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A Mindset That Pays Off

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog says individuals, couples, and families make many mistakes when it comes to retirement planning. The biggest, perhaps, is not starting that planning soon enough.

‘Not practicing for retirement.’

OK, that’s not one of Amy Jamrog’s official 10 ‘mistakes business owners make before and after retirement,’ but it is certainly a related topic and one worth thinking about as that day approaches.

Practice for retirement? “Yes, definitely,” said Jamrog, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual as she delivered the second installment in a series BusinessWest calls Future Tense on May 17 at Tech Foundry in Springfield, using that word ‘practice’ loosely to describe how individuals and especially married couples should get ready for something they’ve never experienced before and are, in most cases, not really ready for.

“Practicing retirement is a big deal,” she said, relating a story about a couple intent on retiring and moving to Cambridge. She suggested they try before they buy when it came to that concept, and they did, spending quite a bit of time in that college town.

“They loved it in the summer and hated it in the winter,” Jamrog went on. “So they’re going to split their time — keep their house here and buy a condo there; they’re not going to move there.”

The moral to the story? Prepare — for everything you can possibly prepare for.

And this brings us to those ‘official’ mistakes. They’re listed in the box on page 19, and include everything from not understanding the impact of taxes on one’s retirement to not matching beneficiaries with the right assets, to what might well be the biggest of them — not planning early enough.

And that’s just a partial list, said Jamrog, who noted that, to the casual observer, most of the points on this list seem obvious, things that most people, and certainly successful business owners, would know about and be thinking about as they progress through their career toward retirement.

Future Tense

But the truth of the matter is that many don’t know about such matters. And what’s worse, she told her audience, is that they think they know.

Indeed, using quite a few hypotheticals — financial advisors rely on those — but even more true but sometimes scary stories (such as the one about the owner of a $10 million business who is still using TurboTax instead of a CPA) that come in the form of conversations she’s had with her clients over the years, Jamrog drove home the point that retirement isn’t something to be entered into lightly.

And with that overriding concept, she hit many of the same chords struck by Delcie Bean, founder of Paragus Strategic IT, in the first talk in the Future Tense series, titled “An Unprecedented Technology Disruption.” Slicing through that talk, which touched on the potential impact of everything from driverless cars to artificial intelligence, Bean told his audience that, while the future is difficult if not impossible to predict, business owners must nonetheless be proactive and energetic in their efforts to prepare for what is to come — whatever that may be.

Paraphrasing considerably, Jamrog said essentially the same in her ‘10 mistakes’ talk. And that idea will be conveyed once again in September with the final talk in this series, to be presented by Meyers Brothers Kalicka.

It will be titled “Change Considerations: An Examination of Lean Process, Market Disruption, and the Future of Your Business,” and will feature Mark Borsari, president of Sanderson McLeod, who will discuss change and innovation through lean concepts, and focus on resulting cultural considerations. The program will also feature commentary from Jim Barrett, managing partner at MBK, who will address already-active market disrupters that affect business processes in various industries.

But that’s in September. First, those mistakes that business owners make before and after retirement.

Taxing Situation

To show just how common these mistakes are, Jamrog started not with a hypothetical or a conversation with a typical client, but with a reference to her own parents, who began teaching her about money and how to manage it at a very early age.

“My parents taught us to balance a checkbook, we had small stock portfolios as kids … they did a really good job teaching us about money; it’s no surprise that I ended up being a financial advisor,” she said. “But we never talked about their money; we grew up in a private, ‘it-wasn’t-polite-to-ask’ kind of household.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Jamrog said that when, at the advice of her mentor, she brought her parents in for a financial review, she was shocked at how ill-prepared the people who taught her so much about money were for the retirement that was coming up on them fast.

“My father was co-owner of PolyPlating in Chicopee; he and his business partner started the business when they were 20, they had a handshake agreement, no buy-sell agreement, nothing in writing. They hadn’t done anything with their 401(k) in 20 years, they had no life insurance for other. They basically said, ‘we’ll take care of each other if anything happens.’

“The first thing I learned about business owners from working with my parents is to not assume, just because someone looks like they’re in good shape, that they’ve got it all figured out,” she said. “They had no ducks in order at all. My dad said, ‘all I do is work; the plan is to work and then retire, so I haven’t taken any time out to see if we’re doing it right.’”

That last comment — that one about not taking the time to out to see if he was doing it right — is the keeper in this discussion, the one Jamrog wanted her audience to remember as they walked out the door.

Amy Jamrog’s 10 Retirement Mistakes

• Not having the right people on your team;
• Not applying an accumulation strategy to your distribution plan;
• Not preparing your children for the future;
• Not understanding the impact of taxes on your retirement;
• Not prepping for important age milestones: 59½, 62, 65, 70½, and 85;
• Not understand the issues inherent in your IRA;
• Not having a philanthropic plan;
• Not matching your beneficiaries with the right assets;
• Not understanding the correlations between happiness and aging (this pertains to you and your parents); and
• Not planning early enough.

Those 10 mistakes are all common, they’re all important, and they offer specific thoughts to digest. But the common denominator and the overriding assignment is to take the time to make sure you’re doing it right.

That applies to specific issues such as taxes, distribution plans, issues with individual retirement accounts, matching beneficiaries with assets, having a philanthropic plan, and much more, said Jamrog, who encouraged those in the audience to embrace issues and discussions that are often difficult for married couples to engage in and then do some hard planning.

That’s because the worst-case scenario can and often does happen, and Jamrog, sadly, can go back to her family for solid evidence. Her father died at 50 after suffering a major heart attack. Jamrog was 26 at the time, and that incident created a passion within her to work with people in their 50s, and before that, to make sure they have their ducks in a row.

“I freaked out … I started calling all my parents’ friends and asked them to come in and meet with me,” she said, adding that, when they do come in, she often sees people making some of those common mistakes because, again, they think they know what they should be doing.

That is often the case when it comes to taxes and retirement, said Jamrog, who said mistakes in this realm can have serious consequences.

Elaborating, she said retirement plans, and specifically 401(k)s, constitute the most expensive money people have in retirement, meaning they are 100% taxable.

“And yet, I see it all the time — all people want to do is pre-tax, pre-tax, pre-tax everything they’ve got,” she explained, referring to the options for those looking to put money aside. “They don’t understand that, when they get to retirement, they have a growing tax problem, a deferred tax problem. And then that’s further compounded when people think they’re going to leave that to their kids.”

That wasn’t a direct segue into some of those other common mistakes — ‘not understanding the issues inherent in your IRA’ and ‘not matching beneficiaries with the right assets’ both came several items down on the PowerPoint — but it served that role.

“The worst thing you can leave your kids, besides nothing, is a 401(k) or an IRA,” she said. “It’s the most expensive money to leave behind.”

To get that point across, she related the story of a bank president who was, that’s was, very proud that he was going to leave a $2 million IRA to his four children.

“Good news/bad news, those four children are very successful and all in high tax brackets,” Jamrog told her audience. “So if he leaves $500,000 to each of these four kids, they’ll each lose about 45% of it to taxes; they can stretch it out over their lifetime, but they’re still going to lose almost half of it in taxes.

“When he found this out, he was angry,” she went on, putting heavy emphasis on that last word. “And did not understand how he did not know that. So we came up with a plan — a $2 million life-insurance policy, which gives each of those kids $500,000 in tax-free money, plus whatever’s left in the IRA.”

This is an example of people thinking they know what to do, but in reality not knowing, said Jamrog, adding that she could fill a talk that would last several hours with such examples.

Still another common mistake, and this is related to all of those listed above, Jamrog said, is parents not doing what her parents did — compelling their children to be both informed and responsible when it comes to money.

“I have clients whose kids are in their 40s and 50s, and the parents are still prepping their taxes for them,” she said in an effort to get her point across. “They just sign their tax return and have no idea what they’re signing.

“Teach your kids how to read a tax return, introduce your kids to your accountant,” she said. “If your kid is graduating from college and getting their first job, sit down and teach them what their benefits are, show them what a 401(k) is, and encourage them to enroll in a 401(k). And if your kids don’t listen to you, introduce them to your financial advisor.”

Bottom Line

Among the many anecdotes she shared, Jamrog said one in particular probably sums up the essence of her presentation better than any other.

“I had a man in my office last week, 62 years old, say to me, ‘I’ve been meaning to meet with you for six years, but I was afraid to meet with you because I was afraid you were going to tell me I was doing it wrong, and that it would be too late,’” she said. “And I said, ‘so you waited six more years?’”

Pride, insecurity, and ego all contributed to that six-year delay, she went on, adding that, while it’s difficult to remove those factors from the equation, individuals and couples should try and put their energy into planning.

And while they’re at it, they should try practicing retirement as well.

By doing so, they may just make the future less tense.

 

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Downtown Greenfield may look the same as it did decades ago, in many respects, but it has evolved considerably and morphed into a true neighborhood.

Downtown Greenfield may look the same as it did decades ago, in many respects, but it has evolved considerably and morphed into a true neighborhood.

Greenfield Mayor William Martin acknowledged that it isn’t exactly a scientific measure of either his downtown’s vibrancy or the efficiency of his long-term strategic plan for the central business district. But it certainly works for him.

He’s being told there’s a parking problem downtown. Actually, he’s been told that for some time. Until recently, the commentary involved the east end of that district by Town Hall, and the chorus was so loud and so persistent that the community is now building a 272-lot parking garage in that area, due to open in the fall.

But now, he’s also hearing that complaint about the east side of downtown, and he’s expecting to hear it a lot more with the opening of the Community Health Center of Franklin County on the site of the old Sears store on Main Street, a facility that will bring more than 100 clients and employees to that location every day.

In the realm of municipal government, parking problems generally, but certainly not always, fall into that category of the proverbial good problem to have, said the mayor, adding that a far worse problem is to have no parking woes — not because you have plenty of parking, but because no one is coming to your downtown.

And that was more the state of things in Greenfield for some time, Martin intimated, putting the accent on ‘was.’

Indeed, while Main Street may look pretty much the same as it did a few decades ago, at least at a quick glance, it is vastly different, and in some very positive ways, said the mayor, adding that his administration’s broad strategy has been to bring people downtown for goods and services and let this critical mass trigger economic development on many levels. And it’s working.

“We thought that, if we can bring people downtown and provide what they need, the free market will take care of people want,” he said, adding that the theory has been validated with everything from new restaurants to live entertainment to offices providing acupuncture and cardiology services.

Jim Lunt agreed. Now the director of GCET (Greenfield Community Energy and Technology), a municipal high-speed Internet provider, and formerly director of Economic Development for the community, he said the downtown has evolved considerably over the past decade or so.

Getting more specific, he said it has morphed from a traditional retail district, as most downtowns are, into more of a combination entertainment district and home for small businesses and startups.

“We’ve focused on small businesses that we can bring in, and we’ve worked a lot to build up the creative economy; our downtown, like many downtowns, looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago,” Lunt told BusinessWest. “There are a lot more restaurants, a lot more opportunities for more social gathering, as opposed to what people would think of as traditional shopping.”

In addition to social gathering, there is also vocational gathering, if you will, in the form of both new businesses and also a few co-working spaces that are bringing a number of entrepreneurs together on Main Street.

To get that point across, Lunt, sitting in what amounts to the conference room in Town hall, simply pointed toward the window, a gesture toward the building next door, the Hawks & Reed Entertainment Center, which, in addition to being a hub of music, art, and culture, is also home to Greenspace CoWork.

That space, on the third floor, is now the working address for writers, a manuscript editor, a few coaches, a social-media consultant, and many others, and has become, said Lunt, maybe the best example of how Greenfield has put the often long-unoccupied upper floors of downtown buildings back into productive use.

MJ Adams, who succeeded Lunt as director of Economic Development, agreed, and she summoned another term to describe what downtown has become: neighborhood.

She said it has always been that to some extent, but it is now even moreso, with more living options and other amenities in that area.

“We’re starting to look on downtown as more of a neighborhood,” she explained. “We’ve always looked at it as the civic and service center for the county, but people are starting to perceive downtown Greenfield as a neighborhood that has a mix of housing styles, is attractive to a wide range of people, especially young people, has a lot to offer, and is very walkable.”

Greenfield didn’t get to this state overnight, said those we spoke with, noting that the process has been ongoing and more strategic in nature since the official end of the Great Recession and the arrival of Martin in the corner office (both of which happened in 2009).

Mayor William Martin says his broad strategy since being elected a decade ago has been to transform downtown into a hub for a wide range of services and make it a true destination.

Mayor William Martin says his broad strategy since being elected a decade ago has been to transform downtown into a hub for a wide range of services and make it a true destination.

That strategy has involved a number of tenets, everything from creation of GCET, which gives downtown Greenfield an important asset in a county where high-speed Internet access is a luxury, not something to be taken for granted, to a focus on making downtown a destination for a wide gamut of services, from education to healthcare.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest examines how these pieces have come together, and also at how they have positioned Greenfield for continued growth, vibrancy, and maybe even some more parking issues — the ‘good-problem-to-have’ variety.

Hub of Activity

To explain his broad strategy for Greenfield’s downtown, Martin essentially turned the clock back more than 200 years. Sort of.

Back in those days, he explained, Greenfield, anointed the county capital, was a supplier of goods and most services to the many smaller communities surrounding it.

Small steamships and rail would bring goods north on the Connecticut River to Greenfield, he explained, and residents of surrounding towns would make their way to the center of Franklin County to get, well, pretty much whatever they needed.

“I consider that a tradition and also a responsibility,” said Martin, now serving his fourth term. “And that’s what we’ve based our downtown on — providing what people need.”

It also has always done that with regard to government functions, he said, citing everything from the county courthouse, post office, and jail to Greenfield’s library, the largest in Franklin County. But Martin’s goal was to broaden that role to include education, healthcare, and more.

And specific economic-development initiatives, technology, societal changes, the community’s many amenities, and some luck have helped make that goal reality.

In short, a large number of pieces have fallen into place nicely, said those we spoke with, enabling downtown Greenfield to become not only a destination, or hub, but also a home — for people and businesses across a diverse mix of sectors.

These pieces include:

• A burgeoning creative economy that features a number of studios, galleries, and clubs featuring live music;

• A growing number of restaurants, in many categories, that collectively provide a critical mass that makes the city a dining destination of sorts. “There are 13 different ethnic restaurants, there’s some really good bars, several places for live music that weren’t here just a few years ago, and art galleries,” said Lunt. “I think that’s the biggest change downtown”;

• Greenfield Community College, which has steadily increased its presence downtown with a campus that brings students, faculty, administrators, and community leaders to the Main Street facilities;

• The community health center, which will bring a host of complementary services, including primary care, dental, and counseling for emotional wellness together under one roof in the downtown, where before they were spread out and generally not in the central business district;

• Other healthcare services. In addition to the clinic, a cardiologist has taken over an old convenience store downtown, said the mayor, noting that there is also an acupuncturist, a holistic center, a massage therapist, and other healthcare businesses in that district; and

• Traditional retail, of which there is still plenty, including the landmark Wilson’s Department Store.

Actually, these pieces haven’t just fallen into place by accident, said Martin, noting, again, that they have come into alignment through a broad strategic plan and specific initiatives designed to make the downtown more appealing and practical for a host of businesses, as well as number of existing qualities and amenities.

“We decided that we should do everything we can to provide the infrastructure necessary to attract people and entities when the economy turned,” he explained. “And we worked on a number of things that were real problems.”

High-speed Internet access was and is a huge component of this strategy, said Lunt, noting that it has been directly responsible for a number of businesses settling in the city.

Meanwhile, other parts of that strategic initiative include renewable-energy projects that have helped bring down the cost of energy; creation of a Massachusetts Cultural District, which has made the community eligible for certain grants; a façade-improvement project that has put a new face on many properties downtown, and many others.

Destination: Greenfield

The community already had a number of strategic advantages when it came to attracting both businesses and families, said Lunt, noting that, overall, while Greenfield’s location in rural Franklin County is limiting in some ways — contrary to popular opinion, there are actually few available parcels for large-scale developments, for example — it brings advantages in many others.

From left, MJ Adams, Mayor William Martin, and Jim Lunt all see many positive signs in Greenfield’s downtown.

From left, MJ Adams, Mayor William Martin, and Jim Lunt all see many positive signs in Greenfield’s downtown.

Elaborating, he said that many younger people prefer a rural setting to an urban one — for both living and working — and can find most of what they’re looking for in Greenfield.

That list includes a lower cost of living than they would find in Boston, Amherst, or Northampton; outdoor activities ranging from hiking to whitewater rafting; culture; a large concentration of nonprofits serving the county; and, yes, high-speed Internet access, something people might not find 20 minutes outside of downtown.

“It’s a beautiful area, and real estate is quite affordable compared to much of the rest of the state,” said Lunt. “And the Springfield-Hartford metropolitan area is now 1.2 million, and that’s not that far down the road; a lot of people would happily commute for 45 minutes to live here and get to jobs there.”

This combination of factors has attracted a number of young professionals, many of whom may have gone to college in Boston or another big city and started their careers there, but later desired something different, said Adams.

It has also attracted entrepreneurs, said Lunt, including several video-game developers, many of whom now share a business address — co-working space known as Another Castle.

Located on Olive Street in space that until recently housed the Franklin County registry of Deeds, it became home to the video-game developer HitPoint, which was located in Greenfield, relocated to Springfield, and has now moved back. And it has created a co-working space that enables other small game designers to take advantage of shared equipment and facilities, effectively lowering the cost of doing business.

Moving forward, the town’s simple goal is to build on the considerable momentum it has created through a number of initiatives. These include work to redevelop the former First National Bank building, vacant for decades and the last of the properties on the stretch as Bank Row to be given a new life.

The town’s redevelopment authority has site control over the parcel, said Lunt, adding that the next steps involve working with the state, private grant writers, and the city to acquire funds to convert the property into a downtown cultural center to be used for everything from a farmers’ market to perhaps a museum of Greenfield history.

If all goes according to plan, all the properties on Bank Row will be back in productive use for the first time in 40 years, he told BusinessWest.

Another initiative is the parking garage, which has been years in the making, noted the mayor, noting that it took several attempts to secure funding help from the state for the project.

The facility will ease a well-recognized problem, exacerbated by the new county courthouse in that area, and provide yet another incentive for people to come to downtown Greenfield.

As for parking at the other end of Main Street … well, that’s a good problem to have. For now, anyway.

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

Features

The Trickle-down Effect

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian, expects Park Cleaners’ contract with MGM to perhaps double the company’s current volume of business.

Rebeca Merigian says the slip was found, and promptly given to her, many years ago by a long-time customer, a description she quickly categorized as an obvious understatement.

Indeed, the date at the top is 1940, and thus this item, now displayed under glass, is a time capsule as much as it is a pick-up slip for a two-piece suit.

Start with the phone number at the top; there are just five digits because that’s all that were needed back then (ask your mother; actually, make that your grandmother). The name of the company was Park Cleaners & Dyers Inc. (the ‘& Dyers’ was dropped a long time ago because those services were discontinued). The address is Kensington Avenue in Springfield (the company moved to Allen Street in 1955). Even the slogan is different; back then it was ‘Dry cleaning as it should be done.’ Now, it’s ‘Family-owned and operated since 1935. We appreciate your business.’

Yes, much has changed since Edward Takorian, an Armenian who somehow escaped the genocide of 1915 and came to this country soon thereafter, went into business for himself.

There have been many ups and downs, said Merigian, Takorian’s great-granddaughter, who started working in the business on Saturdays when she was 9 and bought it from her mother three years ago. She noted that the company was started at the height of the Great Depression and has endured many other downturns over the next eight decades, and also the early death of her father. Not so long ago, there were more than 20 people working here; now there are four, including Merigian’s son and nephew.

But that number will be rising soon, thanks to what would have to be one of the biggest developments since that suit was picked up a year before the U.S. entered World War II — a contract with MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino that will open in about four months.

Park Cleaners has been awarded a contract to clean the uniforms for all 3,000 employees at the casino, and for the dry-cleaning of hotel guests and the MGM Springfield management team as well. Merigian couldn’t put a dollar figure on the contract, but she could certainly put it into perspective.

“I’m hoping that this will double our business,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the contract could give her the means to perhaps double the current workforce and pay the kind of benefits that are currently beyond the company’s reach. “My goal from this is to be able to provide health insurance for my employees who have been with through a lot of the challenges; I want to give back to them and provide more benefits and incentives so we can grow.”

Several other area businesses now have contracts with MGM or are in the process of finalizing one. Most will not be as life-changing as the one received by Park Cleaners, but they are all significant in some way.

Nick Noblit

Nick Noblit says the contract with MGM gives Yankee Mattress a new top line for its deep list of clients.

Take Agawam-based Yankee Mattress, for example. The company was originally asked to supply mattresses for all the rooms in MGM’s Springfield hotel, an order that Nick Noblit, the company’s general manager, admitted was too big to handle at this time. But the company will make California kings for the larger, high-roller suites, an assignment that will give the company additional business and some hopefully effective marketing material.

Meanwhile, Holyoke-based Kittredge Equipment Co. has secured one of the bigger contracts — this one to provide kitchen appliances and supplies to the many businesses that will do business at the casino.

There have been other contracts signed, and there will be many more agreements inked in the weeks to come as the countdown to the grand opening continues, said Courtney Wenleder, vice president and chief financial officer for MGM Springfield. She told BusinessWest that, as part of its host-community agreement, the company is required to apportion a percentage of its receivables to local companies.

But the company is striving to do more than just meet that obligation, she said, adding that MGM is looking to take the company’s philosophy regarding diversity and apply it to its vendor list. And this translates into extending opportunities to women (Kittredge is also woman-owned), minorities, and small businesses in general.

“MGM has a commitment to diversity and partnering with local vendors,” she explained. “It’s all about building the community together; there’s a symbiotic relationship — if the community does well, we do well, and vice versa.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the trickle-down effect from MGM Springfield, which began with local contractors taking part in the construction of the complex, is gathering momentum in the form of contracts to supply everything from knives and forks to marketing services. And while doing that, we’ll also shine a spotlight on some intriguing local businesses that have, by and large, flown under the radar.

The Rest of the Story

Wenleder told BusinessWest that many factors go into MGM’s decisions about which vendors to do business with and what might give a certain enterprise an edge over whatever competition emerges.

They range from quality of service and customer satisfaction, obviously, to whether, as noted, the business is minority- or women-owned. But there are some intangibles, and sometimes a little luck, that comes into play.

To get that point across, she relayed the story about how MGM Springfield now rents several apartments downtown, and they’re used, among other things, to house company executives visiting Springfield for extended stays.

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels. The company will supply MGM Springfield with everything from appliances to glassware.

MGM CEO William Hornbuckle is one of these executives, and on one of his stays, he slept so soundly and comfortably that he took note of the label on his mattress (Yankee), later commented to those at MGM Springfield’s headquarters about his experience, and essentially initiated steps that would eventually lead to the company getting a contract.

“Bill commented about what a great night’s sleep he had on that mattress, and that pretty much secured their position,” Wenleder recalled with a laugh, adding that it wasn’t all that simple, but that bit of serendipity certainly got the ball rolling.

And the mattress contract serves as a good example of how MGM is trying to do business locally when it can and when it’s appropriate, said MGM Springfield General Manager Alex Dixon.

He noted, as Wenleder did, that there are times when MGM will simply add the Springfield casino to some existing contracts it has in place to provide certain products and services to the company’s existing properties.

Playing cards and dice would be good examples of this, he said, adding that MGM already has manufacturers providing those products. And, for the most part, there is no local company that makes such items.

But even with those products, there may be some opportunities for local businesses, he went on, noting, for example, that most playing cards are destroyed soon after they’re used, and MGM Springfield will use a local company to handle that work.

“We want to recognize what’s available in the local market and then tailor our supply chain to match what is happening in the local community,” he said while describing the company’s broad mindset when it comes to vendors.

Overall, MGM has a process in place when it comes to vendors, said Dixon, adding that the company actively solicits information from companies interested in doing business with it. The owners and managers of such ventures are invited to attend outreach events (they’re posted on the MGM Springfield website, for example), and through such events, companies become part of a database the company refers to when it needs specific products or services.

“Whenever there’s a business need, we want to find out if there are vendors, preferably local, who can help us to fulfill those needs — that’s step one,” he explained. “But informally, being members of the community, you really develop relationships.

“It’s no longer ‘hey there’s this great local brewer,’” he went on, while explaining how these relationships are created. “Now it’s ‘that’s Ray Berry from White Lion; maybe there’s an opportunity there.’”

In other words, familiarity breeds opportunity, and examples abound of how companies ranging from local caterers and computer hardware providers have come onto MGM Springfield’s radar screen — and are now doing business with the company.

The contract with Yankee Mattress is a good example of this phenomenon at work, said Dixon, confirming that the company was first presented with a proposal to furnish every room in its hotel now taking shape on Main Street.

But Noblet said such a large order would have necessitated additional hiring and other steps the company wasn’t ready to take.

But the contract to supply mattresses for the larger suites is a welcome addition and positive development for the Agawam-based company, which has been gaining traction in recent years as word-of-mouth referrals about its products proliferate.

This is another family business, started by Nick’s father, Joe, who is still active in the venture. The elder Noblit worked for a major mattress manufacturer for several years before deciding he could make a better product, and at a lower price, himself. And he did.

Yankee was launched in 1999, and it has grown and evolved other the years, said Noblit, adding that it started with a storefront and adjacent assembly area in Agawam, and now has four stores in the region.

Those outlets carry a host of lines with those huge tags that are supposedly illegal to rip off, including the top-of-line Black Collection, with models including the York, Fairhaven, Merrimac, and Nantucket.

There is a strong residential component to the customer base, obviously, said Noblit, but also many commercial clients as well, including several area B&Bs, hotels, and inns, as well as some healthcare providers, a few private schools, and a host of area fire departments.

“We custom-build those to be stronger than average — because there are some big firefighters out there and it’s important for them to have something durable,” he explained, adding that word of mouth has been the best marketing tool when it comes to adding new lines to the customer list on the company’s website.

If one were to peruse that list, the name now at the very top is MGM Resorts International, an indication of how important this contract is, not size-wise, but from a marketing and branding standpoint.

“Most hotels have a contract with a major manufacturer, and across the board, they do business with this manufacturer, and they make all of their beds,” he explained. “So for MGM to consider someone outside these big manufacturers that are nationwide, that’s significant.”

Buying Power

But if MGM Springfield found Yankee Mattress thanks to Bill Horbuckle’s good night’s sleep, most of the other vendors have had to find the casino giant.

And ‘find’ means going through a process of introducing one’s company to MGM Springfield through one of a number of vendor meet-and-greets, for lack of a better term, that the company has staged, including one at last fall’s Western Mass. Business and Innovation Expo, staged by BusinessWest.

Courtney Wenleder

Courtney Wenleder says there’s a symbiotic relationship between MGM and local vendors; when they do well, the casino operator does well, and vice versa.

Through these outreach sessions, MGM is making it much easier for companies to find it, said Wenleder, adding that MGM Springfield has a three-person purchasing team (a manager and two assistants), and one of their primary responsibilities is to go out into the community and find local vendors.

“Even though we’ve been doing a lot of communication with people when it comes to local purchasing requirements, some people aren’t hearing that message,” she explained. “We have people on the ground physically reaching out to these vendors.”

Merigian said she started attending such outreach sessions not long after MGM was granted the Western Mass. license in 2014, recognizing the casino as a rare business opportunity.

“I had my sights on it from the beginning,” she told BusinessWest. You never know how it’s going to work out with companies renting their own uniforms or owning them, but either way, I knew I would like to be part of it.”

So much so that she took steps to become a certified woman-owned business, understanding from those very first meetings that MGM had a strong interest in doing business with businesses led by women and minorities.

There would be more meetings to come over the next few years, she went on, adding that these sessions were beneficial on many levels.

“It really gets you tuned into your business,” she said, using that phrase to indicate everything from capabilities to long-term goals to what it will take to reach them. “It was an educational experience on many levels.”

The volume of work is large — most all of the 3,000 employees will wear some kind of uniform, and this contract covers all that and more — and thus MGM will likely be the largest customer in Park’s long history, said Merigian, although Park did have a contract with MassMutual for a quarter-century and still has one with the Defense Department (Westover Air Reserve Base).

“We don’t have specific numbers, but know it will be high volume,” she said of the business to start coming her way in a matter of weeks as employees are added to the payroll in waves. “But we’re ready for it, and we can feel the excitement.”

Indeed, after her father’s death, the company had to withdraw from the MassMutual contract, and it downsized considerably, said Merigian, adding quickly, however, that “we’re ready to go; we’re ready to get back to work.”

At Kittredge, meanwhile, the MGM contract is another important step forward for that company, said Amanda Desautels, an outside sales representative now working with MGM to outfit the restaurants that will be doing business at the casino.

“This is a significant contract for us,” she said, noting that Kittredge will be supplying MGM with everything from appliances to bar equipment; glassware to silverware, and adding it to a client list that includes UMass Amherst, the Max restaurant group, and Mount Holyoke College, among many others.

The company, rapidly approaching its centennial (it was launched in 1921), started as a supplier of typewriters and cash registers and has evolved into a $50 million equipment and supply giant that now employs more than 70 people locally.

At its warehouse and retail facility in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, one can find everything from industrial refrigerators, freezers, and stoves to dishes and glassware to individual carving knives. Desautels joked that the company provides everything that goes on the table, around it (furniture), and even under it. “If you have a wobbly table, we have table levelers.”

It also has certification as a woman-owned business (Wendy Webber succeeds her late husband, Neil, as owner and operator), a designation that has opened many doors for the company and no doubt played a role in securing the contract with MGM.

“Being a woman-owned business has created many opportunities for Kittredge, and MGM is obviously one of those,” said Desautels, noting that the addition of MGM to the client roster is significant in many respects. “It’s exciting to be doing business with a company like MGM that shares the same values we do, such as diversity and the importance of their employees.”

Pressing Engagement

As she posed for a few photos for BusinessWest, Merigian gathered her son, Andrew Takorian, and insisted that he be part of the picture.

Figuratively speaking, he has been for some time now, working at this establishment — like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him — while still in grade school.

He represents the fifth generation to carry a business card that says ‘Park Cleaners’ — or Park Cleaners & Dyers, as the case may be. The company has gone through a lot of change and evolution after the past eight and half decades, and many important developments.

Perhaps none were as big as the contract inked with MGM Springfield, which comes at a critical time and represents a huge opportunity for growth and security.

It’s just one example of the trickle-down effect that is now underway, and already changing the local business landscape in profound ways.

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

Features

Changing Expectations

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth say they’ve created a ‘retail-tainment district,’ one that is bringing people from across the region to downtown Springfield.

Like most people who grew up in and around Springfield in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikki Lessard has fond memories of getting on a bus and spending an entire Saturday afternoon downtown.

She said most of those visits would start, and a good number would also end, at Johnson’s Bookstore, but there were plenty of other stops as well.

“We would go to Johnson’s, and Steiger’s, and many other stores. There was always something happening; it was positive, and it was fun,” said Lessard, adding that, while she acknowledges that things won’t ever be exactly like that again given changes in how and where many people shop, it can be, well, something like that again.

And she and business partner Nancy Feth are a huge part of that ‘something.’

They are the founders of an intriguing enterprise called Simply Grace, which now operates a growing portfolio of businesses operating under the name the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — almost exactly where Johnson’s Bookstore was operating until it closed 20 years ago.

There are shops, but this is also a gathering place for events ranging from Thunderbird Thursdays to a farmer’s market to a Dress for Success graduation ceremony.

The two partners have a name for what they’ve created — a ‘retail-tainment district,’ blending both retail and entertainment. They didn’t invent the phrase — it’s been in use for a while and is often summoned when the discussion turns to what traditional shopping malls must become if they want to survive — but they believe they have the first in downtown Springfield, arriving ahead of MGM Springfield.

It all started with the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, and ‘the Shops’ has grown to include a yoga studio, a restaurant, a new store that just opened its doors, and another now being built out.

As they tell the story — and they love to tell the story, often finishing one another’s sentences and providing complementary commentary as they do so — these entrepreneurs note that they came to downtown Springfield as one of what was supposed to be several small retailers that agreed to set up shop as part of the initial Springfield Holiday Market in 2015, a strategic initiative designed to put some underutilized space in the Marketplace complex to work in a way that would bring people downtown and generate some momentum as well as foot traffic.

As things turned out, there were only a few pop-up shops, as they were called, on that location, but they did well collectively, and the public responded to this bid to bring some retail back to Main Street.

When the holidays were over, Glenn Edwards, owner of the property, asked Feth and Lessard if they would like to stay on for a while. They said yes, but without giving any real indication of a what ‘a while’ might or should become.

“We said, ‘we’ll stay for a few more months; we’ll stay ’til Valentine’s Day,’” said Feth, before Lessard picked up for her.

“And then, we asked to stay ’til Mother’s Day,” she explained. “And then we decided we wanted to stay for the year.”

But with some conditions, specifically that they could take space one of the retailers was vacating for yoga classes in an effort to attract more people and different constituencies to the downtown.

And, overall, the two entrepreneurs have been continuing that pattern, or mindset, ever since, adding new components to Simply Grace; bringing more events, vitality, and energy to the Marketplace area; and also, for those efforts, earning an award from the Small Business Administration to coincide with Small Business Week (April 29 to May 5).

Indeed, Feth and Lessard will be at the Sheraton Needham Hotel on May 4 to accept the Microenterprise of the Year Award, one of the few enterprises from Western Mass. to win such an honor in recent years.

But before, and after, all their focus will be on Springfield, the Marketplace, and new developments for Simply Grace.

These include a recent addition called Brick & Mortar, what Lessard calls a “mercantile, apothecary, and more,” which actually has some exposed brick for effect. There’s also Alchemy, a manicure and pedicure salon now being built out; Dharma, the yoga studio; and the boutique that got things rolling.

Those four businesses, along with Nosh, an eatery across the way from the boutique, now comprise a critical mass of small, diverse shops that the two partners believe will bring more foot traffic and momentum to an area that was once the pulse of downtown Springfield a generation ago — and can, they believe, take that role again.

“Do we have mall traffic? Heck no,” said Lessard. “But it’s working. It’s always about creating curiosity and then converting that into customers, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The only downside to all this is that the space once devoted to the holiday pop-up markets is now gone, absorbed by what could be called permanent fixtures, said the partners, adding that, in most all ways, this constitutes a very good problem to have.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Feth and Lessard about their venture and how in some ways it constitutes turning back the clock, but in most others, it’s symbolic of the downtown’s future.

What’s in Store

‘Walk. Pause. Browse. Shop. Experience.’

Those are the words the two partners have placed before ‘the Shops at Marketplace’ in their branding of the facility. And both collectively and individuality, those terms speak to what this venture is all about — as well as to some of the elements that have largely been missing from downtown since those days when Lessard and countless others would get on a bus and take it to Main Street.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

There was far less walking, pausing, browsing, and shopping going on, and therefore there was less to experience.

Feth and Lessard weren’t exactly out to change that equation when they were first invited to bring a taste of the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, a shop they opened in Monson, to downtown Springfield for the holidays. But that’s what has happened.

It’s been an intriguing journey, a learning experience on many levels, said the partners, adding that they are still writing new chapters to this story.

That first Holiday Market was so successful that the BID asked the new partners to manage and staff that project moving forward, said Feth, adding that they did so, providing an opportunity for a number of new businesses to become part of the experience and gain some critical visibility. And through that work, the partners came to understand the many layers of significance to their efforts. Indeed, this wasn’t simply retail, it was economic development.

“A lot of what we do is build community and work on economic development,” Feth explained. “These are the value adds we feel we bring to Springfield in addition to our own businesses.”

Lessard agreed, and referred to Simply Grace’s broad efforts as “collaborating and incubating.”

As for their own businesses, the partners say they are doing well and succeeding in their primary mission. That would be to bring people, but especially women, downtown. Or back downtown, as is often the case.

They’re getting that done by providing reasons to do so, said Lessard, adding that these vary and include yoga, the shops — which sell products made by vendors with unique, community-minded stories — and events.

Elaborating, Lessard said the partners will utilize their indoor spaces and walkways during winter and schedule a variety of gatherings for women, and when the weather gets warmer, they will fully “activate” the indoor and outdoor space, using it to host everything from flea markets to White Lion Wednesdays; from farmers markets to live music.

In fact, the space has become a popular venue for fundraising for groups that include Rays of Hope, Unify Against Bullying, Dress for Success, and many more.

“We just want to have this lively, quintessential, unexpected experience in downtown Springfield,” Lessard explained, adding that the key word there, and perhaps unfortunately, is ‘unexpected.’

Indeed, Feth said that many of those who come to the Shops at the Marketplace will offer commentary that makes this point.

“We’ll often hear people say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Springfield,’” said Feth. “Or ‘I feel like I’m in New York or San Francisco.’”

Which Lessard followed with, ‘and we gladly say, ‘you’re in this wonderful city called Springfield.’”

The unofficial mission moving forward, for the partners at Simply Grace and the city as a whole, is to generate fewer of these comments and to make a fulfilling trip downtown something that’s expected, not unexpected.

And the partners believe they and the city are moving closer to that goal through their lively mix of retail, events, things to do, and things to experience.

And the retail is a big part of it, said Feth, adding that, contrary to what is becoming popular opinion, traditional retail is not dead, and not everyone wants to buy everything on Amazon and have it shipped to their home.

“What we’re finding is that customers are actually hungry for experiences where they can see the product, talk to people, feel seen and acknowledged, and have a real experience instead of just a virtual experience,” she explained, before Lessard picked up on that ‘feel seen’ comment and ran with it because of its significance.

“We have women who come in here that pause, then browse, then shop, just to be seen,” she told BusinessWest. “They feel like they’re in this hustle and bustle of life and no one’s acknowledging them. So they come in, they share stories, we give them hugs; we actually care about them as people.

“We get a lot of pushback from people from who say, ‘you should be in East Longmeadow’ or ‘you should be in Hampden or somewhere other than downtown Springfield,’” she went on. “But we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, because the women we’re connecting to that work or live or play downtown are very stressed out, and when they come to our store, it’s a breath of fresh air, an unexpected experience.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again — unexpected. Soon, perhaps, it can be retired, and downtown Springfield will move closer to the one Lessard remembers from her youth, a time, she recalled, when there was always something positive and fun happening.

The partners at Simply Grace are doing their part to bring those phrases back into use. They’ll soon have an award from the Small Business Administration to show for their efforts, but they’ve already received something perhaps even more significant to them.

That would be all those comments from people who say they don’t believe they’re in downtown Springfield. Such comments tell them they’re doing the right thing and in the right place.

And to think they were only going to stay a month.

Good thing they didn’t.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

An aerial view of the Village Commons

An aerial view of the Village Commons, which is at full occupancy, and has been for most of this century.

When Andy Yee talks about South Hadley, he speaks from experience.

All kinds of experience.

He grew up there, went to high school there, lives there still, and now watches his children’s high-school games there. He also does business there — quite a bit of it, actually.

He owns a number of restaurants in that community, including Johnny’s Bar & Grill and Johnny’s Tap Room, both named after his late father, as well as IYA Sushi & Noodle Kitchen, all located in the Village Commons, across College Street from Mount Holyoke College, as well as a bar called the Halfway House Lounge on Summit Street. He described that establishment as the ‘Cheers’ of South Hadley, meaning everyone there knows your name.

They also know the story of how the tavern got its name, which Yee was more than willing to share.

“Back in the day, there was a trolley system running from South Hadley Falls up to the college, and that was the halfway point, the halfway station,” he explained. “It’s a fun little place. We all grew up there; at some point, almost every resident has stopped at the Halfway House.”

Yee told that story to convey the strong sense of continuity that exists in this Hampshire County community, and how many things haven’t changed since the Halfway House started serving pints soon after Prohibition ended more than 80 years ago.

But many things have changed, and for evidence, one need only look further down Newton Street, to one of Yee’s latest entrepreneurial ventures.

He’s one of the principals — Peter Pan Chairman and CEO Peter Picknelly and Rocky’s Hardware President and CEO Rocco Falcone are the others — in a closely watched development at the so-called Woodlawn Plaza, former home to Big Y but more recently a mostly vacant eyesore of sorts.

Retail centers of this type couldn’t be classified as easy money or even a particularly wise investment at this point given the way the retail sector is heading, but this group of entrepreneurs moved to acquire the plaza at auction because of confidence in their abilities to bring new life to it, and also confidence in South Hadley itself.

“You can’t buy properties like this unless they come for sale at the right price,” said Yee, adding that there’s a reason this site was available at auction. “We see this as a good investment, and we have some great partners with great business savvy. We’re not going to sit idle on this property; there’s going to be something unique there for all to enjoy.”

This confidence results from historically steady results in South Hadley when it comes to retail and business in general, but also many recent developments that have secured the community’s place as a reputation of sorts when it comes to everything from outdoor activities to fine dining.

Take the Village Commons, for example. It’s at 100% occupancy, essentially, and has been since roughly the start of this century, said Jeff Labrecque, the facility’s chief operating officer.

“We have very, very little turnover, and when something does turn over, we usually fill it very quickly,” he said before getting his point across by noting that O’Connell Care at Home will be moving its headquarters there in several weeks, quickly claiming a 1,900-square-foot space vacated by River Valley Dental after a consolidation of that operation.

O’Connell’s move brings still more diversity to the Commons, which already had a good amount of it, said Labrecque, adding that it’s home to restaurants and bars, high-end apartments that are in demand (he says there are maybe 50 people on a waiting list, and some have been on it for years), many health and beauty businesses, service agencies, a still-surviving independent bookstore, and a still-surviving two-screen movie theater.

All of this makes the Commons a true destination, he said.

The broader goal is to make South Hadley itself more of a destination, said all those we spoke with, adding that many pieces to this puzzle are in place, and more are coming together.

Range of Initiatives

Mike Sullivan is better known for his time spent serving the community on the other side of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge — he was mayor of Holyoke for a decade after owning and operating Nick O’Neil’s tavern — but he now resides (professionally speaking) at South Hadley Town Hall.

He’s been town administrator for several years, taking that position after serving the town of Maynard (famous as the home to Digital Equipment Corp., Monster.com, and later Curt Schilling’s ill-fated 38 Studios). In fact, Sullivan’s first day in Maynard was Schilling’s last, and he remembers the town being very upset and frustrated with losing the company, emotions that shifted went it quickly dissolved into bankruptcy. But that’s another story.

This one is about South Hadley, and Sullivan said it has achieved progress in many forms in recent years, including the broad realm of economic development, attracting new companies such as Mohawk Paper and E Ink Corp., and retaining others, such as South Hadley Fuel.

The town is also making headway with recreation-related initiatives such as a bike-share project and what he called the ‘river-to-range trail program,’ which, as that name suggests, is a handicap-accessible trail route that starts at Brunell’s Marina on the Connecticut River and connects to the Summit House in Hadley on Mount Holyoke.

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,514
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential AND COMMERCIAL Tax Rate: $19.93 (Fire District 1), $20.42 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $64,610
Median Family Income: $76,679
Type of Government: Town Administrator, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College, the Loomis Communities, Mohawk Paper
* Latest information available

Such initiatives bring more people to the town and thus the benefits that go with that visitation, he explained.

“These eco-tourism amenities in communities like South Hadley are becoming more and more important,” Sullivan said. “They feed restaurants and other businesses, like those at the Village Commons, like Brunell’s, like McCray’s Farm; we’re hoping that all of those benefit from our investment in the river-to-range trail.”

But easily the most-watched project in the community involves the Woodlawn Project on Newton Street, Route 116.

The goal is to create a mixed-use development, said Sullivan, adding that the town is working to create what’s known as a ‘40R,’ or Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District, at the site, which would allow for more flexibility with regard to both zoning and eventual development. That plan will go before town meeting later this spring.

The site, formerly home to a large Big Y and Food Mart before that, still has a few tenants and is anchored by a Rocky’s Hardware store, but is still largely vacant. The new owners have torn down the 65,000-square-foot former Big Y, have plans for a larger Rocky’s with a garden center, and are hoping to attract more retail at a time when that sector is clearly struggling, but also other types of tenants.

“Retail is struggling, with Toys R Us, BonTon, and other national chains going out,” said Yee, adding that, in many properties like the one on Newton Street, restaurants have become the main anchors.

Elaborating, he said that dining and entertainment businesses have played a major role in making a South Hadley a destination not only for those living in neighboring communities such as Granby, Holyoke, and Amherst, but for residents across the region and even beyond.

This is certainly in evidence at the Village Commons, which has always been a gathering spot, but it is now even more of a destination — because of its array of eateries, but also the diversity of ventures there.

Indeed, there are now more than 70 businesses with that address on their letterhead, and while all of them serve people living around the corner (or upstairs, when it comes to those with apartments in the complex), they are also drawing people from many surrounding communities into South Hadley.

The complex’s many restaurants are perhaps the main attraction, said Lebrecque, noting that there are now several of them. In addition to the Yee family’s offerings, there’s also Tailgate Picnot, Food 101 Bar & Bistro, New Main Moon Café, WOW Frozen Yogurt, and the Mexican restaurant Autentica.

This critical mass gives the Commons both diversity and drawing power, said Lebrecque, who drew comparisons, on some level, to the city of Northampton and its thriving downtown.

“We’ve become somewhat of a food and entertainment destination, just like Northampton,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a thriving part of our business, and it brings people from all over to South Hadley.”

But retail is also thriving in the Commons, in part because of the foot traffic created by the entertainment options, he went on, citing, as one example, Moxy Boutique.

This is a relatively new addition — it arrived about a year ago — led by an entrepreneur who left a stable, successful situation in Suffield, Conn. for the Commons because of its destination status.

And there are others who would like to gain inclusion on the tenant directory, he went on, but there isn’t any space available.

“The retail is definitely making a thriving comeback — that’s something we’ve noticed over the last few years,” said Lebrecque. “For a number of years, it was hard to get retailers interested in space, but now we have people starting to knock on our door. We have a lot of people who would like to come to the Commons, but we just don’t have the space for them.”

Coming of Age

If that sounds like a good problem to have, it is.

Such a development means your facility — and the community — are in demand, a preferred landing spot, and a great place to live, work, and operate a business.

South Hadley is all of those things, and has been since people starting gathering at the Halfway House Lounge — long before it was called that.

The goal here is to become more of a destination — for businesses, families, outdoor enthusiasts, those looking for a boutique, and those looking for a new weed whacker.

And South Hadley is making strides toward being that destination.

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

Features

The Trickle-down Effect

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian, expects Park Cleaners’ contract with MGM to perhaps double the company’s current volume of business.

Rebeca Merigian says the slip was found, and promptly given to her, many years ago by a long-time customer, a description she quickly categorized as an obvious understatement.

Indeed, the date at the top is 1940, and thus this item, now displayed under glass, is a time capsule as much as it is a pick-up slip for a two-piece suit.

Start with the phone number at the top; there are just five digits because that’s all that were needed back then (ask your mother; actually, make that your grandmother). The name of the company was Park Cleaners & Dyers Inc. (the ‘& Dyers’ was dropped a long time ago because those services were discontinued). The address is Kensington Avenue in Springfield (the company moved to Allen Street in 1955). Even the slogan is different; back then it was ‘Dry cleaning as it should be done.’ Now, it’s ‘Family-owned and operated since 1935. We appreciate your business.’

Yes, much has changed since Edward Takorian, an Armenian who somehow escaped the genocide of 1915 and came to this country soon thereafter, went into business for himself.

There have been many ups and downs, said Merigian, Takorian’s great-granddaughter, who started working in the business on Saturdays when she was 9 and bought it from her mother three years ago. She noted that the company was started at the height of the Great Depression and has endured many other downturns over the next eight decades, and also the early death of her father. Not so long ago, there were more than 20 people working here; now there are four, including Merigian’s son and nephew.

But that number will be rising soon, thanks to what would have to be one of the biggest developments since that suit was picked up a year before the U.S. entered World War II — a contract with MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino that will open in about four months.

Park Cleaners has been awarded a contract to clean the uniforms for all 3,000 employees at the casino, and for the dry-cleaning of hotel guests and the MGM Springfield management team as well. Merigian couldn’t put a dollar figure on the contract, but she could certainly put it into perspective.

“I’m hoping that this will double our business,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the contract could give her the means to perhaps double the current workforce and pay the kind of benefits that are currently beyond the company’s reach. “My goal from this is to be able to provide health insurance for my employees who have been with through a lot of the challenges; I want to give back to them and provide more benefits and incentives so we can grow.”

Several other area businesses now have contracts with MGM or are in the process of finalizing one. Most will not be as life-changing as the one received by Park Cleaners, but they are all significant in some way.

Nick Noblit

Nick Noblit says the contract with MGM gives Yankee Mattress a new top line for its deep list of clients.

Take Agawam-based Yankee Mattress, for example. The company was originally asked to supply mattresses for all the rooms in MGM’s Springfield hotel, an order that Nick Noblit, the company’s general manager, admitted was too big to handle at this time. But the company will make California kings for the larger, high-roller suites, an assignment that will give the company additional business and some hopefully effective marketing material.

Meanwhile, Holyoke-based Kittredge Equipment Co. has secured one of the bigger contracts — this one to provide kitchen appliances and supplies to the many businesses that will do business at the casino.

There have been other contracts signed, and there will be many more agreements inked in the weeks to come as the countdown to the grand opening continues, said Courtney Wenleder, vice president and chief financial officer for MGM Springfield. She told BusinessWest that, as part of its host-community agreement, the company is required to apportion a percentage of its receivables to local companies.

But the company is striving to do more than just meet that obligation, she said, adding that MGM is looking to take the company’s philosophy regarding diversity and apply it to its vendor list. And this translates into extending opportunities to women (Kittredge is also woman-owned), minorities, and small businesses in general.

“MGM has a commitment to diversity and partnering with local vendors,” she explained. “It’s all about building the community together; there’s a symbiotic relationship — if the community does well, we do well, and vice versa.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the trickle-down effect from MGM Springfield, which began with local contractors taking part in the construction of the complex, is gathering momentum in the form of contracts to supply everything from knives and forks to marketing services. And while doing that, we’ll also shine a spotlight on some intriguing local businesses that have, by and large, flown under the radar.

The Rest of the Story

Wenleder told BusinessWest that many factors go into MGM’s decisions about which vendors to do business with and what might give a certain enterprise an edge over whatever competition emerges.

They range from quality of service and customer satisfaction, obviously, to whether, as noted, the business is minority- or women-owned. But there are some intangibles, and sometimes a little luck, that comes into play.

To get that point across, she relayed the story about how MGM Springfield now rents several apartments downtown, and they’re used, among other things, to house company executives visiting Springfield for extended stays.

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels. The company will supply MGM Springfield with everything from appliances to glassware.

MGM CEO William Hornbuckle is one of these executives, and on one of his stays, he slept so soundly and comfortably that he took note of the label on his mattress (Yankee), later commented to those at MGM Springfield’s headquarters about his experience, and essentially initiated steps that would eventually lead to the company getting a contract.

“Bill commented about what a great night’s sleep he had on that mattress, and that pretty much secured their position,” Wenleder recalled with a laugh, adding that it wasn’t all that simple, but that bit of serendipity certainly got the ball rolling.

And the mattress contract serves as a good example of how MGM is trying to do business locally when it can and when it’s appropriate, said MGM Springfield General Manager Alex Dixon.

He noted, as Wenleder did, that there are times when MGM will simply add the Springfield casino to some existing contracts it has in place to provide certain products and services to the company’s existing properties.

Playing cards and dice would be good examples of this, he said, adding that MGM already has manufacturers providing those products. And, for the most part, there is no local company that makes such items.

But even with those products, there may be some opportunities for local businesses, he went on, noting, for example, that most playing cards are destroyed soon after they’re used, and MGM Springfield will use a local company to handle that work.

“We want to recognize what’s available in the local market and then tailor our supply chain to match what is happening in the local community,” he said while describing the company’s broad mindset when it comes to vendors.

Overall, MGM has a process in place when it comes to vendors, said Dixon, adding that the company actively solicits information from companies interested in doing business with it. The owners and managers of such ventures are invited to attend outreach events (they’re posted on the MGM Springfield website, for example), and through such events, companies become part of a database the company refers to when it needs specific products or services.

“Whenever there’s a business need, we want to find out if there are vendors, preferably local, who can help us to fulfill those needs — that’s step one,” he explained. “But informally, being members of the community, you really develop relationships.

“It’s no longer ‘hey there’s this great local brewer,’” he went on, while explaining how these relationships are created. “Now it’s ‘that’s Ray Berry from White Lion; maybe there’s an opportunity there.’”

In other words, familiarity breeds opportunity, and examples abound of how companies ranging from local caterers and computer hardware providers have come onto MGM Springfield’s radar screen — and are now doing business with the company.

The contract with Yankee Mattress is a good example of this phenomenon at work, said Dixon, confirming that the company was first presented with a proposal to furnish every room in its hotel now taking shape on Main Street.

But Noblet said such a large order would have necessitated additional hiring and other steps the company wasn’t ready to take.

But the contract to supply mattresses for the larger suites is a welcome addition and positive development for the Agawam-based company, which has been gaining traction in recent years as word-of-mouth referrals about its products proliferate.

This is another family business, started by Nick’s father, Joe, who is still active in the venture. The elder Noblit worked for a major mattress manufacturer for several years before deciding he could make a better product, and at a lower price, himself. And he did.

Yankee was launched in 1999, and it has grown and evolved other the years, said Noblit, adding that it started with a storefront and adjacent assembly area in Agawam, and now has four stores in the region.

Those outlets carry a host of lines with those huge tags that are supposedly illegal to rip off, including the top-of-line Black Collection, with models including the York, Fairhaven, Merrimac, and Nantucket.

There is a strong residential component to the customer base, obviously, said Noblit, but also many commercial clients as well, including several area B&Bs, hotels, and inns, as well as some healthcare providers, a few private schools, and a host of area fire departments.

“We custom-build those to be stronger than average — because there are some big firefighters out there and it’s important for them to have something durable,” he explained, adding that word of mouth has been the best marketing tool when it comes to adding new lines to the customer list on the company’s website.

If one were to peruse that list, the name now at the very top is MGM Resorts International, an indication of how important this contract is, not size-wise, but from a marketing and branding standpoint.

“Most hotels have a contract with a major manufacturer, and across the board, they do business with this manufacturer, and they make all of their beds,” he explained. “So for MGM to consider someone outside these big manufacturers that are nationwide, that’s significant.”

Buying Power

But if MGM Springfield found Yankee Mattress thanks to Bill Horbuckle’s good night’s sleep, most of the other vendors have had to find the casino giant.

And ‘find’ means going through a process of introducing one’s company to MGM Springfield through one of a number of vendor meet-and-greets, for lack of a better term, that the company has staged, including one at last fall’s Western Mass. Business and Innovation Expo, staged by BusinessWest.

Courtney Wenleder

Courtney Wenleder says there’s a symbiotic relationship between MGM and local vendors; when they do well, the casino operator does well, and vice versa.

Through these outreach sessions, MGM is making it much easier for companies to find it, said Wenleder, adding that MGM Springfield has a three-person purchasing team (a manager and two assistants), and one of their primary responsibilities is to go out into the community and find local vendors.

“Even though we’ve been doing a lot of communication with people when it comes to local purchasing requirements, some people aren’t hearing that message,” she explained. “We have people on the ground physically reaching out to these vendors.”

Merigian said she started attending such outreach sessions not long after MGM was granted the Western Mass. license in 2014, recognizing the casino as a rare business opportunity.

“I had my sights on it from the beginning,” she told BusinessWest. You never know how it’s going to work out with companies renting their own uniforms or owning them, but either way, I knew I would like to be part of it.”

So much so that she took steps to become a certified woman-owned business, understanding from those very first meetings that MGM had a strong interest in doing business with businesses led by women and minorities.

There would be more meetings to come over the next few years, she went on, adding that these sessions were beneficial on many levels.

“It really gets you tuned into your business,” she said, using that phrase to indicate everything from capabilities to long-term goals to what it will take to reach them. “It was an educational experience on many levels.”

The volume of work is large — most all of the 3,000 employees will wear some kind of uniform, and this contract covers all that and more — and thus MGM will likely be the largest customer in Park’s long history, said Merigian, although Park did have a contract with MassMutual for a quarter-century and still has one with the Defense Department (Westover Air Reserve Base).

“We don’t have specific numbers, but know it will be high volume,” she said of the business to start coming her way in a matter of weeks as employees are added to the payroll in waves. “But we’re ready for it, and we can feel the excitement.”

Indeed, after her father’s death, the company had to withdraw from the MassMutual contract, and it downsized considerably, said Merigian, adding quickly, however, that “we’re ready to go; we’re ready to get back to work.”

At Kittredge, meanwhile, the MGM contract is another important step forward for that company, said Amanda Desautels, an outside sales representative now working with MGM to outfit the restaurants that will be doing business at the casino.

“This is a significant contract for us,” she said, noting that Kittredge will be supplying MGM with everything from appliances to bar equipment; glassware to silverware, and adding it to a client list that includes UMass Amherst, the Max restaurant group, and Mount Holyoke College, among many others.

The company, rapidly approaching its centennial (it was launched in 1921), started as a supplier of typewriters and cash registers and has evolved into a $50 million equipment and supply giant that now employs more than 70 people locally.

At its warehouse and retail facility in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, one can find everything from industrial refrigerators, freezers, and stoves to dishes and glassware to individual carving knives. Desautels joked that the company provides everything that goes on the table, around it (furniture), and even under it. “If you have a wobbly table, we have table levelers.”

It also has certification as a woman-owned business (Wendy Webber succeeds her late husband, Neil, as owner and operator), a designation that has opened many doors for the company and no doubt played a role in securing the contract with MGM.

“Being a woman-owned business has created many opportunities for Kittredge, and MGM is obviously one of those,” said Desautels, noting that the addition of MGM to the client roster is significant in many respects. “It’s exciting to be doing business with a company like MGM that shares the same values we do, such as diversity and the importance of their employees.”

Pressing Engagement

As she posed for a few photos for BusinessWest, Merigian gathered her son, Andrew Takorian, and insisted that he be part of the picture.

Figuratively speaking, he has been for some time now, working at this establishment — like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him — while still in grade school.

He represents the fifth generation to carry a business card that says ‘Park Cleaners’ — or Park Cleaners & Dyers, as the case may be. The company has gone through a lot of change and evolution after the past eight and half decades, and many important developments.

Perhaps none were as big as the contract inked with MGM Springfield, which comes at a critical time and represents a huge opportunity for growth and security.

It’s just one example of the trickle-down effect that is now underway, and already changing the local business landscape in profound ways.

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

Features

Changing Expectations

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth say they’ve created a ‘retail-tainment district,’ one that is bringing people from across the region to downtown Springfield.

Like most people who grew up in and around Springfield in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikki Lessard has fond memories of getting on a bus and spending an entire Saturday afternoon downtown.

She said most of those visits would start, and a good number would also end, at Johnson’s Bookstore, but there were plenty of other stops as well.

“We would go to Johnson’s, and Steiger’s, and many other stores. There was always something happening; it was positive, and it was fun,” said Lessard, adding that, while she acknowledges that things won’t ever be exactly like that again given changes in how and where many people shop, it can be, well, something like that again.

And she and business partner Nancy Feth are a huge part of that ‘something.’

They are the founders of an intriguing enterprise called Simply Grace, which now operates a growing portfolio of businesses operating under the name the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — almost exactly where Johnson’s Bookstore was operating until it closed 20 years ago.

There are shops, but this is also a gathering place for events ranging from Thunderbird Thursdays to a farmer’s market to a Dress for Success graduation ceremony.

The two partners have a name for what they’ve created — a ‘retail-tainment district,’ blending both retail and entertainment. They didn’t invent the phrase — it’s been in use for a while and is often summoned when the discussion turns to what traditional shopping malls must become if they want to survive — but they believe they have the first in downtown Springfield, arriving ahead of MGM Springfield.

It all started with the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, and ‘the Shops’ has grown to include a yoga studio, a restaurant, a new store that just opened its doors, and another now being built out.

As they tell the story — and they love to tell the story, often finishing one another’s sentences and providing complementary commentary as they do so — these entrepreneurs note that they came to downtown Springfield as one of what was supposed to be several small retailers that agreed to set up shop as part of the initial Springfield Holiday Market in 2015, a strategic initiative designed to put some underutilized space in the Marketplace complex to work in a way that would bring people downtown and generate some momentum as well as foot traffic.

As things turned out, there were only a few pop-up shops, as they were called, on that location, but they did well collectively, and the public responded to this bid to bring some retail back to Main Street.

When the holidays were over, Glenn Edwards, owner of the property, asked Feth and Lessard if they would like to stay on for a while. They said yes, but without giving any real indication of a what ‘a while’ might or should become.

“We said, ‘we’ll stay for a few more months; we’ll stay ’til Valentine’s Day,’” said Feth, before Lessard picked up for her.

“And then, we asked to stay ’til Mother’s Day,” she explained. “And then we decided we wanted to stay for the year.”

But with some conditions, specifically that they could take space one of the retailers was vacating for yoga classes in an effort to attract more people and different constituencies to the downtown.

And, overall, the two entrepreneurs have been continuing that pattern, or mindset, ever since, adding new components to Simply Grace; bringing more events, vitality, and energy to the Marketplace area; and also, for those efforts, earning an award from the Small Business Administration to coincide with Small Business Week (April 29 to May 5).

Indeed, Feth and Lessard will be at the Sheraton Needham Hotel on May 4 to accept the Microenterprise of the Year Award, one of the few enterprises from Western Mass. to win such an honor in recent years.

But before, and after, all their focus will be on Springfield, the Marketplace, and new developments for Simply Grace.

These include a recent addition called Brick & Mortar, what Lessard calls a “mercantile, apothecary, and more,” which actually has some exposed brick for effect. There’s also Alchemy, a manicure and pedicure salon now being built out; Dharma, the yoga studio; and the boutique that got things rolling.

Those four businesses, along with Nosh, an eatery across the way from the boutique, now comprise a critical mass of small, diverse shops that the two partners believe will bring more foot traffic and momentum to an area that was once the pulse of downtown Springfield a generation ago — and can, they believe, take that role again.

“Do we have mall traffic? Heck no,” said Lessard. “But it’s working. It’s always about creating curiosity and then converting that into customers, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The only downside to all this is that the space once devoted to the holiday pop-up markets is now gone, absorbed by what could be called permanent fixtures, said the partners, adding that, in most all ways, this constitutes a very good problem to have.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Feth and Lessard about their venture and how in some ways it constitutes turning back the clock, but in most others, it’s symbolic of the downtown’s future.

What’s in Store

‘Walk. Pause. Browse. Shop. Experience.’

Those are the words the two partners have placed before ‘the Shops at Marketplace’ in their branding of the facility. And both collectively and individuality, those terms speak to what this venture is all about — as well as to some of the elements that have largely been missing from downtown since those days when Lessard and countless others would get on a bus and take it to Main Street.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

There was far less walking, pausing, browsing, and shopping going on, and therefore there was less to experience.

Feth and Lessard weren’t exactly out to change that equation when they were first invited to bring a taste of the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, a shop they opened in Monson, to downtown Springfield for the holidays. But that’s what has happened.

It’s been an intriguing journey, a learning experience on many levels, said the partners, adding that they are still writing new chapters to this story.

That first Holiday Market was so successful that the BID asked the new partners to manage and staff that project moving forward, said Feth, adding that they did so, providing an opportunity for a number of new businesses to become part of the experience and gain some critical visibility. And through that work, the partners came to understand the many layers of significance to their efforts. Indeed, this wasn’t simply retail, it was economic development.

“A lot of what we do is build community and work on economic development,” Feth explained. “These are the value adds we feel we bring to Springfield in addition to our own businesses.”

Lessard agreed, and referred to Simply Grace’s broad efforts as “collaborating and incubating.”

As for their own businesses, the partners say they are doing well and succeeding in their primary mission. That would be to bring people, but especially women, downtown. Or back downtown, as is often the case.

They’re getting that done by providing reasons to do so, said Lessard, adding that these vary and include yoga, the shops — which sell products made by vendors with unique, community-minded stories — and events.

Elaborating, Lessard said the partners will utilize their indoor spaces and walkways during winter and schedule a variety of gatherings for women, and when the weather gets warmer, they will fully “activate” the indoor and outdoor space, using it to host everything from flea markets to White Lion Wednesdays; from farmers markets to live music.

In fact, the space has become a popular venue for fundraising for groups that include Rays of Hope, Unify Against Bullying, Dress for Success, and many more.

“We just want to have this lively, quintessential, unexpected experience in downtown Springfield,” Lessard explained, adding that the key word there, and perhaps unfortunately, is ‘unexpected.’

Indeed, Feth said that many of those who come to the Shops at the Marketplace will offer commentary that makes this point.

“We’ll often hear people say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Springfield,’” said Feth. “Or ‘I feel like I’m in New York or San Francisco.’”

Which Lessard followed with, ‘and we gladly say, ‘you’re in this wonderful city called Springfield.’”

The unofficial mission moving forward, for the partners at Simply Grace and the city as a whole, is to generate fewer of these comments and to make a fulfilling trip downtown something that’s expected, not unexpected.

And the partners believe they and the city are moving closer to that goal through their lively mix of retail, events, things to do, and things to experience.

And the retail is a big part of it, said Feth, adding that, contrary to what is becoming popular opinion, traditional retail is not dead, and not everyone wants to buy everything on Amazon and have it shipped to their home.

“What we’re finding is that customers are actually hungry for experiences where they can see the product, talk to people, feel seen and acknowledged, and have a real experience instead of just a virtual experience,” she explained, before Lessard picked up on that ‘feel seen’ comment and ran with it because of its significance.

“We have women who come in here that pause, then browse, then shop, just to be seen,” she told BusinessWest. “They feel like they’re in this hustle and bustle of life and no one’s acknowledging them. So they come in, they share stories, we give them hugs; we actually care about them as people.

“We get a lot of pushback from people from who say, ‘you should be in East Longmeadow’ or ‘you should be in Hampden or somewhere other than downtown Springfield,’” she went on. “But we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, because the women we’re connecting to that work or live or play downtown are very stressed out, and when they come to our store, it’s a breath of fresh air, an unexpected experience.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again — unexpected. Soon, perhaps, it can be retired, and downtown Springfield will move closer to the one Lessard remembers from her youth, a time, she recalled, when there was always something positive and fun happening.

The partners at Simply Grace are doing their part to bring those phrases back into use. They’ll soon have an award from the Small Business Administration to show for their efforts, but they’ve already received something perhaps even more significant to them.

That would be all those comments from people who say they don’t believe they’re in downtown Springfield. Such comments tell them they’re doing the right thing and in the right place.

And to think they were only going to stay a month.

Good thing they didn’t.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

An aerial view of the Village Commons

An aerial view of the Village Commons, which is at full occupancy, and has been for most of this century.

When Andy Yee talks about South Hadley, he speaks from experience.

All kinds of experience.

He grew up there, went to high school there, lives there still, and now watches his children’s high-school games there. He also does business there — quite a bit of it, actually.

He owns a number of restaurants in that community, including Johnny’s Bar & Grill and Johnny’s Tap Room, both named after his late father, as well as IYA Sushi & Noodle Kitchen, all located in the Village Commons, across College Street from Mount Holyoke College, as well as a bar called the Halfway House Lounge on Summit Street. He described that establishment as the ‘Cheers’ of South Hadley, meaning everyone there knows your name.

They also know the story of how the tavern got its name, which Yee was more than willing to share.

“Back in the day, there was a trolley system running from South Hadley Falls up to the college, and that was the halfway point, the halfway station,” he explained. “It’s a fun little place. We all grew up there; at some point, almost every resident has stopped at the Halfway House.”

Yee told that story to convey the strong sense of continuity that exists in this Hampshire County community, and how many things haven’t changed since the Halfway House started serving pints soon after Prohibition ended more than 80 years ago.

But many things have changed, and for evidence, one need only look further down Newton Street, to one of Yee’s latest entrepreneurial ventures.

He’s one of the principals — Peter Pan Chairman and CEO Peter Picknelly and Rocky’s Hardware President and CEO Rocco Falcone are the others — in a closely watched development at the so-called Woodlawn Plaza, former home to Big Y but more recently a mostly vacant eyesore of sorts.

Retail centers of this type couldn’t be classified as easy money or even a particularly wise investment at this point given the way the retail sector is heading, but this group of entrepreneurs moved to acquire the plaza at auction because of confidence in their abilities to bring new life to it, and also confidence in South Hadley itself.

“You can’t buy properties like this unless they come for sale at the right price,” said Yee, adding that there’s a reason this site was available at auction. “We see this as a good investment, and we have some great partners with great business savvy. We’re not going to sit idle on this property; there’s going to be something unique there for all to enjoy.”

This confidence results from historically steady results in South Hadley when it comes to retail and business in general, but also many recent developments that have secured the community’s place as a reputation of sorts when it comes to everything from outdoor activities to fine dining.

Take the Village Commons, for example. It’s at 100% occupancy, essentially, and has been since roughly the start of this century, said Jeff Labrecque, the facility’s chief operating officer.

“We have very, very little turnover, and when something does turn over, we usually fill it very quickly,” he said before getting his point across by noting that O’Connell Care at Home will be moving its headquarters there in several weeks, quickly claiming a 1,900-square-foot space vacated by River Valley Dental after a consolidation of that operation.

O’Connell’s move brings still more diversity to the Commons, which already had a good amount of it, said Labrecque, adding that it’s home to restaurants and bars, high-end apartments that are in demand (he says there are maybe 50 people on a waiting list, and some have been on it for years), many health and beauty businesses, service agencies, a still-surviving independent bookstore, and a still-surviving two-screen movie theater.

All of this makes the Commons a true destination, he said.

The broader goal is to make South Hadley itself more of a destination, said all those we spoke with, adding that many pieces to this puzzle are in place, and more are coming together.

Range of Initiatives

Mike Sullivan is better known for his time spent serving the community on the other side of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge — he was mayor of Holyoke for a decade after owning and operating Nick O’Neil’s tavern — but he now resides (professionally speaking) at South Hadley Town Hall.

He’s been town administrator for several years, taking that position after serving the town of Maynard (famous as the home to Digital Equipment Corp., Monster.com, and later Curt Schilling’s ill-fated 38 Studios). In fact, Sullivan’s first day in Maynard was Schilling’s last, and he remembers the town being very upset and frustrated with losing the company, emotions that shifted went it quickly dissolved into bankruptcy. But that’s another story.

This one is about South Hadley, and Sullivan said it has achieved progress in many forms in recent years, including the broad realm of economic development, attracting new companies such as Mohawk Paper and E Ink Corp., and retaining others, such as South Hadley Fuel.

The town is also making headway with recreation-related initiatives such as a bike-share project and what he called the ‘river-to-range trail program,’ which, as that name suggests, is a handicap-accessible trail route that starts at Brunell’s Marina on the Connecticut River and connects to the Summit House in Hadley on Mount Holyoke.

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,514
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential AND COMMERCIAL Tax Rate: $19.93 (Fire District 1), $20.42 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $64,610
Median Family Income: $76,679
Type of Government: Town Administrator, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College, the Loomis Communities, Mohawk Paper
* Latest information available

Such initiatives bring more people to the town and thus the benefits that go with that visitation, he explained.

“These eco-tourism amenities in communities like South Hadley are becoming more and more important,” Sullivan said. “They feed restaurants and other businesses, like those at the Village Commons, like Brunell’s, like McCray’s Farm; we’re hoping that all of those benefit from our investment in the river-to-range trail.”

But easily the most-watched project in the community involves the Woodlawn Project on Newton Street, Route 116.

The goal is to create a mixed-use development, said Sullivan, adding that the town is working to create what’s known as a ‘40R,’ or Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District, at the site, which would allow for more flexibility with regard to both zoning and eventual development. That plan will go before town meeting later this spring.

The site, formerly home to a large Big Y and Food Mart before that, still has a few tenants and is anchored by a Rocky’s Hardware store, but is still largely vacant. The new owners have torn down the 65,000-square-foot former Big Y, have plans for a larger Rocky’s with a garden center, and are hoping to attract more retail at a time when that sector is clearly struggling, but also other types of tenants.

“Retail is struggling, with Toys R Us, BonTon, and other national chains going out,” said Yee, adding that, in many properties like the one on Newton Street, restaurants have become the main anchors.

Elaborating, he said that dining and entertainment businesses have played a major role in making a South Hadley a destination not only for those living in neighboring communities such as Granby, Holyoke, and Amherst, but for residents across the region and even beyond.

This is certainly in evidence at the Village Commons, which has always been a gathering spot, but it is now even more of a destination — because of its array of eateries, but also the diversity of ventures there.

Indeed, there are now more than 70 businesses with that address on their letterhead, and while all of them serve people living around the corner (or upstairs, when it comes to those with apartments in the complex), they are also drawing people from many surrounding communities into South Hadley.

The complex’s many restaurants are perhaps the main attraction, said Lebrecque, noting that there are now several of them. In addition to the Yee family’s offerings, there’s also Tailgate Picnot, Food 101 Bar & Bistro, New Main Moon Café, WOW Frozen Yogurt, and the Mexican restaurant Autentica.

This critical mass gives the Commons both diversity and drawing power, said Lebrecque, who drew comparisons, on some level, to the city of Northampton and its thriving downtown.

“We’ve become somewhat of a food and entertainment destination, just like Northampton,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a thriving part of our business, and it brings people from all over to South Hadley.”

But retail is also thriving in the Commons, in part because of the foot traffic created by the entertainment options, he went on, citing, as one example, Moxy Boutique.

This is a relatively new addition — it arrived about a year ago — led by an entrepreneur who left a stable, successful situation in Suffield, Conn. for the Commons because of its destination status.

And there are others who would like to gain inclusion on the tenant directory, he went on, but there isn’t any space available.

“The retail is definitely making a thriving comeback — that’s something we’ve noticed over the last few years,” said Lebrecque. “For a number of years, it was hard to get retailers interested in space, but now we have people starting to knock on our door. We have a lot of people who would like to come to the Commons, but we just don’t have the space for them.”

Coming of Age

If that sounds like a good problem to have, it is.

Such a development means your facility — and the community — are in demand, a preferred landing spot, and a great place to live, work, and operate a business.

South Hadley is all of those things, and has been since people starting gathering at the Halfway House Lounge — long before it was called that.

The goal here is to become more of a destination — for businesses, families, outdoor enthusiasts, those looking for a boutique, and those looking for a new weed whacker.

And South Hadley is making strides toward being that destination.

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

Features

Addressing a ‘New Norm’

Amy Cuddy

Amy Cuddy addresses the audience of more than 1,400 people at Bay Path University’s Women’s Leadership Conference.

“We’re starting to see civility as a luxury.” That was how social psychologist, author, and educator Amy Cuddy described a changed landscape that has perpetuated a culture of adult bullying, not just on social media but offline as well. As she talked about this subject at Bay Path University’s recent Women’s Leadership Conference, she was speaking from experience — she has been savaged on social media as her research on the broad subject of ‘power posing’ has come into question and doubt. But she said she now has plenty of company, and the trend is disturbing on many levels.

At the point in her talk when the subject turned to the now-famous “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street, Amy Cuddy’s voice started to crack slightly.

It wouldn’t be the last time, either, but we’ll get back to that later.

The images of the statue — and there were many in Cuddy’s presentation that kicked off Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference on April 6 — were poignant on many levels. On the surface, they brought a new dimension to Cuddy’s comments — not to mention her substantial volume of research — on the subject of body language (non-verbal communication) and, more specifically, the effects of ‘power posing.’

Indeed, Cuddy became famous in her field, social psychology, for a 2010 study that found that such posing — raising one’s arms above one’s head as a triumphant athlete might, or assuming the ‘Wonder Woman hands on hip look,’ for example — not only elicited feelings of power from those who did so, but they also raised testosterone levels and lowered stress levels as well.

As she placed images of women and especially young girls replicating the “Fearless Girl” stance on the massive screens in the exhibition hall at the MassMutual Center, Cuddy talked about how striking that defiant, ‘staring-down-the-charging-bull’ pose and others designed to convey confidence but not arrogance, can change the course of everything from an upcoming job interview to a career to a life.

But Cuddy has given that talk countless times before. It’s the one where she suggests that going into a bathroom stall prior to an interview or important meeting and power posing might better prepare the individual for what will come next — a talk that has elicited cheers as well as tears.

On this stage and on this morning, however, Cuddy would delve into some new material. And she admitted afterward that it took 18 months, by her estimates, to work up the courage to do so.

“I’ve been avoiding talking about it publicly because when you call out your bullies you’re likely to experience backlash, because they hate that,” said Cuddy as she referenced what has happened to her over the past several years as the results of that 2010 study came under withering public scrutiny and she suffered often very personal attacks on social media. “I’m still terrified.”

Cuddy told her audience that what’s transpired is not a case of a researcher and rising star within the field of social psychology having skin too thin to handle what has become a changed landscape when it comes to challenges to research and published papers. And it’s not an effort to deflect attention away from mounting evidence that there are no hormonal effects from power posing.

Instead, it’s adult bullying in its purest form and an example of what’s going on in many fields and society in general. And those sentiments are backed up by these comments given by one of Cuddy’s peers to the New York Times for a piece published last fall titled “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy.”

“Amy has been the target of mockery and meanness on Facebook, on Twitter, and blog posts,” Jay Van Bavel, a social psychologist from New York University told the Times. “I feel like, wow, I have never seen that in science … I’ve never seen public humiliation like that.”

The low point, Cuddy said, came when a blogger whom she described as her “main bully” goaded her collaborator on the 2010 study into publicly distancing herself from their work.

“That’s one of the most effective bully moves — to get the people closest to you to turn on you — and that’s when I felt hopeless,” she told BusinessWest after her talk, adding that she no longer has such feelings and is in a better place overall because of a solid support network but also a deep belief in her work and her message.

“I talk often about believing in yourself and buying your own story — and I do,” she said. “I fully, 100% believe in my message, and that kept me afloat.”

And this brings us back to “Fearless Girl,” which is power posing personified. Only Cuddy calls it the “Brave Girl, because no one is fearless.”

And bravery is certainly one of the traits she said will be needed to stem a tide of uncivility and bullying on the Internet and in society in general, and change what has become in many ways a new norm — subject matter that constitutes the main thrust of Cuddy’s latest book, Bullies, Bystanders, and Bravehearts due out in 2020.

“Bravery is not glorious,” she said when asked how society might change the norm. “The first step is recognizing that bravery is not just running into a burning building to save lives; bravery often involves standing up to people in these social situations and putting your own relationships at risk.”

For this issue, BusinessWest took in Cuddy’s presentation and then talked with her about adult bullying and how the current landscape might be changed.

Bully Pulpit

It wasn’t long after the 2010 study on power posing was published that Cuddy started achieving something approaching rock-star status in the field of social psychology, which doesn’t have many of those.

The study was published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science and covered by a host of national news outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Guardian, Wired, Fast Company, and others.

In 2012, she gave a TED talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” that has been viewed more than 40 million times and is the second-most-viewed TED talk of all time. She was awarded a faculty position at Harvard, and there were countless appearances on television and lucrative speaking appearances around the globe. Her first book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, became a New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Globe and Mail bestseller.

And then?

Let’s just say that Cuddy became — and probably because of all that fame and everything that came with it — perhaps the most visible target within what’s been called a methodological-reform movement and replication crisis that has shaken up the field as it has raised questions about the reliability of vast amounts of research within the broad realm of social psychology.

Amy Cuddy, center, with Bay Path University President Carol Leary, left, and Bay Path student Kaitlyn Leibowitz

Amy Cuddy, center, with Bay Path University President Carol Leary, left, and Bay Path student Kaitlyn Leibowitz, Cuddy’s assistant for the day.

To make a rather long story somewhat short, the 2010 study on power posing came under intense scrutiny, and its results, specifically those related to hormonal, or ‘downsteam’ effects — evidence that such posing increased testosterone levels and reduced cortisol levels (which are associated with stress) — could not be replicated in many cases.

Cuddy eventually became a punching bag for a number of influential bloggers, including Andrew Gelman, a professor of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia. While Cuddy certainly wasn’t the only researcher to come under scrutiny, she became almost an obsession for him.

Gelman would eventually post a challenge to Dana Carney, Cuddy’s collaborator in the 2010 study, asking her, “when people screw up or cheat in their research, what do their collaborators say?”

Carney would respond, a day or so later, with a post to her website that said, among other things, “I do not believe that power-pose effects are real” and “I discourage others from studying power poses.”

This was that low point Cuddy described earlier, but overall, she endured more than two years of unrelenting scrutiny and criticism that significantly impacted her health — her weight dropped to 100 pounds at one point — and prompted her at times to stop taking phone calls and move almost completely offline.

Things became so bad that Cuddy, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident the summer after her sophomore year in college and wasn’t able to return to school until four years after that mishap, told the audience of more than 1,400 people that she would rather go through that experience again than be subjected to what she went through between 2015 and 2017, and is still experiencing today on some levels.

As she stood on that stage at the MassMutual Center, Cuddy made it clear that she stands by her work on the subject of power posing and reiterated that she doesn’t have any real problem with people questioning or trying to replicate her research.

But she does have a problem with bullying, which is the only way she can describe what she’s been subjected to. And she has taken her own experiences and extrapolated them out over society in general. This new course of study, if you will, led to the book Bullies, Bystanders, and Bravehearts, three constituencies she described in great detail for her audience as part of a call to arms of sorts on the subject of adult bullying.

Taking a Stand

As she talked about her experiences and adult bullying in general, and became emotional at times as she did so, Cuddy, who never identified anyone by name, put up on screen the one- sentence reply that the blogger Gelman gave the New York Times reporter who wrote the aforementioned piece on Cuddy when she asked if Gelman would consider meeting with Cuddy to hash out their differences: “I don’t like interpersonal conflict.”

And she left it there for a while to let it sink in as she intimated that such sentiments are just one of many factors contributing to an environment that is fast becoming untenable and is ruining lives.

“Sticks and stones … we can survive that,” she told her audience. “Name calling in this domain, among adults — we can’t. It’s killing people; it’s leading to all kinds of problems.

“We’re starting to see civility as a luxury,” she went on. “And that means we’re in trouble. We’re seeing this in social media, but what’s happening is that this same social media behavior is being played out offline as well, because it’s become normalized to talk to each other with disgust and contempt and moral outrage.

“It’s so common that now we think that’s the norm,” she continued. “We think it’s OK to treat people that way. And by directing all of our anxieties about bullying to our kids, we avoid talking about the elephant in the room, which is bullying among adults. We are getting it wrong.”

In an interview after her presentation, Cuddy acknowledgd that adult bullying is certainly nothing new — “we’ve been shunning people for thousands of years” — but social media has changed the landscape and perpetuated the practice.

“Social media has given us the perception that bullying is normative,” she explained, “because everyone can see all these interactions, and because bullies are louder and more prolific than non-bullies. They are highly motivated by their sense of outrage and by their sense of resentment.”

Elaborating, she said that, while researchers have not yet been able to put a number to it, anecdotal evidence on moral-outrage triggers suggests that social media has brought out bullying in more people because of the way it makes such behavior appear normal and, in many respects, accepted.

“Our behavior is largely based on what we perceive other people to be doing — it’s based on social norms,” she told BusinessWest. “When you see the Internet littered with this kind of bullying trash, you begin to believe that this is normal behavior, and you start to behave in a way that’s similar.”

She’s not sure when it all started, but she said things turned sharply south just over a decade ago, and the first real wave came in the form of a tsunami crashing down on women in the IT field.

“And it was absolutely brutal,” she noted. “Women left the field because they were receiving death and rape threats all the time. It started there because tech people knew how to use the Internet, so they weaponized it pretty quickly, and I think they were very effective at doing that.

“If that had not happened, I’m not sure we’d be where we are,” she went on. “People started following that; it became a model of how you can bully someone into submission or exile, and it was nasty, and it was effective.”

How can society stop this trend of bullying people into submission?

Perhaps the most important step is for bystanders to become bravehearts and stand up to the bullies, she said, straining to hold back tears as she talked about how the social-psychology community, her peers, essentially stood and watched as she was pilloried on social media, mostly, if not entirely, out of fear that the same would happen to them.

“What hurt me the most was the inaction of bystanders,” she told her audience, stopping for a minute to gather herself. “This was a community I loved; I got e-mails all the time from people saying, ‘I’m really sorry about what’s happening to you — I wish I could do something, but I don’t want them to attack me.’

“Don’t ever say that to someone who’s being bullied,” she went on. “It’s not supportive, and it was horrifying and chilling to see people on the sidelines watching this happen and shutting up and doing nothing. I became the butt of jokes — there was an April Fools Day joke about me that circulated like crazy — and people were talking about me like I wasn’t human. It was vicious and relentless.”

Perhaps even more chilling is that this is happening to growing numbers of people, said Cuddy, adding that, as she researched the subject, she became increasingly alarmed at just how common it was.

Progress will come only when the bystanders find the courage to get off the sidelines, hold bullies accountable, and eventually change the norm.

Posing a Question

Cuddy has reached a point where she has altered her thinking on the hormonal effects of power posing. Those sentiments came after several studies failed to replicate the results of the 2010 study.

But she is still a firm believer in power posing and its ability to positively influence moods and emotions. That was obvious from her comments to those in attendance at the women’s conference.

Also obvious are her views on adult bullying, society’s new norm, and what it means moving forward.

She suspects that maybe the worst is over for her, although what has happened will leave a lasting mark. Meanwhile, she suspects that the bullies will simply move on to a new target, which is equally distressing.

As she wrapped up her talk at the women’s conference, she put on the screen that famous quote from the poet Maya Angelou: “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.”

She didn’t put it there as an endorsement for power posing. Instead, it was meant to encourage the bystanders, get them off the sidelines, and stare down the bullies.

And that’s another reason the “Fearless Girl” statue carries such importance and poignancy in this presentation.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Deerfield boasts drawing cards like Mount Sugarloaf

While Deerfield boasts drawing cards like Mount Sugarloaf (seen here), Yankee Candle, and others, officials there say this community is much more than a tourist town.

Wendy Foxmyn acknowleged that, when pressed to describe Deerfield with a word or two, most responders would say ‘tourist town,’ or something to that effect.

And, sounding somewhat like the Seinfeld characters in that infamous episode, she said there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.

But she quickly, and repeatedly, stressed that this community that is home to Yankee Candle’s flagship store — one of the most visited attractions in New England — as well as Mount Sugarloaf, Historic Deerfield, and the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservancy and Garden wants to diversify and broaden its commercial portfolio.

“We consider ourselves be more than a tourist town — much more,” said Foxmyn, who has served several area communities in the town administrator role, including Deerfield for the past two years. She noted that the town’s location, roughly halfway between Northampton and Greenfield, could make it ideal as a home from which a business or nonprofit could effectively serve both Hampshire and Franklin counties, something many are trying to do at a time of consolidation.

“We’re becoming more of a hub — a central Hampshire-Franklin hub,” she explained. “I’ve been getting calls from service agencies and others who serve both counties who would like to find a central place because they’ve lost funding or anticipate losing funding.”

Meanwhile, Deerfield, population 5,400 or so, wants to take far more advantage of that bevy of tourist attractions than it has historically, said Foxmyn, noting that, far too often, cars and buses filled with those buying candles and admiring butterflies get back in their vehicles and simply return home.

“We want them to look left and look right,” said Foxmyn, referring specifically to Routes 5 and 10, just two of the major thoroughfares the town is blessed with, with Routes 91 and 116 being the others. “We want them to stay and take in more of Deerfield.”

For this to become reality, the town must give visitors more reasons to look left and right, she acknowledged, adding that, while there is a new restaurant, Gianni Fig’s Ristorante, and a new Cumberland Farms in South Deerfield, more development is desired and needed to both broaden the tax base and lengthen the average stay of those coming to Deerfield for an afternoon.

“We’d like to develop more businesses that would be attractive to the people who come here,” she explained. “Maybe places for them to eat after they’ve gone to Historic Deerfield or they’ve hiked up Mount Sugarloaf or gone to Yankee Candle.”

But town leaders know that to attract new businesses — in hospitality and other sectors as well — they need to make their downtown area more inviting and pedestrian-friendly, and they are eyeing a host of improvements in the Elm Street corridor, the main commercial area in South Deerfield.

Planned improvements include work on sidewalks, lights, and perhaps storefront improvements, and the town is exploring avenues for funding such work.

Selectman Trevor McDaniel, a traveling salesman (windows) by trade, told BusinessWest that his work takes him to communities across the region, many of which have made significant investments in their downtowns, and with recognizable results when it comes to those public expenditures spurring private investments and new business ventures.

He believes the same can happen in Deerfield.

“I travel all over Western Mass. … you go to Pittsfield, the streets look great, Great Barrington, everything’s redone, Lenox is really nice,” he said. “A lot of communities have done extensive work to their downtowns — they’ve put in new brick, some granite, planters, new lighting and light poles, and new cement sidewalks, and it looks fantastic. And then businesses freshen up the front of their building.”

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how a community known for its butterflies, candles, and arrowheads will look to expand that profile and create new ways for people to describe it.

View to the Future

While Deerfield, as noted, is well-known as the home of Yankee Candle, which has both its manufacturing facilities and flagship store within the town and is therefore a very large employer, it has historically been dominated by small businesses.

And they come across a host of sectors — tourism, obviously, but also agriculture, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and nonprofits.

The goal moving forward, as Foxmyn mentioned, is to simply broaden the portfolio. And the town has many assets to work with as it goes about that task, everything from that attractive location and presence on major highways to a uniform tax rate (several neighboring communities have a higher tax rate for businesses).

The assignment, simply, is to take full advantage of those assets and create still more of them.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,400
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential and commercial Tax Rate: $16.57 (Deerfield), $18.24 (South Deerfield)
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

The town’s location, as well as easy access to highways and ample farmland with space for greenhouses, could make it a potential landing spot for marijuana cultivation and/or retail ventures, for example, said Foxmyn, adding that the town, which has placed zoning restrictions on such businesses, has already fielded some inquiries and will carefully consider any that come its way.

“They are knocking on our doors — the industry is swarming us,” she told BusinessWest. “And they’re approaching people locally to get them involved, whether they’re farmers or people who have buildings that might become a retail site.”

Meanwhile, there have been some momentum-building endeavors over the past several months, with several projects in various stages of development.

A machining company, Dumont, will be relocating into the former Oxford Pickle complex, acquired by the town several years ago, joining New England Natural Bakers and a granola-making outfit on that parcel.

On the retail side, both Foxmyn and McDaniel mentioned Gianni Figs, located on the site of the former Sienna restaurant, which gives the community an intriguing dining attraction after the closing of Chandler’s restaurant on the Yankee Candle campus.

The Cumberland Farms is another important addition; plans are advancing for a small market to replace Savage’s, a small market that operated for decades; a bakery/café is going in the old Savage’s site; and an international market is being opened, among other retail developments.

Meanwhile, on the residential side, a large condominium project is now underway. Called the Condominiums at Sugarloaf because it will be built at the base of the mountain, it will have 70 units, presenting more options for those mulling Deerfield as an attractive place to live, including those working at the nearby Five Colleges.

On the municipal side, plans are emerging for a new senior center, said Foxmyn and McDaniel, noting a replacement is needed for an aging, largely inadequate facility. A church that closed several years ago has been donated to the town, and it may become the focus of efforts to create a new senior center.

But perhaps the most significant development involves plans for comprehensive improvements to improve South Deerfield Center, an initiative that has been long discussed, again with that goal of attracting both more tourism- and hospitality-related ventures and service businesses that would serve both the town and the larger region — and keeping tourists in town for a longer stay, spreading the wealth, if you will.

“With all that traffic that comes to Yankee Candle, and now they’ll be filling up at Cumberland Farms — they’ll pull out onto Elm Street and look left or right,” said McDaniel, imaging a scenario from down the road, literally as well as figuratively. “We want them to take that look and say, ‘what’s downtown? Let’s go take a look.’”

There are other items on what could be called a ‘wish list,’ said McDaniel, including much-needed improvements to the town’s sewer system, built in the ’70s and currently serving only a small percentage of the population, but finding the funding for such an endeavor will be a real challenge.

“We’re in the midst of trying to figure out what’s needed, how much it’s going to cost, and who’s going to pay for it,” he explained. “That’s a big topic we’ve been studying for the past 16 months or so; it’s hard to figure out what to do. There’s not a big base of users, and there’s huge expense involved.”

Scents and Sensibility

The more immediate goal is to undertake those improvements to Elm Street and, hopefully see those public investments inspire private investments in the form of new businesses and additional residential projects.

As Foxmyn noted, Deerfield has the location — and the potential — to become an important hub serving two neighboring but very different counties.

This community is already much more than a tourist town, she explained, but it wants to make that abundantly clear to everyone who might come for a visit.

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