Home 2007 February

It sounded like something Winston Churchill might have said of London at the height of the Blitz.

“Springfield will not fail on my watch,” Gov. Deval Patrick told an overflow crowd of more than 1,100 at the Affiliated Chambers’ annual ‘Outlook’ breakfast earlier this month. Such rhetoric might have been expected from a newly elected governor addressing an audience of business and civic leaders and knowing that he would soon be facing a horde of media wondering what he had in store for the City of Homes and the control board currently running it.

But it was good to hear, because despite all the talk of Springfield turning the corner, starting a rebound, or moving back up after hitting rock bottom (pick one), everyone knows there is still a lot of work that remains.

What we need to hear soon are some specifics about the governor’s intentions for Springfield — beyond the control board (which he says will stay in place for at least another year) and the back-up data center that everyone hopes will go in either the Technology Park at STCC or the former Technical High School. These are starting points in the discussion about how the state can be of more assistance in helping Springfield not just get back on its feet (we’re past the point of failing now, or should be) but be a catalyst for growth in the region.

This was another phrase (or words approximating it) that was thrown around at ‘Outlook’ by Patrick and others, including Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan. This is the ‘as Springfield goes, so goes the region’ argument, and while there is some easily accessible evidence to indicate that this is not entirely true, a healthier Springfield would do wonders for the region.

A quick look around would reveal that many area communities have actually done quite well while Springfield has suffered. Holyoke has crafted an intriguing turnaround; it’s very much a work in progress, but the city has added many new businesses and achieved significant progress in repairing a long-tarnished image. At the same time, Chicopee’s downtown is improving, Memorial Drive is exploding, and the Westover industrial parks continue to add jobs.

Meanwhile, Westfield has several large projects on the drawing board and, if it can ever get its stalled hotel/transit project off the ground, will see continued revitalization downtown. Northampton, Amherst, and most of the rest of Hampshire County is thriving, and communities to the east, such as Belchertown and Monson, are witnessing dramatic growth.

But while it might seem that the region’s other cities and towns can flourish even while Springfield teeters on the brink of financial collapse, those who know better will tell you otherwise. Indeed, ask any bank president in the region, and he or she will say (usually after announcing they’re opening four new branches in a 10-block area) that this is essentially a no-growth area — with too many banks.

To make it a growth area, Springfield needs to become a bigger jobs center, and it must become a place where people can not only work but also live. Everyone knows this, and those who wrote the Urban Land Institute study said as much. The question is, how do we get it done?

It starts with commitment from all parties, including the state. The Legislature has several other regions of the state to be concerned with — the South Coast area and Blackstone Valley are still struggling somewhat — but it could take steps to incentivize people to do business in Western Mass. And it could, as the Connecticut Legislature has done for Hartford, provide incentives for individuals to create more market rate housing projects downtown to attract more professionals to the city — and maybe convince many who have left for the suburbs to return.

The state can’t do the job by itself, however. There must be a commitment from area officials and financial institutions to help bring more businesses, more workers, and more commerce to the city.

Helping the city ‘not fail’ is the absolute minimum that the Patrick administration can do for Springfield. The goal — and the mission — is to make the city, and thus the region, thrive.


At the Super Bowl, the Boston Culinary Group provided hot dogs as well as honey-baked ham. Here in Springfield, the MassMutual Center touts the availability of ‘everything from burgers to Beef Wellington.’ Whatever the menu items, the message is clear: this is a company that has built a reputation for being able to handle any culinary task. And even as national notoriety grows, local facilities that work with the catering and concessions giant say it’s a big company that hasn’t forgotten the little guys.

The day before boarding a plane to the Super Bowl, which was catered from soup to nuts by the Boston Culinary Group, members of the company’s management team were at the Big E.

Testing recipes for cream puffs to be served in the Dolphin Stadium luxury boxes, they were not; the stop at the Eastern States Exposition was all business, as BCG staff checked in on their operations at the Better Living Center, for which they assumed food service duties just over a year ago.

Sue Lavoie, vice president of the Big E, said she was impressed with the visit, and the timing thereof. She said it was proof of a hands-on management style within BCG, which she appreciated, and also of the wide array of services this national company can handle without alienating smaller clients.

“We enjoy working with them, and they come and check their operations constantly,” she said. “It’s kind of this hidden secret. A lot of people don’t know about BCG, but they are huge, and we’ve been very impressed with what they can do.”

Indeed, the acronym ‘BCG’ was new to many as they scanned Super Bowl headlines earlier this month, several of which mentioned the catering company’s menu choices at the big game, including mozzarella salad topped with ciliegene, braised beef short ribs, Florida stone crab claws … and hot dogs. Lots and lots of hot dogs.

BCG, which changed its middle name from ‘Concessions’ to ‘Culinary’ in 2004, has been a growing presence in the national food and beverage scene ever since, though the change was more to affect outside perceptions than internal operations, according to staff at all levels. It has always handled hot dogs, but although few realized it until recently, it’s been handling lobster tails and Bananas Foster for nearly as long.

“I think it was a wonderful choice,” said Lavoie of the name change. “When you’re on my side of the business, ‘concessions’ means hamburgers and hot dogs, but they do a lot more than that and still maintain the concession end, which is exactly what we needed.”

And with jobs like the Super Bowl and the 2003 World Series between the Yankees and Marlins (who also play at BCG client Dolphin Stadium), the company seems to have succeeded in its plan to better translate its diverse model to a larger audience. But as Lavoie attested, this ‘well-kept secret’ in the culinary world has actually been a major player in Western Mass. for several years, with no signs of leaving for longer than the length of a football game.

‘Culinary’ is Their Middle Name

BCG was founded in 1961 in Cambridge by Everett, Mass. native Joe O’Donnell, who remains the company’s chairman. His objective was to serve the food and beverage needs of the recreation and leisure industry, including at convention centers, stadiums, museums, theaters, and ski resorts, among other venues, and today, that business model largely persists, though it has expanded considerably.

In 2004, said Dave Oberlander, regional vice president, the name change was happening concurrently with a greater marketing push to tout the various services and accomplishments of BCG, as well as a level of quality and high-end service he said had existed for many years.

“As much as everyone knew that the old name was well-respected, they knew that it was not reflective of what we do,” he said in a formal statement. “Has anything changed besides the name? Yes, I think we’ve set the bar even higher for the type of quality and service we expect from our employees, and they have risen to the challenge.

“It’s not like our managers showed up at their facilities the day after the name change went into effect and said, ‘all right, everyone start doing culinary stuff,’” added Oberlander. “The culinary knowledge was there long before it appeared on our shirts and business cards.”

BCG is the full-service provider of food and beverage services for more than 100 diverse properties throughout the country, including LaGuardia Airport, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, Boston’s Wang and Schubert theaters, and Miami Arena.

It works with a dozen college athletic facilities, including those at Yale, Harvard, Wake Forest, and Kansas State University, and 13 ski resorts, including Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont and Sugarloaf in Maine.

BCG also provides catering and food services for a number of seasonal events, among them King Richard’s Faire in Carver, Mass., and the Florida State Fair in Tampa, Fla., and, in addition, owns and operates 23 movie theatres across the nation, from art houses to multiplexes.

Finally, four fine-dining restaurants round out the list of responsibilities: the John Harvard’s Brewery chain, with locations in five states, all purchased by BCG in 2004; Porcini’s Mediterranean cuisine in Watertown, Mass., Tia’s Waterfront in Boston; and Figs, at La Guardia Airport.

But even with this growing national reach, BCG has maintained a strong presence locally, which augments the business of some of the region’s primary economic drivers.

The company provides both arena concessions and high-end banquet and catering services for the MassMutual Center in Springfield, for instance, as well as for the Eastern States Exposition and the Mullins Center at UMass. BCG has also handled food operations at Hancock’s Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort since 1970, and opened a John Harvard’s location there in 2005.

Hockey Pucks and Haute Cuisine

Diane Smolenski, general manager for BCG at the MassMutual Center, said the company has handled concessions at the site, formerly the Springfield Civic Center, since 2000. When a request for proposals was issued for catering and banquet service providers as the new MassMutual Center reached completion, she said BCG was able to secure the contract, thanks in large part to its ability to provide both high-end dining options and casual fare.

An executive chef was hired, as well as the necessary culinary team to serve the largest banquet facility in the area, when the change to operations was made, but Smolenski, who has worked with BCG in various locations for nine years, said many corporate practices and services have remained unchanged.

She said the expansion of services that contract necessitated is probably the best example of why the name change was a small shift that nevertheless speaks volumes about BCG’s capability.

“The word ‘concessions’ has a certain connotation,” she said, “and ‘culinary’ suggests a sort of cultural upscaling. People are so savvy these days in terms of food and food service, that the name change does make a big difference in terms of how we’re perceived.”

Although prior to the MassMutual Center’s opening the civic center had worked primarily with arena food — hot dogs, nachos, and the like — the transition to a wider array has been relatively seamless.

“Now, we handle everything from burgers to Beef Wellington,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about working with a company of this size — we have a fantastic network of good people if there is a change to a facility’s needs, or if we need help. ”

Smolenski added that the company’s size also allows for the same amount of attention to be paid to consumer trends at concessions and catering levels. There was a small coup for the center recently, for instance, when it became the first venue in the area to offer the popular frozen treat ‘Dippin’ Dots,’ and wrap sandwiches have been added to the arena’s list of snacks in response to customer demands for healthier food choices.

Conversely, banquet business has been brisk for the 200-person BCG staff at the center; it has catered events recently such as the Bright Nights Ball, a welcome-home celebration for troops returning from active duty, Rock 102’s 10th anniversary roast of morning show hosts Bax and O’Brien, and a 70th anniversary dinner for Big Y foods, which Smolenski said was one of her staff’s more formidable tasks: a seven-course, plated dinner for 1,500 people.

“Being able to offer a wide array of services allows us to be very community-oriented,” she said, noting that despite its size — BCG employs about 11,000 people nationwide — she rarely feels like part of a vast, corporate organization. “I’m part of a big company, but I don’t see that on a daily basis. What I see are the people we serve as a downtown facility, and the people we employ — 200 local people.”

From the Mountains, to the Prairies, to the Oceans

Still, with gigs like the Super Bowl, there’s no denying the growing size and scope of BCG.

“I hope it affects us in a positive way,” said Smolenski, who noted that on a local level, business has been good, and showing promise. “Of course, last year was great, because we were new. But this year is right on track, and clients are rebooking, which I think is the key.”

Jim Bronson, director of Food and Beverage at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort (through BCG), agreed that as BCG becomes a more recognized name nationally, it brings a little of that notoriety home to Western Mass. and the facilities that use BCG’s services.

Bronson has been with the company since 1982, when he began working at the now-defunct Mt. Tom ski area in Holyoke. Since then, he’s worked in several BCG locales across the country, and has seen firsthand the changes the company has made. But he said he doesn’t foresee the company becoming too big to serve its local clients.

“I’ve seen the company grow into something new and exciting,” he said, noting, however, that while BCG may have changed its name, its internal identity has remained intact.

“We changed our name because we offer so many different levels of service. We catered the Super Bowl, but everything else that leads up to that point, too.

“We’ve always had that capability,” he added. “Saying the name change was a sort of culture change suggests that we weren’t doing something right before, when really the performance is largely the same. The word ‘concessions’ was limiting, but the service was not.”

Indeed, Jiminy Peak itself is a sort of mini-representation of the breadth of services offered through BCG. Bronson oversees the food-service operation of three ski lodges, John Harvard’s Brewery, a gourmet coffee shop, a tavern, and several ongoing events, such as the resort’s children’s program and all corporate and social events held at the mountain.

“BCG is an entrepreneurial company that is big and getting bigger all the time, but with a small-company feel,” he said. “The owner’s name is Joe, and everyone knows that. What’s more, if I see Joe, I just say, ‘hi, Joe.’ None of our management members are untouchable; in fact, I think they’re inspiring.”

Just Desserts

As an outside vendor who utilizes BCG’s services, Lavoie said she too has noticed the company’s accessibility. She explained that prior to BCG taking over food operations at the Better Living Center, a family operation had handled concessions and catering for more than 40 years. As family dynamics changed, the company chose to opt out of the assignment — very quickly.

“They left in December, and we had a show booked for Jan. 1,” said Lavoie. “I was familiar with BCG because of all of the places they operate, and contacted them immediately. They were ready to take over within 24 hours, and since then, they’ve made a lot of upgrades.”

And when all is said and done, that attention to service is more impressive to Lavoie than the splash made by the Super Bowl menu. The Big E has plenty of cream puffs; what’s more important is a team that will get to the meat of the matter.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
Project for old Hall unveiled

The Shape of Things to Come

These artist’s renderings show three views of River’s Landing, an integrated fitness, health, and restaurant complex to be built at the site of the former Basketball Hall of Fame. The project was unveiled at a press conference late last month at the new Hall. The complex, conceived by private developers Peter J. Pappas of East Longmeadow and Michael A. Spagnoli of Hidden Hills, Calif., will include a 60,000-square-foot LA Fitness center, a California-based sports medicine business owned by Spagnoli; and the Hollywood Barn, a three-story restaurant and lounge. The complex is expected to open early next year.

Sections Supplements
Convention and Visitors Bureau Gives Its Web Site a Facelift
The Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Web site

The Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Web site has been overhauled to make it more user-friendly.

When administrators with the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a strategic planning initiative last spring, it engaged the services of a consultant versed in both tourism and the intricacies of agencies charged with promoting it.

When the discussions turned to the subject of marketing, the consultant, Bill Geist of Madison, Wis., gave the GSCVB consistently high marks for its various programs, with one significant exception — the Web site.

“He said it needed complete revamping,” said GSCVB Director Mary Kay Wydra, adding quickly that the remarks didn’t constitute a news flash. “We weren’t surprised … we knew we had some work to do.”

Since the site had been created in 1996, making Springfield’s one of the first of the state’s tourism bureaus to have a Web presence, it had been consistently updated, said Wydra, adding that, over the years, it had become an effective marketing vehicle for the GSCVB’s diverse membership, comprised of tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels, and meeting facilities. But it was less effective in meeting the needs of a bigger, more important constituency — potential visitors.
So the bureau’s staff went about rectifying that situation.

The end product, unveiled late last month at a presentation at the Basketball Hall of Fame, is a higher-octane www.valleyvisitor.com, one that is more informative and user-friendly, said Wydra. It features an improved search engine, better navigation, a streaming video highlighting the Pioneer Valley’s many attractions, a calendar of events in the region, and a large image of the region’s tourism brand: a logo and the words, ‘Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley — Arrive Curious, Leave Inspired.’

The net result is a site that makes it easier to discover the Valley and plan a trip to the region, said Wydra, or, to put it another way, “put heads in beds,” which is the stated mission of the bureau.

“The Web is a very important marketing tool when promoting a region,” she explained. “It will never replace a guide, because people want something in their hands. But it’s an entry point, and we need to make it friendly and informative.”

Site for Sore Eyes

As she demonstrated the new and improved Web site at last month’s kickoff, Wydra went to the search function on the home page and typed in Basketball.
More than two dozen listings came up, ranging from the Hall of Fame to the NCAA Elite Eight Men’s Division II Basketball Championship (coming up in March) to an item called ‘Pioneer Valley Fun Facts, Firsts, & Claims to Fame.’

“If you had put in Basketball 10 years ago, when we first created our site, there would have been two listings,” Wydra told BusinessWest, “the Hall of Fame and the old Tavern restaurant on the riverfront, which, smartly, used that word to help market itself.”

This bit of comparing and contrasting was designed to show how the Web site has been retooled to better serve the three recognized target groups for the PVCVB — leisure travelers, group tours, and meeting planners. In the case of basketball, all three constituencies can now use the Web site to do much more than learn about the Hall of Fame, its exhibits, and its hours of operation, although they can still do all that. Visitors can now plan a trip around that theme, or more easily discover what else there is to do in the region.

This is the broad goal of the bureau, said Wydra, noting that while the region certainly wants to encourage day-trippers, its real mission is to make the Valley a destination, one with enough attractions to keep a family, tour group, or professional organization having its annual meeting busy and entertained for several days.

Extended stays have been the thrust of recent marketing efforts, Wydra continued, and it was clear to Geist and GSCVB officials that the Web site needed an overhaul to play a key role in that strategy.

The bureau issued a request for proposals, and ultimately hired the New Hampshire-based firm The Glen Group to revamp the site, with the goal of making it a more effective tool for the region.

Key changes and additions include the two-minute video, which spotlights attractions, shopping centers, restaurants, hotels, and meeting facilities. There are also news items, such as Six Flags’ newest addition, Wiggles World, an area devoted to families with young children; the latest exhibits at the Springfield Museums, including the Dinosaurs and Ice Age Mammals program at the Science Museum this spring; and the upcoming men’s and women’s (Division III) collegiate basketball championships.

Another enhanced feature, funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, will highlight GSCVB member cultural and heritage attractions through text and photos, and enable the Web site visitor to send an electronic postcard from one of many area attractions.

Overall, the site was retooled to make it easier for visitors to learn about the region, become intrigued with its many offerings, and then plan a trip or meeting, said Wydra, adding that the site provides benefits for both members — who can post calendar items and news — and visitors.

“We lost sight of our customer with our old site,” she explained. “It was a great site if you were a member of the GSCVB, but that’s not really the audience we want to reach; we want to reach our three target groups. We were failing in that area, so we knew we needed to make changes.”

To ultimately succeed, however, the GSCVB knows it’s not enough to merely improve the site, she continued. It must also take steps to bring people to that page.
“We’re not taking an ‘if we build it, they will come’ attitude with this site,” she explained. “We’re allocating dollars to this project and stressing search engine optimization. We want to move up on those search engines; that’s how people are going to find this region.”

The work to update and improve the Web site will be ongoing, said Wydra, adding that sometime soon she would like to include floor plans for area meeting facilities and other bits of information designed to help people make informed decisions about the Valley and its facilities.

“I’m really big on making it easy for people,” she explained. “That was our real goal — to make this more user-friendly.”

The Valley’s Greatest Hits

The Web site revamping efforts represented a significant investment for the bureau, said Wydra, noting that the agency, an affiliate of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., spent more than $70,000 on the initiative.

But it will ultimately prove to be money well-spent, she continued, adding that the Web site plays many roles, from revenue generation through ads and calendar listings to branding — generating greater awareness of the region’s logo and tag line.

Still, its most important function is attracting visitors to the Valley, and Wydra believes the new features and improved navigation will give the region’s tourism sector what it really needs: staying power.

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


Outlook 2007

Gov. Deval Patrick addresses an audience of more than 1,100 business and civic leaders at the Affiliated Chambers’ annual ‘Outlook’ luncheon on Feb. 9 at Chez Josef in Agawam. He told those assembled that his administration is developing a comprehensive economic development and social renewal plan for Springfield. “I am here to tell you that Springfield will not fail on my watch,” he said. Addressing the press after his talk, Patrick said he plans to keep the Finance Control Board that has been administering Springfield for the past 2 1/2 years in place for at least another year. The ‘Outlook’ event also featured talks from Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal.

Circle of Humanitarians Award

Senior Officer for Disaster Preparedness and Relief for the American Red Cross, Judith A. Gillespie, recently presented the Circle of Humanitarians Award to Stuart H. Reese, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of MassMutual. The Circle of Humanitarians Award is presented to only the most philanthropic corporations to acknowledge their outstanding support of the American Red Cross, nationally, regionally, and locally. MassMutual was recognized for its leadership in supporting the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, as well as its support of the local Pioneer Valley Chapter during the recent, very busy fire season. From left are: Ronald A. Copes, vice president for Community Relations at MassMutual; Gillespie; Reese; Rick Lee, executive director of the American Red Cross Pioneer Valley Chapter; and Valerie Navy-Daniels, chief advancement office of the American Red Cross Massachusetts Bay Chapter.

MassMutual Donation

One hundred students at Springfield Technical Community College will be receiving free computers through a donation from MassMutual. The computers will be loaded with open source software by students at the college, and given free to other STCC students who are unable to purchase a computer on their own. Pictured in the MassMutual warehouse, among the pallets of donated computers are, left to right, STCC students Eric Reynolds, Lance Cargill, Rhea Scruggs, and Mark Musante; STCC President Ira Rubenzahl; MassMutual Vice President for Corporate Services John Wesolowski; and STCC instructor Stan Jamrog.


Commission to Study Gambling Avenues

BOSTON — In the coming weeks, a casino study commission will be created by Gov. Deval Patrick to study the feasibility of casinos in the state and whether that initiative would help boost the economy. The commission is expected to study the pros and cons of gambling and its social and economic effects over the course of six months. The commission has been charged with framing the issue for Patrick rather than making concrete recommendations. Commission membership will include individuals from across the state, as well as someone who understands Western Massachusetts’ interests. The state Legislature would need to approve any proposal that would legalize casinos.

AIM’s Confidence Index Declines in January

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index lost 2.6 points in January to 56.6, reflecting state employers’ weakening in sales and concerns about business conditions within the state. Despite closing 2006 with its best quarter since 2004, the index has now returned to the lackluster, moderately positive range where it spent most of 2005-2006, according to Raymond Torto, co-chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and principal, CBRE Torto Wheaton. Torto added that January’s reading was, however, 1.9 points above its level from last January. By type of employer, confidence was off sharply in January among manufacturers, and fractionally among other employers. Manufacturing sector respondents were largely responsible for the considerably lower ratings for current conditions, state business climate, and sales. On a regional basis, confidence levels held up better in Greater Boston than in the rest of the state, according to Torto. Large employers were more positive than smaller ones on most questions, with small employers on balance negative about conditions in the state. The monthly index is based on a survey of AIM member companies across the state, asking questions about current and prospective business conditions in the state and nation, as well as for their respective organizations.

National Jobless Rate Inches Up

WASHINGTON — Employers across the country slowed hiring in January, pushing the unemployment rate to a four-month high of 4.6%. In contracts, the Labor Department’s employment report suggests that the jobs market remains solid. The country saw an increase of 111,000 positions created in January, compared with 206,000 in December. Analysts predict that the economy’s growth as a whole will remain moderate which, in turn, means the unemployment rate may slowly climb during the year. Job eliminations in January were seen in automotive companies, factories, furniture makers and homebuilders, all attributed to the housing slump and the ailing auto industry. Job gains included hospitals and nursing homes, restaurants and bars, engineering and architectural firms and bookkeeping companies.

Kittredge Property Goes on the Market

SPRINGFIELD — The East Columbus Avenue building of Kittredge Equipment Co. is on the market for $1.75 million since its lease has expired and the company is seeking a more modern warehouse for its bustling business. The one-acre site includes a two-story building at the corner of East Columbus and Liberty streets, a one-story showroom, and a four-story office building at East Columbus Avenue and Emery Street. William H. Low Jr. of Samuel D. Plotkin and Associates is handling the property for George and Sid Kittredge, the former owners of the kitchen supply company.

Sotirion Given 9-Year Prison Term

SPRINGFIELD — Arthur Sotirion, 58, the former assistant director of the Springfield Housing Authority, was recently given a prison term of nine years and one month for his role in the decade-long corruption scheme of the agency. Following his 109 months in federal prison, Sotirion will also be subjected to three years of supervised release and will pay a $150,000 fine. Both Sotirion and Raymond B. Asselin, Sotirion’s boss at the authority for 30 years, pleaded guilty last summer and were facing up to 14 years in prison. Both men resigned under pressure in 2003 and pleaded guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion, and racketeering charges as part of a 12-defendant plea deal last summer.

MTF Forecast: Slowdown in Tax Revenues

BOSTON — The growth in state tax revenues will slow markedly in 2007 and 2008 — to less than half the rate of 2006, according to a recent forecast by the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation. The MTF estimates that fiscal 2007 tax revenues will total $19.27 billion, an increase of 4.2% over 2006 and $135 million higher than the forecast released by the Romney administration in October. In fiscal 2006, tax revenues increased by 8.2%. According to the foundation’s forecast, the growth in tax revenues will slow further — to 3.0% in fiscal 2008. Tax revenues will rise to $19.85 billion, an increase of only $580 million over 2007.

Sections Supplements
Officials Want to Make it Easier to Do Business in Amherst

Amherst boasts one of the healthier economies in Western Mass., yet, ironically, it has a reputation as a difficult place to set up shop, one with an oppressive and confusing maze of bureaucracy to navigate. But Town Manager Laurence Shaffer and other Amherst officials have begun to address that reputation — and make some concrete changes in the way business gets done.

Emily Wadham and her husband, Adrian D’Errico, opened a new restaurant, Tabella, in Amherst in October.

They had been shooting for July.

“One of the complications was the lack of some protocol that was understandable to new business owners in town,” Wadham told BusinessWest. “It was a runaround trying to figure out what we needed and when we needed it.”

Specifically, the couple was surprised by the volume of paperwork and permits involved in opening a restaurant, and confused by the lack of a clearly communicated strategy for the order in which to tackle them. “It’s so arbitrary,” she said, “that you can really shoot yourself in the foot if you don’t get everything lined up the right way.”

Their experience is far from an isolated one in a community that in many ways is thriving economically, yet still has a reputation as a sometimes-difficult place in which to do business. Town Manager Laurence Shaffer thinks something should be done about that.

“Generally, there has been a sense in the community that inspections are not logical, not efficient, and maybe not effective,” he said.

“I don’t know if any of that is true, but a much smarter philosopher than me said that perception is reality, and when our community says that this is indeed their perception, we need to respect that, and we need to look for opportunities to change our reality in order to change that perception.”

In this issue, Shaffer and others discussed with BusinessWest what steps the town is taking to alter its business-unfriendly reputation when it comes to the permitting process — and why that’s important even for a community with as much life as Amherst.

Grinding to a Halt

John Coull, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, did not hesitate when asked about the town’s red tape-laden image among current and prospective businesses.

“I do believe that’s the perception, and that perception is reality,” Coull said. “Therefore, I think businesses will be extremely interested in seeing an improved process and especially improved communication of that process, which is a good deal of the issue.”

The reasons, he continued, are uncomplicated, and have everything to do with the adage that ‘time is money.’

“When someone takes on a lease for an expensive piece of real estate and is ready to build out in preparation for opening, a day is a dollar,” Coull said. “If they’re forced to eat heavily into their operating budget just to endure the time these delays might make necessary, it sets them at a distinct disadvantage when they do open their doors.”

And that, in turn, creates often-unnecessary obstacles to do business in a town that in many ways has become an attractive place to set down roots.

“This is one of the most desirable places to live in Western Mass.,” Shaffer argued, noting the presence of three colleges — UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College — as well as an array of museums and cultural attractions.

In addition, “we have an intact downtown that’s bustling and thriving, and we have one of the best conservation programs in Western Mass., with thousands of acres under protection. The quality of life here is confirmed every day by the number of people who want to live here.”

Yet, Amherst has well-documented hindrances to new business. For one thing, the commercial tax rate in neighboring Hadley — $9.12 per $1,000 in assessed valuation — is much lower than Amherst’s rate of $15.68. Then there’s that perception of slow, confusing permitting — but Shaffer says relief is coming.

“We have a goal of trying to make the process more transparent, open, and streamlined,” he said, “so we’re looking at a variety of new approaches and philosophies to deal with inspections.”

Currently, he said, eight separate entities that conduct building inspections — covering building, plumbing, electrical, fire, and health codes, among others — do their work independently of all the others, with little communication between them.

“Each entity has its own very valid, very important regulations that require compliance,” Shaffer said. “We’re looking for a synchronized process that makes it more logical and streamlined so that each process relates to the others, rather than being independent.

“That isn’t to negate the very serious health and safety issues that the codes attempt to get at in each of these disciplines,” he added. “But there needs to be a recognition that each works with the others. We want a process that’s logical and transparent so that people involved in these things know where they stand in the process.”

Access Point

Part of the solution involves electronic infrastructure, said Shaffer — specifically, allowing all stakeholders in a project to access the information they need on their computers.

“We’ve acquired a new software system, similar to the software platforms used throughout the town, to create a single point of entry into the system, and a repository of information about individual building projects,” he said.

Allowing easier electronic access is part of an overall culture change aimed at dispelling the perception of closed-door dealings.

“We need to be more transparent to the public,” Shaffer said. “How does the public know what the status of a permit is? What kinds of outstanding items remain? The expectation on our part is that can be done electronically, so a lot of this comes down to the whole method of how we gather, compile, and share information.”

For their part, Wadham and D’Errico had no problem with any individual board — just the lack of communication between them.

“Of all the individual people we spoke with in the town offices, no one was unhelpful,” Wadham said. “But you had to do the hunting yourself to figure out how to make them work together. Everyone does their job, but there’s no simple protocol for new businesses to follow.”

She suggested establishing some kind of business welcoming committee to help guide newcomers through the process — or at the very least issue a checklist that explains the order in which each permit, meeting, and stack of paperwork should be tackled.

The town’s Select Board has been discussing various options with local developers and business owners, Shaffer said, creating a forum of sorts to air issues that have arisen during various inspection processes.

“The town collects a lot of information,” Shaffer said. “We need to allow each department to know the status of other inspections with some kind of local synchronization process.”

Coull said such an effort is long overdue.

“I have strong hopes for an improved system,” he said. “The communication among and between the departments is going to make a difference. And for the consumer, the business person, to know what their status is at any time, that too will make a difference.”

Bright Future

When Shaffer was appointed town manager in mid-2006 — hired away from Vernon, Conn., where he had served as town administrator since 1999 — he brought some 30 years of municipal management experience to the table.

With a degree in Public Administration in hand from the Rockefeller School at Albany State University in New York, Shaffer first tasted public service in a variety of capacities in Oneonta, N.Y., including city assessor and head of economic development.

After a decade in Oneonta, Shaffer spent another 10 years as assistant city manager in Keene, N.H., followed by three years in Durham, N.H. as town administrator, before moving on to Vernon. Amherst, however, projects a sort of vibrancy that both excites and challenges him like none of his past roles.

“We’re in the midst of developing a master plan for Amherst, and one of the areas of discussion is the whole aspect of economic development,” Shaffer said. “I’m hoping that, through this process, we bring some definition to this issue, and provide some directions for where the town government might go in terms of being a catalyst for economic development.”

That plan, however, is still being hammered together, Shaffer added, and for now he’s trying to strengthen the relationships the town already has with its major economic players, including the three colleges.

“We’ve begun to have conversations with them and begun to explore what’s possible in terms of collaborating on projects of mutual benefit,” he said.

In many ways, he explained, Amherst is in the uncommon position of being able to shape its own future, partly because many consider it such an attractive place to live. The question now remains: what model of growth best fits the town’s profile as a regional center of culture, education, and conservation?

“It all relates directly to economic development,” Shaffer said. “We have developers interested in putting in 55-and-older communities in town, folks who want to open up new restaurants — and I think the sky’s the limit for our downtown and its desirability as a destination point. I think the future is very bright for our community.”

And discarding a few layers of red tape, he suggested, can only make it brighter.

Sections Supplements
An Amherst Institution Gets a Facelift as Judie’s Expands Its Walls and Menu
Judie Terapulsky

Judie Terapulsky, inside the restaurant the bears her name, stands in front of an original painting by Donna Estabrooks.

Judie Terapulsky still waits tables at the restaurant that bears her name. She also continues to tend bar and help in the kitchen, as well as conceive new, intriguing dishes regularly.

And she’s not above peppering the guests.

Indeed, a visit to Judie’s might result in a little dusting from the grinder, courtesy of the restaurant’s self-described live wire. If it doesn’t, some regulars leave somewhat disappointed.

It’s one part of “having fun at work,” she says, a large piece of the Judie’s culture created by its owners — Terapulsky, David Williams, and Katie Eagan — that has led to some impressive benchmarks of success, including a smattering of celebrity guests over the years and a dash of accolades — among them Terapulsky’s distinction as the Mass. Restaurant Assoc. ‘Restaurateur of the Year’ not long ago.

She and Williams spoke with BusinessWest about this unique eatery’s history, as well as its plans for the future.

Williams said the idea for Judie’s started to germinate in 1977, while dining at the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst, where his preferred server — and the establishment’s part-time baker — was Terapulsky, a Bronx native and transplant to the Pioneer Valley.

“She was a personality who gave spectacular service,” said Williams, “and a budding young chef.”

He later found that Terapulsky also possessed a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics from Indiana University, in addition to a desire to advance her culinary career.

Williams, an architect, had completed a number of retail-centered design projects by the mid-’70s, and saw an opportunity to take a slightly different tack and test the waters of the restaurant business. He and Terapulsky joined forces (Eagan was recruited as operating manager in 1981 and was made partner in 2002), and set out to find a suitable location in Amherst. They found one at 51 North Pleasant St., where Judie’s still operates today.

Two months after finding the spot, the property was purchased and renovations begun, with Williams blueprinting a design that would reflect the unique dining experience Terapulsky hoped to create.

“We had certain basic ideas,” he said, “but the key was authenticity, and maintaining a strong image that included Judie as the frontrunner.”

Meanwhile, Terapulsky began work on both the menu and ambiance of the restaurant that would bear her name. She was looking for something new and different, but also user-friendly — a menu that would cater to tourists as well as the area’s professional set.

“I came in with my own menu concept of ‘light eating,’” she said. “It was a lunch-for-dinner, dinner-for-lunch kind of idea.”

Shortly thereafter, a visit to Boston’s Faneuil Hall and one innovative eatery in particular — the Proud Popover, no longer in operation — gave Terapulsky the inspiration for her signature menu item: football-sized popovers that are part of nearly everything they do at Judie’s, from salads to desserts.

“I made them the centerpiece of the menu,” she said, “and we crank out a zillion popovers. But there are many other signature items here, too.”

Good Eats

Terapulsky says she can name about 12 such menu standouts, including ‘Soupers’ (a soup, salad, and popover combo), and white chocolate bread pudding, as well as poppyseed dressing and apple butter, both of which are packaged and sold at the restaurant and through its Web site.

Those signature dishes serve as anchors among Judie’s ever-changing menu, appeasing regulars while creating a buzz that attracts new diners.

“Part of the concept here is the invention of new food, so our menu simply isn’t big enough for us,” said Terapulsky, adding that unlike a more conventional list of specials, the one at Judie’s fills a page or more each day, and accounts for one-third of the restaurant’s total sales.

She attributes the popularity of that inventive approach to Amherst’s constant influx of new diners, as well as the town’s overall acceptance of innovative cuisine.

“Amherst is a hub of activity, and this market was ready for us,” she said. “We have people traveling here from all over the world to visit the colleges regularly, and travelers are often looking for a cosmopolitan dining experience that is unique and different.”

In addition to interesting food choices, offered in small sizes and larger portions and created by Judie’s chef Michael Babb, Judie’s has also maintained that ambience its owners first set out to create — in ways both small and large.

Rooms with a View

The greenhouse dining area, added in 1983, for example, was designed to sit high enough up from the street that diners don’t feel stared at as they eat. Meanwhile, wine is offered in single and double sizes, to comfortably appease those who might like half a glass, or conversely a second glass without the hassle of reordering.

The restaurant’s walls are decorated with the vibrant, mixed-media paintings of artist Donna Estabrooks, which are also for sale, and a closer look often reveals suspicious sprinkles of pepper on the bar, the tables, or the hostess stand; Terapulsky remains infamous for positioning the grinder over plates, pockets, and under the occasional ball cap.

But the most notable change in the works to further enhance the Judie’s experience is the expansion now underway, which will double the restaurant’s size to about 6,000 square feet.

The expansion, which will increase bar seating and open up new dining and event space, raising seating capacity from 93 to 170, is slated for completion in May. It’s taking up the area once occupied by Barselotti’s tavern, already owned by Williams, Eagan, and Terapulsky, who purchased that landmark in 1983 to create a buffer between Judie’s and other potential eating establishments.

The project is expected to cost about $750,000, and Williams has again stepped to the plate to lead the design of the expansion, construction of which is being handled by Integrity Development and Construction of Amherst.

Terapulsky said the new bar will be “outrageous,” including contemporary metals, skylights, oversized mirrors, and a few select double-wide bar seats for couples. The neon sign that was a big part of Barselotti’s will be added, as well as a few tweaks to the menu, to offer more diversity in meal sizes and offerings.

Williams said he expects the restaurant to remain open during normal hours throughout construction, save for perhaps a few days to erect its new, updated kitchen.

Seasoned Staff

As for the long view, Williams said Judie’s shows no signs of slowing down despite its long history in Amherst. In fact, it is moving into a higher gear.

“We’re in our 30th year, and not many restaurants can say that,” he said.

Nor can they boast an owner who maintains a steady schedule as waitperson or bartender, and avoids alienating her customers at all costs, even as she crushes fresh pepper into their shirt pockets.

“Expect the unexpected, that’s our motto,” she says, “and we really mean it.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]


“Who’s Driving the Bus?”

Feb. 21: The Mass. Small Business Development Center Network will host this workshop geared toward anyone looking to bring an energetic attitude into the environment of a start-up or existing business. The class is planned from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Scibelli Enterprise Center, 1 Federal St., Springfield. Cost is $35. For more information, call (413) 737-6712.

Photographs in Courage

Feb. 27: Anja Niedringhaus, an Associated Press photographer and Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, will discuss her work in war torn places including Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Israel, Kuwait, Turkey and Iraq, as part of the Kaleidoscope series at Bay Path College in Longmeadow. Her lecture is planned at 7 p.m. in Blake Student Commons and is free. In 2005, she was a recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage Award, honoring women journalists who have shown extraordinary strength of character and integrity while reporting under dangerous or difficult circumstances. For more information, call (413) 565-1293 or visit www.baypath.edu.

LEAD Program

March 2, 9, 16, 23, 30: Western New England College in Springfield and the Employers Association of the Northeast are accepting registrations for its Leadership Enhancement and Development (LEAD) certificate program. The intensive, five-day program is designed for businesspeople looking to move up within their organization. Topics include leadership, communication, managing change, preparing financial statements and budgets, human resource management and strategic planning. Classes are planned on five consecutive Fridays in March from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call WNEC at (413) 782-1473, or online at www.wnec.edu/gsce/ps.

Research Tools Seminar
March 7: The Mass. Small Business Development Center Network will host this free workshop that will introduce entrepreneurs and small business owners to the print and electronic resources available at their local library. Participants will learn to search selected databases and publications, create search strategies, and locate information to start or grow a business. The class is planned from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Springfield City Library, 220 State St., Springfield. For more information, call (413) 737-6712.

Toyota Way

March 8: The UMass Family Business Center (FBC) will present a dinner forum based on the 14 principles of Toyota known as the “Toyota Way” from 5 to 8:30 p.m. at Chez Josef in Agawam. Twelve FBC members will describe Toyota’s business practices of manufacturing high-quality products and services. Presenters include: Michael Francouer, Joining Technologies; Jeff Glaze, Decorated Products; Larry Grenier, The Greniers Family of Photographers; Cindy Johnson, Fran Johnson’s Golf and Racquet Headquarters; Scott MacKenzie, MacKenzie Vaults; Jason Mark, Gravity Switch; Curio Nataloni, Kitchens by Curio; Jim Sagalyn, Holyoke Machine; Michael Schaefer, October Company; Joanne Goding, Moss Nutrition; David Rothenberg, Bottaro Skolnick Interiors, and Bill Dempsey, HL Dempsey Co. For more information or reservations, visit www.umass.edu/fambiz, or call Ira Bryck, FBC’s Continuing & Professional Education, at (413) 545-1537.

“Customer Loyalty Best Practices”

March 14: Do you know what your customers are saying about you? The Mass. Small Business Development Center Network will sponsor this workshop that features interesting feedback from area visitors presented by the Berkshire Visitors Bureau. In addition, a discussion of best practices for developing customer loyalty is planned. The class will be conducted from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, 75 North St., Suite 360, Pittsfield. The cost is $30. For more information, call (413) 737-6712.

“Guerrilla Marketing”

March 28: Inspired by a Guerrilla Marketing philosophy, this workshop by the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network will distill an MBA curriculum’s worth of marketing planning fundamentals to seven essential sentences. Also, learn the four key principles upon which all success rests. The session is planned from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the Scibelli Enterprise Center, 1 Federal St., Springfield. The cost is $30. For more information, call (413) 737-6712.

“Ordinary People Make a Difference”

March 28: Elenore Long, Ph.D., will discuss a five-point model that describes how ordinary people develop public voices that allow them to make the world a better place as part of the Kaleidoscope series at Bay Path College in Longmeadow. Her lecture is planned at 7 p.m. in Blake Student Commons and is free. Based upon analysis of not-for-profit community organizations, the model contributes to rhetoric studies and community informatics, and aids the growing commitment across college campuses to support its students, educators, and community as moral agents in their own lives. For more information, call (413) 565-1293 or visit www.baypath.edu.

Academic Conference

March 30: The second annual Academic Conference titled “Current Issues in Community Economic Development” is planned from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Western New England College in Springfield. The conference, hosted by the Law and Business Center for Advancing Entrepreneurship, will feature legal and business scholars, industry representatives, and policy makers exploring issues relating to entrepreneurship and community development. Panel topics will include “Set-Asides and Affirmative Action,” “Public-Private Partnerships,” “Urban Entrepreneurship,” and “Fringe Bankers.” Andrea Silbert, co-founder and former CEO of the Center for Women & Enterprise, will be the keynote speaker during the luncheon. For more information, call (413) 736-8462 or e-mail to [email protected].

Improving Your Web Site

April 4: This Mass. Small Business Development Center Network workshop will focus on designing or redesigning your web site to work better once you’ve got your customers there. The 9 a.m. to noon session is planned at the Scibelli Enterprise Center, 1 Federal St., Springfield. The cost is $35. For more information, call (413) 737-6712.

Creating Healthy Conversations

April 18: Guillermo Cuellar, Ed.D., MBA faculty member, and MBA students, discuss why it is so difficult to create and sustain genuine collaborative healthy conversations, even among people who have similar goals, as part of the Kaleidoscope series at Bay Path College in Longmeadow. The lecture is planned at 7 p.m. in Blake Student Commons and is free. The audience and facilitators will discuss opportunities to create a culture of collaboration, beginning with how mental models or strategies for behavior determine the process of our conversations. For more information, call (413) 565-1293 or visit www.baypath.edu.

Sections Supplements
Renovations — and Maybe a Water Park — Are on Tap for Holyoke’s Holidome
Phil Santopietro

Phil Santopietro stands in the Holidome, a somewhat underutilized facility in his hotel that could become a water park.

Phil Santopietro has overseen a number of hotel renovation projects during a 25-year career in the hospitality industry.

“I’ve handled several big ones and lots of little ones,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re exciting, but also stressful; when you finish, you want to strut like a peacock — you’re really proud. And each project is a little different.”

His latest assignment, at the Holiday Inn Holidome & Conference Center in Holyoke, could wind up being a lot different.

That’s because the ownership group that recently bought the 210-room hotel has commissioned a consulting group to gauge the feasibility of erecting a water park in that aforementioned Holidome, a high-ceilinged area near the pool that is used for several types of functions but is somewhat underutilized.

“They’re taking a good look at it,” Santopietro, the hotel’s general manager, said of the Cleveland-based consultants, who specialize in water parks. “There are a lot of things to consider, but we think it might be doable; there’s only one water park in the area (Six Flags), and it’s outdoors. This one would be open year-round.”

Whether the water park is a go or not, there will soon be a completely different look to the hotel located off exit 15 of I-91. Roughly $3 million in improvements and renovations are planned in a major overhaul that will touch every area of the facility, from the lobby to the lounge; from the hallways (one just off the lobby will be outfitted with a waterfall) to the guest rooms. Meanwhile, another restaurant, perhaps an Olive Garden, is being eyed for an existing pad site on the hotel’s grounds.

The extensive makeover was one of the conditions of the sale of the hotel last fall to Shield Hotels Management, said Santopietro, adding that the work is dictated by corporate standards and is long overdue. ‘Tired’ was the word he used to describe many facilities within the hotel, which was expanded in the late ’80s, but not really touched since. Thus, it has been left looking and feeling dated by a series of new hotels built in recent years.

And at a time when both business and leisure travelers have become more demanding when it comes to accommodations, the hotel needed a facelift to remain competitive.

“Today’s business and leisure travelers like the ‘new touch,’” he said, noting that a hotel like the Holidome loses some business every time a new hotel opens, and several have been added in this market over the past 15 years. “People have lots of choices, and too many of the hotels in this market are brand new; we needed a facelift.”

Diving Right In

Santopietro was serving as general manager of another Shield Hotels Management facility in Wethersfield, Conn., the Best Western Camelot Inn, when he was summoned to Holyoke last October by the group’s owner, Ken Patel, to oversee the transition of the hotel from one owner to the next.

He came knowing that such temporary assignments often become permanent in nature, and that this one would likely take that course.

“There were a number of discussions about it, and there were some conditions I was looking for,” said Santopietro, adding that he was excited by the prospect of still another major renovation project. “Ken looked at me at one point and said, ‘you’re hooked — let’s get this done.’ He was right.”

Since the day he first saw it, Santopietro has been impressed with the Holidome’s size — 210 rooms make it one of the larger hotels in Western Mass. — and location; it is roughly halfway between the region’s biggest tourism centers, Springfield and Northampton, and borders the interstate. Meanwhile, some of its facilities, including the pool (said to be the largest in the region, hotel-wise), have made the Holidome popular with families and sports teams on several levels.

But most other facilities are quite dated, said Santopietro, noting that he has spent considerable time since arriving on blueprinting and scheduling what will be a serious makeover designed to enable the hotel to compete with recently built facilities, including the Homewood Suites by Hilton, located on the other side of I-91.

He’s also taken what he says will be the first of many steps to make the hotel more active within the community. Over the holidays, the Holidome hosted four needy Holyoke families for a night, putting presents under Christmas trees provided to each one. The hotel is also becoming a better, more visible neighbor to the elementary school across Whiting Farms Road, offering pool parties, starting in March, to the classes that post the best monthly attendance marks.

But it is the physical overhaul of the Holidome that is getting most of Santopietro’s attention. As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the hotel, he stopped in nearly every area and outlined changes and improvements. He started in the lobby, where he said the wooden front desk/reception area would be redone in granite, giving it a more modern look, while the sitting area will be redecorated. “We want to make an impression,” he said.

The lounge, called Samuels, will also be revamped, with a new entrance created just off the front desk. There will also be a series of interior renovations, including creation of a meeting room at the back of the lounge.

Moving toward an area with larger meeting facilities, Santopietro pointed to a spot in the wide hallway currently occupied by a water fountain. It is there where the waterfall, a signature of the Shield Hotels Management group, will be placed. All the hallways, guest rooms, the 400-seat ballroom, and lounge area on the concierge level will be done over in an effort to blend greater convenience with amenities and a more modern look, he said, adding that three of the guest rooms will be outfitted with Jacuzzis.

As he walked through the Holidome area, Santopietro said there are many factors to consider with the water park plans, from logistical issues to regional demographics to return on investment. The consulting group will weigh all of that and have a recommendation probably by spring. If it offers a thumbs-up, the matter would then go before city boards for needed approvals.

It could be a long road to final OKs, and a large investment for the Shield Hotels group, he said, but a water park would be a unique addition, one that would give the Holidome a new revenue stream, greater visibility, and a great hook for luring families visiting the Pioneer Valley.

“Water parks are becoming big around the country,” he said. “That’s why we’re looking hard at this. It could be a great opportunity.”

Overall, Santopietro expects the renovation project (with the water park or without it) to enable the hotel to raise its rates slightly while also improving on an occupancy rate that generally hovers around 60%, and is much less in the winter, especially this one.

Making Waves

While excited about the upcoming renovations, Santopietro said this may well be his last big hotel facelift project.

“They take a lot out of you,” he said, adding quickly that he and his staff have certainly been energized by the pending overhaul and its prospects for helping the Holidome grow market share. “I like to say to hotel owners that they may own the facilities, but I live them, and that’s why this is so exciting.”

Whether the water park becomes part of this makeover remains to be seen. In either case, the rejuvenated hotel will certainly be making a splash.

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