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This Is a Laughing Matter

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman will soon open what they believe is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Pam Victor is official president and founder of Happier Valley Comedy, but she prefers the title ‘head of happiness.’ It’s effective, and she likes it, and as the founder, she said picking her title is one of the rewards of her job. The far bigger reward, though, is changing people’s lives — just as hers was changed — through improvisation.

Pam Victor refers to it affectionately as simply ‘the experiment,’ or, more formally, the ‘can-I-make-a-living-doing-what-I-love experiment.’

It was undertaken back in the summer of 2014, and the premise was pretty simple. Victor was going to see if she could make $16,000 a year — the poverty level for a family of two back then — through a business based on improvisation.

She was confident — well, sort of — that she would meet or surpass that threshold, but at the start, she was already thinking about the great blog post she would have if she didn’t.

“‘An artist can’t even break the poverty line,’ or something like that, is what I would have written,” Victor recalled, adding that she never had to submit that blog post, because she greatly exceeded her goal by teaching improvisation and using it to help professionals and others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure,” which we’ll hear more about later.

Today, that nonprofit business Victor started, called Happier Valley Comedy, continues to grow while carrying out a simple mission — “to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world).”

It does this through three business divisions:

• Classes in improvisation. Victor started with one, and there are now eight a week, and there’s a waiting list for some of them;

• Comedy shows, such as the one on June 9 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, featuring the Ha-Has, the comedy group Victor started; and

• Personal and professional growth through use of improvisation, what the company calls its ‘Through Laughter’ program. Victor and her team visit companies, groups, and professional organizations and undertake exercises — usually highly interactive in nature — designed to help bolster everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

It’s not what many people think of when they hear ‘improv’ — people taking to the podium and talking off the cuff (stand-up comedy) or even some of those other things people might conjure up; “we don’t cluck like chickens, and we don’t do ‘trust falls,’” said Victor. People do stand in circles, sometimes, and they do take part in exercises together.

Many of them are designed to address self-confidence and what has come to be known as the ‘impostor syndrome,’ said Victor, adding that this afflicts everyone, not just women, although they often seem especially vulnerable to it.

“I see it in my female colleagues, and I see it stop us from manifesting our successes because we talk ourselves out of success before we even have a chance to get into the ring,” she explained, referring specifically to the voice inside everyone that creates doubt and thoughts of inadequacy.

Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations

With its Through Laughter program, Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations and undertakes exercises designed to boost everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

“The improv exercises help us step into the unknown and step into possibilities,” she went on. “It’s a muscle that we can strengthen, and every time we do it, we strengthen that muscle.”

Meghan Lynch, a principal with the marketing group Six Point Creative, has become a big believer in improv. She was first introduced to it when Victor did a presentation at a women’s leadership group, and Lynch then arranged to have Happier Valley come to her company. There have been several workshops, and as employees are added, Lynch schedules what are known as ‘improv workout sessions.’ Six Point even hires Happier Valley to do improv sessions as the company onboards new clients “to start the relationship off with some momentum,” as she put it.

All three divisions of this business — and the venture as a whole — are set to be taken to a much higher level with the opening of what Victor is sure is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Currently, it has another name — the “dirty vanilla box.” That’s how Victor and business partner Scott Braidman, who takes the twin titles general manager and artistic director, refer to the 1,300-square-foot space being built out at the Mill Valley Commons on Route 9 in Hadley.

There, in a retail center that Victor and Braidman have nicknamed the ‘Play Plaza’ — there’s also a tavern, an Irish dance center, a kung fu studio, and an outfit that grows coral at that location — the partners are outfitting space into classrooms and a performing area with 70 seats.

“This is the answer to a dream, really,” said Braidman as he walked within the space, noting that this will be the first improv club in Massachusetts outside of Boston, and it will enable him to meet a long-time goal of doing essentially what Victor has been doing — making improv a career.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Victor and Braidman about their venture, which is, indeed, a laughing matter — and also a very unique enterprise that is changing businesses, and changing lives, through improvisation.

Getting into the Act

As one might expect, Victor, who takes the title ‘head of happiness,’ uses humor early and often to communicate her points.

Consider this response to the question about why she believes her improvisation classes have caught on to the point where there is that waiting list.

“It’s cheaper than therapy,” she deadpanned, adding quickly that, in many ways, that’s not a joke. Her classes — $22 to $25 for each of eight classes — are much, much cheaper than therapy. And from what she’s gathered, they are just as effective, as we’ll see.

Three years or so later with those classes and the other divisions within Happier Valley Comedy, the experiment is more or less ancient history. The matters at hand now are building out that dirty vanilla box and substantially updating the business plan to reflect everything this facility can do for this nonprofit venture.

Before looking ahead, though, to tell this story right, we first need to look back — about 15 years or so, to be exact.

That’s when the clouds parted, as Victor put it in a piece she wrote about her venture for Innovate 413, and “the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in a fierce tractor beam with songs of love and connection.”

Happier Valley logo

Thus began what can be called a career in improv. But things developed very slowly after that.

Victor took one leap of faith, as she called it, when she founded an improv troupe that played mostly in libraries as fundraisers. And she took another one in 2012 when she summoned the courage to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, the iO Theater.

She took a third leap, perhaps the biggest, a few years later, when, after the son she had homeschooled for 10 years went off to college, she waged that aforementioned experiment.

“I tried everything,” Victor said when recalling the early days and her efforts to promote improv and its many benefits. “Classes, writing about it, doing corporate-training workshops, speeches — anything I could do, I tried. And sure enough, it worked out.”

By that, she meant that after six months, not a year, she had passed that $16,000 threshold and, more importantly, had gained the confidence to launch a business, officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that would be called Happier Valley Comedy.

“It was one of those experiences where not thinking about the impossibility of it was quite advantageous,” said Victor, using more humor as she put into perspective the experience of launching a business based on improv in a region that was essentially an improv desert. “Ignorance is power in some ways.”

In the beginning, she started with one set of classes — titled “The Zen of Improv” — and doubts about just how many there could eventually be.

“I thought I had run out of the number of people who were interested in taking improvisation in the Pioneer Valley — those 12 people,” she said, adding that some of those original students signed up for more, and, to her surprise, there were many more people willing to take seats than she imagined.

Why? Maybe because it is cheaper than therapy, she told BusinessWest, adding that few of her students actually want to perform improv. They sign up because the sessions are fun and they give participants a chance to experience what Victor calls “the true meaning of community.”

“People seem to find that the classes have a great deal of impact outside of the classroom as well,” she explained. “People regularly tell me that improv has changed their life, and that’s a good feeling. It’s a fantastic community of people, and you get to make a whole bunch of new friends, which is rare as an adult.

“Improv is a team sport,” she went on. “We’re seeking joy, we’re seeking ease, and we’re also seeking how to make our scene partners look good; people learn how to be of service to each other and to the moment, so there’s a lot of mindfulness to it as well.”

As Victor and her team would discover, these improv classes were not only popular and effective, but demographically unique within the improv world in that they were and still are dominated by middle-aged professional women and not the younger men that are the norm.

“We’re the unicorn of improv, or Wonder Woman’s island,” said Victor, adding that she’s not really sure why her classes take on this demographic shape, but she’s clearly proud and quite happy that she doesn’t have the problem most other improv groups have — attracting women.

She would, however, like to attract more men … but that’s another story.

Grin and Bear It

As for the Through Laughter division of the company, it has also enjoyed steady growth, said Victor, adding that Happier Valley Comedy uses improv within that broad realm of personal and professional development to improve people’s lives at home and in the workplace.

And this aspect of her business takes on a number of forms, she said, citing, as just one example, an interactive presentation she’s done with groups such as the Women Business Owners Alliance called “Meet Your Evil Eye Meanie: How the Voice of Unhelpful Judgment Is Getting in Your Way.”

It uses improv exercises and humorous stories to help women identify and disempower their fear-based internal critical voice in order for them better manifest their professional dreams.

“As my comedy hero Tina Fey says, ‘confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion,” she noted. “The primary focus of my job is to help people quiet their voices of unhelpful judgment and get to the ‘delusion’ that leads to success.”

And with that, she again referenced the ‘impostor syndrome.’ In her efforts to help people address it, Victor has actually put a name to the problem, or at least to the voice inside people that causes all the trouble.

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy — and arguably a lot more fun.

“We call him ‘Calvin’ — that’s a random name; that’s the voice inside our head that is our evil critic. It’s the voice that’s constantly in our head conjugating ‘to suck’ — as in ‘I suck at this,’ or ‘you suck at this’ — it’s that super-judgmental voice,” she said, referring to things people say to themselves, out loud or under their breath.

“I teach people that voice is a liar,” she went on. “And by naming it, that helps to disempower it a little bit or make it a little more manageable, because that voice is never going to go away — that’s human nature; that’s who we are. But we can use some techniques for quieting it.”

These are improv exercises, she went on, adding that they are designed to address that impostor syndrome and the accompanying fears and doubts and be that team sport she described earlier.

She’s putting together another presentation, a workshop she’s titled “F*ck Your Fear and Trust Your Truth,” a name that speaks volumes about what she wants attendees to do — not just that day, but for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.

This is a part of a subcategory within the Through Laughter division devoted to personal growth and female empowerment, she explained, adding that this workshop is being designed to help women use the skills associated with improv to enable them to quiet their judgmental voices and their inner critic so they amplify their truth and speak their mind.

“This will hopefully help women on all fronts, from their personal life to their professional life,” she noted. “Women in leadership roles can hopefully get better at speaking up for themselves and being heard, even women eyeing political positions — they’re calling this ‘the Year of the Woman.’”

Lynch told BusinessWest that the use of improv has been beneficial to Six Point on many levels. It has given employees there a common vocabulary, she said, including the now-common use of the word ‘triangles.’

Explaining it is quite complicated, said both Lynch and Victor, but a triangle essentially describes a relationship between a group of people, especially employees. There are several triangles within a company, and the actions of a specific employee could impact several such relationships. The goal of triangle-related exercises is to make individuals understand how their movements impact such relationships.

“We’ll often start conversations now with ‘let me tell you about my triangles — these are the pressures I’m experiencing — you tell me about yours, and how do we work together to solve this problem?’” said Lynch. “And it’s been a game changer in terms of creating trust and open communication around those, and that’s just one example of adopting that vocabulary into our day-to-day lives in a way that improves communication.”

Both Victor and Braidman believe Happier Valley will be able to introduce more people to the notion of triangles — and many easier-to-comprehend concepts as well — as they build out that vanilla box into an improv club.

The two had been looking for a site for some time, said Braidman, adding that the nonprofit got a huge boost from the most recent Valley Gives program — $26,000, to be exact — that made creation of this new facility possible.

The location is centrally located, he went on — halfway between Amherst and Northampton and on busy Route 9 — and the space is large enough and flexible enough to host classes, performances, workshops, and more.

If all goes according to plan, he said, classes should start there in late June, and Happier Valley comedy shows will commence in August.

Passion Play

Victor told BusinessWest that Braidman will often give her some good-natured grief about her unofficial titles at Happier Valley Comedy and those assigned to other people as well. ‘Head of happiness’ is just one of hers. “Laugh leader’ is another used on occasion, and there are still others that come into play.

“I have my own business, so I get to make up my own titles,” she explained, adding that this is just one of the perks that comes from conducting that experiment, succeeding with it, and, indeed, making a business doing something she loves.

The bigger perk is changing lives, just as hers was changed, through improvisation.

It’s a reward that takes her well above the poverty line, in every way you can imagine.

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

Employment

Shades of Gray

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

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

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

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

But is that true?

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

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

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

Tim Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power to the People

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

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

Daniel Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public or Private?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Creative Economy

Art and Commerce

Mary Yun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click has cultural force through its promotion of the arts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Ghetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sofia Nardi

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

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

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

Art of the Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the Whole

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

The Dream and the Journey

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

During their long and sometimes frustrating quest to secure funding for what would eventually be Hillside Residence, the Sisters of Providence never stopped believing the project’s model — blending healthcare and affordable senior housing — was worth fighting for. Now that the development is under way, they are even firmer in that conviction.

As she talked about the long and persistently frustrating quest to secure funding for the project that would come to be called Hillside Residence, Sister Kathleen Popko summed things up by recalling sentiments she expressed at the time — words that blended diplomacy, poignancy, and even a little sarcasm.

“I would tell people, ‘though our progress is slow … I’m making a lot of friends locally, regionally, and nationally,’” she recalled, with a phrase that hinted broadly at how many doors, in a proverbial sense, were knocked on by the Sisters of Providence, which Popko leads as president, as they sought to take a dream off the drawing board.

And also at how important it was to be making those friends.

Indeed, while making all those introductions, Sr. Popko and the other Sisters of Providence were gaining even more resolve as well. And it stemmed from the firm conviction that their unique model for Hillside Residence — the intersection of healthcare and affordable elder housing, if you will — was worth fighting for.

And fight they did, for the better part of eight years, a struggle that was ultimately successful and celebrated, as much as the project itself was, at an elabotate groundbreaking ceremony on May 18.

Fittingly, Sr. Popko, during her turn at the podium that morning, borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi to convey what it took to make that moment a reality.

“The journey is essential to the dream,” she said, invoking St. Francis’s famous quote. “With hindsight, I can see the truth and wisdom in that statement. Our eight-year journey to this moment expanded and sharpened our vision, tested our determination, enlarged our circle of friends, and committed supporters to this initiative. Let us work now to realize the dream.”

That dream, as noted, is to bring innovative, health-integrated, affordable elder housing to a region, and a city (West Springfield) where there is an acknowledged need for it, said Popko.

Elaborating, she said Hillside Residence, a demonstration project, will create 36 affordable rental units to frail elders, who will receive healthcare services from the Mercy LIFE PACE program (program for all-inclusive care for the elderly). Both programs are situated on the same 27-acre campus that was formerly home to Brightside for Families and Children.

And the expectation is that this $10 million project will demonstrate that this is an effective model for bringing needed services to what has historically been an underserved segment of the population, she told BusinessWest, adding that there have attempts to create affordable senior housing, but not in the same, holistic environment that Hillside Residence will create.

“This is innovative in that it will keep frail elders independent,” she explained. “They’ll live in an independent-living facility, but they’ll be supported in a way, on the same campus, that they can access a tremendous array of services and at the same time go home and live independently.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at both the dream and the journey that made Hillside Residence a reality — and why both are worth celebrating.

The Big Picture

When Brightside’s closing was announced in 2009, it left the Sisters of Providence with what amounted to a 27-acre canvas that could be filled in any number of ways, said Sr. Popko.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

What made the most sense, she said, was to use the land and existing buildings, part of what’s known collectively as the Hillside at Providence, to help create a broad array of senior-living and senior-care facilities that would complement each other and meet recognized needs within the community.

This was a process that actually started with the conversion of the former Sisters of Providence Mother House into an independent-living and retirement community known as Providence Place in 1999, and it continued with the creation of Mary’s Meadow at Providence, a complex on the Providence Place campus comprised of 10-person houses designed to give elders a place to live in comfort equal to that of a private home. This was the first ‘small-home’ facility, as they have come to be called, in the Bay State.

The process of filling in the canvas at Brightside was accelerated with the creation of Mercy LIFE, a PACE program operated by Mercy Medical Center that provides tightly coordinated care and support designed to help seniors continue to live safely at home and avoid moving into a nursing home, she said.

The 25,000-square-foot facility, located within what was the main administration building for Brightside, includes everything from a medical clinic to a rehab gym to gathering places.

Meanwhile, the remainder of that 78,000-square-foot administration building has been devoted to reuses ranging from hospice care to a home for elder-focused programs administered by the Center for Human Development.

What emerged as a missing piece in the puzzle — and the next dream for the Sisters of Providence — was an affordable senior-living facility, one where the residents could take full advantage of the many programs and services at Mercy LIFE.

Talks for such a facility — and thus that ‘journey’ Sr. Popko described — began in 2011, she said, adding that it took the better of eight years (and work with four different mayors of West Springfield) to secure everything from the proper zoning to the needed funding.

And the latter part of the equation became more difficult when, in 2012, HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ceased funding for so-called ‘Section 202’ projects, those aimed at expanding the supply of affordable housing with supportive services for the elderly.

“So we had to take a step back and try to look for alternative sources of funding,” said Sr. Popko. “That included private sources and looking at federal grants and so forth.

“And they really weren’t forthcoming at the time,” she went on. “We visited many legislators and congressmen, and we brought in experts to come in and talk about some other concepts we were thinking about. We had people come out here, we visited state offices … we talked to so many people.”

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner addresses those assembled at the May 18 groundbreaking for Hillside Residence.

Like she said, progress was slow, but she and others were making acquaintances.

“Everybody was very encouraging — they kept saying, ‘go ahead, yes, do this,’” she recalled, adding that the words of encouragement were not backed up with checks.

But the sisters pressed on. They succeeded in getting the property rezoned, and eventually started making progress on funding, thanks in part to a timely visit to Mary’s Meadow by state Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner in April 2016.

“I said, ‘I just need minutes of your time,’” Sr. Popko recalled, adding that she used it to give the secretary a brief overview of the Hillside Residence project and hand her a concept paper of the proposal.

Bonner put the paper in her backpack, but eventually took it out, read it, and became sufficiently intrigued to call Sr. Popko and arrange a meeting to discuss the matter.

“We brainstormed about what could happen,” she recalled, “and also about how we could remove the silos between housing and health services and bring the two closer together.”

Eventually, the sisters were able to cobble funds together for a number of state and federal sources, including the Housing Stabilization Fund, the National Housing Trust Fund, the Housing Innovation Fund program, and the Mass. Rental Voucher Program. Also, private funding was provided by the Sisters of Providence and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and the West Springfield Community Preservation Committee also chipped in toward the price tag, currently pegged at $9.65 million.

The project will focus on serving individuals who are 62 and older, with incomes at 50% of the area median income (AMI) or lower, and whose healthcare needs and housing instability can be optimally addressed by the program, said Sr. Popko, adding that, because the project has secured commitment of state rental subsidies, Hillside Residence participants’ housing costs will be capped at 30% of their income.

And while meeting an immediate need for those twin services — housing and healthcare — the project will be adding to the base of research on the efficiency and effectiveness of the integration of PACE and affordable elder housing.

“This data will assist policy makers, housing developers and managers, and healthcare providers better understand the benefits and operational challenges of an integrated PACE housing model,” said Sr. Popko.

The Next Chapter

As she talked about Hillside Residence, Sr. Popko noted that there is still more of the former Brightside canvas to be filled in.

Indeed, there are several cottages on the property that are roughly 9,000 square feet in size and could be transformed into more housing for the elderly.

“We could have another 50 units on this site, but it will be even more difficult to attain funding for that,” she said, adding that those cottages comprise what would be phase 3 of the work at the Hillside at Providence and the proverbial ‘next dream.’

As for the one currently coming to fruition, she said, again, that St. Francis of Assisi was right.

“Our journey of eight years was probably essential for realizing this dream,” she said in conclusion. “Because we’ve brought together people from the state level, we’ve brought together funders, legislators, and people within the community of West Springfield, to a point where they all want this to happen. That’s what has brought us to this moment.”

That, and a firm determination never to let the dream die.

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

40 Under 40 Class of 2018

Scenes From the June 21 Event

40under40-logo2017aThe class of 2018 was celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on Thursday, June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

More than 700 people converged on the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on June 21 to welcome another 40 rising stars to one of the most prestigious clubs in the region — the one comprised of 40 Under Forty honorees. The annual gala was marked by perfect weather and high energy — very high energy. After some networking, the first order of business was announcing the winner of the coveted Continued Excellence Award, which this year went to Samalid Hogan, regional director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network and editor of Innovate413, and a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013. After that, it was time to honor the class of 2018. The event, captured in photo montages over the next several pages — was made possible by its sponsors, especially presenting sponsors Northwestern Mutual and PeoplesBank. Other sponsors this year were Development Associates, Health New England, Isenberg School of Management, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, the MP Group, Renew.Calm, and event partner YPS.


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

 

Presenting Sponsors

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Cover Story

Growth Industry

Matt Yee stands outside a room

Matt Yee stands outside a room equipped to simulate ‘summer.’ Access inside is extremely limited.

Green Thumb Industries’ marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke is not like most other businesses — or any other business, for that matter. There is no sign over the door, there was no elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony when it opened, and, with a few minor exceptions, no one will visit this place. It is like all other businesses, though, in keeping the focus on innovation and putting out a quality product.

The ‘flowering room,’ as it’s called, is climate-controlled to simulate early fall.

And it does that so well that when Matt Yee, president of the Massachusetts market for Green Thumb Industries (GTI), walks inside … he has flashbacks of a sort.

“This is perpetual September. I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

“This is perpetual September,” he told BusinessWest, referencing the temperature, the warmth of the sun, and a slight, cool breeze. “I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

Perpetual September? Welcome to GTI’s 45,000-square-foot marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke, a recently opened venture that is, in just about every way you can imagine, not like any other business in this region.

That much becomes abundantly clear after one short visit — only, you really shouldn’t expect to visit this place anytime soon. They don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat — not because they’re not friendly, but because they don’t want or need company.

For starters, there’s no signage on the property, at least for GTI (there are other tenants in this old paper mill), and for a reason. The company doesn’t exactly want to broadcast its location, although its address, 28 Appleton St., in the so-called Flats section of the city, is commonly known.

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.v

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.

Also, there is no front door, really. You enter through the back, and only after using a coded key to get through a tall gate and passing under several surveillance cameras. Once inside — again, if you get that far — you can’t go any further without checking in with security, leaving a copy of your driver’s license behind, getting a badge with a recorded number on it, and being escorted by an employee through some more locked doors.

But before going through — and unless you’re an employee, an elected official on business, some other sort of VIP, or a business writer on assignment, you probably won’t be going through — one must step onto a large mat of sorts covered by about an inch of water.

That’s because marijuana plants are somewhat fragile and susceptible to contamination that might be brought into their home on the soles of one’s shoes. For the same reason, no one gets further than the security desk without donning a white lab coat.

“Contamination of the system can cause millions of dollars in damage,” said Yee. “Even walking across the parking lot, people can pick up some powdery mildew — one of the biggest issues we have — or various aphids and bugs, and those can be issues as well.”

To help keep these plants — which give new meaning to the phrase ‘cash crop’ — safe, GTI has enlisted the help of what are known as “beneficials” — tiny mites that feast on many of the known enemies of marijuana plants. There are hundreds of them in small packets placed next to each plant.

“If there’s an invasion of aggressive bugs, they’ll eat those little guys,” Yee said of the mites. “It’s an interesting process — signing the invoice for 25,000 bugs was kind of interesting; they’re very, very, very small, but you can see them, although it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

These are just some of the steps (ladybugs and other beneficials are also deployed) being taken to ensure that the first crop, and all those to follow — the business plan calls for cultivating 120 pounds per month — will be as healthy and profitable as possible, said Yee, who came to this job and this industry thanks to a chance encounter with Pete Kadens, president of Chicago-based GTI at the restaurant Yee was managing (more on that later).

The flowering room he showed BusinessWest was empty, but by the time this magazine went to the printer, it was full of plants enjoying those cool fall breezes. From there, it’s only a few more steps until the fruit of the plant is processed into product, such as the small joints called ‘dog walkers’ — because you can start and finish one in about the time it takes to walk the dog — to be placed in tins already stored in the so-called trim room.

“It’s a great little product — everybody really loves these all across the nation,” he said, adding that, starting in several weeks, these dog walkers and other products will be shipped to GTI’s recently opened dispensary in Amherst and other locations across the state.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look inside GTI’s facility in Holyoke, and also inside a business that is new to Massachusetts and this region, but appears to have a future that might be as bright as the high-pressure sodium lights inside the flowering room.

Branch Office

Those are 1,000-watt units, and there are 88 of them in the room, Yee explained, adding quickly that it gets so bright in those rooms that employees wear protective sunglasses when inside.

That was one of many bits of information Yee passed along while serving as tour guide, one of many functions he’s taken on (although, now that growing has started, the volume of tours has subsided) while carrying out a role he probably couldn’t have imagined for himself a few years ago.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

But the picture changed quickly and profoundly after Kadens ventured into Johnny’s Tavern in South Hadley for dinner back in 2016. Yee, as noted, was general manager of that eatery (one of many owned and operated by his family), with the emphasis on was. Indeed, the two started talking, and the more Kadens talked about the cannabis industry and its potential in the Bay State, the more Yee wanted to be part of it.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, Yee joined GTI and has taken a lead role in opening the Holyoke facility and getting the first plants in the ground, if you will.

First, though, there was a lengthy learning curve for Yee, who said his education in cannabis and the business of cultivating and distributing marijuana took him to GTI facilities across the country, including those in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia.

“It was a really intense drop into the cannabis world,” he recalled, adding that GTI has facilities similar to the one in Holyoke operating in several states.

The operation on Appleton actually represents what Yee called the third iteration of a GTI growth facility. Lessons have been learned over the years, he said, in everything from production to automated systems to air handling, and they’ve all been applied to the Holyoke plant, which came to be after a lengthy review of options regarding what to build and where.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’ And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

Indeed, as Yee walked through the facility, he noted that, while it provided one key ingredient in the form of wide-open spaces and high ceilings, the old mill required quite a bit of expensive work to be retrofitted into a marijuana-cultivation facility.

But in the end, GTI determined that rehabbing such a facility is a better alternative to building new, even it is the more expensive alternative.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’” he recalled of the decision-making process. “And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

‘This’ was a retrofit in the middle of an urban setting, granted one that has embraced the cannabis industry with open arms.

Thus, security is extremely tight, he said, noting the facility is outfitted with cameras, motion detectors, glass-break sensors, and more.

“Visitation is very, very restricted,” he said, adding that the state has access to the facility’s camera systems and monitors what goes on. If someone watching sees someone in the building without a badge, inquiries are made.

Joint Venture

Yee’s ability to learn quickly about the industry he joined was in evidence on the tour, as he talked about marijuana and, more specifically, how it will be cultivated in this old mill.

“Marijuana is an annual,” said Yee, who walked while he talked. “Typically, the seeds will pop in the spring, it will grow through the summer, and then, come the shorter days of late summer and fall, its flowering process is triggered — and it’s those flowers that we’re harvesting; it’s the fruit of the plant.”

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

There are no seasons, per se, indoors, so cultivators like GTI have to replicate them, he went on, as he stopped at a room simulating early- to mid-summer. Through a large, thick window, Yee pointed to and talked about the already-tall plants inside.

Taking visitors in that room, even after they’ve put on a lab coat and stepped on a few of those water-covered mats, constitutes far more risk than the company is willing to take on, he said, adding that these plants are much too valuable to risk contamination.

The sign on the door gets this point across. “Do Not Enter — Limited Access Area,” it reads. “Access Limited to Authorized Personnel Only.”

“There are about 18 hours of light in this room,” said Yee, returning to the subject at hand and the process of simulating summer-like conditions. “We’re really just pushing the plants to get to a proper size, and then we stimulate them to get to their flowering stage.”

Actually, the ‘summer’ room is the second stop for the plants, which start off as cuttings from other plants, known as ‘mothers,’ and take up residency in the ‘cloning room.’

Their third stop will be in that room that simulates September, where it is a constant 72 degrees, Yee went on, adding that the first plants were due to arrive there in early June.

In that setting, a shorter day, with the lights on for maybe 12 hours, is created. That difference in the amount of light is what actually triggers the plant to move into its reproductive cycle, he explained.

“The male plants will develop pollinating elements, and the female plants develop the flowers,” he noted. “We only have females here; there are no males on site.”

The plants will double or triple in size in the flowering room, he went on, adding that, when they’re ready for harvesting, they’re removed from their pots, the iconic fan leaves are removed, and the flowers are put into a drying room, to be hung on what are known as ‘Z racks.’

Once the flowers reach a certain level of dryness, they can be processed, said Yee, adding that the product is weighed and then moved into the ‘trim room,’ a space where the flowers are “manicured” (Yee’s word) into their final, saleable form, such as those aforementioned dog walkers.

From beginning to end — from the nursery to that tin of dog walkers — the process covers about three months, and, starting with the second batch, there will be continuous yield at this facility, which will be needed to recover the significant investment (nearly $10 million) in this facility.

“We’ll be harvesting about half a room a day,” he projected, adding, again, that the overriding goal is to keep the crops safe — from invading insects and anything else — until they’re harvested.

Yield Signs

Getting back to those packets of beneficials, Yee said the mites are really small and quite hard to see, and he’s essentially taking the distributor’s word that there were 25,000 of them in that last order.

“If you crack one of the packets open and pour the contents in your hand, there’s sawdust or whatever it is … and if you look hard, you can spot these little critters rolling around.”

What’s somewhat easier to see is the vast potential for the cannabis industry in Massachusetts, although that picture is still coming into focus, on both the medicinal and recreational sides of the spectrum.

GTI intends to be well-positioned to capitalize on whatever market eventually develops, and the Holyoke facility will play a huge role in those efforts.

It is really unlike any business you’ve ever visited — only, you won’t know, because you probably won’t be visiting.

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

Law Sections

Not an Arbitrary Decision

John Greaney, who was forced to retire from the state Supreme Judicial Court as he turned 70, is definitely not the retiring type.

John Greaney, who was forced to retire from the state Supreme Judicial Court as he turned 70, is definitely not the retiring type.

John Greaney spent more than four decades behind various benches — everything from this region’s first Housing Court to the state Supreme Judicial Court. Desiring to take advantage of all that judicial experience, the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson, which Greaney joined in 2016, has created an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) group, which he will lead. As arbitration and mediation become ever-more popular methods for resolving disputes, the firm sees this group as a solid business venture.

Peter Barry says it’s a rare opportunity when a small (at least in comparison to outfits in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) Western Mass. law firm can add a former Massachusetts Supreme Court justice to its team.

Rarer still is an opportunity to add a jurist with the breadth and experience brought to the table by John Greaney, who retired from the SJC in 2008, capping nearly 35 years on various benches, starting with the Hampden County Housing Court (which he started) and time on the Superior Court and then the Appeals Court (more on that remarkable career later).

So it’s incumbent on a firm granted that opportunity to take full advantage of it, said Barry, managing partner with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, adding that the firm is doing just that by launching an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) group.

This is a move that not only capitalizes on Greaney’s deep reservoir of experience, but serves as a logical — and, yes, opportunistic — response to an ongoing trend within the law to settle matters not in the courtroom, but outside it, through mediation and arbitration.

These are routes that are generally quicker and less expensive than litigation, said Greaney, adding that ADR, as it’s known, has become increasingly popular in realms ranging from healthcare to construction; education to sports. Yes, some of Major League Baseball’s biggest rising stars have their salaries determined by arbitrators (after negotiation fails).

Greaney and Barry believe the firm could well become an attractive alternative (there’s that word again) amid a growing number of options for businesses, institutions, and sports leagues desiring to resolve matters through ADR, and for several reasons.

Chief among them is the expertise it offers — from not only Greaney, but also Barry, who has been involved in the mediation and arbitration of several complex matters, and the other lawyers at the firm.

But that expertise also comes at a sticker price well below what Boston and Harford firms would charge, an important consideration, said Barry.

“We’re looking to be selective and get appropriate cases from Northern Connecticut, Central Massachusetts, and the Boston area,” he said, noting that the firm already serves several clients in those markets, in part because of lower hourly rates.

Greaney, who will be teaming with Barry to handle many of the ADR matters that come to the firm, agreed, and said the timing and a host of factors were right for the launch of this venture.

“It’s a natural progression for this law firm to begin an ADR group,” he noted, adding that, apart from the Hampden County Bar Assoc., which has a panel of mediators and arbitrators, the only other mediators and arbitrators in this region are single-practice lawyers; Boston and Hartford have ADR groups, but this woud be the first in this region.

“There appears to be a need here for the right type of mediator and arbitrator,” he said, adding that the firm intends to fill that void.

Barry agreed.

“There are a lot of mediators and arbitrators out there,” he acknowledged. “But what we bring to the field is an expertise — primarily Judge Greaney — that is not available generally and is suitable for certain types of cases in particular.”

Peter Barry says ADR is an area of the law that is growing and will continue to grow as businesses and individuals seek alternatives to litigation.

Peter Barry says ADR is an area of the law that is growing and will continue to grow as businesses and individuals seek alternatives to litigation.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with Greaney and Barry about Bulkey Richardson’s new ADR group, and also about how arbitration and mediation are becoming increasingly popular — and effective — methods for solving complex legal disputes.

Making Their Case

For those not familiar with Greaney’s background (and many are), it takes more than a few column inches, as they say in the print media, to capture all he’s done during his career.

So we’ll hit the highlights. But even that will take a while.

The Westfield native began his law career with the Springfield-based firm Ely and King in 1964, and was appointed to the Hampden County Housing Court in 1974. That housing court was the second in the state, with the first being in Boston, and was unique in that it served an entire county.

“We decided to innovate considerably,” he recalled. “We designed our own court forms, we changed them to get rid of all the legal language — which cluttered all the forms in the other courts — so people could understand them, and we made them bilingual because we had a large Spanish-speaking population. And, to the dismay of a lot of other courts and judges, we set up a citizen’s advisory council — all to make the court more user-friendly.”

In 1976, Gov. Michael Dukakis appointed Greaney to the Superior Court. This was followed by an appointment to the Appeals Court as an associate justice in 1978. In 1984, he became chief justice of the Appeals Court.

Greaney was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1989 and participated in several landmark cases while serving on the SJC. That list includes Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, in which he wrote the concurrence to the opinion establishing Massachusetts as the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

“We share a common humanity and participate together in a social contract that is the foundation of our Commonwealth,” he wrote, creating language that has been used often by gay couples at their wedding ceremonies. “Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend … full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do.”

Other significant cases include a 1993 decision upholding the adoption of a child by same-sex cohabitants; a 1997 decision in the Benefit v. City of Cambridge case, affirming the unconstitutionality of a statute prohibiting panhandling; a 2003 decision in the First Justice case addressing, on separation of powers principles, the constitutionality of statutes governing court clerks and probation officers; and a 2007 decision in the Murphy v. Boston Herald case, affirming a judgment based on defamation.

Greaney, famous for taking a Peter Pan bus to and from Boston most days and using that time to get more work done, reached mandatory retirement age (70) in 2008, but he wasn’t, and still isn’t, the retiring type. He joined the faculty of Suffolk University Law School, served as director of the Macaronis Institute for Trial and Appellate Advocacy, and taught constitutional law, criminal law, and appellate practice.

But he became a victim of the financial pressures facing many law schools today, and as Suffolk Law downsized and Greaney’s position was essentially eliminated, the judge looked for something else to do in ‘retirement.’ And as he looked, he remembered that Francis ‘Sandy’ Dibble, a partner at Bulkley Richardson, had long ago told him that, when he was done teaching, he should consider joining the firm.

He did so, in 2016, and thus went back to where he started (well, sort of) — practicing law in downtown Springfield.

But the legal landscape has certainly changed since Greaney first started out as a lawyer more than a half-century ago. Indeed, ADR has become an increasingly popular alternative to the courtroom, one that resolves matters in months, or even weeks, rather than years.

A Strong Case for ADR

There are two basic forms of ADR, mediation and arbitration, and while they are similar in that they are alternatives to traditional litigation, there are important differences.

Mediation is generally conducted with a single mediator who does not judge the case but instead simply helps the parties facilitate discussion and, hopefully, a resolution to a problem. Arbitration, on the other hand, is more judicial in nature (that’s why Greaney said it appeals to him) and involves one or more arbitrators who take on the role of a judge, making decisions about evidence and giving written opinions, which can be binding or non-binding, with the results being final.

“The shift from actual courtroom litigation and the resolution of disputes prior to courtroom litigation has become a fairly active enterprise over the past 12 years or so,” Greaney explained. “When I was a trial judge, no such thing existed.

“But the phenomenon was created by business people and others,” he went on. “And the courts wanted to see a simpler, more efficiently way to deal with the problems they had.”Also, many contracts — for everything from construction projects to employment agreements to the one signed by Stormy Daniels when she received $130,000 from Presisdent Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Choen — have provisions noting that there if problems arise, they will be resolved by private arbitration and not litigation, Greaney told BusinessWest, adding that the Supreme Court, with a few exceptions, has consistently upheld the validity of these arbitration clauses.”

And as a result, and many law firms and individuals, including many retired judges, now specialize in mediation and/or arbitration (mostly the former), creating a somewhat competitive market for those services.

Bulkley Richardson looks to stand out within that playing field and capitalize on the experience of both Greaney and Barry as well as a host of other attorneys within the firm, including Dibble, Daniel Finnegan, Kevin Maynard, David Parke, Melinda Phelps, Jeffrey Poindexter, and John Pucci.

Barry said the firm is not interested in taking on cases that could easily be handled by one of the other mediators in the region, and is instead interested in more complex matters. And, again, they could come from within the 413, or well outside it given the expertise the firm can now bring to bear.

And because of how the pendulum has swung toward ADR, there should be ample opportunity to grow the practice.

“ADR is an area that’s growing and will continue to grow, and there will be a need for the types of services we’ll provide,” he explained. “A lof of big companies have decided, almost across the board as a policy, that they’re not going to litigate — they’re going to do everything possible to settle a case because of the expense and time and misdirection of resources involved in litigation.”

Final Arguments

Getting back to Major League Baseball and those high-profile salary disagreements going to arbitration … and Greaney, an ardent Red Sox fan, noted with a laugh that he would love to get such a matter sent to Bulkley Richardson.

“I love sports; that would be a delight to get something that,” he told BusinessWest. “I understand the statistics and all that goes into those decisions.”

While landing such a case might be a long shot (that’s might), it seems a much safer bet that Bulkley Richardson’s launch of an ADR group will be a winning proposition — for the firm and the region as well.

That’s because of the uniquely high level experience that can brought to the table, especially from a judge that that has made his mark in settings ranging from Hampden County Housing Court to the SJC.

The jury is in — ADR is now the preferred method of resolving a dispute — and Bulkley Richardson appears well-positioned to capitalize on that movement.

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

Education Sections

Art of the Matter

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Forty-two years ago, Enchanted Circle Theater was born as, true to its name, a touring theater company, but its interactions in school classrooms led to a dramatic evolution of its mission. Today, the nonprofit — which works not only in theater arts, but with a whole host of creative endeavors — partners with schools and other organizations on a concept known as arts integration, which uses creativity to make education more impactful — and more fun.

As Gabriela Micchia unfolded a series of multiplication tables in the form of brightly hand-colored diagrams, she explained how they’re much more than mere teaching tools.

“They use these almost like multiplication flash cards,” she said of the Morgan School fourth-graders who created them, pointing out how the numbers connect in straight lines to create a times table for the central digit. “I just made the dots, and they connected the dots, and we talked about how to put the triangles together.”

It’s undoubtedly a more entertaining way to learn math facts than simple recitation. But the real magic happened later, when the students visited another fourth-grade class and excitedly explained how to create the charts and use them to play a math game, said Micchia, a teaching artist with Enchanted Circle Theater in Holyoke. In short, the kids became the teachers.

“It goes back to the idea of the pride they have in the knowledge they gain,” Micchia said. “As much information as they retain from an adult showing them what to do, I think sometimes it’s easier for them to understand it from another student. They see each other doing it.”

That’s a typical story for Enchanted Circle Theater, a 42-year-old, Holyoke-based nonprofit that partners with schools and other organizations to educate through the creative arts.

“It’s an immersion into creative and critical thinking around math concepts,” said Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the long-time executive artistic director. “We hear students telling their friends what they’re working on, and they care about what they’ve created because it’s their creative process. It’s a sense of ownership, so seeing their work, being able to walk by it in the hallway and share it with others, there’s a pride in accomplishment, and a sense of joy.”

It’s a model applicable not just to math, but to all school subjects — with a focus at all times on English-language communication skills.

There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

For example, Hellweg said, “we do a lot of work in social studies, where our students will research and write and then perform an original play on the Trail of Tears or immigration or the Civil War or … well, I can give you 42 years worth of content.”

Science is a big focus as well, she added, citing a program for Holyoke fifth-graders called “Where Does Your Water Go?”

“They studied the water cycle, from falling down from the sky into a sewage system into our river right down the street,” she explained. “And then we turned it into an environmental advocacy program, where the students decided what they wanted people to stop and think about, and the impact that humans have on the environment and water.”

The kids then drew pictures — such as a fish swimming amid garbage, or a mallard whose feet are entangled in a plastic six-pack ring — and accompanying slogans, which were then turned into storm-drain art at eight downtown locations. “They created awareness of the water cycle and our role in keeping our world clean.”

Enchanted Circle has, from its beginning, been a working theater, but it has long embraced artistic endeavors of every kind — dance, music, visual arts, literature, even culinary arts — as teaching tools.

“We specialize in what’s called arts integration,” Hellweg said. “And there are three basic components to it. First, it’s about academic understanding — unpacking knowledge and learning concepts and deep critical thinking. The second channel is social-emotional learning and communication and collaboration and all those 21st-century learning skills that prepare us to be engaged in the world.”

The third element, quite simply, is artistry and creativity and examining the world through the filter of creative expression. “We work with people of all ages and all abilities, and it’s about inspiring and engaging and enhancing learning. It’s about connecting people to each other, people to information, people to the world around them, and people to themselves.”

Moment of Magic

Enchanted Circle was launched in 1976 as a touring theater company, but one that had a foothold in education from early on.

“We were traveling to schools, to museums, to fairs, to libraries, bringing folk tales from around the world to life,” Hellweg said. “I’ve been here for 38 of our 42 years, and I love the performing. There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

So the theater started developing workshops related to the performances, which evolved from one-off events to a regular partnership with schools — and an expansion of the organization’s work from drama to arts integration of all kinds.

“I felt that working in the classroom with teachers and students would really bring learning to life,” she told BusinessWest. “So we are still a theater company, and we create original plays on subjects with both cultural and historical relevance. But we really became a teaching institution.”

The theater has a presence in public schools throughout Holyoke, Amherst, Northampton, and parts of Springfield, but also in affordable-housing developments, preschools, universities, and other, perhaps surprising venues.

“We work throughout the community — in the foster-care world, in the mental-health field, with adjudicated youth in detention, in homeless shelters, in housing developments — bringing arts-integrated learning to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in the area,” Hellweg said.

Holyoke’s public schools represent Enchanted Circle’s longest-term and closest partner, as seen in offerings like the visual math programs at Morgan School and a dual-language arts-integration program with grades K-3 at Metcalf School every Friday, which touches on numerous academic subjects. “Whatever they’re working on, we are working on,” she said. “It’s hands-on, project-based, arts-integrated learning.”

And that hands-on element is critical, she noted. Typically, the ideas kids learn at school are stored in their visual memory. “But if we’re doing embodied math — where students become an isosceles triangle, or two people create a parallelogram with their arms — then it’s in your muscle memory. And it brings the joy back to learning because it’s fun, and the laughter in class is huge.”

Micchia agreed. “It becomes this whole-body experience, this holistic experience when we use the arts to create this visual math.”

And students who are having fun are more likely to want to learn, Hellweg added. “What we find is that attendance goes up because students want to be in school, and behavior issues go down because students are engaged.”

That applies even to young people who never considered themselves learners, she said, recalling a bittersweet conversation she had recently with a 15-year-old girl in juvenile detention.

“She said to us, ‘I never thought I would find joy in learning, and I’m loving learning with Enchanted Circle. I never would have dropped out of school had Enchanted Circle been in my classroom.’”

Now working on a poetry-into-performance program through the theater, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, the girl has a new outlook on why learning can — and should — be so much more than rote memorization. “That engagement, both the physical engagement and the experience of working collaboratively and creatively, changes the learning environment.”

Micchia went further than that, saying Enchanted Circle cultivates an emotionally safe learning space.

“I feel like it creates an acceptance — you’re accepted here. You don’t have to be the best at something,” she said, adding that there’s no one set way to teach a student. “One of the beautiful things is, it’s kind of organic and flexible, and you meet the needs of the child as opposed to the other way around. It’s not a formula.”

Teaching the Teachers

Students aren’t the only ones in need of that confidence, Hellweg noted. Teachers are, too — at least when it comes to the often-unfamiliar territory of arts integration in their classrooms.

“We do a tremendous amount of training of teachers, who don’t necessarily think of themselves as artists, and often feel that they’re not creative. But, within moments of one of our professional-development programs, they realize they’re very creative, and they have a tremendous aptitude for bringing the creative process into the classroom,” she told BusinessWest. “So we’ve been working with teachers on large and small ways to integrate the arts into the classroom, and any time we’re in residence in a classroom, we’re working in partnership with the teacher and students to create something together.”

One innovative initiative, the Honors Arts Academy in Holyoke, is an afterschool program at Donahue School that focuses on rigorous arts training for students. The goal is to secure the funding to place it at Holyoke High School and bring in seventh- and eighth-graders from three city middle schools to work with freshmen at the high school.

“The ninth-grade dropout rate is a big challenge,” Hellweg said, “so it’s good to get seventh- and eighth-graders feeling not just at home in the high school, but that it’s their school, and able to use the resources at the high school, like the television studio and the theater. Most middle schools don’t have those resources.”

In all Enchanted Circle’s programs, she added, students are moving beyond passive learning and generating their own ideas, helping to craft curriculum that means something to them.

While the theater has evolved slowly over the years, Hellweg is excited about a new initiative called the Institute for Arts Integration, which will be a regional hub for training teachers, social-service case workers, administrators, and teaching artists.

“There are a couple programs around the country that are doing this, and because we’ve been pioneers in the field of arts integration, we want to create our own institute,” she said. “Our goal is to make arts integration the norm in every classroom.”

It’s a goal that gets her out of bed each morning, doing a job she has loved for almost four decades.

“You don’t stay in a job that long unless it moves you,” she said. “Every single day, I see that ‘a-ha’ moment where students are able to do something they didn’t think they could. It’s palpable — teachers are seeing their students differently, students are seeing their teachers differently. Learning comes alive, and the creative process means it’s never-ending. That’s where my inspiration comes from.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Travel and Tourism

Hot Tips

Vacations are highlights of anyone’s calendar, and summertime is, admittedly, a perfect time to get away. But it’s also a great time to stay at home and enjoy the embarrassment of riches Western Mass. has to offer when it comes to arts and entertainment, cultural experiences, community gatherings, and encounters with nature. From music festivals and agricultural fairs to zoos and water activities — and much more — here is BusinessWest’s annual rundown of some of the region’s outdoor highlights. Have fun!

 

MUSIC, THEATER, AND DANCE

FreshGrass Festival
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA
www.freshgrass.com
Admission: $46-$119 for three-day pass; $350 for VIP ‘FreshPass’
Sept. 14-16: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the Fresh Grass festival is among the highlights, showcasing close to 50 bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Indigo Girls, Trampled by Turtles, Flogging Molly, Béla Fleck, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and many more.

Green River Festival
One College Dr., Greenfield, MA
www.greenriverfestival.com
Admission: Weekend, $129.99; Friday, $34.99; Saturday, $69.99; Sunday, $64.99
July 13-15: For one weekend every July, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and games and activities for families and children — all topped off with hot-air-balloon launches and Friday- and Saturday-evening ‘balloon glows.’ The music is continuous on three stages, with more than 35 bands slated to perform.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
358 George Carter Road, Becket, MA
www.jacobspillow.org
Admission: $25 and up
Through Aug. 26: Now in its 86th season, Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance, featuring more than 50 dance companies from the U.S. and around the world. Participants can take in scores of free performances, talks, and events; train at one of the nation’s most prestigious dance-training centers; and take part in community programs designed to educate and engage audiences of all ages. This year’s highlights include a season-opening performance by the Royal Danish Ballet, a visit from the ever-popular Pilobolus, and an artist-curated program by New York City Ballet’s Daniel Ulbricht.

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St., Great Barrington, MA
www.mahaiwe.org
Admission: Varies by event
Year-round: The beloved Mahaiwe Theatre dates back to 1905 — continuously running programs since its opening — and underwent an extensive, $9 million renovation starting in 2003. Today, the theater seats just under 700 and hosts year-round arts programming, including music, dance, theatre, opera, talks, and movie classics. It’s leaders say Mahaiwe is a staple and a resource: its live performances inspire tens of thousands of audience members each year, its embrace of modern technology supplements programming with live, high-definition satellite broadcasts from around the world, and its year-round schedule enhances the quality of life for those who reside in and visit the Berkshires.

Old Sturbridge Village Craft Beer & Roots Music Festival
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA
www.osv.org
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
July 21: OSV’s craft beer festival is back, with more brews, bands, and bites than ever before. Eighteen craft breweries from across New England will offer an opportunity to sample and purchase some of the region’s top beers, ciders, and ales, while barbecue pork, brats, burgers, and more will be available. At five indoor and outdoor stages, more than a dozen musical artists will present the sounds of Americana, bluegrass, country, folk, and roots music.

Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival
Court Square, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldjazzfest.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 11: The fifth annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival will offer a festive atmosphere featuring locally and internationally acclaimed musical artists. More than 10,000 people are expected to hear sounds from a mix of well-known artists and up-and-comers. Headliners announced so far include Maceo Parker, Pedrito Martinez Group, and Jon Cleary, with more announcements expected soon.

Tanglewood
297 West St., Lenox, MA
www.bso.org
Admission: Varies
Through Sept. 14: Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937, and like previous years, it has a broad, diverse slate of concerts in store for the 2018 season, including the Festival of Contemporary Music on July 26-30 and performances by the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras, ensembles of the Tanglewood Music Center, and internationally renowned guest artists from the worlds of classical, jazz, American songbook, Broadway, rock, pop, and dance.

Williamstown Theatre Festival
1000 Main St., Williamstown, MA
www.wtfestival.org
Admission: $60-$75
Through Aug. 19: Six decades ago, the leaders of Williams College’s drama department and news office conceived of an idea: using the campus’ theater for a summer performance program with a resident company. Since then, the festival has attracted a raft of notable guest performers, with this year’s names including Matthew Broderick (The Closet, June 26 to July 4) and Mary-Louise Parker (The Sound Inside, June 27 to July 8). The 2018 season’s seven productions will spotlight a range of both original productions and works by well-known playwrights.

HISTORY AND CULTURE

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
1000 Hall of Fame Ave., Springfield, MA
www.hoophall.com
Admission: $16-$24; free for children under 5
Year-round: The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is home to more than 300 inductees and more than 40,000 square feet of basketball history. Hundreds of interactive exhibits share the spotlight with skills challenges, live clinics, and shooting contests. A $44 million capital campaign is funding a two-phase renovation project, with the first phase, including new dome lighting, a main lobby overhaul, and significant renovation of the Hall’s theater, now complete.

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival
300 North Main St., Florence, MA
www.glasgowlands.org
Admission: $5-$16, free for children under 6
July 21: Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the largest Scottish festival in Massachusetts, held at Look Park, features Highland dancers, pipe bands, a pipe and drum competition, animals, spinners, weavers, harpists, Celtic music, athletic contests, activities for children, and the authentically dressed Historic Highlanders recreating everyday life in that society from the 14th through 18th centuries.

Glendi
22 St. George Road, Springfield, MA
www.stgeorgecath.org/glendi
Admission: Free
Sept. 7-9: Every year, St. George Cathedral offers thousands of visitors the best in traditional Greek foods, pastries, music, dancing, and old-fashioned Greek hospitality. In addition, the festival offers activities for children, tours of the historic St. George Cathedral and Byzantine Chapel, vendors from across the East Coast, icon workshops, movies in the Glendi Theatre, cooking demonstrations, and more.

Historic Deerfield
84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA
www.historic-deerfield.org
Admission: $5-$18; free for children under 6
Year-round: Historic Deerfield, founded in 1952, is an outdoor museum that interprets the history and culture of early New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Visitors can tour 12 carefully preserved antique houses dating from 1730 to 1850, and explore world-class collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts on display in the authentic period houses and in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, a state-of-the-art museum facility. Check out the website for a packed roster of summer activities, including educational lectures, cooking demonstrations, and exhibitions of period decoration, textiles, furniture, and art.

Pocumtuck Homelands Festival
Unity Park, 1st Street, Turners Falls, MA
www.nolumbekaproject.org
Admission: Free
Aug. 4: This fifth annual celebration of the parks, people, history, and culture of Turners Falls is a coordinated effort of the Nolumbeka Project and RiverCulture. The event features outstanding Native American crafts, food, and live music, as well as demonstrations of primitive skills. The Nolumbeka Project aims to preserve regional Native American history through educational programs, art, history, music, heritage seed preservation, and cultural events.

Shakerfest
1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield, MA
www.hancockshakervillage.org
Admission: $65-$70 for all access; individual activities priced separately
Aug. 18: Hancock Shaker Village will present a day of music, ballads, storytelling, and dance — a place where musicians blend with the audience, and there’s no backstage. From food to free tours of ancient medicinal herb gardens, this festival offers numerous experiences to enjoy with the music, including afternoon harmony and dance workshop; an evening performance in the barn that combines traditional song and dance with new compositions, movement, and projections inspired by the Shakers who built the barn; and a rollicking barn dance.

Stone Soul Festival
1780 Roosevelt Ave., Springfield, MA
www.stonesoulfestival.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 31 to Sept. 2: New England’s largest African-American festival offers family-oriented activities, entertainment, and cultural enrichment, and is a vehicle for minority-owned businesses to display their wares and crafts. Entertainment at Blunt Park includes gospel, jazz, R&B, and dance. Sunday’s free picnic includes ribs and chicken cooked by talented pitmasters, backed by live gospel music performed by local and regional choirs.

Yidstock
1021 West St., Amherst, MA
www.yiddishbookcenter.org/yidstock
Admission: Festival pass, $236; tickets may be purchased for individual events
July 12-15: Boasting an array of concerts, lectures, and workshops, Yidstock 2018: The Festival of New Yiddish Music brings the best in klezmer and new Yiddish music to the stage at the Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College. The seventh annual event offers an intriguing glimpse into Jewish roots, music, and culture.

FAIRS AND FESTS

Berkshires Arts Festival
380 State Road, Great Barrington, MA
www.berkshiresartsfestival.com
Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10
n July 6-8: Ski Butternut may be best-known for … well, skiing, of course. But the property also plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 17th year. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 200 artists and designers.

The Big E
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield, MA
www.easternstatesexposition.com
Admission: $10-$15; free for children under 5; 17-day pass $20-$40
Sept. 14-30: As regional fairs go, it’s still the big one, and there’s something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses or the parades, the local vendors and crafters or the live music. But it’s not the only agricultural fair on the block. The Westfield Fair kicks things off Aug. 18-20, followed by the Blandford Fair and the Three County Fair in Northampton Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield on Sept. 6-9, and the Belchertown Fair on Sept. 21-23, to name some of the larger gatherings.

Celebrate Holyoke
Downtown Holyoke, MA
www.celebrateholyokemass.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 24-26: Celebrate Holyoke is a three-day festival that made its return in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus, and typically draws more than 10,000 people downtown over the course of the weekend. This year’s festival will include live musical performances, food and beverages from local restaurants, activities for children, and goods from local artists and makers.

Downtown Get Down
Exchange Street, Chicopee, MA
www.chicopeegetdown.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 24-25: Now in its fourth year, Chicopee’s downtown block party, which typically draws about 15,000 people to the streets around City Hall, will feature tons of live music, as well as attractions for children, local food vendors, live art demonstrations, and the Get Down 5K Race.

Franklin County Beer Fest
66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont, MA
www.berkshireeast.com
Admission: $25 in advance, $30 at the door
July 21: Join fellow brew enthusiasts for an afternoon of food, music, and drink. The third annual Franklin County Beer Fest will be held at Berkshire East Mountain Resort and will feature beer from several local breweries, local ciders, and local mead and libations. Online ticket buyers will receive a souvenir glass.

Mattoon Street Arts Festival
Mattoon Street, Springfield, MA
www.mattoonfestival.org
Admission: Free
Sept. 8-9: Now in its 46th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination.

Monson Summerfest
Main Street, Monson, MA
www.monsonsummerfestinc.com
Admission: Free
July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community, The first Summerfest featured food, games, and fun activities. With the addition of a parade, along with booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event has evolved into an attraction drawing more than 10,000 people every year.

River Celebration
350 Linden St., Brattleboro, VT
www.ctriver.org/celebration
Admission: $15; free for children 12 and under
June 16: The Connecticut River Conservancy will host this family-friendly event at the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro. Morning excursions including a pontoon cruise on the Connecticut River, a paddling adventure in the Meadows, a freshwater mussel ecology workshop, a fly-casting workshop, and more. Enjoy live music by River Rhapsody and lunch by Tito’s Taqueria and Vermont Country Deli. Additional activities include an ice-cream-making workshop and several demonstrations open all day: a stream table, a soil-infiltration table, a water-quality testing station, and more. Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman will moderate the “Farm/River Roundtable: Doing Right by Our Rivers.”

Worthy Craft Brew Fest
201 Worthington St., Springfield, MA
www.theworthybrewfest.com
Admission: $45 in advance, $50 at the door
June 16: Smith’s Billiards and Theodores’ Booze, Blues & BBQ, both in the city’s entertainment district, will host more than 25 breweries, with music by Feel Good Drift and the Radiators Soul and Rhythm and Blues Revue, and food served up by Theodores’, Mercado Food Truck, and Nora Cupcake Co. The event will also feature a home-brew contest; Amherst Brewing will make the winner’s beer and serve it at next year’s Brew Fest.

MORE FUN UNDER THE SUN

Berkshire Botanical Garden
5 West Stockbridge Road, Stockbridge, MA
www.berkshirebotanical.org
Admission: $12-$15; free for children under 12
Through Oct. 8: If the flora indigenous to, or thriving in, the Berkshires of Western Mass. is your cup of tea, try 15 acres of stunning public gardens at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Originally established as the Berkshire Garden Center in 1934, today’s not-for-profit, educational organization is both functional and ornamental, with a mission to fulfill the community’s need for information, education, and inspiration concerning the art and science of gardening and the preservation of the environment. In addition to the garden’s collections, among the oldest in the U.S., visitors can enjoy workshops, special events, and guided tours.

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting
2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont, MA
www.crabapplewhitewater.com
Admission: Varies by activity
Through Oct. 8: Wanna get wet? Crab Apple is a third-generation, multi-state family business that operates locally on the Deerfield River in the northern Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. Its five separate rafting excursions range from mild to wild, full- or half-day runs, in rafts and inflatable kayaks. In short, Crab Apple offers something for everyone, from beginners to more experienced rafters.

Great New England Air & Space Show
57 Patriot Ave., Chicopee, MA
www.greatnewenglandairshow.org
Admission: Free; upgraded paid seating available
July 14-15: The 2018 Great New England Air & Space Show at Westover Air Reserve Base will feature popular attractions like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, who last performed in Chicopee in 2008. But note the subtle change to the event title — ‘Space Show.’ That’s because the Air Force operates the largest space program in the world, and the Great New England Air & Space Show is entering a new phase by incorporating elements of space and cyberspace capabilities of military and civilian contractors.

Lupa Zoo
62 Nash Hill Road, Ludlow, MA
www.lupazoo.org
Admission $10-$15; free for children under 2
Through Nov. 4: Lupa Zoo brings the African savannah to Western Mass. residents. The late Henry Lupa fulfilled his lifelong dream of creating a zoo right next to his Ludlow house, filling it with hundreds of animals and instilling a warm, familial atmosphere. Visitors to the 20-acre can be entertained by monkeys, feed giraffes on a custom-built tower, and marvel at the bright colors of tropical birds. In addition to offering animal shows and animal-feeding programs, the staff at Lupa Zoo promotes conservation and sustainability.

Post #351 Catfish Derby
50 Kolbe Dr., Holyoke, MA
www.post351catfishderby.com
Admission: $10 entry fee
July 20-22: The American Legion Post #351 touts its 38th annual Catfish Derby as the biggest catfish tournament in the Northeast. Fishing is open to the Connecticut River and all its tributaries. The derby headquarters and weigh-in station are located at Post #351. A total of $1,425 in prize money is being offered, with a first prize of $300. Three trophies are available in the junior division (age 14 and younger).

Six Flags New England
1623 Main St., Agawam, MA
www.sixflags.com/newengland
Admission: $57.99-$67.99; season passes $109.99
Through Oct. 28: Continuing an annual tradition of adding a new major attraction each spring, Six Flags New England recently unveiled Harley Quinn Spinsanity, an extreme pendulum ride that sends guests soaring 15 stories in the air at speeds up to 70 mph. Other recent additions include the Joker 4D Free Fly Coaster, the looping Fireball, and the 420-foot-tall New England Sky Screamer swings — in addition to a raft of other thrill rides. But fear not: the park has attractions for everyone along the stomach-queasiness spectrum, from the classic carousel and bumper cars to the giant wave pools and lazy river in the Hurricane Harbor water park, free with admission.

Springfield Dragon Boat Festival
121 West St., Springfield, MA
www.pvriverfront.org
Admission: Free
June 23: The sixth annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival returns to North Riverfront Park. Hosted by the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club, this family-friendly festival features the exciting sport of dragon-boat racing and will include music, performances, food, vendors, kids’ activities, and more. The festival is an ideal event for businesses and organizations looking for a new team-building opportunity, and provides financial support for the Riverfront Club as it grows and strengthens its presence in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley.

Valley Blue Sox
500 Beech St., Holyoke, MA
www.valleybluesox.com
Admission: $5-$7; season tickets $99
Through Aug. 1: Western Mass. residents don’t have to trek to Boston to catch quality baseball. The Valley Blue Sox, defending champions of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, play close to home at MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke. These Sox feature a roster of elite collegiate baseball players from around the country, including some who have already been drafted into the major leagues. Frequent promotional events like postgame fireworks and numerous giveaways help make every game at MacKenzie Stadium a fun, affordable event for the whole family.

 

 

 

Features

Along for the Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she knocked on the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling the Dice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same one Nguyen did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nguyen agreed.

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

In the Beginning…

Flashbacks.

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

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

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

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

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

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