & Key Accounts for Excel Dryer Inc.;

Samalid Hogan, regional director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center;

James Leahy, assistant director, Business Development and Promotion Sales for the regional office of the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission; and

• Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

The winner of the fourth annual award will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty gala, slated for June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

The winners in 2015 and 2016, respectively, were Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT, and Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president of Allergy and Immunology Associates of Western Mass. and chief of Allergy and Immunology at Baystate Medical Center. Both were originally named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2008. Last year, the judges chose two winners: Scott Foster, an attorney with Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas (class of 2011), and Nicole Griffin, owner of Griffin Staffing Network, now ManeHire (class of 2014).

This year’s five finalists were determined by scores submitted by three judges — Matthew Bannister, first vice president, Marketing and Innovation at PeoplesBank; Ira Bryck, president of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley; and former winner Griffin.

Read on for more details about the nominees.

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

When Fenton was named to the 40 Under Forty in 2012, he was serving his second term on Springfield’s City Council and preparing to graduate from law school. He was also a trustee at his alma mater, Cathedral High School, where he dedicated countless hours to help rebuild the school following the 2011 tornado.

Now an associate at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C., practicing in the areas of business planning, commercial real estate, estate planning, and elder law, he received an Excellence in the Law honor from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and was named a Super Lawyers Rising Star in 2014. In 2014, he became Springfield’s youngest-ever City Council president, overseeing the creation of the young professionals committee and the Community Preservation Act committee, which is bringing money into the community to benefit historic preservation, recreation, and open space. He also continues to serve on numerous civic organizations.

William Gagnon

William Gagnon

William Gagnon

A 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013, Gagnon was recognized for his work as vice president of marketing at Excel Dryer, the business launched by his father. In that role, he not only saw the company’s staff double, but was an original seed sponsor of a U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Apple program, which helps build healthy learning environments for kids around the globe.

Today, Gagnon continues to give back to the community through his position on the board of the Children’s Study Home. He has also continued to lead the green movement, spearheading energy efficiency within his industry by recently developing a new product that not only dries hands fast, but uses less energy, making it the most environmentally friendly hand dryer on the planet. He has also been working on a new, ADA-compliant hand dryer designed for easy access for individuals who are disabled or mobility-impaired.

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan

A 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013, Hogan is the regional director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office. She has built partnerships across public, private, and civic sectors to achieve economic-development goals for the Pioneer Valley region.

In 2014, Hogan founded CoWork Springfield, the city’s first co-working space, which focuses on serving women and minority-owned businesses. In addition, she was appointed to the Governor’s Latino Advisory Commission in 2017, and serves on the boards of several organizations, including Common Capital, the New England Public Radio Foundation, the Minority Business Alliance, and National Junior Tennis and Learning of Greater Springfield. She was awarded the Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award in 2017 and was recognized as a Woman Trailblazer and Trendsetter by the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce in 2016.

James Leahy

James Leahy

James Leahy

When Leahy was selected to the 40 Under Forty class of 2010, he was a five-time Holyoke city councilor, as well as the CEO and president of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Road Race. He was also working for Alco Labs, a leader in eye-care medicine, and had won several awards for his business acumen, as well as serving on the boards of directors of the YMCA, the Holyoke Children’s Museum, the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, the Boys and Girls Club of America.

Since then, Leahy has expanded his roles with the parade and road race, as well as serving as president of the Volleyball Hall of Fame and president of the Westfield State University Foundation board of directors. He is also assistant director of Business Development and Promotion Sales for the State Lottery Commission. Meanwhile, he has grown his civic volunteerism with service on numerous community organizations.

Alex Morse

Alex Morse

Alex Morse

Morse’s story is well-known, being elected Holyoke’s youngest mayor at age 22 in 2012 — reason enough to be named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2014. He’s since then won re-election twice, time enough to put his leadership in perspective.

Morse and his team have spurred a pipeline of some $125 million in private projects over the past few years, and overseen significant streetscape improvements, new and renovated parks, ongoing rehabilitation of the mill buildings, a partnership with the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce to launch the SPARK entrepreneurship program, and many new development projects. During his terms, community policing strategies have led to drops in crime, property values have gone up, and the unemployment rate has dropped. All this has helped create a new energy around a city that has in many ways been an afterthought in the region’s economic-development picture over the past few decades, but one that is clearly on the rise.

Meet the Judges

Three independent judges were tasked with reviewing dozens of nominations for the 2018 Continued Excellence Award and determining the five finalists. They are:

Matthew Bannister

Matthew Bannister

Matthew Bannister is first vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility for PeoplesBank, a leader in green values, sustainable-energy financing, and charitable giving. He manages the corporate philanthropy program through grants and sponsorships, focusing on key areas including academics, innovation, economic growth, and community vibrancy. He also plans and directs the marketing and public-relations programs, and represents the bank in public, social, and business events.

Ira Bryck

Ira Bryck

Ira Bryck is president of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley. Since 1994, the center has provided a practical learning community for family-owned and closely held companies throughout Western Mass. Bryck also writes an online advice column for family businesses, and has written and produced three plays about life in family business that have been performed more than 50 times internationally.  His third play, A Tough Nut to Crack, is based on his 17 years in his family’s fourth-generation childrenswear business on Long Island, which he ran with his parents. He also hosts The Western Mass Business Show on WHMP, featuring interviews with business owners and expert advisors.

Nicole Griffin

Nicole Griffin

Nicole Griffin is a 40 Under Forty winner in 2014 and recipient of the Continued Excellence Award in 2017. She is the founder and chief talent officer of ManeHire (formerly known as Griffin Staffing Network). ManeHire is a full-service staffing agency that offers payroll services, corporate training, and temporary, temp-to-hire, and permanent placement. Griffin currently serves as a member of the board of directors for the YWCA of Western Massachusetts and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. She is also the 2015 recipient of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Scholarship at Babson College, the 2015 National Urban League Community Builder Award recipient, and an alumna of the Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impacts.

Features

Photos from the June 2 Event

Gala sponsor Sarat Ford Lincoln with special guest judge Lindsay Arnold (fourth from left) and Bay Path President Carol Leary (fourth from right).

Gala sponsor Sarat Ford Lincoln with special guest judge Lindsay Arnold (fourth from left) and Bay Path President Carol Leary (fourth from right).

Andrew Associates, Mirror Ball sponsors of the Gala.

Andrew Associates, Mirror Ball sponsors of the Gala.

From left to right, Prestley and Helen Blake; President Carol Leary and Noel Leary

From left to right, Prestley and Helen Blake; President Carol Leary and Noel Leary

Emcee Ashley Kohl and special guest judge Lindsay Arnold from ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Emcee Ashley Kohl and special guest judge Lindsay Arnold from ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Gala Honorary Chairs: (from left to right) Steven and Alissa Korn; Drew and Lauren Davis; and Carrie ’86 and Tim Burr.

Gala Honorary Chairs: (from left to right) Steven and Alissa Korn; Drew and Lauren Davis; and Carrie ’86 and Tim Burr.

From left to right, Gala judges Jonathan Besse, vice chair of the Board of Trustees; Lamont Clemons, Springfield business leader; and Lindsay Arnold from “Dancing With the Stars” provided comments on the dancers.

From left to right, Gala judges Jonathan Besse, vice chair of the Board of Trustees; Lamont Clemons, Springfield business leader; and Lindsay Arnold from “Dancing With the Stars” provided comments on the dancers.

A shot of the dance floor!

A shot of the dance floor!

Founder and CEO Delcie Bean IV from Paragus Strategic IT with partner Daryll Sverrisson’98.

Founder and CEO Delcie Bean IV from Paragus Strategic IT with partner Daryll Sverrisson’98.

Patricia Faginski, vice president and financial advisor at St. Germain Investment Management danced with Gunnar Sverrisson of Ballroom Fever in Enfield, CT.

Patricia Faginski, vice president and financial advisor at St. Germain Investment Management danced with Gunnar Sverrisson of Ballroom Fever in Enfield, CT.

From left to right, President Leary joins the dancers at the end of the competition, Daryll Sverrisson ’98, Delcie Bean IV, Maria Rodriguez-Furlow ‘’10 G’12 of Bay Path, Gunnar Sverrisson, and the winner of the Mirror Ball Trophy:  Patricia Faginski.

From left to right, President Leary joins the dancers at the end of the competition, Daryll Sverrisson ’98, Delcie Bean IV, Maria Rodriguez-Furlow ‘’10 G’12 of Bay Path, Gunnar Sverrisson, and the winner of the Mirror Ball Trophy: Patricia Faginski.

Features

Along for the Ride

Anita Bird, now an HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, knocked on the door of the company’s office back in 2012 not knowing what to expect.

Anita Bird, now an HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, knocked on the door of the company’s office back in 2012 not knowing what to expect.

As the final, final countdown begins for MGM Springfield, the opening of the nearly $1 billion project offers a different level of poignancy for a small group of individuals. They are known as first-generation, or first-gen employees. In many cases, they were the boots on the ground, stuffing envelopes and staging letter-writing parties when this was only a concept, not even an architect’s rendering. Today, they’re no longer volunteers; in fact, they’re already casino-industry veterans who have found not only a job but a career.

Anita Bird remembers knocking on the door not knowing who or what might lie on the other side.

She had left Temple University in Philadelphia that fall of 2012, and come home to Springfield looking for … well, she wasn’t exactly sure what. A “restart” was how she phrased it for BusinessWest. She had heard that MGM was looking at Springfield as the possible site for one of the Commonwealth’s first resort casinos and also that the company had opened a small office at 1441 Main St.

“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do,” she recalled, “and I’d heard that MGM was here, and I wanted some more information, mainly because I was surprised and confused and was just looking to see what all this was about.”

So she knocked on the door.

Fast-forwarding considerably, she was met by Brian Bass, manager of the company’s casino-referendum efforts, who would offer her an opportunity to volunteer for the entertainment giant as it sought to clear what would be merely the first of many hurdles it would face to gain a casino license.

That stint as a volunteer would eventually lead to a job and what has all the makings of a career in the casino business. Her business card now declares that she is HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from events to make people aware of career opportunities at the casino to birthday parties for those already on the payroll.

What it will read several years, or even several months, from now, she doesn’t know.

“You get a glimpse of every piece, a little of everyone’s world,” she said of her time at MGM to date and her exposure to a wide array of career paths. “I’m open to the many opportunities that MGM has; we have so many great properties and great opportunities.”

Bird is what’s known within the company as a ‘first-generation’ employee of MGM Springfield, which means, in most cases, that she’s been here from the very start, long before the very first architect’s renderings of the $950 million casino now nearing completion in the South End were drawn. Back before Springfield voters had even approved a referendum that would allow a company to build a casino within the city’s borders. Back before anyone around here had ever heard of Mike Mathis or Bill Hornbuckle.

Amanda Gagnon may have lost the battle for Ward 6 in the casino referendum fight, but she’s won not only a job but what has the makings of a career in the gaming industry.

Amanda Gagnon may have lost the battle for Ward 6 in the casino referendum fight, but she’s won not only a job but what has the makings of a career in the gaming industry.

There are several of these first-gen employees, many of whom, like Bird, started as volunteers. Sometimes they knocked on that office door, other times they joined a line at the MGM table at a job fair.

After volunteering, they then earned jobs with a wide array of titles, and now are in what appears to be the early stage of a career in the gaming industry. Many of them tell stories of ‘letter-writing parties’ from the days leading up to the city’s referendum vote and then, a year later, a statewide ballot initiative to undo the Legislature’s approval of casino gambling. And of long days and nights working toward something that was then only a concept. And of doing ‘anything and everything that needed to be done,’ a phrase many of them used.

“We were the feet on the ground — this little army of recent college graduates just knocking on doors, making phone calls, having house parties and letter-writing parties; if there was a way to get the word out, we were going to do it,” said Amanda Gagnon, who, after her time volunteering, wound up serving on the community relations staff, then as exective assistant to both Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, and Alex Dixon, the general manager, and now, as project coordinator on the operations side.

Some have seen their journey take them to Las Vegas for management training or to MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland, which opened roughly 18 months ago. But they are all in Springfield, or back in Springfield, as the case may be.

And now that it’s reality and just a few months from opening its doors, the casino has become for them not only a place of employment, but a source of pride, something they’ve helped bring to fruition, something that, for those who grew up in and around Springfield, has changed their outlook on the city and its future.

“Back when I was going to college at Western New England, I would never have patronized any of the outlets down here,” said Thuy Nguyen, a first-gen employee now working in HR. “I wouldn’t even think to set foot downtown because you always thought it was too dangerous to be down there. Fast-forward five years, and I’m downtown almost every week — outside of work. It’s a nice, very refreshing change.”

For this issue, and as the opening date for the casino draws ever closer, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on an intriguing group of MGM team members — those first-generation employees who knocked on the door of opportunity, sometimes quite literally, and found a fulfilling career on the other side.

Rolling the Dice

Gagnon can laugh about it now, but, for the most part, she still doesn’t. That’s because, on many levels, it remains a sore subject.

In the run-up to Springfield’s referendum vote on casino gambling in the fall of 2013, Gagnon, an East Longmeadow native, was essentially assigned Ward 6, the Forest Park area. As things turned out, that was the only ward to vote against the casino measure.

“I had a tough community, and I wore that scarlet letter for a while, but they didn’t hold it against me, obviously,” said Gagnon with a laugh. She took those numbers hard, but quickly focused on the much bigger picture — all the work that still lay ahead, including another campaign — the ballot initiative (which was defeated by a wide margin) — and she’s embraced all of it.

Gagnon’s story, like that of all of the first-generation employees, has its unique elements and fate-filled moments; there’s even what is now a husband-and-wife team that went to Las Vegas together for management training and now work on different floors of MGM’s headquarters at 95 State St. (we’ll meet them in a bit).

But there are many common threads as well. Most weren’t looking for a job with MGM per se when they started, just a job, or a restart, like the one Bird described.

Thuy Nguyen says she never skipped school before attending that job fair where she connected with MGM Resorts. She certainly has no regrets now.

Thuy Nguyen says she never skipped school before attending that job fair where she connected with MGM Resorts. She certainly has no regrets now.

Gagnon was certainly looking for one of those after returning from New York — and a short stint on Broadway in company management and casting — as so many do who venture to the Big Apple, with big dreams mostly unfulfilled.

“I was working in entertainment because that’s my strongest passion,” she said. “But New York is expensive, and I came back with my tail between my legs, ready to reassess what my future should be. I felt defeated — but I heard that MGM was interested in coming to the area.”

But at first, the East Longmeadow native disregarded those reports as illogical, based largely on the city’s troubles at the time and her own perceptions of the community. “I said, ‘I know this area, and MGM and Springfield weren’t two words that went together at the time.’”

But she was pushed and prodded by family members to investigate the rumors and, more specifically, show up at a career showcase at the MassMutual Center and report back in detail on what transpired.

She did show up, and she did report back — that MGM had no job openings, per se, but it was looking for interns to help with the campaign.

She interned for about a month and then was brought on full-time to work on the referendum campaign — work that is far removed from the lights of Broadway and also from what most people think about when they sign on to work for MGM Resorts.

Derek and Jennifer Russell arrived at MGM Springfield by way of Las Vegas (management training) and an assignment to help open MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland.

Derek and Jennifer Russell arrived at MGM Springfield by way of Las Vegas (management training) and an assignment to help open MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland.

As noted, these first-gen employees weren’t working for a casino, but for a company with aspirations for building a casino in the City of Homes. In the late spring of 2018, it might be hard for some to remember how all this started — with a grassroots effort to garner support for casino gambling in the city.

Those who were there certainly can’t forget; the images, and memories, are embedded in their minds.

“By October, when I arrived, MGM was just sort of putting the feelers out,” said Bird, who would eventually be appointed manager of that office bearing the door she knocked on, the first of many steps up the ladder. “That’s when we sent out all those mailers asking people what their feelings were on casino gambling and what they thought about a casino here; that’s where we started, with those mailers, and eventually there were house parties, letter-writing efforts, and other things to feel out where the support was and what people thought about the project.

“We would do fireside chats, we would go to hockey games and sign people up, we’d do giveaways — anything we could to get to talk to people,” she went on, adding that the goals back then were to build support but also a large army of people to carry on the fight.

Joining the Army

And the recruitment process for that army was quite involved, and many would join by what could only be called the indirect route. Nguyen enlisted by way of a career fair in 2013 staged not by her school, Western New England University, but UMass Amherst.

“I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and UMass has, historically, one of the largest career fairs in the area,” she recalled. “I was searching on their database to see what companies were going to be represented, and almost fell off my chair when I saw ‘MGM Resorts’ on the list.

“I swear that, prior to that, I had never skipped school,” she went on. “But I skipped on that day, took a chance, stood in line for what felt like hours, and once I got to the table and spoke to a representative, I found they were recruiting for their Las Vegas properties.”

That news left her feeling quite deflated — she remembers almost being in tears as she left the career fair — but the picture changed quickly and dramatically when Bass, who was forwarded her résumé by MGM colleagues at the career fair, gave her a call, inquiring about whether she’d like to join the campaign as an intern.

“He hired me on the spot, and it’s history from there,” she told BusinessWest before offering, when prodded, a much slower version of the story.

That account featured a dramatic shift in scenery as Thuy ventured off to Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, where she took part in the management-associate program, a stint that lasted three years.

For someone who grew up in Springfield and then moved to rural Maine, it was quite a culture shock — “life-changing,” as she called it.

But her goal was always to come back to Springfield and open the MGM property here, and late last year, she did. Her business card declares that she is an HR business partner, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from internal investigations to counseling to workers’ comp claims — “all the fun stuff” — for a workforce now numbering more than 200 and on its way to 3,000.

From left: Derek and Jennifer Russell, Amanda Gagnon, Thuy Nguyen, and Anita Bird.

From left: Derek and Jennifer Russell, Amanda Gagnon, Thuy Nguyen, and Anita Bird.

Among those 200 are Jennifer and Derek Russell. They have different jobs — she’s the manager of Talent and Acquisition, and he’s manager of Financial Planning & Analysis — and they work on different floors, but they took the same basic route here.

The same one Nguyen did.

Indeed, Jennifer, a graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, was at that very same career fair, also looking for a summer internship. She was thinking about Boston or Hartford as a landing spot, but was mostly focused on just getting some experience and making a little money.

“I talked to 18 companies, and saw this really long line at this last booth that turned out to be MGM,” she recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘this is a hospitality company; I don’t know much about it, but it seems really popular right now.

“I ended up waiting in line for a good 15 minutes just to talk with one person,” she went on. “I was asking if they had any HR positions or project-management roles.”

The person she spoke with was recruiting for Las Vegas, and she handed her over to the vice president of MGM Grand, who took one of Russell’s homemade business cards and dialed the number on it several days later, asking specifically if Russell would be interested in coming out to Las Vegas.

She was, went out for an initial 10 weeks, and “fell in love with all of it,” in her recollection.

She came back home to East Longmeadow and to Derek, whom she had started dating a few months earlier, and essentially talked him into going back out to Vegas with her.

As he recalls, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell.

“I spent the better part of a year in Boston doing something I probably wasn’t enjoying, and was looking for something different,” he said. “Jen decided she wanted to move to Vegas to take part in this management-associate program and wanted me to go with her.

“I said, ‘why not?’ — I wasn’t doing anything all that great for work,” he went on, adding that he applied for the MGM program, also known as MAP, and was accepted. “I told my boss at the time that I was moving to Vegas; he said, ‘you’re young … that’s probably not the craziest thing you’ll ever do.’ And I remember telling him, ‘I’m pretty sure moving to Vegas is one of the greatest things I’ll ever do.’”

Moving the story along, they spent a year in the MAP program, getting a holistic view of how a casino company like MGM operates, choosing a career path — again, his in finance and hers in talent acquisition — and then getting on with those careers.

While doing so, they were ever mindful of a pledge they made to each other that they would eventually return to Massachusetts and the families they left behind. They would do that, but first made a stop at National Harbor to be part of the team that opened that casino.

Today, like many of the other first-gen employees, their travels have taken them well beyond Greater Springfield, but they are happy to be here now at this pivotal moment in the city’s history.

It’s a moment they are part of on many levels. Indeed, the Russells not only work downtown, they live there, literally a few hundred yards from the front door of the casino’s hotel, in Stockbridge Court.

“It’s exciting to see the city come to life and be restored after so long,” said Derek. “The city is changing, and it’s great to be part of all that’s happening here.”

Others shared that sentiment and said they’re proud that the project they’ve been involved with for so much of their young lives is helping to transform the region they knew and make the memories — and sentiments — they had seem very distant.

“The Springfield we see now isn’t the same Springfield I left when I went to New York,” said Gagnon. “There’s new restaurants on Worthington Street, new events in Court Square. Springfield isn’t just a city people drive through anymore; we’ve become a place to stop, not just somewhere on the way.

Nguyen agreed.

“MGM is Springfield’s lifeline,” she told BusinessWest. “And I’m a true believer that, without MGM, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today.”

In the Beginning…

Flashbacks.

All those we spoke with say they have them. Lots of them.

They flash back to selected moments in time that, for obvious reasons, have become indelible — because of the work being done, the time of day, the fatigue they were feeling, the emotions they were expressing, or, very often, the people they were working beside.

Many of those people are now on a different floor or, in some cases, just a few cubicles away. But they’re still ‘beside’ them, wearing MGM nametags and bearing business cards with the company’s logo. And that makes the flashbacks come more easily.

“I can think back on those nights when it was 1 o’clock in the morning and we were counting how many phone calls we had made,” recalled Gagnon with a heavy sigh. “That’s just one of many memories I have — and will always have. And every second of that is worth it to be able to be here today.”

With that, she certainly spoke for all of the first-gen employees.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Northampton’s downtown, Amy Cahillane says, is nothing if not eclectic.

“We have a great mix of businesses,” said the director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., a two-year-old organization dedicated to boosting vibrancy in the city’s center. “We have a lot of different clothing stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars — there’s a lot of room to find your niche here.”

She said business owners downtown are very much a network of mom-and-pop outfits that take pride in the district’s economic vibrancy and work hard to welcome new shop owners into the fold as they’re launching their enterprises.

“We’re a community that really works hard to make things attractive and make sure there’s stuff to do downtown, and welcome people in our downtown. We’re not just a Walmart and a Target and a parking lot.”

It’s a place, Cahillane said, where small-business owners, many of them first-time entrepreneurs, have no qualms about asking each other about the smallest details, from the best point-of-sale systems to how to keep customers coming in despite a raft of construction projects making it more difficult than usual to get around and find parking.

“All of our small businesses know it’s tough to take that risk and open your own business,” she said. “Business owners who have been around 30 years have had these conversations a million times — they’re very happy to share information, share stories, and lend support. Nobody wants to see a vacant storefront; people want to support other fellow business owners that are taking that gamble. And a lot of times, these business owners are our neighbors or friends, or kids of our friends.”

Aimee Francaes, who opened Belly of the Beast a year ago with her partner, Jesse Hassinger, can vouch for the support of downtown businesses, adding that such an atmosphere suits a restaurant that has forged some other important relationships — with local farms.

“The concept is ‘comfort food mindfully made,’ she said, noting that all meats are sourced from farms throughout the Northeast — and are smoked and cured on site — and 90% of produce in season comes from the Valley, or just over the border in surrounding states.

“We’re very much focused on being part of the community,” she went on. “And we feel like the community has really welcomed us and brought us into the fold. People tend to be very warm and welcoming, and happy to have us here, and happy to have us so active with local farms. Being on Main Street, right across from Thornes, gives us wonderful visibility.”

Speaking of Thornes Marketplace, which houses its own eclectic range of small businesses, it recently undertook a major renovation of its iconic front entrance, making changes both aesthetic and aimed at preserving the building’s historic elements.

It’s the sort of project that pleases the DNA, a voluntary organization open to property owners, businesses, and city residents, whose members work to improve the business and cultural strength of the downtown area through investments in programming, beautification, and advocacy.

The DNA handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like the first Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales. The city has also given the DNA a full-time worker who cleans and maintains public property in the downtown business district.

Beyond that, Cahillane said, “we do advocacy, and we make sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall, that people feel their voice is heard, and that there are public meetings and community forums on issues that will impact downtown, so everybody has a chance to voice their opinions and thoughts.”

The organization rose up after the dissolution of the Northampton Business Improvement District, and has since taken under its umbrella events and projects once handled by the BID and other entities.

“We’re always looking to do new events and create new partnerships,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re open to it all. The focus this year is to tighten up events we already do, but we’re always game to bring new stuff into the fold.”

Positive Trends

Several years into a strong regional economy, indicators such as property taxes, meals-tax revenue, and the number of visitors to the city show plenty of life, and Northampton’s downtown district, home to unique retailers, eclectic dining choices, and active arts organizations, reflects that health.

It can be slightly more difficult to navigate the area, however, thanks to a good reason — the city’s investment in infrastructure on Main and Pleasant streets, which includes ongoing roadwork and utility upgrades, supporting, among other developments, two housing complexes going up on Pleasant Street. Work along that thoroughfare also includes a small park, more parking spaces, and improved sidewalks and bike lanes.

Northampton
at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.04
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
*Latest information available

Cahillane said new businesses like Belly of the Beast have entered this landscape with aplomb, while occasional special events shine a spotlight on other businesses, like Sutter Meats on King Street, which ran a successful, two-day pop-up event in conjunction with the Little Truc food truck, serving up pho to sellout crowds.

Typically, she added, retail establishments participate enthusiastically in special events downtown — such as a fundraiser for Hampshire County Friends of the Homeless, in which music groups were stationed downtown, performing and passing the hat — but it’s harder for restaurants to do the same.

“The retailers are always game for everything. The restaurants, when we have events, are so busy with the people who come downtown for these events that it’s hard for them to also simultaneously staff a second, separate thing on that same day. So we try to bring the people downtown and then encourage them to eat at the restaurants. But they’re very supportive of our organization.”

Homestead, which set up shop in the former Ibiza Tapas location on Strong Avenue, is another fairly recent addition to the restaurant scene.

“They are doing very well and have made a lot of local relationships to bring products into their restaurant that are locally sourced,” Cahillane said, before adding that such a designation is par for the course in this city.

“I would say just about every restaurant in our downtown does some version of locally sourced,” she noted. “We have thought about ‘let’s do some sort of downtown festival where each restaurant could feature maybe a locally sourced dish,’ but that’s their whole menu at every restaurant. That’s not a Northampton festival; that’s an everyday reality. But some of them have had some really interesting or unique things that they have done with those local partnerships.”

Cahillane added that there should be more news of new businesses on the horizon. “They’re not ready to make it public yet, but I’d say, over the next six months, there will be some exciting storefronts popping up.”

That’s always a welcome development, she said, because even Northampton, known regionally and beyond for its downtown life, does grapple with occasional vacant storefronts. But in context, and relative to the struggles of many other communities, Paradise City is in a good place.

“I think it’s a great downtown,” she said, “and I think people are looking to come downtown.”

Making Contact

To cultivate that spirit, the DNA conducts monthly meetings with downtown businesses on a variety of topics.

“That’s a great opportunity for them do some networking with new businesses — and older businesses, too — and talk about things that might be mundane to the outside person, but are still important,” Cahillane said. “Recently, there was going to be construction, and some of them wanted to know how people dealt with the scaffolding outside and putting a banner on it. Other businesses were able to say, ‘make sure it’s really big, and make sure there’s not a lot of words on it, because no one’s going to stop and read it.’ So, things like that, which would not necessarily occur to me, are real issues, and we’re able to facilitate some of those conversations.”

Thornes Market

These connections are important in the big picture — one in which individual success stories become shared successes, she added.

“There is a feeling that all boats rise with the tide, that having a beautiful downtown can only help encourage people to come downtown, and there’s a recognition that is only going to happen if everybody pitches in.”

After all, Cahillane noted, Northampton isn’t the only downtown destination in the region, and shouldn’t rest on its laurels or take its visitors for granted.

“We’re fortunate to live in the Valley where there are a lot of great communities, and there are some, like Turners Falls and Easthampton, that are becoming up-and-coming, hip, trendy places to go and hang out,” she said. “Then there’s the casino that’s opening in downtown Springfield.

“We love our downtown,” she went on, “but we don’t want to just assume that everybody else knows and loves it, and I think you risk getting stagnant and a little boring if you don’t work to improve or at least maintain what you already have. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Francaes appreciates the effort, as she does the business owners downtown, from the owners of Thornes Marketplace to established restaurateurs, who acted as informal business consultants when she and Hassinger were getting ready to open their doors.

“We haven’t talked to anyone who hasn’t been supportive,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s part of the reason we chose Northampton — that vibe and warm, welcoming spirit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]