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A. Crane Construction Will Build Just About Anything
Andrew (left) and A.J. Crane

Andrew (left) and A.J. Crane say cultivating relationships, not aggressive bidding or advertising, has fueled the success of their family business.

Andrew Crane says a “goofy motto” has long been at the heart of what A. Crane Construction is all about.

“Picnic tables or bridges,” he said, “it doesn’t matter.”

Not that he’d plaster the slogan on a sign or anything. The storefront in the Aldenville section of Chicopee that serves as headquarters of this 20-year-old construction business is modest, even unobtrusive, yet is still a step up in noticeability from the first 17-plus years when the company eschewed advertising and even a number in the phone book.

Yet, Crane said, he has developed a loyal clientele based on the values of quality work, attentive service, and a willingness to do any type, and any size, of commercial or residential job.

“I’ve always been in the construction business,” said Crane. “My grandfather was in it, and I liked it as a kid. My first real job was working for Daniel O’Connell for a couple of years, and from there I went on to homebuilding for a company that built post-and-beam homes.” After that, he spent eight years in the family business before striking out on his own in 1988.

For the better part of two decades, A. Crane Construction conducted business out of a house in Chicopee, doing jobs only for people Crane knew personally. A couple of years ago, he moved to Grattan Street and published a phone number — but his philosophy of attracting work remains unchanged.

“About 95% of our clients are people we know. It has always been that way,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve built big stores, and we’ve hung mirrors. My first job was Chapdelaine’s Furniture in South Hadley, and then that summer I built a million-dollar house. But if someone calls me up for a storm door, I’ll do that, too.”

At a time when larger builders are being hard-hit by dramatic economic shifts, it’s a philosophy that has kept his team working and profits coming in.

Hammering Home a Point

After starting out alone, Crane gradually hired a team; he employs 10 people today, and the same people-we-know philosophy has taken root there, as well. “The first guy I ever hired is still here,” he said. “The second guy, too.”

Intentionally staying small, Crane has resisted the temptation to expand too quickly, which he claims would compromise quality. That has proven to be a solid business strategy at a time when increased competition in the building industry (see related story, page 29) has pushed bids downward and made it difficult for conventional firms to make a profit. Crane says he has avoided the low-bid trap by cultivating a reputation for personal service and quality control — and a stable of loyal clients — allowing him to earn more realistic profits without cutting corners.

“People who go for the lowest price these days can’t be interested in doing it for a long time,” he said. “For one thing, they can’t do it for that price if they’re properly insured; that costs a certain amount of money.

“I’d say the biggest single challenge in construction is to keep yourself legitimate,” he continued, arguing that the reputation of all builders is compromised by small, renegade contractors who act unscrupulously, whether by using shoddy materials or failing to have adequate insurance. “Anyone can put up a storm door, but I’ll bet you could go out and find six or seven out of 10 doing this business who are not properly insured. That hurts the general public, because if someone ever gets hurt or damage occurs, they won’t be able to recoup it. If everyone competing at some level works to get people a better product at less risk, they’ll be doing a good thing for the industry.”

Crane is especially proud of his term as president of the Home Builders Assoc. of Mass. (HBAM), which ended last June. He had served the organization at the local and state levels before that time, all the while learning about issues that affect his industry. The role saw him warning lawmakers of the influence that homebuilding wields over the economy locally and nationally; “nobody believed it, but now the bubble has burst, and the economy is suffering as a result,” he said. And it also led him to push for a law requiring anyone with a construction supervisor’s license to complete continuing education courses on a regular basis; after stalling last year, that bill has made progress on Beacon Hill.

“They need continuing education to learn safety rules, how to write contracts, all the things that protect the consumer. We almost got it done last year and had to wait for another session, but I’m glad it’s happening,” he said, noting that his time with the HBAM has given him an appreciation for aspects of the business that affect customers.

“I encourage every business to belong to a trade association, whether it’s for teachers, doctors, dentists, whatever,” Crane told BusinessWest. “It kind of validates your existence in business, I think, and keeps you current on all the legislative issues. It really does set you apart from the average, everyday guy.”

Steady On

Among his customers over the years, Crane has built stores and revamped displays for Manny’s TV and Appliance, as well as building facilities for Jerry’s Music Shop in South Hadley, Ondrick Natural Earth in Chicopee, Class Grass Garden Center in Granby, a 60,000-square-foot commercial complex on Cape Cod, and the Home Builders Assoc. itself. Through the years, he has seen a roughly 50-50 split between homebuilding and commercial work.

“Every year, there’s a decent-sized commercial job and a bunch of home remodeling. I have 10 remodeling jobs now, and another appliance store to build,” he said. “I like the challenge of doing both; it helps to manage the cash flow. And, again, it’s mainly people we know, not Joe Shmoe calling me to build a tire shop. And our customers keep coming back.”

“We seldom competitively bid,” said Crane’s son, A.J., who joined the company four years ago. “Plans are sent to the office all the time, but we’re often too busy.”

A.J. Crane was intrigued enough by his family’s business to earn a Civil Engineering degree to teach him everything from reading blueprints to managing large-scale construction projects. “I like working in an industry where there’s something to show at the end of the day. I’m lucky in that I have a lot of say in the day-to-day operations. My dad wishes he was in the field more,” he said, as his father nodded and smiled.

“We’ve got the second generation coming in,” Andrew Crane said, “but I’ve always operated this place like a family business. The guys who work here have become close. They’re not just employees; we care about their welfare, and we want them to work safe and happy.”

With that in mind, Crane likes the pace of growth so far, keeping the company small enough so that it doesn’t get stretched too thin. That reflects that oft-mentioned focus on individual attention, and the way it breeds loyalty. “We want to make decisions for customers like it’s our own stuff,” he said.

Besides, Crane still wants enough time in the day to shepherd schoolchildren through a crosswalk outside his office. “The cars fly by here,” he said. “When the kids get out of school, if I see them, we run out and cross them. I don’t mind. It’s a good thing.”

And just a few more people he’s getting to know.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

Comcast Brings a New Bundle to the Small-business Marketplace

Doug Guthrie

Doug Guthrie says Comcast Small Business Voice addresses the direct needs of what has been an underserved constituency.

Doug Guthrie says small businesses have traditionally been overlooked, or “underserved,” as he put it, when it comes to voice services, which is ironic, because they dominate the economic scene in most regions, including the Pioneer Valley.

“Small businesses have pretty much had to take a back seat to bigger companies when it comes to phone service,” said Guthrie, vice president of Comcast’s so-called Connecticut-West Region, which encompasses the Valley. He told BusinessWest that his company is hard at work on remedying that situation with a new product rolled out earlier this year. It’s called Comcast Business Class Voice, part of a ‘Business Class’ bundle of voice, data, and television services that is similar in many ways to the company’s Triple Play package of those three services for residential customers. The new offering should help businesses operate more effectively, said Guthrie, while also saving money in the process through monthly charges as low as $99.

Business Class Voice includes unlimited local and long-distance calling for one price, as well as features ranging from auto attendant to a host of caller ID services to three-way calling. The new product brings a number of benefits to small businesses, said Guthrie, starting with choice, meaning a viable option to the phone company. But it also offers an effective bundle, those aforementioned cost savings, and the ability for smaller companies (those with under 20 employees) to operate as much larger entities.

“The idea behind this product is to make the small-business guy feel like the big-business guy,” he explained, adding that this concept is captured in Comcast’s materials to market the new product, which feature the tag line, ‘turn your office on.’ “We’re providing power to the business people.”

Meanwhile, for Comcast, which does business in 39 states, Business Class Voice and the new bundle provide what Guthrie and others expect will be an effective vehicle for capturing a larger share of the small business market within its substantial footprint, which is pegged at $12 billion to $15 billion nationally, by most estimates.

The immediate mission, or challenge, for the company, Guthrie acknowledged, is to convince would-be customers that a cable giant that has also gained a solid footing in the business of providing reliable, high-speed Internet service can also provide a quality voice service.

He believes the product quality will speak for itself, literally and figuratively, and that Comcast can build on the track record it has compiled within the residential market.

“We have a considerable amount of experience providing voice services to residential customers,” he explained. “We want to take that know-how to the small-business market, where there is enormous potential for growth.”

Voice of Reason

Anthony Facchini says his law firm was quick to be among the first to sign on for Business Class Voice and the Comcast business bundle.

Springfield-based Facchini & Facchini has three lawyers (brothers Anthony, Richard, and Michael), 10 employees, and seven phone lines, said Fracchini, and saw in the Comcast package an opportunity to pay one bill instead of two or three, reduce some expanses, and gain better quality, reliability, and service response.

Three months after signing on, he’s reporting all of the above.

“Our bill used to be about $450 a month, and we’ve probably cut that in half,” he said. “Our Internet is much faster and more reliable, and the phone service is good; there have been just a few hiccups with it, but the service has been tremendous.”

Facchini & Facchini represents the kind of customer, and the type of response, that Comcast had in mind when it spent the bulk of 2007 putting together its new product — one that would give it the opportunity to compete against AT&T’s package of phone and Internet service that runs for $90 per month, or closer to $130 when mobile phone service is added to the mix — while also building the sales and service team that would bring it to the market.

Such small businesses have traditionally had few, if any, choices besides AT&T for land-line services, said Guthrie, adding that he believes Comcast’s business bundle will compete effectively, garner significant market share — perhaps 20% — and meet or exceed the company’s goal to create a $2.5 billion business by 2011.

He bases that estimate on the quality of the package, the quantity of specific features and services, and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity the Comcast bundle provides for businesses in terms of cost savings and greater efficiency.

These are the selling points being stressed by a sales force amassed by Ed Gallagher, a 20-year veteran of the communications industry recruited by Comcast to become vice president and general manager of Buisness Services for Comcast’s NorthCentral Division, which encompasses all of New England. Gallagher was given the task of putting what Guthrie called the “building blocks” in place for the new business venture.

Assignments included the hiring and training of a sales force for all regions, he said, adding that, by the end of 2007, Comcast had more than 2,000 employees across the country dedicated to the small- and medium-sized business efforts, including about 750 business salespeople and 1,400 technicians.

They’ve been busy of late, said Guthrie, adding that early response to the bundle has been positive, and no doubt helped by a softened economy that has business owners thinking about costs and how to reduce them.

“All companies are looking to trim their expenses and become more efficient,” he explained. “This is the right product at the right time.”

And Western Mass. has the demographics to be the right place, he continued, adding that small businesses dominate the landscape in the 35 area communities to which the company provides service. These include Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, Northampton, Greenfield, Longmeadow, and West Springfield.

“We see Western Mass. as a strong growth area for us,” he explained, adding that many businesspeople in the area are familiar with Comcast through their residential cable, Internet service, or even cable advertising. Such relationships, coupled with the new voice product and the “business Triple Play,” as he called it, all add up to opportunities to take market share.

Guthrie told BusinessWest that, while Business Class Voice is a new product, and it is part of a new small-business bundle, the company is bringing a significant amount of experience to this initiative that makes ‘new’ a bit of a misnomer.

For starters, Comcast is the fourth-largest residential phone provider in the nation, so it brings voice experience to the table, he explained, and it has been offering its Triple Play — cable, Internet, and voice — to residential customers for years.

“Comcast already delivers reliable voice service to thousands of business owners where they live,” said Gallagher. “These business owners now have the option of choosing Comcast for all their communications needs where they work.”

Answering the Call

“Comcast means business.”

That’s another of the marketing slogans being used for the rollout of the new small-business bundle, and it has meaning on a number of levels, said Guthrie.

First, it speaks to the company’s focus on bringing better services to small-business owners. But it also reflects the company’s aggressive plans to take market share in an increasingly popular small-business sector, which, as he said, offers vast potential.

Whether Comcast will meet its ambitious goals remains to be seen, but the company’s intentions are as clear as a bell — or a strong dial tone.v

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

Investing in the Nation’s Future

In Mumbai last November, I addressed a conference of India’s leading CEOs. Their interests had a single focus: what makes the American system of higher education such a powerful force for U.S. prosperity?

It was not an idle question, as India builds economic momentum. From 12,000 miles away, they understood something easy to lose sight of here at home — that this country’s distinctively open, varied, and competitive system of higher education has served both as an escalator of individual social mobility and as an engine of our country’s economic growth. Can we afford not to continue to invest in the future of our people and our nation?

Since the GI Bill dramatically expanded America’s middle class by educating half of all returning World War II veterans, the personal value of higher education has been broadly accepted. It opens your mind, and it also expands your prospects. According to the U.S. Census, over the past 20 years, households with an increase in real income were overwhelmingly headed by someone with at least a college degree.

Perhaps less obvious but equally important is the vital role of higher education in our economy as a source of both innovators and innovations. Indeed, MIT economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Solow estimates that more than half of America’s economic growth since World War II can be traced to technological innovation — much of it spawned through government-funded, university-based research.

Backed by extensive federal investment, America’s research universities have invented many of the disciplines and technologies that define modern life, from computer science to biological engineering, from the laser to the foundations of the Internet. If you doubt the value of federal research funding, consider this: over the past 30 years, NIH investments of $4 per American per year in cardiovascular research have led to a 63% decrease in mortality from heart disease. Yet, the Administration’s proposed NIH budget for FY 2009 represents a drop of 13% from 2003 in actual, inflation-adjusted health-science spending.

Our local economy benefits profoundly from the dense concentration of colleges and universities. The region’s eight research universities employ nearly 50,000 people and provide a total regional economic impact, including everything from payroll and construction costs to student spending, of more than $7 billion. What’s more, when research universities attract federal research dollars, those funds not only support individual labs, but buoy the state’s economy as well.

Our system of higher education has, indeed, earned the envy of the world, as I heard in India. According to a Shanghai Jiao Tung University survey, the U.S. still boasts 17 of the world’s top 20 research universities. Not surprisingly, other countries are actively copying our success. China is making dramatic investments in its universities, with the aim of vaulting five of them into the top-20 ranking by 2020.

In this global context, it is particularly important to understand America’s higher-education system as a strength to be nurtured. We must continue to improve the quality of higher education and to increase accessibility. America needs a highly educated workforce. The nation also needs the fruits of university innovation. At this moment of exceptional promise in fields from energy technology to cancer research, the federal commitment to basic research is faltering. Funding for research in the physical sciences has been flat for decades. Overall federal research investment has fallen from 2% of GDP in the mid-1960s to eight-tenths of 1% today.

The result of such shortsighted research investment policies can be measured in opportunities lost: opportunities to attract the best young researchers, to accelerate the clock of discovery, and to conquer humanity’s most urgent challenges. It is time to ask just how much it would it be worth investing, as a nation, to invent our way to a better, cleaner, healthier future.-

Susan Hockfield is president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.

40 Under 40 Class of 2008
Age 38: CFO and Executive Producer, Brain Powered Concepts

Three guys with day jobs — and a vision. That’s Paul Yacovone and his business partners, Eric Stevens and Fred Pokryzwa, who hope to eventually dedicate all their time to a sweet idea. That idea is the Berries, a children’s TV show they formulated after launching their production company, Brain Powered Concepts.

To date, they’ve created a pilot DVD, Friends Like You and Me, containing three episodes of high-spirited, musical, educational fun starring Straw, Blue, and Raz — and their cousin, Cran — played by four young, Boston-area actresses. The three partners are long-time friends, all with children, and Brain Powered Concepts originated with a conversation one evening about the TV shows their kids watched, and what was missing.

“We were looking for something different, something that has really positive role models, and I think we hit that,” Yacovone said. “We didn’t think there was a live-action show based in the U.S. quite like this. We love music, our kids love music, and we wanted a show that’s interested in music.” So, as it turns out, did others.

In 2006, Friends Like You and Me, for which Yacovone and company hired some well-regarded producers, screenwriters and composers, won the Seal of Approval from the National Parenting Center — the same accolate afforded to much higher-profile ventures, such as High School Musical and the recent film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. “Kids love the show,” said Yacovone said, “and we want to get to national television and really begin to grow this brand. Word of mouth has been great for us, but now we want to take it to the level of a franchise.”

Working in marketing for Lego had already exposed Yacovone to the world of children’s entertainment, but he gets his best feedback at home, from his two daughters, ages 5 and 8. “They give me a feel for what they’re into, and that was very helpful when we made the show,” he said.

He tries to help them right back, volunteering with their Brownie troop; his wife, Tammie, is a troop leader. “It’s tough to juggle everything in life, so you have to prioritize,” he said. “You can’t be all things to everybody — but everyone can offer something.” And that’s some berry good advice.

Joseph Bednar

Sections Supplements
Builders Extend Their Reach to Keep Their Crews Working
David Fontaine

David Fontaine says that his company, like most in the region, has had to travel farther to find work.

Over the past few years, commercial builders in the Pioneer Valley have lamented an influx of competition from contractors outside Western Mass. With opportunities sluggish and margins tight, many Springfield-area builders are returning the favor, seeking work — and often finding it — in Eastern Mass. and Connecticut. That geographic flexibility is critical, some say, at a time when a slowing economy and soaring costs for fuel, materials, and insurance have made it much more difficult to stay profitable.

Go east.

That seems to be the mantra for commercial builders based in Western Mass., many of whom say the Valley isn’t as fertile with projects as it was a few years ago.

“We do about 75% of our work outside the Springfield-area market,” said David Fontaine, president of Fontaine Brothers in Springfield. “The Western Mass. marketplace has really been struggling over the last few years, and we’re far healthier in Eastern Mass. I really don’t know why; it’s not for lack of trying, but rather a lack of opportunity. Most of our employees travel at least 50 to 75 miles a day each way, which is a far cry from where we were six or eight years ago.”

Dennis Fitzpatrick, president of Daniel O’Connell Sons in Holyoke, which is heavily involved in both commercial construction and civil projects, agreed. “Local projects have become a smaller and smaller piece of our business,” he said. “The private, commercial side is at a standstill here. We do a lot of work for colleges and universities, and that segment of the market — well, I wouldn’t say it’s robust, but it continues to expand in Western Mass., and that’s good for us.

“It certainly helps when the economy slows down to have diverse geographic coverage and to have a diversity of project types as well,” Fitzpatrick added. “It gives us some stability and more places to find work. This used to be a very local business, but it’s not anymore.”

Surveying the Landscape

Private-sector spending on construction suffers during economic downturns as well, but for different reasons than those that afflict the public purse.

“In the private real-estate market,” Fitzpatrick said, “companies aren’t going to make an investment when they don’t have faith in the future of the economy, and there’s not as much confidence as there was two years ago. On the civil side, things like wastewater treatment, business is slow as well, as the state and municipal governments are struggling with tax revenues.”

While public-work opportunities “muddle along,” said Fitzpatrick, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration has given contractors some hope by proposing more funds for projects aimed at boosting that part of the economy, but construction companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to those prospects.

“The public sector is very quiet and has been for more than two years,” Fontaine noted. “In terms of general construction, the public-school market is basically nonexistent. Some public-safety facilities and libraries come around, but they’re very few and far between, especially in this general geographic area.”

Fontaine would like to express more optimism in the public sector, but said waiting can be frustrating. “I’ve read about a lot of studies, but I don’t know of many municipalities around here that are able to turn a study into a project,” he said.

As a result, his company is busy tackling fire stations in Eastern Mass., a bus-storage facility in Gardner, school projects in Waltham and Lawrence, and work for the Worcester Housing Authority. Yes, he’s also picked up jobs at Berkshire School in Sheffield, Western New England College in Springfield, and Williston Northampton School, but far more often, he’s sending crews east of the Valley.

O’Connell is also tackling some major work in Western Mass. — in addition to the new federal courthouse in downtown Springfield, the company has taken on multiple projects at Northfield Mount Hermon School and UMass and performed civil work for the Springfield Water and Sewer Authority, just to name a few recent jobs — but it has also followed leads to the east as well as south to New Haven.

Tim Pelletier, president of Raymond R. Houle Construction in Ludlow, reported “a fair amount of activity” heading into the spring. “We haven’t felt any shock waves yet.”

Elaborating, he said Houle is coming off a good 2007, and the outlook seems bright, especially given the general economic uncertainty in the air. “I can’t say we have work banked up until the end of the year, but it’s enough to keep us busy for awhile.”

Fueling Costs

But even for builders with plenty on their plates, other factors are putting on the squeeze — none more so than the cost of fuel, which has risen to rarely seen levels over the past month.

“The economy as a whole is a real problem for contracting, and fuel is the biggest one,” said Joseph Gallo, president of Bruschi Bros. in Ludlow. “What happens is, you bid for a job that might last two or three years. You can try to anticipate how costs like fuel and insurance could go up, but beyond that, there’s no way of getting reimbursed.

“It’s difficult to compensate for the way fuel has gone up and eaten into profits — if I make a profit,” he added. “If I bid too high in anticipation of those costs, I won’t get the job. So these economic factors are really creating havoc, especially in Western Mass.”

Andrew Crane, president of A. Crane Construction in Chicopee, said his company’s five trucks use $300 in gasoline per day, and he is taking pains to coordinate trips, something he never had to worry about before. “It really eats into the bottom line,” he said. “I can’t give my guys anything extra, which they probably deserve, because of costs that continue to go up, most of them related to petroleum.”

Those rising costs pose a harsh irony for builders who have found increasing opportunities outside the Valley. But flexibility, they insist, is a must in this business.

“The last two years have been difficult for us,” Fontaine said. “We’ve diversified with smaller-volume projects, smaller jobs, and just decided to travel.

“The private-sector market, metal buildings, small shopping centers, have been busy, but I don’t even see as much of that going up right now,” he continued. “In the surrounding 30 or 40 communities within 60 miles of here, it doesn’t seem like anyone is doing much of anything.

However, he added, “there are still a few very large projects out there. Smith College has some good-sized things going on.” In fact, the higher-education construction niche continues to flourish, with major projects underway or recently completed at several area institutions. Fontaine said private colleges in particular don’t follow general economic trends when deciding to expand.

“On the contrary, I think the private sector waits and tries to capitalize on a down economy, to get more bang for their buck,” he explained. “The money is there; they just pick and choose when they’ll spend it.”

The state of the residential-building market, which has been hit by a slowdown nationally, generally doesn’t directly affect commercial construction, but there are some crossover concerns. Take Bruschi Bros., a general contractor that specializes in site work, utilities, and road work, particularly in subdivisions.

“The way the economy is going, it could be a tough year,” said Gallo. “They plan these subdivisions years ahead of time; they want to plan ahead and get architects and funding in place. But if they can’t sell the homes, that cuts into their equity and cash flow,” meaning a possible slowdown in new projects to bid on.

Bottom-line Concerns

As Western Mass. has become a more competitive region for construction, one marked by slimmer profit margins, Crane said his company has been able to weather some of the difficulty by cultivating repeat business (see story, page 33). Other successful builders say the same.

“A lot of it depends on whether you have a customer base or you’re just scanning the Dodge report for work,” said Pelletier. “Fortunately, we have that customer base.”

It seems that, particularly on the cusp of a recession, the most important thing for a contractor to build might be relationships — both within the Pioneer Valley and, increasingly, many miles away from it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
Green Environmental Consulting Works with Business Owners to Clear the Air
Adam Lesko

Adam Lesko, owner of Green Environmental Consulting, says indoor air quality is one of the most pressing issues associated with ‘green building.’

In the biz, it’s called IAQ — indoor air quality, an often-misunderstood aspect of environmental health and compliance.

According to Adam Lesko, owner of Green Environmental Consulting (GEC) in Florence, there are a number of things that can negatively impact the air we breathe, ranging from mold to asbestos to poorly functioning ventilators.

Sometimes, these issues lead to less-than-healthy working conditions or so-called ‘sick buildings,’ and Lesko has made it his life’s work to serve as the doctor on call.

“We specialize in indoor air quality,” he said, noting that the specialty includes remediation techniques, but also the creation of management systems for buildings, their environmental systems, and record-keeping mechanisms. “All of this relates back to the company name. It’s ‘green’ for a reason — air quality is one of the biggest concerns when it comes to environmental compliance.”

But environmental services like those offered by GEC haven’t always been in high demand.

“In the past, people have not looked at air quality as a place where long-term, positive changes could be made,” said Lesko. “Instead, most people have seen the regulations they must adhere to and the standards they’ve had to meet, and not been able to see past the upfront costs.”

Air Apparent

Today, though, environmental-compliance assistance is in increasing demand. This is due in part to a greater awareness and response to IAQ and other health- and environment-related concerns on both state and federal levels; the EPA, for example, has launched a comprehensive Indoor Environments Program, which includes guidelines for schools and school districts, homes, offices, and institutional buildings.

Trends in the marketplace, including a greater focus on ‘green building’ and LEED-certified construction, are also helping to put IAQ in the spotlight. This, in turn, is making air quality more relevant to a number of other industries, including commercial real-estate markets, construction, health care, and even education.

More than ever, said Lesko, property managers and owners are realizing a need to test for poor air quality and other environmental hazards, and to remediate any issues and avoid complaints from tenants, clients, or employees. Failure to do so can result in costly renovations and cleanup efforts, low productivity, and, in many cases, some bad publicity that can hurt a building’s reputation.

“Anyone who operates any kind of large facility has to think about this,” he said, “and we have plenty of residential work, too. The trends really follow the media — if 20/20 runs a piece on the dangers of mold, we get a lot of calls from homeowners. If there’s a news story about the mountain of paperwork facilities are required to keep, and how it keeps growing, then we hear from colleges, hospitals, schools … you name it.”

Breathing Life into the Industry

In essence, GEC provides options to clients designed to create healthier indoor working conditions. Lesko said most often, this translates into remediating issues with asbestos and mold (“mold is big this time of year,” he said, “and asbestos is always big”), upgrading air-quality infrastructure and plans (including ventilation and filtration systems), and monitoring and testing areas in which employees work to ensure they meet health and safety compliance standards.

“We do a lot of work with industrial hygiene and database solutions to manage environmental information,” he explained, noting that, until very recently, facilities charged with maintaining environmental information often did so with a pad and pencil, storing records in a conventional file cabinet.

“New technology eliminates the need for a physical paper trail and data entry, and increases access to information, thus limiting the potential for a hazardous situation,” he continued. “The most commonly cited issue associated with environmental regulations is the need for thorough, accessible records.”

Lesko had worked in this field for several years, the bulk of those with a national firm specializing in the field of environmental consulting, before striking out on his own in 2006.

“I saw an opportunity to produce a quality product, and I liked the idea of owning a local company,” he said. “I felt I could do a better job — when people work with us, they’re going to be working with a senior-level employee every time.”

His timing was good, too. Now working with a diverse set of clients in the midst of the biggest environmental boom in American history, Lesko leads a team of four, assessing needs, providing solutions, and usually offering some educational components, too.

“There have been a number of studies, for instance, looking at how air quality affects employee productivity,” he said. “In turn, there’s a lot of research on how we can improve efficiency by improving the indoor environment. Healthy employees are happy employees, and we’re definitely seeing more people take that idea seriously.”

Building Excitement

As green trends continue to explode, he said opportunities for GEC are multiplying as well. Lesko has already carved a niche for himself working with a wide range of clients, addressing their clean-air needs. He’s worked with a number of educational institutions across Western Mass. and Northern Conn., including Tantasqua regional schools, Granby public schools, Belchertown public schools, and Smith College. He also works with a number of real-estate brokers and developers offering assessment services on various properties in preparation for a sale, as well as general contractors, offering compliance assurance and monitoring programs.

“Developers are often surprised by the amount of remediation they’re required to perform on a property, and too often, that surprise comes after a property has been purchased,” said Lesko. “Our stance is that pre-investigation, so to speak, is a really smart way to do business because it offers more information on a property that can be used when negotiating prices or taking out a loan.

“There is a real and true cost associated with environmental compliance that too few people acknowledge,” he added.

There’s a residential arm of GEC too, through which Lesko and his team provide testing and inspection services to identify issues caused by lead paint, mold, asbestos, and other hazards.

But in addition, Lesko said he’s gradually moving GEC further into the green-building sector — an area in which environmental compliance is becoming more intrinsic than ever.

“We’re doing more already on the green-building side of things,” he said, “especially in the field of testing. I definitely hope this in an area in which we can grow, because there are opportunities to work with all types of buildings — both old and new.”

GEC is working toward attaining its own LEED certification to better serve the building sector. Lesko said part of the decision to move in this direction was, as in the past, driven by media attention to green-construction practices, but it’s a trend he says will likely forge significant positive changes in the industry.

“This is a good industry to join,” he explained. “Some might say that there’s been almost too much marketing of green building and green products, but a lot of good has already come out of that aggressive stance, and it’s always healthy for us to think about these things.”

Lesko says that this trendy thought process notwithstanding, green building, with environmental compliance as one of its key tenets, is leading to the design of more efficient buildings.

“It’s great because it’s driving people to think more proactively, to think about things more intelligently, and to design tighter buildings.”

The going-green phenomenon is shedding some light on Lesko’s work, which revolves around finding invisible foes and bringing others out of the shadows. “Now, more people are seeing that changes to air quality can create benefits,” he said.

And for him and his clients, that is indeed a breath of fresh air.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
Springfield’s Newest Destination Boosts City’s Curb Appeal
Peter Pappas

Peter Pappas stands in front of the nearly completed River’s Landing, as landscaping and exterior lighting are completed.

For years, what is now known as the old Basketball Hall of Fame stood vacant, and early in 2006, people were only cautiously optimistic about a big change to the property proposed by two developers who trace their roots back to Springfield. Two years later, the landscaping is being finished and the signage is going up at River’s Landing, and gradually, the city’s riverfront is becoming the place to be, both night and day

In the main kitchen at Onyx Fusion Bar and Restaurant, executive chef Isaac Bancaco is devising a number of dishes that pair international flavors with the traditional ingredients of New England fare.

“It’s tradition with a twist,” said the Hawaiian, recruited by Onyx to bring his unique flair to Western Mass. “Contemporary cuisine using local ingredients is going to be one of our trademarks. It celebrates what’s already here, and brings something new to the table, too.”

This is an apt description of the ‘east-meets-west’ menu at Onyx; fusion, after all, is the calling card of the restaurant. But it’s also an effective metaphor to describe what’s happening at the larger complex in which it operates: River’s Landing, the reincarnation of the former Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and Springfield’s newest destination.

Located adjacent to the new Hall of Fame, next to the Connecticut River, and flanked by I-91, River’s Landing is the brainchild of Peter Pappas and Michael Spagnoli. The two Springfield natives submitted their proposal for a day-into-night entertainment venue centered on health, fitness, and upscale dining to the Springfield Riverfront Development Corp. (SRDC), the private real-estate entity that owns the land, in late 2005.

The partners are dually located on the East and West coasts; Pappas is an East Longmeadow-based real estate developer and importer/exporter, and Spagnoli, a chiropractor, owns a number of medical offices scattered across the country, including several in California, where he now resides.

At the time of the request for proposals, Pappas and Spagnoli, doing business as River’s Landing LLC, were competing against a wide range of proposals for the ‘old hall,’ including a hotel and a public market. But at the end of the day, the duo’s vision won the bid based in part on the upscale yet cohesive feel it aimed to create on the still-expanding stretch of the riverfront that includes not just the Hall of Fame, but also a Hilton Garden Inn and four popular eateries — Max’s Tavern, Coldstone Creamery, Pazzo, and Pizzeria Uno (a fifth, Sam’s Sports Bar, will open in the Hall later this spring).

“It’s a perfect fit with the Hall of Fame and the restaurants that are already doing well here,” said Pappas. “There’s a theme developing that we’re really excited about.”

David Panagore, chief development officer for the city, agreed. He said the look and feel of the riverfront is one that is evolving with the Hall of Fame at its center, augmented by other sports- and fitness-related activities and a good measure of dining and hospitality options.

“There’s a theme here of physical activity that means there’s much more to do along this stretch that eat,” he said, noting that, as development talks continue, the city will be looking to broaden this theme. “We’re looking closely at ‘event commercial’ opportunities that are semi-public, if not public. Five single-family homes, for instance, aren’t even in the realm of possibility. We need something to drive visitors.”

He said the consistency of the River’s Landing project — few major changes have been made to the original proposal — is also an important aspect, because it has helped maintain faith in the riverfront’s future, and has also helped to create a strong base from which to spur further growth.

“It’s about follow-through and keeping promises,” he said of the undertaking by Pappas and Spagnoli. “That’s what’s happened here.”

Going with the Flow

Pappas said he hopes River’s Landing will serve as a model for future projects, adding that, indeed, most of the original plans have stayed intact throughout the planning and construction process, now nearing completion.

L.A. Fitness, a national health club chain, expressed interest in the property early on, and is now putting the finishing touches on a three-story facility that will be the company’s second-largest location in the country, encompassing 60,000 of the 75,000 available square feet on the property. It’s expected to open for business on May 1.

Onyx, also three stories tall, covers 12,000 square feet, and opened for dinner and cocktails last month, the same week the city hosted the Division II college basketball tournament. Development of the remaining 3,000 square feet of the building’s footprint is being completed now, in order to house a Boston-based physical-therapy and sports-medicine outfit.

At the project’s start, Pappas and Spagnoli pledged $9 million in private funds to the endeavor. In 2006, when the partners first spoke with BusinessWest, they noted that this figure could rise to $13 million.

To date, Pappas said they have actually invested $14 million into the project, but lean more heavily on the fact that, as River’s Landing enters its first month as a fully functioning entity, the property is completely occupied, and improvements such as landscaping and exterior lighting, all geared toward making the building attractive and visible from the highway, are moving toward their completion on schedule.

“Action breeds action,” he said. “When people see what’s going on here, they’ll feel more comfortable with coming to the riverfront to use it. I can’t wait to see people walking along the river again.”

Walking through the building, Pappas, who’s added ‘restaurateur’ to his list of titles, said attention has been paid to spurring that action inside and outside of its walls, as well as to the city’s legacy, especially as the birthplace of basketball.

This attention can be seen in its design and in the roster of firms involved with the project; several are local businesses, while some were pulled from other regions to add a metropolitan flavor to River’s Landing.

“The basic structure of the building is the same,” said Pappas, noting, however, that it has received a considerable facelift. “The windows have been replaced, but they still offer views of the river, the Hall of Fame, the highway, and downtown, on different sides. Not only can people inside see out, but others can see in and take note that there’s a new level of activity here, and feel safer because there are eyes on them.”

Current Events

A bright gold now adorns much of the exterior, and the familiar row of multiple, vertical signs that stretch across the side of the building facing the highway, once carrying illustrations of famous Hall of Fame inductees, remains, but is now being redesigned to match the new décor.

Onyx, owned and operated by Pappas and Spagnoli, has essentially become the facility’s showpiece. The Amherst-based architectural firm Kuhn Riddle handled much of the design, while California-based interior designer Julia Wong, whose work recently appeared on E! Entertainment Television, was brought in to create a cohesive visual flow throughout the 300-seat establishment.

“We’ve incorporated the ideas of imagination, elegance, and a journey,” said Pappas, weaving from the lobby, which features a glass ‘water wall,’ into the bar and lounge area, with its multi-screen video wall and amber onyx bar.

“The design is also ‘green,’ including low-flow water systems in the bathrooms and bamboo flooring,” he noted, adding that Onyx also offers free wireless access for patrons and will soon add an outdoor patio dining area.

Onyx opened for lunch recently, and the final addition to its repertoire, a coffee and smoothie bar during morning hours, will commence in conjunction with the grand opening of L.A. Fitness, in order to better integrate the two businesses.

The club includes an Olympic-sized pool, a full basketball court on the second floor overlooking the Hall of Fame, and multiple exercise, weight, and cardio rooms. Pappas said the club’s management has been pre-selling memberships for three months, and expects to welcome thousands of members.

All of this activity is a positive sign for Springfield, said Panagore, adding, however, that there’s still a long road ahead with regard to riverfront development.

“The project is going well, and with the hotel on one end and River’s Landing on the other, this is becoming a destination site in Springfield,” he said. “In terms of moving forward, we continue to have discussions about alternative uses for the visitors center — the original study talked about co-locating it within the Hall of Fame. We’re investigating how to better position that resource, so we can drive more visitors there.”

With the York Street Jail now razed, there is another major development opportunity on the riverfront that Panagore said the city is monitoring closely.

“We’re focusing on ensuring that anything happening at the site proceeds properly. We don’t want to be getting ourselves in a snarl, or tripping over ourselves,” he said. “ We’ll clear the site and start looking for development opportunities that complement those that are already down there.”

Panagore added that the riverfront offers what he calls “curb appeal” as seen from I-91, and to be truly successful, the area must not only attract new traffic but send that traffic farther down the road.

“The riverfront projects are initially important,” said Panagore, emphasizing the word ‘initially,’ “because they help bring people to Springfield and turn around the image of the city. People who would not otherwise come to Springfield now have a reason. But we really need to move some of that energy into the downtown, so our focus is on the entire core of the city.”

There are some challenges, however, in the move to better connect the riverfront to downtown, said Panagore. While he said the city is in the middle of “ongoing discussions” regarding the maintenance and renovation of the riverside walkway that runs parallel to the Connecticut River and extends from River’s Landing to the Memorial Bridge, there are some physical impediments.

“The state has a little less than $1 million earmarked to spruce up the walkway,” he said, “But Route 91 is always going to be a constriction. The underpasses between the riverfront and the downtown are also an issue, as is the railroad. Physical barriers naturally deter visitors from taking that route; we will try to put as good a face on it as possible.”

Still, many of these conversations relate to what Panagore said is over the next hill for Springfield, while other hurdles, the largest of which is the ‘old hall’ and what to do with it, have been cleared.

“Right now, we’re working on current successes,” he said. “There are always larger conversations about Springfield’s vision, but the work is well underway, and we’re getting up on our feet.”

Going Swimmingly

A diverse mix of activity on the waterfront, long a distant hope, is now becoming a reality for the City of Homes, and it has also provided a new venue for cuisine like Bancaco’s, which draws from his own traditions and is colored by those he’s learning more about in New England.

One of his favorites is the hazelnut mahi-mahi with Maine lobster hash, and he said he’s hoping to introduce even more of these ‘east-meets-west’-inspired creations to diners at the newly opened eatery.

“Pairing traditional ingredients and techniques with those that are modern is the best definition of the word ‘fusion,’” he said.

Watching servers and prep cooks bustle in a kitchen located where he once came to learn more about some of basketball’s greats, Pappas nodded in agreement.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]