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Wire and Harness Maker MicroTek Has Found a Niche in the Nonprofit Industry

MicroTek’s innovative employment model came first, its product second.

MicroTek’s innovative employment model came first, its product second.

MicroTek CEO Anne Paradis is holding up a plywood board. It’s got markings on it every few inches and simple diagrams that show one where to tie and cut wires and add connectors. The straightforward visual system makes it easy for almost anyone to assemble a wire harness — even someone who is learning-disabled.

Fifteen of MicroTek’s 110 employees have disabilities, and the board is one of the many techniques the company uses to train and integrate those employees into its work environment.

Based in Chicopee, MicroTek, which makes custom cable and harnesses, is part of the changing manufacturing sector in the Pioneer Valley. The company was founded 26 years ago with the sole purpose of providing a meaningful workplace for people with disabilities.

“I wish I could tell you it was a story about market research, but it wasn’t,” said Paradis about how the company got its start in the cable business.

Indeed, it was really by chance that MicroTek ended up making wires instead of, say, protein bars or women’s clothing.

It all started in 1983 when about a dozen human services advocates got together. They were working in conjunction with the University of Oregon, which was researching models for employing people who were difficult to employ.

One model was to start a company where one controls the environment, provides the training, and brings in the work. It seemed like a good idea. The group just needed something to produce.

“Someone at the University of Oregon happened to have a connection to Hewlett-Packard,” said Paradis. “That person approached the company and said, ‘we want to start up this company. Can you help us?’”

Hewlett-Packard agreed and, to get things rolling, gave the young company its first commercial contracts for wire harnesses. With the business elements in place, the founders went to the Department of Developmental Services to secure additional funding.

Once out of the gates, MicroTek ran into rough seas. While the company originally hoped to hire more disabled people, it quickly realized that if it wanted commercial success, it needed a broader skill set — people who could solder, read blueprints, and so on — and additional customers.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how it all came together.

Current Events

‘Make this company viable.’

That was the assignment given to Paradis when she was first brought on board in 1987.

She started off working for MicroTek as a marketing consultant for a year, but when it was discovered that the company’s problems were worse than anybody realized, the board of directors took her on as general manager.

“I had a background in human services and a master’s in business administration,” Paradis explained. “I didn’t know anything about cabling.”

She was about to learn.

“When you are the general manager of a small business, you are doing everything,” she said. “I was doing the sales, the quoting. I was covering for other managers when they weren’t there. I worked long hours.”

Getting new business wasn’t easy. Paradis had to prove to potential customers that MicroTek wasn’t simply a sheltered workshop and that it was capable of producing advanced assemblies to a consistent level of quality. A helping hand came again from its number-one customer.

“Hewlett-Packard lent out engineering support to get us to the next level,” Paradis said. “Literally, engineers would come and spend the day with us troubleshooting problems, or we would go to their facility, and they would provide training. It was a real investment in our success.”

In the 22 years that Paradis has been with MicroTek, she has helped grow the company from 30 to 110 employees and from $1 million in sales to $6 million. In 2001, after outgrowing the space it occupied in an old mill building in Chicopee Falls, MicroTek moved to its current location: a $1 million, 22,000-square-foot factory at 36 Justin Dr. in Chicopee.

MicroTek makes wire harnessing, cables, and, more recently, control panels for mainly security and medical companies. It’s sweet spot is low- to medium-volume assemblies, meaning anywhere from five to 25,000 of a particular item.

“Our costs are competitive,” said Paradis. “Some people would say our nonprofit status gives us an edge, but we actually have to work harder to stay competitive, because a learning-disabled person is only 40% to 60% as productive as someone who is not.”

Working with people with disabilities has additional challenges as well, such as training. One has to be able to teach skills that a disabled person can generalize over a broad range of products.

“It’s easy to teach someone a specific job they can do over and over again, but it’s harder to teach them how to use one termination machine and then do that same operation on different types of terminals,” said Paradis, referring to the machines that add connectors to the end of the wires once they’ve been clipped. “Another terminal might look or even feel different.”

The other challenge is integrating disabled people with the rest of a company. Managers want them to work as productive members of teams and remove the stigma of being disabled, explained Paradis.

That’s where the layout boards come in. A disabled worker can lay the cables out on the board and follow visual cues to know where to cut without having to continually pull out a ruler to take measurements.

“We made the layout boards for people with disabilities, but then started using them for everyone,” said Paradis. “Because whether you have a disability or not, the board lets you work with greater efficiency and fewer errors.”

Slump and Rebound

Earlier this year, MicroTek began to feel the effects of the sluggish economy, albeit a little later than most manufacturers. It cut capacity and saw sales fall by 20%, and took a temporary workforce reduction in which staff was cut back to four days a week for two months and collected unemployment for the fifth day. Ten workers also volunteered to be laid off.

But all that has changed, with the company rebounding “like gangbusters,” Paradis said.

“We experienced a sharp decline in spring, but sales picked right back up in July and August, and we rolled back all of the cost reductions,” she noted. “Now we’re ahead of budget projections for this year” — a turnaround that has her feeling more confident about the health of manufacturing in general.

Meanwhile, Paradis has taken on a new mission. “Our focus has shifted outward,” she said. Last year, the company launched an employment-demonstration project. It’s now working with several local companies to help them train people with disabilities in-house using all-natural supports.

Paradis believes that bringing in outside trainers sets up artificial barriers between the disabled person and other people in the company, which keep them from forming relationships and integrating successfully.

If there is one lesson that MicroTek has to teach, it’s that diversity in the workforce is what makes companies stronger.

Features
Qteros, the ‘Microsoft of Energy,’ Lands in Chicopee
Attendees at the groundbreaking ceremonies for Qteros’s plant in Chicopee hailed it as much more than a match of a tenant with available space.

Attendees at the groundbreaking ceremonies for Qteros’s plant in Chicopee hailed it as much more than a match of a tenant with available space.

Several months ago, amid reports that Qteros — a company working to use something called the ‘Q microbe’ to revolutionize ethanol production — would be leaving the Pioneer Valley to continue its progression in Worcester, its CEO, Bill Frey, announced a commitment to maintain a strong presence in the 413 area code.

It has taken some time, and some maneuvering, but he’s now making good on that pledge.

On Oct. 9, Frey and a host of other dignitaries officially broke ground, if you will, on a $3.2 million pilot plant that will be located in a 16,000-square-foot building off Padgett Road in Chicopee that was built on spec by Agawam-based Development Associates.

Qteros, which Frey boldly describes as the “Microsoft of energy,” will soon commence work to ‘scale up’ its production of ethanol from common biomass, rather than corn. “We believe that this technology is transforming the way we produce fuel,” said Frey, “and the work we are doing at this pilot plant is a critical step in scaling up our process.”

The location of the plant in Chicopee was hailed by attendees as not simply matching a company with available square footage, but as part of a commitment on the part of Qteros to have a presence in the region, and for Chicopee officials to continue to bring new jobs — and new technology — to their city.

And for that, Mayor Michael Bissonnette praised all those on hand for the ceremony and, a few days later, someone who wasn’t — Robert Redford.

The Natural

Bissonnette told BusinessWest that, in 2007, he was one of 41 mayors from across the nation invited to the ‘Sundance Summit,’ an annual mayors’ gathering on climate protection, sponsored by Redford, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Clinton Foundation.

While he is unsure of exactly why he was specifically chosen as one of the guests that year, Bissonnette speculates that his commitment to energy conservation within his city brought him to the attention of the actor who played the Sundance Kid.

“We had done some piloting with energy efficiency in Chicopee,” he explained, “and within the school systems, we’ve saved $2 million in three years by going green. We’re saving $40,000 a year with efficient fixtures in municipal buildings.”

At the summit, Bissonnette said, he learned a lot about alternative energy and technologies, and upon returning to the corner office, the wheels were set in motion for those ideas to come to his city, which he calls the ‘crossroads of New England.’

“When I came back, my attention was drawn to an article in Boston magazine about what was then called Sun Ethanol and Dr. Susan Leschine’s work at UMass,” he said, referring to Qteros. “I was fascinated with the process, and I was very intrigued to read that they were looking to establish a pilot plant in Western Mass. So Chris Nolan, my chief of staff, made contact with them to let them know that Chicopee was very interested in this.”

But the path from that article to the groundbreaking was circuitous. As reported in these pages earlier this year, Qteros had plans to lease space within the massive Solutia complex in Indian Orchard. Due to decisions in out-of-state corporate management for the latter company, the deal fell through. What was a loss for that site became good news for the courtiers in Chicopee.

Bissonnette gives a great deal of credit to a development team in city hall for the permitting process for Qteros. From beginning to end, the permits were secured in two weeks. The team is comprised of department heads from infrastructure and zoning to Chicopee Electric Light and municipal utilities. The mayor expressed how committed the city is to fostering new business growth.

“Say you came to me tomorrow,” Bissonnette said, “and told me, ‘mayor, I want to do this in your city.’ Well, it’s not just what I think. Our team knows all that needs to be done, to expedite the process. Let’s sit down, we’ll tell you what might need to be tweaked to make it fit, we’ll tell you what problems might be foreseen, and we’ll go ahead and get those permits to you.”

What led to Qteros coming to Chicopee was a series of right moves, said the mayor. “Ken Vincunas, president of Development Associates, had incredible foresight to build at the location,” he explained, “so the structure was there. And the expedited permits allowed Qteros to secure Department of Energy grants for the project.

“The most important factors,” he continued, “were that we were familiar with the scientific research, and we were prepared to move very quickly when we learned that they wanted to seek an alternative site from Solutia.”

Open Arms

Leschine’s research forms the backbone of Qteros. While the nuts and bolts of the business venture are handled by her associates and partners within the company, she said that driving to the Westover site for the first time, she realized what an ideal location had been found.

Leschine gives credit to Frey, working with the other founders of the company, to achieve a continued presence in this area. She also has high praise for the two Congressmen for the area, calling Richard Neal and John Olver “diehard supporters.” Echoing her colleague’s praise for their host city, Leschine found Chicopee to be a happy end to the search process.

“Chicopee is just such a great place for it,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s already zoned for commercial development, and it’s close to major highways; all the obvious things are there. Also, it was very encouraging to hear from the local people and officials in Chicopee — there was no hesitation, and we were welcomed. The more we go forward, it just becomes more and more clear that it’s the perfect location.”

This pilot plant represents an important step for the company to move from the lab to the market, she said. When the pilot plant is completed in the next several months, the facility will be figuring out such complex functions as transport of the feedstock, the raw materials necessary for the process, to the plant.

Qteros also recently announced a collaboration with Israel-based Applied Clean Tech to utilize its technology dealing with wastewater sludge as a feedstock for the Qteros process. In an interview with an ethanol trade journal, Frey said, “there was not a technology that anyone had available to actually convert that material into ethanol. What we’ve done is develop our process so that it can use this particular source of cellulosic material.”

But while the breaking of ground (in a figurative sense) was considered significant for Qteros, it was also described as another big step forward for Chicopee, a former mill city trying to replace jobs lost decades ago, and, in some ways, reinvent itself.

At the ceremonies, Robert Culver, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, talked about the historic importance of an emerging technology in the 21st century taking place in the city where another generation’s technology took hold. He should know; MassDevelopment signed an agreement earlier this year to manage demolition and development of the old Uniroyal complex off Grove Street, which has been an eyesore for decades.

Bissonnette sees the Qteros pilot plant as a springboard with implications for both his city and beyond. Addressing the age-old topic of jobs and livelihoods for young people in Western Mass, he said, “in my city it used to be tire makers and textile workers that built families and futures along the banks of the Chicopee River. But it’s a new technology, and a new generation. It is absolutely imperative that we keep looking for these opportunities.”

And he said more of them could come via the state university and the research being conducted in Amherst.

“There’s a lot of talent at UMass,” he said. “People are doing a variety of things in the lab, and we’d love to partner with them in creating a campus, as it were, not unlike what Microsoft has done in Redmond, Wash.

“Keeping it here in Western Mass is key,” he continued. “If this is going to continue to be the Knowledge Corridor, you can’t just have academics in an ivory vacuum. There’s got to be real-world meaning. And that’s what these spinoffs are beginning to accomplish, and we are beyond excited to be included.”

Chicopee might well find itself on the cusp of a role in biofuels and the so-called innovation economy. Bissonnette said he’d like to see the future 115-acre Westover West business park turn into a green-technology center. He mentioned that he has been talking to the scientists at UMass behind ‘grassoline,’ another venture currently in the process of commercializing of an alternative fuel, and what he called a hydro plant scheduled to come online for the city in 2011. He said that his hopes are for the eventual larger Qteros plant to be located in his city as well, adding, “that’s when you’re going to see hundreds of jobs created.

“Wind, solar, alternative fuel … we’re open to all the green technologies that are out there to succeed in the new economy,” he continued, noting that the city has seen progress across the board. “We’ve had $80 million in new business growth in the last two years in Chicopee, in probably the worst economy in my lifetime,” Bissonnette said. “And it’s because we know how to be business-friendly.”

Opinion
It’s Time for the State to Fund All Hospitals Equitably

There has been a great deal of national debate about health care lately. Here in Massachusetts, many of our hospitals are facing a crisis that is every bit as critical.

Holyoke Medical Center is one of the hospitals that is most affected.

Though Holyoke Medical Center, formerly Holyoke Hospital, has been a vital component in taking care of the region’s most needy patients ever since it opened in 1893, we are witnessing an unparalleled crisis in state funding. For many years millions of dollars in state funding have flowed to facilities such as Boston Medical Center because, like us, they take care of the poor. There is no doubt that they do. And there is also no doubt that, thanks to state funding, Boston Medical Center, a fellow nonprofit facility, finished fiscal year 2008 with a profit of nearly $55 million. During the same period, Holyoke Medical Center, which also treats tens of thousands of poor people each year, lost $951,000. Something is not right with the system.

There are 14 community hospitals in Massachusetts designated as ‘disproportionate-share hospitals,’ each of which serves a large population of the poor and medically needy. A hospital is designated as a disproportionate-share hospital if more than 63% of the care it provides is reimbursable by public payers — Medicaid, Medicare, and Commonwealth Care. It is not just the poor who are served by such hospitals, but also people at risk of being underserved due to age, culture, or disability, or who lack the resources, insurance, education, or ability to travel for care. These hospitals — including Holyoke Medical Center — serve the most needy and vulnerable populations in cities that are struggling to provide services. Others are located in rural areas with challenged economies like the Berkshires and Cape Cod.

Each year, Holyoke Medical Center treats more than 40,000 patients in its Emergency Department alone. Additional services extend its reach to hundreds of thousands of patients. But many of the patients who come to the ER seeking care cannot afford to pay. We’ve never turned anyone away based on their income level, nor would we. The fact that we take care of this population is just one reason we are essential to this community and to this state.

And all we ask is that we are compensated fairly for this invaluable service, on par with hospitals in the Boston area.

It’s quite likely you know someone, a friend or a family member, who works at Holyoke Medical Center. HMC and its affiliates employ more than 1,800 people, and as the largest non-public employer in Holyoke,we pump more than $300 million in direct and indirect spending back into the local economy each year.

Our nurses and other professionals deserve to be compensated on par with those in Boston. Our patients deserve access to the same state-of-the-art medical equipment that Boston patients can access because their hospitals are adequately reimbursed for caring for the poor. The issues facing our hospital are no less pressing than the issues facing Boston Medical Center or Cambridge.

Western Mass. patients deserve better. You deserve better.

There is a growing gap between critical health care dollars being spent in Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts. Hospitals such as Holyoke Medical Center are severely underfunded, and if the budget shortfalls continue, then the caring that has gone on at this facility and others for generations will be in severe jeopardy.

Supporting our community safety-net hospitals is critical to the health and strength of the towns and cities that depend on them for jobs, to stimulate the economy, and to care for the residents of our communities, including those most in need. In the end, what we ask for is fair and equitable support to fulfill this mission.

Please express your concerns on this issue to the Commonwealth’s administration and legislators.

Hank Porten is president of Holyoke Medical Center.

Departments

Monson Savings Bank announced the following:
• Michael Rouette has been promoted to Senior Vice President, Commercial Lending;
• Nancy Dahlen has been promoted to Vice President, Residential & Consumer Lending;
• Dan Moriarty has been promoted to Vice President, CFO; and
• Terri Fox has been promoted to Senior Vice President, Retail Administration.

•••••

Springfield Armor has announced that:
• Nicole Hoffman has been named Director of Marketing and Public Relations; and
• Greg Noonan has been promoted to Account Executive.

•••••

Attorney Kristen L. Miller has joined Cooley, Shrair P.C. of Springfield as Associate Legal Counsel. Most recently, Miller served as Clerk in the United States Bankruptcy Court, District of Massachusetts, Western Division. Her practice areas include bankruptcy law and non-bankruptcy law.

•••••

Ronald Briggs, an experienced financial services expert, has opened the Horizon Investment Management Group in East Longmeadow. The firm provides a full line of financial services and products, personalized to fit the needs of individual investors, corporations, and institutions.

•••••

John Simeone has been promoted to Vice President of Technical Operations for the Western New England Region for Comcast. In his expanded role, Simeone will drive the continued adoption of the new tools, technologies, and practices that are powering Comcast’s proactive approach to customer service. He will oversee field operations for the region, including technical and workforce operations, as well as the company’s service centers. He will also focus on maintaining and developing a skilled, diverse, and motivated workforce.

•••••

Laurette Bishop has been promoted to Manager of the Springfield office of Kostin, Ruffkess & Company, LLC, based in Farmington, Conn.

•••••

Benjamin Fitts has been hired as a Web and Software Engineer at van Schouwen Associates in Longmeadow. He is responsible for developing and managing a range of Web site design projects, including e-commerce, interactive, and social-media applications for clients throughout the U.S.

•••••

Charles Urquhart has been named Associate Director for Museum Advancement at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

•••••

Sharon Shumway, a Family Nurse Practitioner, has joined Dr. Mark Bigda and Leah Carrasquillo, also a Family Nurse Practitioner, at Nashawannuck Internal Medicine in Southampton.

•••••

Attorney Carol Cioe Klyman, Shareholder of Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C. of Springfield, has been named to the Editorial Board of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys Journal. The NAELA Journal is a peer-reviewed, scholarly publication of articles on elder- and special-needs-law topics, and is published twice a year. Klyman specializes in elder law, estate planning, guardianships, special-needs planning, and probate litigation.

•••••

Jeffrey Siegel has joined the United Wealth Management Group as Vice President of Estate Planning. It is part of United Bank, based in West Springfield.

•••••

The Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley announced the following:
• Robert Cohn, Broker-Owner of Cohn & Co. Real Estate Agency in Greenfield, received the 2009 Good Neighbor Award. Cohn was nominated for his commitment to Greenfield Community College as a member of the college’s campaign leadership team and an honorary member of the Greenfield Community College Foundation Board;
• Lisa Kraus of Bank of America Home Loans in West Springfield, received the 2009 Good Neighbor Award. Kraus was recognized for the dedication she has shown in helping the Realtor association achieve its outreach goals in the region;
• Ben Scranton has been named Executive Vice President of the association; and
• Mary-Leah Assad has been named Communications Coordinator.

•••••

The Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce will recognize the following area residents during its Nov. 12 Annual Meeting:
• Michael Stolpinski of Westfield Electroplating Company will be named Businessman of the Year;
• Dawn Carignan Thomas of Instrument Technology Inc. will be named Businesswoman of the Year; and
• Barbara Braem will receive the Don Blair Community Service Award.

 

Sections Supplements
Knowing the Rules Can Help Ensure That You Get Paid for Your Work

While receiving payment for a project has always been a challenge, in today’s economic environment, it is getting even more difficult. In order for a contractor (whether a general contractor or a subcontractor) to ensure payment, he must move quickly to perfect his mechanic’s lien rights. Just like the old saying goes, if you snooze, you lose.

Mechanics’ liens in Massachusetts are governed by M.G.L. c.254, which covers liens by contractors and subcontractors. Strict adherence to the statutory requirements is essential, and all too often, mechanics’ lien rights are lost to minor deviations.

A contractor must record a notice of contract in the Registry of Deeds for the county in which the property is located in a timely fashion in order to assert his statutory right to a mechanic’s lien. The notice of contract must be recorded within a certain period of time, beginning any time after execution of the written contract and ending at the earliest of (1) within 60 days after filing a notice of substantial completion; (2) within 90 days after the filing of a notice of termination; or (3) within 90 days after the contractor last performed or furnished labor and/or materials to the property.

The enforcement of the lien requires additional actions. First, a statement of account must be recorded in the Registry of Deeds. This must be filed the earliest of (1) 90 days after filing the Notice of Substantial Completion; (2) 120 days after the filing of the notice of termination; or (3) 120 days after the last day labor was performed or material was delivered to the site. For a contractor, it is the last day he performed services or delivered material. For a subcontractor, it is the last day he performed services or delivered material, or the last day the general contractor did the same.

After recording the statement of account, a civil action must be filed in Superior Court (the county where the land lies) or District Court (the district where the land lies) within 90 days of filing the statement of account.

Once the complaint is filed, there is a final step that must be taken to execute the lien. The contractor or subcontractor must record in the Registry of Deeds an attested copy of the complaint within 30 days of filing it.

The theory of equity is not used in mechanic’s lien cases. The timelines stated in M.G.L. c. 254 are absolute and cannot be extended by the court, and there is no exemption for oversight or neglect.

In order to establish a lien under as a general contractor or subcontractor, there must be a written contract. In the case of a contractor, the written contract must exist with the project owner. In the case of a subcontractor, a written contract must exist between the subcontractor and the general contractor. If there is no written contract, the lien is invalid. M.G.L. c.254 defines what constitutes a written contract as “any contract in writing enforceable under the laws of the Commonwealth.”

One loophole allows a lien without a contract, but it is applicable only to a person who actually performs services, not one who supplies material. This type of lien usually arises on small, informal projects where there are no written contracts. A statement of account must be filed within 90 days of filing the lien, and that lien covers only up to 30 days of work performed prior to the recording of the statement of account.

In Massachusetts, it is illegal for a project owner to require a contractor or subcontractor to execute a blanket lien waiver prior to performing their services. This means that a project owner cannot require a contractor or subcontractor to agree that they will not file a lien upon the property. However, they can require such a waiver at the time of payment.

In short, M.G.L. c 254 can be a powerful tool in collecting payments. However, like any tool, it must be used by an experienced operator. Just like when you’re on the job site, a seemingly minor mistake can have catastrophic consequences. n

Adam J. Basch, Esq. is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. He is a member of the litigation department with expertise in the areas of construction litigation, personal injury, general litigation, and creditor representation; (413) 781-0560;[email protected]

Sections Supplements
State, Springfield Officials See 1550 Main as a Catalyst for Further Growth
From left, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Mayor Domenic Sarno, state Sen. Stephen Buoniconti, Robert Culver, and Gregory Bialecki celebrate the rebirth of 1550 Main.

From left, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Mayor Domenic Sarno, state Sen. Stephen Buoniconti, Robert Culver, and Gregory Bialecki celebrate the rebirth of 1550 Main.

When Springfield and state officials gathered earlier this month at 1550 Main St., they officially announced the partnership that will keep the building occupied. But Mayor Domenic Sarno said it was more than that.

“This is an investment in downtown, but also in the people of Springfield,” Sarno said. “The most important thing is that it stabilizes downtown and lets us continue to build on our momentum.”

MassDevelopment, the Commonwealth’s finance and real-estate development agency, purchased the building for $2.5 million from the federal General Services Administration (GSA). The multi-million-dollar renovation efforts to follow, Sarno said, will boost surrounding property values and bring hundreds of professional people downtown every day, where they’ll no doubt eat and shop. “Downtown is ready to burst,” he said. “The glass is half-full now.”

The building promises to be much fuller than that. Having previously housed federal court workers who have since moved to the new federal courthouse on State Street, 1550 Main will be occupied by three main tenants: the Springfield school department, which will abandon outdated space on State Street; Baystate Health, which will open its first offices downtown; and the GSA, which will keep several federal agencies in the complex.

Already, those lease commitments comprise 124,000 of the building’s 128,000 rentable square feet.

“We did not want to see this building mothballed,” said Robert Culver, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, who characterized his agency’s investment as a show of confidence in the future of downtown Springfield.

“Everything occurring here has been planned and committed to by the mayor, senators, and all the folks downtown,” he said. “This is the new face of Springfield.”

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who also attended the recent announcement, echoed the idea of long-term planning harvesting fruit. “Now we see the results of a carefully laid-out strategy for locating tenants for this building,” he said.

Curb Appeal

As the courthouse project took shape on State Street, MassDevelopment investigated potential uses for the 1550 Main property, put together a development plan, and worked with the GSA to negotiate a purchase and sale agreement, then negotiated with the city, the GSA, and Baystate Health to line up leases. When buildout is complete, the school department will occupy two floors of the building, GSA will retain most of two floors for several federal agencies, and Baystate Health will occupy another floor.

Last year, Gov. Patrick awarded a $3 million Growth Districts Initiative Grant for public improvements to the building’s plaza and atrium to create safer and more attractive indoor and outdoor public spaces and to reopen the pedestrian connection between Main Street and Columbus Center.

Meanwhile, next door, the city plans to undertake major improvements to the former Asylum nightclub building, with the goal of using a portion of the building for a police substation and public offices, while clearing the rear of the site for parking and a farmer’s market.

“I have frequently said that successful economic development takes place one block at a time,” Neal said, anticipating the influx of hundreds of professionals and the project’s long-term impact on Main, Worthington, and Bridge streets. “It also establishes a presence for Baystate Health in the central business district, which has been a goal of mine for many years.”

To Steve Bradley, Baystate’s vice president of Government & Community Relations and Public Affairs, relocating hospital employees downtown serves a purpose beyond simply establishing a presence there.

“We’re moving up to 150 employees out of hospital space that we can then use for clinical services,” he said, a need that takes on special significance as the facility continues to provide care while undergoing a $239 million expansion and renovation project.

“We are jammed to capacity, and we need the flexibility as the new hospital is built,” Bradley said. “This is a critical opportunity to relieve some of that pressure.”

Mark Tolosky, president and CEO of Baystate Health, added that Baystate’s commitment to economic development as a tenant in 1550 Main is linked to its charitable mission, accomplished through strong partnerships in the region. “The economic health of Springfield is closely linked to the health of the community,” he said. “By helping the city, we are helping our patients and their families, and our own employees and their families, who live and work in and around Springfield.”

Gregory Bialecki, the state’s Housing and Economic Development secretary, said the partnership between the GSA, MassDevelopment, and the building’s tenants will be an asset to Springfield’s central business district and key to sustaining momentum for long-term economic development and job opportunities downtown — and is just one of many such efforts his office promotes in Massachusetts.

“Our strategy,” he explained, “is to identify communities and understand what’s necessary for them to compete in a very competitive corporate world to promote economic development — to have a plan and be committed to that plan, to find partners and make investments with them.”

Many Miles to Go

Renovations will take place throughout the fall, with the School Department scheduled to move into its new digs in January.

“This announcement is another piece of the puzzle in helping to rejuvenate our downtown corridor,” Sarno said. “Allowing the lights to go out at 1550 Main would have had a negative domino effect along the Main Street corridor and this is something my administration has been working hard to change.”

Of course, the success of this project means other challenges await, including the potential redevelopment of the former School Department offices on State Street. Sarno said a request for proposals will be issued soon after the school system’s move is completed.

“Those at MassDevelopment are real believers in Springfield,” Culver said, summing up the 1550 Main efforts to date. “In fact, Springfield is a place on the move, and we’re making this a place that everyone who lives here and works here can be proud of.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached

at[email protected]

Opinion

Question 1 on the election ballot in Springfield this fall asks voters if they want to lengthen the term of the mayor from two to four years. That’s the official wording, more or less.

But the question could very easily be phrased in other ways. Such as ‘do you want to bring more continuity to the management of the largest community in Western Mass.?’ or ‘do you want to facilitate economic-development efforts in the city?’ or ‘do you want to make it easier to recruit top talent to important positions in city government?’

The answer to all those questions is ‘yes, obviously.’ And that should be how people respond to Question 1 as well.

This ballot initiative, which would take effect beginning with the 2011 regular city election, is essentially a no-brainer, and we urge voters to strongly support it. It is simply hard to find a downside to giving future mayors a four-year term in office. In fact, we hope that other communities across the region that have mayors will look to do the same, and soon.

Why? There are several reasons, starting with the fact that cities like Springfield can’t afford to have their mayors running for office every two years. Such frequency means that corner-office holders spend one year governing the city and the next year running for re-election and raising money. It’s hard to govern and run an election campaign at the same time.

In fact, it would be fair to say that two-year office holders are constantly running for re-election, and this certainly impacts the way they govern. If an individual is always staring at another election, he or she is almost certain to be far less willing to take the kinds of risks that are often necessary to achieve real progress, especially in a city like Springfield, an older industrial city that must in many ways reinvent itself.

As for newly elected mayors, two years is simply not enough time to put together an agenda and even begin the process of carrying it out. Before an individual has had a chance to do much of anything regarding economic development, schools, public safety, and other matters, he or she must go back to the stump and get re-elected.

There are other reasons to support Question 1, including the broad subject of continuity when it comes to how a community is governed. Developers look for it when they consider where and what to build, and it’s hard to achieve continuity when mayors — and the professionals they choose to help manage their communities — are constantly changing.

There is also the simple matter of recruitment. Many top office holders in a city, including the director of economic development and, to a lesser extent, the school superintendent, serve at the whim of the mayor. Would talented individuals want to put themselves in the position of taking a job they might be able to keep for only two years? Probably not.

Recognizing all of this, many cities in the Bay State have lengthened the mayor’s term in office from two to four years. That list includes Boston, Lawrence, Lynn, Newton, Malden, Melrose, and others, and Springfield should join it, as soon as possible.

This ballot question isn’t about the current mayor, or who might be mayor in January 2012. Instead, it’s about all future mayors and giving them more of a chance to govern the city effectively. It’s about continuity and stability and time to get things done and done the right way.

Question 1 makes good sense for Springfield, and voters should give it their support.

Sections Supplements
Area Builders Face Dwindling Job Opportunities, Stiffer Competition
A.J. Crane says building opportunities still exist right now, but contractors must stay flexible.

A.J. Crane says building opportunities still exist right now, but contractors must stay flexible.

When David Fontaine surveys the construction landscape in Western Mass., he doesn’t like the little that he sees.

“Unfortunately, this is the slowest we’ve been in at least 30 years,” said Fontaine, president of Fontaine Brothers in Springfield. “And it’s not for a lack of effort; we just can’t seem to get the low bid.”

Part of that is the intense competition that has arisen to procure a dwindling number of available projects as the recession lingers. “In the most recent project we bid for, there were 18 bids. It’s just something we’ve never encountered as long as we’ve been here.”

Richard Aquadro, president of Aquadro & Cerruti in Northampton, has witnessed the same phenomenon.

“It’s brutally competitive, a very tough environment,” he said. “Last year wasn’t bad, even though the economy wasn’t great then, either. We did more volume last year than we had the previous two years. We lucked out, hit some good jobs, and did a fair amount of volume. But 2009 has been tough.

“There are fewer jobs in what I call my market,” Aquadro added, noting that he typically tackles projects between $5 million and $30 million. “I see the bigger players chasing them and, surprisingly, getting some of them. They generally have more overhead, but they’re taking the jobs for nothing.”

It’s a common refrain these days, as builders across the Pioneer Valley struggle to keep their machines moving and income flowing — and no one has a clear idea of when opportunities will pick up again.

One Job at a Time

A.J. Crane, operations manager for A. Crane Construction in Chicopee, said his small firm is weathering the storm, thanks to an effective network of relationship marketing that relies on repeat business and word of mouth.

“It reflects the time we’ve put in, not with just cold calls or advertising, but more personally reaching out to people. It’s tougher now. You’ve got to sharpen your pencil.”

Indeed, Crane said nailing down commitments has become more difficult as customers increasingly realize that they’re in the driver’s seat.

“We never had to quote much,” he said, but people know the way things are now, and they know that contractors are hurting.”

Some builders, Crane said, are cutting corners by not carrying insurance, which makes it more difficult for those who do.

“I think people realize the value of being covered,” he said. “Someone who doesn’t do that can fly under the radar. But we spend $2,000 a week on insurance, and there are still customers out there that appreciate that.”

In these times, Crane said, it helps to be willing to take jobs of any size. The company is building a 5,200-square-foot home in Sturbridge and undertaking a $70,000 kitchen remodel in Ludlow, but is also taking on much smaller-scale work as opportunities arise.

“We don’t limit ourselves,” he said. “We’re not above doing storm doors. And I think it hurts a lot of guys when they don’t want to take small jobs.”

Flexibility has long been a plus in construction, to insulate builders from slowdowns in particular industries, said Aquadro, who has tackled major jobs ranging from hospitals and schools to parking garages and athletic fields, and everything in between. But diversity has its limits, he said.

“What has happened in the industry is that some jobs are being handled differently,” Aquadro said, explaining that, “as opposed to the hard, competitive bids of the past, they’re now being handled through an RFP [request for proposal] process, where you submit qualifications, fees, things like that. And you have to have a certain number of jobs similar to the one they’re proposing to do. So as opposed to being diversified and being able to do a lot of different things, it’s almost becoming a specialized market.”

Colleges have always pumped a steady stream of jobs to area builders; Fontaine recently began work on Western New England College’s new School of Pharmacy, for one, and noted that WNEC has always been willing to take advantage of a down market.

On the other hand, outside of education, “it does seem like the private sector is pretty quiet,” he said. “The public sector is quiet, too, although bridges and roads seem a bit busier. Driving down the Mass Pike or the 91 corridor, there’s a lot of activity.”

Uncertain Outlook

Overall, however, the picture remains cloudy for area contractors. Some ongoing work for Aquadro & Cerruti at Amherst College was recently put on the back burner — not an uncommon story for builders during uncertain economic times.

“In some respects, there’s not enough work on the ground for everyone,” Aquadro said. “Competition has always been keen in the Valley.”

The difference now is that larger contractors are moving aggressively to pick up mid-range jobs, which has forced the company to adjust its strategy. “We’re forced to bid in smaller projects against smaller companies that have less overhead and may not have the labor-union agreements we have, which makes it even more difficult to bid.”

“I see us just trying to get through 2010,” said Fontaine, who doesn’t foresee a huge upswing in businesses undertaking new construction projects for the time being. “There are a lot of studies out there, but it takes a good year before a study gets turned into work for a tradesperson.”

In other words, there’s not much to build on right now.

Joseph Bednar can be reached

at[email protected]