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Features
Avid Ironworks Forges a Place in the Region’s Construction Industry
Janice Visconti

Janice Visconti says her career change from nursing to president of Avid Ironworks has been a successful blending of business and family.

When Janice Visconti left a career of more than 20 years to run the family business, she knew that her new role would surprise those who had known her as a pediatric nurse.

“It’s definitely a career change,” she told BusinessWest. “I see people I used to work with, and they ask, ‘are you still at the hospital?’ And I say, ‘oh, you won’t believe where I am.’”

To be specific, she’s in the president’s chair at Avid Ironworks in Springfield, which her husband, Dave, and her father-in-law, Joseph, launched in 2005.

Dave had built and operated an independent metal-fabrication business since the mid-1980s, but closed shop about five years ago. He reopened with his father at the helm as a silent partner, but Janice bought him out in 2006.

The timing was right to switch careers, she said, because she wasn’t actively working in nursing. About five years ago, after the Viscontis’ 9-year-old son lost a five-year battle with neuroblastoma, the importance of family overshadowed career goals, and Janice quit her job in home care to spend more time with her daughter, now 11. When the opportunity arose to join her husband in the family business, it just made sense.

“I like the flexibility of it, the challenge of doing something different and working for myself,” she said. “After my husband had done it for years, he said, ‘I don’t want to be the president of a company anymore.’ He just wanted to go in and work. I started getting interested in doing some office work, and he asked me, ‘why don’t you own the company?’”

At first, Janice worked at home away from Avid’s small headquarters on Rose Street in Springfield, but when a larger, neighboring building became available, the entire operations moved there. “It’s worked out well,” she said.

Eager to Work

Avid Ironworks serves as subcontractor for a variety of general contractors, with output including rails, stairs, catwalks, and other ornamental metals; gas metal arc welding, gas tungsten arc welding, and aluminum, stainless, and carbon steel welding; and a range of other services.

“We fabricate iron and materials here in the shop, and we have welders that will install on site,” Visconti said.

“We’re working on colleges, libraries, police stations, fire stations — that’s where the work is right now. There are a lot of bids out there in the public sector. We used to concentrate on private work, but then we became DCAM-certified.”

That certification by the Mass. Division of Capital Asset Management opens doors for contractors and subcontractors seeking public-sector work in the Commonwealth, and it also promotes diversity, in particular businesses owned by women and minorities, which is a benefit for Avid.

“With these public jobs, you have to be DCAM-certified to work on them,” Visconti said. “We have to submit a bid to DCAM, and they have to choose the lowest responsible bidder, and the general contractor who wins that bid has to choose you. It’s good in a way; it gets the general contractors working with a lot of different people. We’re already pre-qualified, so we can do the job.

“It’s definitely a process, though,” she continued. “A lot of general contractors stay away from that because there’s a lot of paperwork for anything dealing with the state. But once you get certification, it’s nice because it opens up lots of doors.”

For instance, she’s spoken with general contractors in Connecticut who had to become DCAM-certified to move into Massachusetts. “With work starting to dry up in Connecticut, they’re moving over the border, but that gives us more opportunities to work with different contractors.”

On top of that, Avid has also been certified through the State Office of Minority and Women Business Assistance.

“Being a woman in the workforce, that’s supposed to help with gaining contracts and being more competitive with other companies,” she said. “That was the whole purpose of it. I own a business in a competitive market, and if this gives me any type of advantage, that’s good.”

Still, she said, Avid typically bids on DCAM work that must go to the lowest bidder, so she hasn’t seen many ill effects of being a woman in an overwhelmingly male field.

In fact, due to DCAM, “there are contractors out there who will contact us because they need to work with more women and minorities,” she said. “The state of Massachusetts is definitely pushing toward equal opportunities, and that’s definitely a plus.”

The ability to bid low also gives Avid an advantage over Eastern Mass.-based entities.

“There are a few companies in this area that we’re quite competitive with, but a lot of the companies out east, their prices are really out there,” she said. “I don’t know if they have so much work that they don’t need to move into our area, but we really don’t compete with them.”

What growth Avid had attained in the past few years, however, must be balanced against the financial dark clouds impacting industries of all types.

“The steel prices alone have gone way up. The delivery freight surcharges, the gas surcharges, everything went up,” said Visconti — and that was before the sharp economic downturn started to put the clamps on some expected work.

“Things are definitely slowing down. In the wintertime, it’s always down anyway in this trade. But there’s some work that was out to bid, and they’re holding off or cancelling the jobs, and that affects us as well as everyone else. We’re lucky to be busy, but right now we’re expecting 2009 and possibly 2010 to be slow. Hopefully not too slow.”

Family Affair

Ironworking runs in the blood for Dave Visconti, whose grandfather worked at the Moore Drop Forging Co. in Springfield. And the company he founded truly is a family business; while he serves as operations manager, the Viscontis have a nephew on board as project manager.

Like most businesses these days, Avid is concentrating on simply surviving the next year or two. But down the line, Janice Visconti isn’t as interested in growing physically as much as maintaining a solid schedule of work.

“We don’t want to grow too big; that’s not always the best way, and we’re happy where we are,” she said. “We just want to stay busy and continue to provide a quality product in a timely and cost-effective manner for our customers.”

Meanwhile, Visconti doesn’t want to be the silent executive her father-in-law was. After all, she didn’t leave a career in health care to sit in an office and crunch numbers — so she became a certified welder in 2006.

“I figured, if I’m going to own this company, I want to learn the business. I don’t just want my name on it. So I got down there and learned how to weld,” she said.

Sounds like the framework of a successful second career.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

Opinion

BusinessWest launched a new recognition program late last year. It’s called Difference Makers, and as we said in our initial announcement, while that name says it all in some ways, in other ways it really doesn’t.

That’s because the phrase ‘making a difference’ is somewhat overused and has lost some of its meaning and its punch. With this new program, BusinessWest wants to bring some attention and acclaim to those who really are making an impact in the community we call Western Mass., and are inspiring others to do the same.

When we unveil the first round of winners in early February, you’ll see what we mean.

But let’s back up a minute.

BusinessWest already had a few recognition programs with its name on them. One is the Top Entrepreneur award, given since 1996 to individuals who exemplify the proud tradition of entrepreneurship in this region, a tradition shaped by people like Milton Bradley, George Davis, Everett Barney, and Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, and carried on by recent winners such as Jeb Balise, the Falcone family (founders and operators of Rocky’s Hardware), and the recipients for 2008, Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, who have created two businesses that have changed the face of health care business operations.

We also created 40 Under Forty. Well, actually, we started our own version of what has become a national trend among business publications — to recognize up-and-coming talent in a given market.

Both programs have become huge successes, and play key roles in helping this publication relate the accomplishments of some very talented people. But something was missing.

Not all people are true entrepreneurs (although most in business are at least entrepreneurial), and, alas, certainly not everyone doing important things and making lasting contributions is under 40. So we created another program that can, and will in many cases, recognize those who don’t fall into one or either category.

These can be individuals who are making great strides in business and thus perhaps changing the fortunes of a company, a business sector, a community, or a region. They can be individuals who are making an impact in the community through donations of money, time, energy, and inspiration to nonprofits and those served by them. They can be leaders who are at the forefront of change and improvement in the quality of life for people who live, work, and play in this region.

The timing of this program is important. While we didn’t exactly plan it this way, Difference Makers becomes a counterbalance to the successive waves of negative news about the economy, the stock market, job losses, and the incredible toll all this is taking on individuals and communities. There are still good things happening in the region, and some of that news is being buried in the avalanche of negative press.

But BusinessWest is not a ‘good-news journal.’ That’s not our purpose, and it never will be. Instead, our mission is to simply hold up a mirror to the region and especially its business community and effectively reflect that image — good, bad, ugly, or promising.

Difference Makers is part of all this mirror-holding work that we do.

It was created to reflect the work of people (some of which goes largely unnoticed or underappreciated) that contributes to progress in this region and makes Western Mass. special.

The stories vary, of course, but they all start with unique people who, well, want to make a difference — and are doing so.

So who are the first Difference Makers? For that, you’ll have to wait two weeks. We need to build up some suspense.-

Uncategorized

With his Cabinet in place, President-elect Obama will turn his attention to the agencies and the countless appointments that will complete his new government. Although some appointments will be virtually unnoticed, they are no less instrumental in fulfilling his agenda of change. For example, who will replace Dana Gioia as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts? And what is the NEA again?

That Gioia’s agency is little known is partially a reflection of the agency’s modest allocation. The Endowment’s annual budget is less than the Pentagon’s cost for a single fighter plane. And for every per-capita dollar the NEA spends, France’s Ministry of Culture spends more than $13,000.

Gioia was once asked why the U.S. government doesn’t support the arts the way Europe does. “The U.S. provides more funding for the arts than any other country in the world,” Giolia replied. “It’s called the tax deduction.”

A tax deduction is not an arts policy.

Under the federal tax code, deductions are allowed for contributions made to charitable organizations. Individual and corporate support for the arts, incentivized by these tax deductions, will likely slow in a chilling economy. Arts organizations will compete for shrinking funds, insufficient to sustain them all. An opera company might skate by, relying on its endowment and longstanding donors, while a small Latino theater troupe or an inner-city music school would be forced into extinction.

But funding isn’t the only problem. For 20 years the NEA has been in hibernation.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a handful of artists were accused of subverting American culture, and social conservatives and fiscal watchdogs joined forces in an offensive against the arts. Their battle cry: art was responsible for the decay of American values, and why should American tax dollars pay for it? The agency survived but retreated, leaving American artists to fend for themselves.

The Endowment has stirred again during Gioia’s tenure, having secured its first significant funding increase since 1984. “American Masterpiece” was awarded $18 million to bring American classics to the far-reaching corners of 50 states as well as military bases. “Shakespeare in American Communities” was another Gioia initiative, and this year he launched “The Big Read,” a $2.8 million nation-wide Oprah-style reading club.

But a reading club is not an arts policy, and Gioia’s programs stop short in bringing the NEA back to life. These programs do not reflect the arts as a vital and dynamic expression of American culture. They do not reflect the diverse face of America. These programs do not fuel the economic engine of American communities large and small. In this financial climate, that’s an issue that deserves attention.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the combined power of American productivity and creativity. Between 1935 and 1943, his Works Progress Administration put 8 million Americans to work. Under the same umbrella, construction workers and engineers built the nation’s physical infrastructure, while writers, painters, and performers constructed the nation’s cultural foundations. Buildings and bridges, murals and sculptures sprung up in public places around the nation.

John F. Kennedy’s commitment to the arts paved the way for the formation of the NEA. Kennedy’s vision of an America in which ingenuity was championed above all else was not reserved to space travel alone. The arts were included too. “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture,” he said, “society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

Obama’s campaign planted the seeds of change. As he builds his administration, he should follow in the footsteps of Roosevelt and Kennedy, considering the unique and historic role that the arts have always played in cultivating change. He should select a new chairperson who will lead the NEA with a commitment to the ways in which the arts can nourish the nation’s economy and its imagination.-

Thor Steingraber is an opera director and Harvard University’s Hauser Center fellow for arts, culture, and media.

Departments

Ringing in 2009

The Young Professionals Society kicked off 2009 in style with its inaugural New Year’s Ball, an event that drew more than 200 people to the Sheraton in downtown Springfield. Clockwise, from right, YPS Co-vice President Jeffrey Fialky and his wife, Emily, enjoy the festivities; Co-vice president Trevis Wray toots his own horn; toasting the new year are, from left, Tina D’agostino, Sandra Bessette, current President Alyssa Carvalho, and Andrew Schmidt; an ice sculpture boasts the society’s working slogan.


Communications Conference

On Jan. 8, Western New England College and the Valley Press Club staged their annual Communications Conference, a day-long program of talks and panel discussions centered on the issues of effective communication and developing working relationships with the press. Above, from left, George O’Brien, editor of BusinessWest; Kathy Tobin, anchor for WGGB40 and FOX6; and Wayne Phaneuf, executive editor of the Republican, take questions from the audience during a “Meet the Gatekeepers” panel discussion. At right, Mark McCandlish, organizational development manager with Baystate Health, leads a workshop on “Delivering on Your Service Promise.”

Sections Supplements
For Area General Contractors, It’s Truly Survival of the Fittest
Eric Forish

Eric Forish says his company has added services and diversified, making it better-prepared for the rigors of the current downturn.

The economic downturn has hit a number of sectors hard, but perhaps none more than the construction industry, which has been impacted by everything from the sharp decline on the stock market to the collapse of the auto industry to falling confidence among business owners who might otherwise be looking to build or expand. There is some optimism, though, mostly in the form of hope that an economic-stimulus package will put some projects into the pipeline.

David Fontaine has seen a lot of things in his three decades in business — but nothing quite like the current spate of challenges facing the construction sector.

“We are probably at the low point of my 30-year tenure here,” said Fontaine, president of Fontaine Brothers in Springfield, which specializes in public-sector work and built the MassMutual Center, among many other local landmarks. “On average we have about 13 or 14 projects ongoing, and right now we are at four. The public sector bottomed out a few years ago, and in times like that you will typically see the private sector jump in and say, ‘now’s a good time for us.’ It just doesn’t seem like that really happened.”

Russell Sprague, president of 100-year-old A.R. Green & Son Inc. in Holyoke, noting that his volume is down 50% from a typical year, used similar language. “It’s gloomy out there right now; Public works projects are down, in general, and the sizes of the projects you do see are smaller.”

His company recently built the new field house at Smith College, but he doesn’t expect to see much more work on that scale anytime soon. “At the colleges, you don’t see the same scope of projects; there’s maintenance work on buildings that might have been deferred, but now they’re doing that work because they have to. Public-school construction has come to a screeching halt. I haven’t seen any of those in bid for the last six months.”

Other general contractors we spoke with sounded similar notes. Overall, say players in this field, there’s less work and far more competition for what work is available. These converging trends are driving bid prices — and therefore margins — way down.

Some contractors have been affected more than others, depending on their specialties, but nearly all of them are feeling the pinch, with builders noting downturns across virtually every sector — from higher education to ski resorts — that are impacting construction volume.

“We do a lot of work up in Vermont, and that area is really slowing down,” said Gene Kurtz, president of Kurtz Construction in Westfield, referring to ski country. “All the resort areas had seen a lot of high-end work, but that was Wall Street money. It’s basically stopped.”

Steve Killian, senior vice president of Barr & Barr Inc., a New York-based construction management firm with a local office in Springfield, said similar things about the higher-education sector, noting that, while his firm handled some large-scale projects last year at Mount Holyoke, Williams, and Yale, he’s not expecting the same volume in 2009.

That’s because college endowments were hit hard by the disastrous year on Wall Street, and many schools are re-evaluating some large-scale capital improvements.

“We’ve had a few projects pulled back or taken off the table,” Killian explained, noting that Yale is still going through with several aspects of a $1 billion capital campaign, but other schools have slowed down their construction activities significantly. “Williams College put the next phase of their 100,000-square-foot Stetson/Sawyer project on hold for about a year, maybe six months, depending upon the market.”

While most all companies are struggling to some degree, some are faring better than others because they saw this slide coming and prepared accordingly — by getting leaner and meaner, and, when and where possible, diversifying their services.

Looking forward, most companies say they will try to focus on more than mere survival, and instead position their companies for when the better times arrive, possibly on the wings of an economic stimulus package that might move construction projects into the pipeline and put crews to work.

Building a Consensus

But gauging when that day will arrive is difficult, and it has become the $64,000 question.

Indeed, while most contractors have lived and worked through many economic cycles, this one has some twists and turns that make predicting the future quite difficult.

“This will be the fourth recession I’ve seen,” said Fontaine. “The other three, you had a pretty good idea of how long they would last. This one here, I don’t think anyone has a grasp of how long it’s going to go on.”

As for the present, area contractors say they are focused on making the best of a bad situation. And for many, the hope is that planning for the current downturn and effective strategic response will not only get them through, but create some potential growth opportunities.

Eric Forish, president of Westfield-based Forish Construction, noted that this family business has been operating for more than 60 years, longevity achieved through diversity and flexibility.

“Because of our conservative, Yankee values, we have tended with time to maintain that philosophy of saving for a rainy day,” he said, “and this is that rainy day.

“We’ve positioned ourselves appropriately for 2009,” Forish continued. “We’ve maintained a diverse client base — private sector, public sector, institutional work, not just construction, but design services. We have a diverse portfolio of our operation. It’s proven successful for 63 years.”

Preparation for the recession was key to keeping ahead of the current, Kurtz agreed, noting a period of streamlining that his company undertook earlier in 2008. Coupled with reorganizing the company, he mentioned some other new developments which position his company well.

“One of the things we’ve done in the last couple of years,” he said, “is to increase the number of services and products we can offer, and that is helping us a great deal. We have a line of Lester buildings (pre-engineered metal structures) for small to mid-sized manufacturing facilities. Those buildings are marketable, affordable, and very popular right now. We’ve got a few of those projects in process.”

Said Killian, “the recession has been reflected in every aspect of our market. Our response as a company has been that we saw some of this coming, and we started making some reductions in both internal costs and overhead costs early on, in the last two quarters of 2008, which really helped. We prepared ourselves for an ’09 that’s a little more lean than we would like.”

Overall, though, no amount of preparation could have readied some companies for the severity of the downturn that hit in 2008, as reflected in U.S. Labor Department statistics showing that that the non-residential construction sector lost 6,800 jobs last December, and that for the year, job losses totaled 53,400, the biggest annual decline since 1991, or during the last major recession.

The fallout resulted from slowdowns, or near halts to building in several sectors, an environment created by factors ranging from the 35% decline on Wall Street, which impacted colleges, health care facilities, and any other institution with an investment portfolio, to a precipitous decline in confidence among business owners of all sizes.

Pounding the Pavement

Despite these challenges, there is some work out there, said Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, a firm that specializes in assisting clients, mostly manufacturers, with moving and installing equipment, work that often goes on regardless of the economic conditions.

“The companies that we’re working with might be dealing with their own layoffs,” said Campbell, “ But these are projects that have been in the pipeline for several years. So, while we are doing a multimillion dollar project, the company itself might be streamlining its own internal organization.”

CIC has done some streamlining of its own, said Campbell. “We’re a little smaller than we were two years ago — we’re down four employees — but taking that into consideration, we are strong.”

One of the biggest challenges facing builders is the mounting level of competition for existing work, a climate created by declining volume across the state and the region, which has prompted firms from Worcester, Boston, Connecticut and other points on the compass to vie for work in the 413 area code.

“Yes, there are opportunities,” said Forish, “but they are getting fewer, and they are drawing more attention — competition is extremely keen. If you look at a public bid list, a few years ago you’d see maybe a half-dozen builders, but now you are seeing two or three times that number.”

Most everyone agreed that the growing legions of bidders have led to some shocking numbers for profit margins on jobs, with some builders possibly trading a dollar to make a dollar. “I think there are guys out there who didn’t prepare well that are cutting their bids down just to get a cash flow,” said Killian.

Added Sprague, “a lot of these guys coming from Connecticut or Eastern Mass., quite frankly, I don’t know how they’re doing it, because they are coming in with numbers that I consider to be below my costs. It’s scary.”

While the current conditions are bleak, there is some optimism concerning 2009, mostly in the form of conjecture concerning the size and scope of an economic stimulus package that many analysts believe will be passed in the next few weeks.

In its 2009 economic forecast, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) says that while this “looks like a challenging year for the commercial and industrial construction industry, the next federal stimulus package being discussed … may emerge as a countervailing force.”

Currently, communities across the nation are putting together wish lists for possible federal funding as part of this proposed stimulus package from President Obama. Forish mentioned that builders are watching carefully what public projects might become available from that incentive. “If local communities see some of that funding, that will enable them to go forward with construction projects that they wouldn’t be able to undertake otherwise.”

In the meantime, those managing firms must be diligent — and imaginative — in their pursuit of opportunities, said Peter Wood, president of Business Development at Associated Builders in South Hadley.

“There are always opportunities if you expand your marketing and continue to network to find the projects that are out there,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he believes Western Mass. has weathered the financial crisis better than many other parts of the country.

“Health and service industries, while they are impacted, they do need to keep up their facilities, whether it’s new construction or an upgrade of existing structures. From a construction standpoint, that work still tends to be available.”

The Real Dirt

Fontaine isn’t alone in his assessment about these being the worst of times — or the worst that most can remember.

Most general contractors have been through downturns, and they’ve weathered storms. But this one is different. A confluence of factors has made finding work and keeping crews busy increasingly difficult. This is a time to be a resourceful and creative, say the contractors we spoke with.

That’s because there is no real margin for error.

Features
Easthampton Is ‘Maturing’ as a Center for the Arts
The conversion of the old town hall into CitySpace is one of many arts-focused initiatives in Easthampton.

The conversion of the old town hall into CitySpace is one of many arts-focused initiatives in Easthampton.

Editor’s Note: In this issue, Business-West begins a new series that will provide snapshots of many of the cities and towns in Western Mass. In each issue, a different community will be highlighted in a program intended to inform readers about the issues and challenges facing these cities and towns, while also providing some of the flavor that makes each community different. This series will include communities in the four counties of Western Mass. — Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire — and begins with the Hampshire County jewel Easthampton, one of the region’s newest cities.

Michael Tauznik is Easthampton’s first, and still its only, mayor. He was first elected in 1995, giving him tenure surpassed only by North Adams’s long-time corner-office holder, John Barrett III, who has been in his seat since 1984 and is the longest-serving mayor in the Commonwealth.

Beyond the very unofficial title of ‘dean’ of Springfield-Holyoke-area mayors, Tauznik’s lengthy stint in what can now be called City Hall. has given him a front row seat to an ongoing evolution of this community’s economy. A former mill town where everything from paper to rubber stoppers; from cleaning products to the stretch bands in underwear were produced, Easthampton has become a more arts- and culture-focused community, with much of that old mill space now occupied by painters, sculptors, photographers, upholsterers, furniture makers, and others who find the community an attractive and affordable alternative to Northampton.

Meanwhile, the community’s old town/city hall is undergoing a transformation that underscores this fiscal evolution. It’s called CitySpace, the name given to the effort to convert the Main Street landmark into a center for the arts and arts-related businesses. The first floor is now occupied by a gallery and frame shop, and there are preliminary plans to take the spacious auditorium on the second floor where town meetings were once staged and convert it to a performance venue.

And starting this summer, the city will become home to something called the Easthampton Bear Fest. From June through mid-October, the community’s downtown will host an exhibit of life-sized, fiberglass bears (like the cows seen in some communities and the whales that populate Cape Cod) that are creatively painted, decorated, and festooned by artisans from Easthampton and the region and placed in various public spaces within an easy walking tour. A total of 30 bears, 20 life-size and 10 smaller, will be displayed. The bears will be sponsored by businesses and individuals, and will be auctioned off at the end of the festival to benefit Riverside Industries Art Program, Easthampton Public Schools art programs, the artists who decorate them, and Easthampton City Arts.

That’s quite a change from the days when most everyone who lived in the town worked at one of a dozen major mills.

But while Easthampton is embracing the arts and the artisans, its manufacturing heritage is not exactly a thing of the past. In many ways, it’s still a thing of the present, said Tauznik, with several major players, including Berry Tubed Products, October Co., Stevens Urethane, and others, employing more than 1,000 people.

There are far fewer of the major employers that called this community home decades ago, said Eric Snyder, director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, adding that Easthampton, like most other area cities and towns, now relies on small businesses and diversity to remain vibrant.

“Easthampton’s progression is still a work in progress,” said Synder, who told BusinessWest that the city is “maturing” as a center of arts and culture and home to small and very small businesses. “We’re still at a point where we’re growing, and there’s greater realization that is what’s happening in Easthampton; people are taking notice of what’s going on here.”

In this issue, BusinessWest, in the course of profiling Easthampton, will examine this maturation process and what lies ahead for this gem in the shadow of Mount Tom.

Brush with Fame

It’s called Art Walk Easthampton.

That’s the name attached to a program started two years ago and staged on the second Saturday of every month. Residents and visitors are encouraged to walk around the community and, while doing so, visit some of galleries and arts venues and get a sampling of local, regional, and national talent.

Such venues include the Blue Guitar Gallery, Easthampton City Arts (the non-profit group formed in 2005 to enhance the collaborative efforts of the artist and business communities in the city), the Lathrop Inn Art Gallery, Nashawannuck Gallery, and the Pioneer Arts Center of Easthamp-ton. Each venue is identified by a bright yellow Art Walk banner; there’s even a similarly colored shuttle bus.

The fact that this community now has a monthly art walk with its own Web site (www.artwalkeasthampton.org) speaks to the changes that have taken place over the past few decades, said Snyder, adding that change is ongoing and constant.

The transformation began while the community was still actually a town, said Tauznik, noting that, over the past 15-20 years, Easthampton has seen many of its old mills become small-business incubators and homes to hundreds of artisans. The first of these conversions was at One Cottage Street, an old mill that once made elastic bands for undergarments and other uses.

The property was eventually taken over by Riverside Industries Inc., a nonprofit agency serving the developmentally disabled, which began leasing out some of the cavernous space for use as studios and workshops. By the late ’90s, a cultural community had taken root on the property, one that continues to grow, thrive, and inspire similar ventures today.

The city’s evolution continued with the biggest of these mill conversions — at the sprawling former home to Stanley Home Products, later Stanhome, on Pleasant Street. The 500,000-square-foot building is home to dozens of businesses and has become both a business address and a destination, with a number of restaurants and shops that bring visitors — and dollars — into Easthampton from outside its borders.

Today, the tenant list includes everything from a maker of decorative gift baskets to a driving school.

There have been other, smaller mill conversions, including the one at the former Paragon Rubber Co. plant just down the road from Eastworks (see story, page 39). The sum of these efforts has given the town a solid foundation on which to build and a chamber membership roster at more than 350, and growing.

“This is really a community of small businesses now,” said Snyder, whose job it is to serve and engage his members. “They’re the backbone of the economy here.”

The emergence of an arts community has brought attention — and large numbers of visitors — to the city’s downtown, said Tauznik, noting that one challenge for the community is to market itself and thus increase its visibility.

Art Walk Easthampton has certainly helped in this regard, he said, and the bear festival provides an additional boost to the efforts to move Easthampton off the list of best-kept secrets.

Like Snyder, Tauznik said Easthampton is in the midst of a maturation process as it grows and promotes its cultural economy. And continued growth will be challenged in the short term by the recession and its impact on town finances.

Like virtually all communities, Easthampton is facing sharp declines in auto excise tax receipts and other forms of revenue, as well as the threat of cuts in local aid from the Commonwealth. Thus, the city will have to become creative itself as it searches for funding sources for projects like CitySpace.

“Finding money to do some of the things we want to do will be difficult, but doable,” he said, noting that the community recently secured funds to help the owners of the Paragon building install new windows along Pleasant Street. “We’re going to have to be diligent and imaginative.”

Not Your Run-of-the-mill Town

“Connecting the Past with the Future.”

That’s one of the working slogans used by Eastworks in its promotional efforts, and in many ways it speaks to what the community is trying to do as it continues to evolve and mature.

It’s not leaving the past behind, said Tauznik, noting, again, that the city embraces its manufacturing heritage and still relies on that sector for needed jobs. But like all communities, it must diversify to remain vibrant.

It has been made considerable strides in that regard, but, as Snyder and the mayor noted, there’s still work to do with this work in progress.

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

Sections Supplements
Thinking Outside the Box — and the Textbook — at Academy Hill
Jake Giessman, or ‘Mr. G,’ as he’s known, with several of his students at Academy Hill. He described 2008 as a breakthrough year for the facility.

Jake Giessman, or ‘Mr. G,’ as he’s known, with several of his students at Academy Hill. He described 2008 as a breakthrough year for the facility.

Jake Giessman says there are a number of quantitative measures to gauge the growing success and visibility of Academy Hill, the private school in Springfield that he directs.

For starters, there’s the enrollment figure, which has climbed from roughly 60 to just over 100 since he arrived as a teacher in 2001. There’s also the spiraling number of applications to the school, located in a former nursing home off Liberty Street, as well as an expanding geographic radius of the students enrolled; it now stretches from Northern Conn. to Sturbridge and beyond.

While admittedly proud of such numbers and compass points, Giessman, or Mr. G, as most of the students call him, is admittedly more intrigued by some of the qualitative measures. These include the comments and actions of the private schools trying to recruit his graduates — people like Matthew Woodard, who, when he was 11, wrote a concerto for a string quartet that was performed at Carnegie Hall, and many others.

“There was one student last year — he was the top choice at every school he applied to,” Giessman recalled. “People were calling me on my cell phone around financial-aid decision time … they were asking, ‘which school does he want to go to? Which way is he leaning?’

“Last year was amazing that way; it was the year we broke through with the prep schools,” he continued. “People know about us now; we’ve got kids that schools are fighting over.”

Such attention provides ample evidence of how Academy Hill has emerged as an intriguing option for area parents of students who have “higher academic potential,” said Marjorie Weeks, director of Advancement for the school, who chose that phrase carefully.

Apparently, the words ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ are not used, or used as much, to describe such students, she explained, noting that they often generate stigmas that can impact students, parents, teachers, and administrators at such facilities. So the school uses the slogan “nurturing and challenging bright minds,” and makes use of that phrase ‘higher academic potential,’ she said, adding that it is the school’s mission to help young people realize that potential.

It does so through its philosophy of engaging students and going well beyond textbooks and the Internet when it comes to imparting lessons in science, mathematics, social studies, Latin, and even economics.

Take as an example the recent field trip by middle school students to help them understand the causes and impact of the economic downturn. In addition to reading about the recession, the students visited those on the front lines of the meltdown — from bond tradesmen to a bankruptcy attorney — to gain firsthand knowledge. They even visited the local newspaper to see how the news is reported.

And soon, they’ll be heading back downtown, to visit with people like Allan Blair, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, to see what they and others are doing to pull the region out of recession.

“With the first visit, we wanted to help explain what this crisis was all about,” said Giessman. “This time, we want to explore what’s happening to us and what’s going on here in the Valley.”

In this issue, BusinessWest goes inside the classrooms and hallways at Academy Hill to gain some perspective on the school, its progression, and plans for future growth.

Textbook Examples

Joshua Jacobson was talking about obesity, what prompts it, and why there is cause for alarm in this region and across the country.

But he didn’t stop with a visual presentation that included a host of statistics about how overweight the country has become, lists of the physical problems — from diabetes to sleep apnea — that obesity can contribute to, and speculation about how the trend, if not reversed, could lead to skyrocketing health care costs across the nation.

Instead, the composed, articulate eighth grader from Westfield also engaged his audience of other middle school students in a discussion about what causes obesity, how those who are overweight feel from a self-image perspective, and what can be done to stem the tide.

“The goal is to create a dialogue,” said Giessman as he talked about Jacobson’s contribution to a program called Forum.

A required part of the curriculum involving students of all ages, Forum (called the Good Morning Show for those in the early, or lower grades) requires students to make original presentations to their peers — eighth graders do six a year, while kindergartners do three. In doing so, they gain experience with public speaking and also some self-confidence, said Giessman, while generating thoughtful discussion — and maybe action — concerning the subjects involved.

And that list includes everything from ‘the origins of the universe’ to ‘the development of the elevator’ to ‘my new kitten,’ he told BusinessWest, adding that Forum is just one of the many ways in which Academy Hill goes about that task of helping students realize potential.

Overall, the school takes a team approach to that assignment, he continued, adding that this includes teachers, administrators, parents, and, as the Forum program clearly demonstrates, the students themselves.

Cultivating and nurturing this team approach has been Giessman’s unofficial job description since he became head of school in 2006 and ushered in an ongoing period of growth and development.

Tracing the history of the school, Giessman said it began in the ’70s as a parent-run cooperative that included weekend and afterschool enrichment. It became a day school in the mid-’80s, during the hey-day of the ‘gifted and talented’ school, he continued, and operated in space leased first from Wilbraham-Monson Academy and then MacDuffie School. In 2000, the school moved to its present site, one that afforded considerable space for the expansion that’s been realized.

Current tuition is $10,000 per year, and this accounts for most of the school’s annual budget, said Weeks, noting that there is an annual giving campaign and other fund-raising efforts. These include a recent auction that included a reserved parking space near the front entrance that is now the property of ‘Olivia’s Mom,’ who paid $500 for it.

Prospective students’ applications are weighed on a number of factors, said Giessman, listing a short IQ test (scores are not disclosed, but most all students are in the high-average to well-above-average range); references, especially from teachers recommending the school to parents; and student interviews. “There’s no single factor that trumps everything else,” he noted. “In the end, they need to be able to come here, want to come here, and be able to get down to the business of learning.”

Students can start at the kindergarten level, but many begin a few years later, because it is generally between second and fourth grade that parents and teachers will recognize strong academic ability and conclude that a child may not be getting everything that he or she needs in a traditional school, he explained.

Students come from a wide area, he told BusinessWest, listing such remote communities as Brimfield, Sturbridge, Mongtomery, and Washington. Meanwhile, the school’s location near both Baystate Medical Center and Mercy Medical Center has made it a popular alternative for professionals working at both facilities.

They are drawn not simply by geography, however, but by what Giessman described as a “more creative curriculum and more social environment” than what might be found at public schools or other private facilities. “Learning here is cool.”

Lesson Plans

In his tenure, Giessman, who was a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural class of 40 Under Forty in 2007, has led efforts to add and grow a middle school (grades 5 through 8), increase enrollment, improve visibility, launch the school’s annual fund, a campaign for unrestricted gifts, and initiate other fund-raising efforts.

These days, he devotes time to a number of duties, from teaching classical literature, including some Shakespeare — comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado about Nothing were on the recent reading list — to crafting a long-term strategic plan for the school.

That document calls for, among other things, achieving continued growth in enrollment, nurturing the seeds recently planted for an endowment, and generating continued expansion and refinement of an educational approach he described this way: “picture in your head what typical teaching is … and that has nothing to do with what goes on here.

“Teaching as an art form is, by and large, a way of forcing or tricking kids into learning,” he continued. “Here, it’s different; it’s more akin to coaching or being part of the team with the students. In the conventional setting, it’s as if the students are holding the teacher back; here, the teacher has to scramble not to hold the student back.”

As Weeks led a tour of the school, she explained this phenomenon, and also how Academy Hill has grown, evolved, and created its current look and feel.

Describing that feel, she said it’s a more-casual learning environment, one that involves very small classes and an individualized approach. “There’s a lot of freedom,” said Weeks, “but also a lot of structure, because young minds need both.” Elaborating, she borrowed a well-worn line from the theme song to Cheers: “everybody knows your name.”

And by everybody, she meant parents, who play an active part in many of the programs at the school. They can often be seen sitting in the back rows during the Forum and Good Morning Show presentations, Weeks explained — “those sessions can be really entertaining; it’s worth spending your morning coffee watching them” — and they take part in many of the classroom activities as well.

“Parents are part of the equation here,” she continued, adding that teachers and administrators want them to participate. “We encourage them to work through their passion points; we try to hone their energies into what they’re good at.”

And while there is a sense of competition in this school for those with ‘higher academic potential,’ said Giessman, there is also what he called a “culture” of support that dominates this learning environment and is embraced by students and parents alike.

“Students here are driven, but there’s a sense of support and encouragement among the kids,” he explained. “I don’t know if that’s because of who they are or because of the way we’re structuring measures of their achievement, but it’s there.”

When asked where his students go from Academy Hill, Giessman smiled and said, “wherever they want.”

Some return to public school systems — several are now enrolled at Longmeadow High School — but many attend private secondary schools, and they are, as Giessman said, recruited heavily. “The prep schools of Connecticut and Western Mass. are actively recruiting our students,” he explained. “And some from the Boston area are also sending representatives out to grab some of our graduating eighth graders; it’s great to see such strong interest.”

Chapter and Verse

When asked about some of the many R-rated aspects of Shakespeare’s writing and how he handles them given the age of his students, Giessman, who reads those works to his charges and pauses often for questions and discussion, said, “well … there are some things you gloss over.”

But there isn’t much glossing over of anything else at Academy Hill, where students not only absorb the Bard, they act out some of his plays; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar were among the recent performances, and one student actually wrote an adaptation of Twelfth Night.

Such talent has caught the attention of the prep schools, thus putting Academy Hill on the map, and giving Giessman a rather intriguing measure of the success he and his staff has achieved.

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