Commercial Real Estate Sections

Building Momentum

Ken Vincunas

Ken Vincunas stands near the bulldozer that will soon take down the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center, which will become the site of additional office facilities.

Over the years, Agawam-based Development Associates has steadily grown its portfolio to more than 2 million square feet of space under management. Behind those numbers are some intriguing new projects, including additional development just off I-91 in Northampton at the former Clarion Hotel & Conference Center property.

The walls of Ken Vincunas’ office in Agawam Crossing, the property his company built on Silver Street, are covered with photos that he and his daughter have taken in Italy, Spain, and other travel destinations over the past several years.

The front lobby of that space is another matter. The photos there feature landmarks of a different kind, specifically some of the properties Development Associates has built over the years and now manages. There’s one of the Greenfield Corporate Center, for example, as well as 8 Atwood Dr. in Northampton, one of two 40,000-square-foot buildings at that site, known collectively as the Northampton/I-91 Professional Center.

The list of properties, and collection of photos, has grown steadily over the years, said Vincunas, adding that the goal has always been to achieve smart growth when it comes to the portfolio — and thus cover more wall space — through new ventures with sound potential.

And if things go as planned, Development Associates may need to buy some more frames in the months and years to come.

Indeed, the company, which currently has roughly 2.1 million square feet under management in Western Mass. and Connecticut, is mulling additional opportunities at the Atwood Drive complex, if you will, including the former Clarion Hotel & Conference Center, which is set to be demolished.

Permitting has been obtained for 120,000 square feet of new buildings on the north side of the property, across from the two existing 40,000-square-foot structures — 8 and 22 Atwood Dr., respectively, said Vincunas.

But depending on how, and what type, of demand emerges, plans could change, and the site might instead be used for two 60,000-square-foot business facilities.

“We have something permitted, but there is a lot of flexibility with that site, and a number of potential uses,” he said, adding that the picture will likely come into focus over the next several months.

the former Dow Jones warehouse

Located just off the junction of Route 291 and the Mass Pike, the former Dow Jones warehouse is now part of the Development Associates portfolio.

Meanwhile, Development Associates recently acquired the 80,000-square-foot former warehouse property operated by Dow Jones on First Avenue in Chicopee. Located just a few hundred yards from where the Mass Pike and Route 291 come together, the site is easily accessible and well-suited for distribution and manufacturing uses, said Vincunas, adding that there has already been significant interest expressed in the site from a variety of potential users. The company also completed a purchase/leaseback of two buildings at Westover owned by Ethos Energy.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Vincunas about his company and its ongoing efforts to expand its portfolio of properties — and opportunities.

Success Stories

As he talked with BusinessWest at the Clarion site — just a few feet from the then-idle bulldozer poised to start tearing down the long-time Northampton landmark, which was home to the restaurant Page’s Loft and many other names over the years — Vincunas pointed in a few different directions on the parcel as he talked about what could happen there next.


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He said the property, owned by Atwood Partners, an entity whose partners include members of both the O’Leary and Shumway families (the latter has owned or developed a number of hotels in the Amherst/Northampton area), has a variety of possible uses, and a tentative plan has emerged.

It calls for a smaller hotel, a restaurant, and a four-story, 80,000-square-feet office facility slated to be built on the site of famous (or infamous) domed pool on the Clarion footprint. A sign now appears in front on the property announcing that the space is for lease.

But the hotel market is becoming more crowded, he said, noting a number of recent additions, including a new facility less than a mile away on Conz Street. So a hotel may not be in the cards.

Additional office space — an expansion of the professional center complex — certainly is, though.

The planned 80,000-square-foot structure is being described as ‘professional and medical space’ — there are plenty of both types of businesses at 8 and 22 Atwood Dr. — with spaces from 2,500 square feet all the way up to 70,000 (essentially the entire building) available. It would be built on a parcel that would make it very visible from I-91, and just a few hundred yards from exit 18 off that highway.

“It would be pretty much a landmark right off the highway when it’s done,” Vincunas noted.

But development of such large properties hinges on signing one or more large, or anchor, tenants early enough in the process to justify construction, he noted, adding that the days of spec building are long over in this market. (Clinical & Support Options is an anchor at 8 Atwood Dr., while Cooley Dickinson Hospital is an anchor in both existing structures).

“In order to move forward with a venture of that magnitude, you need to have some pre-leasing on a major scale,” he explained. “And there just aren’t that many of those anchor tenants out there — they’re getting harder to find.”

He is conducting an ongoing hard search at the moment, and already has a few solid leads.

If enough demand materializes, the plans for the site may be altered to feature two 60,000-square-foot buildings, he told BusinessWest, adding that there is ample parking on the site to support such development.

While efforts to secure anchor tenants for the planned Northampton development continues, the company continues work to add tenants to existing properties, said Vincunas.

Agawam Crossing

Agawam Crossing, now home to an eclectic mix of businesses, is at full occupancy.

And there are many of them, scattered across Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties and into Northern Conn. The portfolio is diverse, and includes everything from what’s described as ‘industrial/flex/technology space’ in South Deerfield, now available for leasing, to ‘flexible automotive space’ at property on Palomba Drive in Enfield, Conn. — 8,000 square feet of space is available — to the 145,000-square-foot Greenfield Corporate Center, home to a number of businesses and agencies.

One of them is the Greenfield District Court, which is scheduled to relocate soon to new space downtown and become part of ongoing revitalization efforts in that central business district. That will leave Development Associates with a large vacancy to fill; however, Vincunas is confident that, with the momentum now evident in Franklin County’s largest community, the building will gain new tenants.

“This is an excellent office park setting, and we have a great deal of flexibility with the property,” he said, adding that the space is ideal for a call center, medical facility, education, and other uses.

Meanwhile, the Chicopee property represents an intriguing addition to the portfolio, he said, adding that the property has been underutilized, and could be an attractive option for businesses across several sectors of the economy, given its strategic location.

“With such a great location and a good quality building, we could either take on multiple tenants or try to get a single tenant for the whole building,” he noted. “We’re entertaining a number of proposals to try and maximize the use of that building.”

Bottom Line

Development Associates recently moved into its own new space in the Agawam Crossing building, joining Comcast Spotlight and physicians affiliated with Mercy Medical Center as recent tenants.

The company has about 2,000 square feet, with a number of private offices, a large business hub, and a sizable front entranceway that has plenty of wall space.

That’s a commodity that will surely be put to use as this company continues to expand its portfolio with new properties that are suitable for a variety of tenants — and for framing as well.

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

Daily News

AGAWAM — Three kaizen teams from OMG Inc. have been recognized as 2016 Steel Partners Business System Hall of Fame winners. The announcement was made by Jeff Svoboda, president and CEO of Handy & Harman, a Steel Partners subsidiary.

The Steel Partners Business System uses lean principles and tools, including kaizens, to increase sales, improve business processes, and reduce and eliminate waste and variation. Kaizen is a strategic activity where employees at every level of a company get together to work on a targeted improvement project. In manufacturing in particular, kaizens often demonstrate that big changes come from many small changes made over time.

Kaizens are focused three- to five-day events that generally include defining a problem or goal, documenting the current state, brainstorming and developing a future state, implementing change, developing a follow-up plan and measurement metrics, presenting results, and celebrating success.

“We complete over 40 kaizens a year, each involving on average a team of five, so for these three teams to be recognized by our parent companies is certainly a high honor for which we are very proud,” said Hubert McGovern, president and CEO of OMG Inc.

A total of 19 employees participated in the three winning kaizens. Two of the kaizens were held at OMG’s headquarters location in Agawam, and one was held in the company’s Asheville, N.C. facility.

“OMG is committed to lean manufacturing, and kaizens are just one of the tools we use to drive significant improvement to our overall effectiveness as a company,” said McGovern. “As a result of our lean initiatives, we’ve seen great progress throughout the company, including gains in reducing waste, improving product quality, and bringing value to our customers.”

Some of the more significant results for these winning kaizens include a 66% increase in drain-assembly output; a 250% reduction in the need for overtime; a $10,000-per-day increase in sellable units assembled by a packaging team and a related $36,000 annual labor savings; and a $100,000 annual cost reduction related to quality improvement.

Headquartered in Agawam, OMG Inc. is North America’s largest supplier of specialty fasteners and products for commercial and residential construction applications. The company operates two business units: OMG Roofing Products (www.omgroofing.com) and FastenMaster (www.fastenmaster.com). OMG is a subsidiary of Handy & Harman Group Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Handy & Harman Ltd.

Daily News

CHICOPEE — The Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce will host its second annual Champions of Chicopee 5K Road Race and 2 Mile Walk on Saturday, June 18. The race will begin at 9:30 a.m., with registration beginning at 7:45 a.m. at the Portuguese American Club, 149 Exchange St., Chicopee. All are welcome.

The $25 price ($15 for children age 12 and under) includes the race fee with timed chip bib, T-shirt, lunch at Munich Haus Biergarten after the race, and goodie bag. Part of the proceeds will benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Chicopee summer camps. Walkers or runners can register online at www.accu-specracing.com. Individuals may also call the chamber office at (413) 594-2101 to sign up or if they have additional questions.

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Mayor Richard Alcombright

Mayor Richard Alcombright says recent developments like the expansion of Mass MoCA are raising North Adams’ profile as a destination.

Mayor Richard Alcombright says North Adams used to be a little mill town that people had to drive through to get to Stockbridge, Williamstown, or popular spots in Southern Vermont.

“But over the last decade, we’ve become a place to stop and are really finding our way to becoming a destination,” he told BusinessWest, adding that there are many projects in various stages of completion that will only enhance the city’s growing popularity.

The $65 million, third-phase expansion of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), which will double its footprint, adding 130,000 square feet of gallery space and enhancing the outdoor courtyard space, is expected to be finished next year. The work is taking place on the south end of the campus of the former Sprague Electric factory, whose 16 acres of grounds and 26 buildings with an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passages was transformed into the museum in 1999. When the renovations are complete, the North Adams museum will be the largest of its kind in the country.

Mass MoCA has had a regional economic impact of $24 million annually, and drew more than 160,000 visitors last year alone. The numbers are expected to increase, especially since the $100 million renovation and expansion of the Francine and Sterling Clark Art Institute two years ago in nearby Williamstown continue to grow and have helped strengthen North Adams’s position as a destination for arts and culture.

Alcombright calls the two institutions “cultural bookends,” and said the expansions have boosted confidence in the city and inspired private investments on a scale not seen in decades.

Indeed, Salvatore Perry and Karla Rothstein of Latent Productions in New York City had no plans to invest in North Adams until they drove through the town two years ago to pick up their daughter from a New Hampshire camp.

They had never been to the Berkshires and planned to visit the Clark, as it’s called, but when they spotted the Cariddi Mill (originally known as the Greylock Mill) that stretches 700 feet along Route 2 in North Adams on 7.8 acres, their plans underwent an abrupt change.

The couple has focused on developing properties with unrealized potential in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but seeing the former cotton mill that was for sale led them to scrap plans to see a concert at Mass MoCA that night.

Instead, they did some research, met with the owner and broker the next day, and purchased the 240,000-square-foot property for $750,000. “The building is a magnificent structure, and as architects, the potential was immediately apparent to us,” Perry said.

The next year was spent conducting research to determine the best potential use for the property and list any challenges that would be involved in rehabbing the site.

The couple formed a new limited-liability company called Greylock Works, which reclaimed the property, and work began last October in an area known as the Weave Shed. The goal was to transform it into a 32,000-square-foot event space, and although it was not finished, it was introduced to the public via a New Year’s Eve Party that attracted 600 guests.

Site foreman Joe Boucher said the space will be complete in July, and pointed out the newly installed wall-to-wall windows facing the street and the unusual sawtooth construction which floods the space with light.

“It will hold 1,000 people and is a resource that doesn’t exist in the region,” Perry noted.

The next phase of the project will involve the renovation of an adjacent, 32,000-square-foot area that will be turned into a retail food hub or artisanal food incubator, with a butcher shop, bakery, cheesemakers, and a restaurant situated off of a main interior corridor. Each business will have a small area for retail operations and also have room to conduct wholesale operations to help sustain a flow of year-round revenue.

“The focus is to bring activity, great jobs, events, and fantastic food production to this portion of the site,” Perry said, adding that renovating the event space and food incubator will cost between $5 million and $6 million.

When that portion of the mill is finished, plans will be implemented to build a hotel, amenities for it, residential condos, and a park on the rest of the property.

Renewed Interest

In addition to cultural offerings, North Adams has an endless panorama of hiking trails, and the Hoosic River, which runs directly through the city’s downtown, is one of few area waterways that supports wild brown trout.

Alcombright said other draws include the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and the fact that North Adams and Williamstown, which is home to the Clark and Williams College, are linked by Route 2 has led the communities to piggyback on projects whenever they can.

Another project based on private investment between the two has begun at the site of the former Redwood Motel on 915 State Road in North Adams. It was built in the ’60s and was in a state of disrepair until it was purchased last April for $350,000 by a group that includes Boston developers, a Brooklyn publisher, and a musician from the band Wilco.

Project Manager Eric Kerns said the group formed an LLC called Beyond Place for the project, and initially planned a creative renovation of the 18-room motel. But the vision has grown, and the parties have assembled nearly 50 acres of property, including the 65,000-square-foot Blackinton Mill site north of the motel and 45 acres of former industrial land contiguous to it. The plan is to connect the properties and build a resort that will appeal to Millennials and young families in Brooklyn, Boston, and other communities.

“They’re primed to discover the Berkshires as a tourist destination,” Kerns said of the younger demographic. “Although the area has a lot for them, including music, art, and outdoor recreation, most hospitality properties are still targeting a much older demographic.

“We want to create a home for the next generation of Berkshire visitors,” she went on, “and plan to take a familiar site and reorient it back from the road toward the river and prioritize what new generations are looking for.”

A house that sits on the motel property will be renovated and turned into a central lodge, and an old farmhouse to the east on the newly purchased grounds will also be reimagined.

“This project is moving forward at an accelerated rate, and the goal is to have all 47 rooms completed a year from now when Mass MoCA completes its third phase of renovation; we feel that an economic renaissance is happening between North Adams and Williamstown, and we are at the center of it,” he continued, adding that a profound confluence of the Appalachian Trail, the Mohawk Trail, and the Hoosic River can be found on the property.

Thomas Krens, who once directed the Guggenheim Museum in New York and its overseas satellites, and was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Mass MoCA, has proposed another project for North Adams: a $20 million model-railroading and architecture museum in Western Gateway Heritage State Park that has a footpath directly across from Mass MoCA’s south gate.

“The idea has been very, very well received by the state, the community, and the private sector,” Alcombright said, adding that the museum — which would be twice as large as the Miniatur Wunderland, a model-railway attraction in Hamburg, Germany that is presently the largest of its kind in the world — is expected to bring another 200,000 to 300,000 visitors to North Adams each year.

The Hoosic River Revival is another endeavor that promises to enhance North Adams and bring new life downtown by a radical revision of the existing flood-control system. A plan has been designed that will protect the city while making the waterway a focal point and promoting recreation along it that will enhance the city’s cultural and economic vitality.

The existing flood-protection system was built in the ’50s. It is bordered by a chain-link fence, runs through two and a half miles of the downtown area, and contains 45-foot-wide, three-sided concrete panels that are 10 to 15 feet high, which make it impossible for fish to live in that section of the river.

The project was spearheaded by resident Judy Grinnell in 2008, and since that time a dedicated coalition, which formed a nonprofit three years ago, has raised a total of $800,000 (including $575,000 from the state) for the revival.

“The river is an integral part of our downtown,” Grinnell noted, explaining that two branches bisect and merge at the end of the last building on the Mass MoCA complex.

The importance of the project was driven home when Hurricane Irene hit in 2011 and the river rose within two feet of the floodwalls.

“It was opportunistic that we started this project when we did because the system is aging. It is not going to flood any time soon, but three of the 20-foot panels have fallen in over the past 15 years, and six are leaning,” Grinnell noted, adding that officials are working with the Army Corps of Engineers, and a plan has been created that will include community gardens, a bike path, and other amenities designed to bring people downtown.

Last year the state Legislature appropriated $8.75 million for the project as part of an environmental and energy bond bill, and the nonprofit received $500,000 to design a half-mile section as a pilot project, which is in the approval process.

“The Hoosic River revival is an ecological project, but it’s also an economic-development project,” Grinnell said, citing other cities such as Providence, R.I., and San Antonio, Texas, where access to the riverfront has helped spur revitalization and create vibrant downtowns.

Changing Landscape

When Alcombright took office in 2010, North Adams had a $2.3 million budget deficit with $100,000 in reserve. Today, the city is in a much different position, and for the last two years has had a balanced budget with $1.6 million in reserve.

The mayor said taxpayers bore the brunt of the problem, but thanks to new projects underway, the city’s future is on a fast track to success.

A $30 million renovation of the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School that transformed it into Colgrove Park Elementary School was completed last winter, and the building opened in January. Nearly 80% of the cost is being reimbursed by the state, and the new school will add to the city’s appeal.

“We managed to sustain ourselves through the bad times, have built our way back up, and are starting to see growth; we’re on the upside of the hill and are starting to feel some excitement,” the mayor noted as he spoke about Mass MoCA and the private investments taking place.

Perry agreed. “North Adams is at a turning point,” he said. “When we decided to invest here, the regional hospital was shutting its doors, and now, almost two years later, it’s phenomenal to see the optimism and investments private developers are planning alongside major institutional achievements by places such as Mass MoCA and Williams College.”

 

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,354 (2014)
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.93
Median Household Income: $41,531 (2013)
Family Household Income: $52,202 (2013)
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; Northern Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
* Latest information available

Cover Story

Entrepreneurial Drive

Kevin, left, and Devin Murray

Kevin, left, and Devin Murray, the father-and-son co-founders of better.bike.

It was born out of a blend of need and desire. Nevin Murrary wanted something that would get him to high school in a manner that would by healthy, environmentally friendly — and cool. He and his father, Kevin, came up with the PEBL, described as a bridge between a bike and a car. But beyond becoming an effective means for the younger Murray to commute, it is evolving into a business concept with recognized potential.

When Nevin Murray arrives at Greenfield Community College in September, he’ll do so with most of the usual questions and anxieties that most all entering freshmen have. Well … maybe not; he certainly has a lot of poise and confidence for an 18-year-old, and with good reason, as we’ll see in a bit.

One thing’s for certain, though. His arrival will be totally unique in one aspect: he’ll be driving something no one else on that campus (or any other campus, for that matter) has — a PEBL.

That’s technically still an acronym (it stands for Pedal Electric Bike Lifestyle), but Nevin and his father, Kevin, who together conceptualized, designed, built, and soon plan to manufacture this vehicle, consider it more of a model name than anything else.


 

PEBL from GCAi on Vimeo.


As one discusses it, the word ‘vehicle’ is certainly the safest term you can use. But it’s not a car, although it looks like one (sort of, anyway), especially the tiny Smart cars now gaining traction in this country. And it is not technically a bicycle in the strictest sense of the word, although the name the Murrays have chosen for their enterprise is better.bike, which uses the tag line ‘Solutions in Transportation,’ which is quite effective and totally accurate (more on why later).

No, this product is a ‘velomobile.’ That’s a technical term in transportation circles, and one that’s been around for a least a century, by most estimates. It is used to describe, well, a bicycle/car, or a bicycle that is enclosed for aerodynamic advantage and protection from the weather. In those respects, the PEBL is not really unique. But in many others, it certainly is — from the material used to make the body (it’s actually a hemp-and-soy composite, rather than fiberglass) to the lithium-ion battery-powered motor.

In other words, the PEBL is both eco-friendly and human-friendly, said Kevin, an acupuncturist by trade, noting that, in his estimation, fiberglass is one of the most toxic substances used in manufacturing today.

“One of my passions is looking after people’s health,” he said, adding that this mindset explains many aspects of the PEBL, from its conception to the component materials used in making it.

The Murrays say their vehicle was born from need and desire — for a four-season velomobile that could handle the rigors of a Western Mass. winter — and came together over three years of searching junkyards for parts, trial and error, and the maturation of an innovative streak that both men possess.

 The same goes for another trait — entrepreneurship, although the two acknowledged they had a lot to learn about the difficult process of transforming an idea into a business. With that in mind, they applied to become part of Valley Venture Mentors’ second accelerator class, and were accepted.

They didn’t make the list of finalists — honored at ceremonies last week — and thus didn’t win one of the larger monetary prizes distributed to those chosen 12. They both say they came away with something inherently more important, though — invaluable insight into maneuvering the many forms of whitewater facing startups, from identifying potential markets to raising the capital needed to advance the concept.

For this issue, BusinessWest continues its recent efforts to spotlight emerging startups across the region by talking with the Murrays about their concept and why they believe it can be a vehicle for business success, figuratively and quite literally.

Putting the Wheels in Motion

The senior class at Amherst Regional High School recently voted on a number of the usual honors presented at this time of year — to individuals of both sexes deemed the most popular, most likely to succeed, best dressed … the list goes on.

There’s one for ‘best car’ as well. One young woman earned the prize for the Mercedes she parks every morning, while Nevin Murray took the honor with his red PEBL, the second prototype built by the father/son team, which he has been driving for about a year now, and with a purpose.

“I’ve been testing every possible aspect of it,” he explained, “to make sure that we’ve covered everything we need to cover.”

He knows this is technically not a car, but he’s not about to give his award back; he’s rather proud of it. But he and his father are soon hoping their concept will win much more — specifically the attention of the buying public, or at least a decent-sized component of it.

This would be the segment (or segments) that care about the environment, and themselves, and want a healthy alternative, or solution (there’s that word again), for their transportation needs.

Right now, though, the Murrays are also hoping to win some financial support. Indeed, a Kickstarter campaign is being planned  — one that seeks to net at least $50,000 for a mold and tools that will help get production of the vehicles off the ground.

Kevin told BusinessWest that the company is currently searching for manufacturing space, preferably in the Deerfield area, and needs about 2,000 square feet to get started. It took months to build each of the first few prototypes, he went on, but the process has been refined and formalized, and a team can now assemble one in a day or two. They expect that people who want a PEBL can get one as soon as this fall.

Before looking toward the immediate and long-term future, though, this would be a good time to go backward — something else the PEBL can do that a bike can’t — and look at how we arrived here.

Our story begins in the summer of 2013, said Kevin, who started by noting that, while his career has been in healthcare, he minored in engineering in college and has always enjoyed working with his hands and building things — character traits passed down to Nevin.

“Since he could pick up Legos, he’s been a builder,” he said of Nevin, adding that the two have collaborated on many initiatives. “We’ve been in science fairs and all kinds of projects, each one more complex.”

When Nevin turned 15, he went on, conversations within the family began to include talk about how the then-high-school student could, or should, get around. “We didn’t want to get a third car — we’re a very environmentally conscious family, and Nevin is even more so — so we started hunting around for a different kind of alternative vehicle for him that would hopefully include bicycling.”

The two saw some things online that caught their attention, but nothing effectively checked all the boxes they wanted to check. So they decided to design and build something that would.

“We wanted something he could use all year-round,” Kevin explained, “and also something where he wouldn’t be all sweaty when he got to school — we live seven miles from the high school — and that looked cool.”

The process of coming up with something that did all that started with visits to the nearest Home Depot and several area junkyards, said Nevin, adding that, as the concept starting coming together, they eventually realized it had potential as a marketable product, and this realization prompted a far more serious approach to their R&D.

“After we built the first prototype, we realized that to refine it enough to be a product wouldn’t take much more work,” he explained. “From there, it was a year of materials research and figuring out what goes where.”

What they pieced together — quite literally — is something that bridges the gap between a bike and a car. It has a 750-watt motor, powered by a 48-volt, 16-amp lithium-ion battery that on flat roads provides up to 30 miles of continuous riding without using the pedals. (Users can buy additional batteries for longer trips.)

PEBL

The Murrays say that is all goes well, consumers should be able to get their own PEBL this fall.

As for those pedals, PEBL owners can use them for short stretches, but the vehicle weighs 200 pounds or so, meaning one wouldn’t want to pedal uphill or very far. There’s an electric heater to keep the user warm in winter, and the doors come off to create air flow in the summer. The PEBL (sticker price $6,000) can accomodate a rider well over six feet tall, and even has the ability to tow a bicycle.

A license is not required to drive one, and the vehicles themselves are not registered, said Kevin, adding that he keeps expecting to get pulled over by the police while he’s out driving in his PEBL, the first prototype, but hasn’t yet.

While many of those features listed above are unique to one level or another, what makes the PEBL stand alone among vehicles like it is the materials used to assemble it.

“We spent hundreds of hours experimenting and researching different materials,” said Kevin. “We finally developed a combination of hemp cloth, instead of fiberglass cloth, combined with a non-toxic epoxy that’s made from soy and peanut oil.”

These materials, as he noted earlier, are safer for those doing the assembly — one doesn’t need to wear a respirator. But they are also more practical. “We feel they make for a better body for the vehicle,” he explained. “It’s not as brittle as traditional fiberglass.”

Getting Up to Speed

As one reads the list of standard features on the PEBL, one would think it might be for a Honda Civic or even one of the myriad crossovers now flooding the market: ‘expandable cargo space,’ ‘cruise control,’ ‘standard rear suspension, ‘great visibility,’ among others.

It’s the lines at the top of that list, though, that make it readily apparent that this is not a car, or anything else currently on the road: ‘zero emissions,’ ‘pedal and electric,’ ‘hemp-and-soy composite body,’ ‘20 miles per hour top speed,’ ‘removable and stowable doors.’

It is the sum of all the items on that list that the Murrays believe will propel them to success with their venture — a vehicle that is in many ways practical, but also environmentally friendly and, if you get some pedaling in, good exercise.

They believe this product will play in cities and regions populated with individuals who value such things — and that have what they would consider a PEBL-friendly infrastructure. That would largely rule out New York, said Kevin, noting that residents would still have to find parking, which is always a struggle.

But he listed mid-sized, spacious cities such as Portland, Ore., Seattle (especially the sprawling tech-industry campuses there like Microsoft and Amazon), Denver, Austin, San Antonio, and others, as well as most all rural regions, as ideal for their concept. He believes there would be a strong market in Europe, where gas is very expensive, as well.

With an eye toward sharpening their focus on a target audience — and the many other aspects of making their PEBL company a reality — the Murrays sought to become members of VVM’s second accelerator class, were accepted, and found the experience invaluable.

It included use of the so-called ‘Lean Canvas’ to form a business plan, a one-pager that entrepreneurs can use to identify everything from the specific problem they’re trying to solve with their product or service to its unique value proposition; from channels for getting the product to consumers to a list of customer segments.

In the case of those customers, the team at better.bike identified several, including retired individuals, those with physical or fitness limitations, tech-loving Millenials, a parent with one or two small children, and commuters who want to ride in all seasons and all weather. Similarly, for early adopters of this concept, they identified these groups: those who care about the environment, individuals who want to get exercise, those who want to commute or ride in “something that is fun and looks cool,” and people put off by the expenses associated with using a car.

As they talked about the VVM experience, the Murrays used language similar to other participants.

“It was a real kick in the pants,” said Kevin. “It really moved us — it forced us to move quickly and focus. It put us in touch with reality.

‘From the beginning, they said, ‘don’t focus on the prize money, focus on the information and the connections that you’re going to get out of this,’” he went on, adding that they’ve done just that.

Nevin agreed, noting that the process of moving from product conceptualization to starting a company to market that product has been a learning experience on many levels.

“Getting the company going was definitely the most stressful part of this, but it’s also the one I’ve most enjoyed,” he said, adding that the experience has provided lessons in not only business, but life.

“As a teenager, I’ve been growing up as this has been happening,” he explained. “This has definitely shaped my perspective, especially on how I approach things and how I’m going to approach college. This experience has given me a better picture of how an idea transforms into an actual thing. And you can apply that to other things.”

The Ride Stuff

Nevin Murray, who plans to build one of those so-called ‘tiny houses,’ find a plot of land to put it on in Montague, and commute from there to GCC, told BusinessWest that he’s not sure where he’s going to park his PEBL on campus.

He said the school has a few spaces equipped with charging stations, but he’s not sure he wants to — or is even qualified to — take one of those. Wherever it’s parked, though, his velomobile is sure to turn some heads, as it has everywhere else it has appeared.

Whether it evolves into a decent-selling product that becomes part of the landscape in this region or those cities listed earlier remains to be seen. But what is certain is that this father-son team has no shortage of entrepreneurial drive, which should, like the PEBL itself, take them where they want to go.

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

Features

Elite Eight

It’s a crowded field of nominees for this year’s Continued Excellence Award.

After a panel of independent judges considered dozens of submitted nominations and scored each one, a logjam for the final slot pushed the field of finalists past the planned five. Now, they’ll meet to discuss the merits of all eight finalists and choose an ultimate winner for the second annual crowning next month.

BusinessWest launched the Continued Excellence Award last year to recognize past 40 Under Forty honorees who have built on the business success and civic commitment that initially earned them that honor, Associate Publisher Kate Campiti explained.

“We wanted to single out for recognition those who have built upon their strong records of service in business, within the community, and as regional leaders. And, like last year’s finalists, these eight individuals have certainly done that.”

The winner of the second annual Continued Excellence Award will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty Gala, slated for June 16 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

The finalists, as determined by scores submitted by three judges — James Barrett, managing partner of Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT and last year’s Continued Excellence Award winner; and Janine Fondon, president and CEO of UnityFirst.com — are, in alphabetical order:

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk

Bayuk, president of Allergy and Immunology Associates of Western Mass. and chief of Allergy and Immunology at Baystate Medical Center, was named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2008 after establishing himself as a strong advocate for families dealing with food allergies, creating the Western Mass. Food Allergy Network. He has also served on the boards of the New England Allergy Society and the Mass. Allergy and Asthma Society, and is currently president-elect of both.

But he has since dedicated a tremendous amount of time and philanthropic support to other causes as well, including Homeward Vets, an organization that helps homeless veterans transition to self-sufficiency, and Team Henry, a group that promotes childhood wellness through exercise and nutrition. He also continues to coach several sports, serve on the board of Northampton Little League, teach medical students and residents, and organize events to help the region’s homeless.

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

When Fenton was named to the 40 Under Forty in 2012, he was serving his second term on Springfield’s City Council and preparing to graduate from law school. He was also a trustee at his alma mater, Cathedral High School, where he dedicated countless hours to help rebuild the school following the 2011 tornado.

Today, Fenton is City Council president and an associate at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C., practicing in the areas of business planning, commercial real estate, estate planning, and elder law. He received an ‘Excellence in the Law’ honor from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and was named a Super Lawyers Rising Star in 2014. Meanwhile, in the community, he is a founding member of Suit Up Springfield, a corporator with Mason Wright Foundation, a volunteer teacher at Junior Achievement, a member of the East Springfield and Hungry Hill neighborhood councils, and an advisory board member at Roca Inc., which helps high-risk young people transform their lives.

Jeff Fialky

Jeff Fialky

Jeff Fialky

Another member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2008, Fialky was recognized an an associate attorney at Bacon Wilson in Springfield and for his volunteer work with numerous area organizations. He has since added a number of lines to that résumé. For starters, in 2012, he was named a partner at Bacon Wilson, and is active in leadership capacities with the firm. But he has also become a leader within the Greater Springfield business community.

Former president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, Fialky currently serves as chair of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and is also on the board of trustees of the Springfield Museums. In his capacity with the chamber, he has spent the past several years working with city officials and community organizations to foster economic development in the city and advance a 10-year economic strategic plan for Springfield.

Dena Hall

Dena Hall

Dena Hall

Hall was an inaugural Forty Under 40 honoree in 2007, two years after joining the senior management team at United Bank, leading its marketing and public-relations team as well as investor relations for United Financial Bancorp Inc.

Since then, she has been promoted at United seversal times, first to senior vice president during a series of acquisitions that significantly expanded the bank’s footprint. Her role expanded further in 2013 when the bank merged with Rockville Bank and she was promoted to executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the now-$5 billion organization. Today, she is regional president for the Western Mass. area and continues to serve as president of the United Bank Foundation for Massachusetts and Connecticut, overseeing more than $10 million in assets and helping distribute $1 million monthly to nonprofits in the two states. Meanwhile, she continues to volunteer with numerous nonprofit boards and civic organizations.

Amanda Huston Garcia

Amanda Huston Garcia

Amanda Huston Garcia

When she was named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2010, Huston Garcia was vice president of operations for Junior Achievement (JA) of Western Mass. Meanwhile, she was active in myriad community organizations, including various chambers of commerce, the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, and various boards at Elms College and Springfield High School of Science and Technology.

In 2011, she left her position with JA — but still plays numerous roles in the organization — and became a full-time professor at Elms, where her passion for teaching young people about entrepreneurship and financial literacy remains strong. In addition to helping create the Elms MBA program, she developed a partnership between Elms and JA, recruiting more than 60 college students each year to teach JA programs. She also forged a classroom partnership between Elms and Putnam Vocational Technical Academy and is working on a program to help Putnam students earn college credits.

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog

Another member of the inaugural 40 Under Forty class of 2007, Jamrog was honored as owner of the Jamrog Group, ranking among Northwestern Mutual’s top 3% of all financial advisors; she had also been recognized twice with Northwestern Mutual’s Community Service Award for her business success and community involvement.

Since then, the Jamrog Group has grown substantially, now advising more than 500 families and businesses while sponsoring a number of community organizations. Jamrog also teaches workshops and speaks at conferences about connecting money and values. She’s also a trustee of the Community Foundation of Western Mass. and chairs its philanthropic services committee. She helped secure several major gifts to the foundation through her financial planning with clients, served on a task force to determine the organization’s future direction, and helped promote Valley Gives. She has also been heavily involved, with the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., including a stint as board chair.

Alex Morse

Alex Morse

Alex Morse

Morse’s story is well-known, being elected Holyoke’s youngest mayor at age 22 in 2012 — reason enough to be named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2014. He’s since then won re-election twice, time enough to put his leadership in perspective.

On his watch, investments in downtown Holyoke total more than $30 million. He has overseen more than $2 million in streetscape improvements, new and renovated parks, ongoing rehabilitation of the mill buildings, a partnership with the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce to launch the SPARK entrepreneurship program, and several new development projects, including the Canal Walk, new apartments in the former Holyoke Catholic building, and the new train platform in downtown Holyoke. During his terms, community policing strategies have led to drops in crime, property values have gone up, and the unemployment rate has dropped. As a result, the Popular Mechanics recently named Holyoke the sixth-best ‘startup city’ in the nation.

Meghan Rothschild

Meghan Rothschild

Meghan Rothschild

Rothschild, then development and marketing manager for the Food Bank of Western Mass., was named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2011 mainly for her tireless work in melanoma awareness. A survivor herself, she began organizing local events to raise funds for the fight against this common killer, and launched a website, SurvivingSkin.org, and TV show, Skin Talk, that brought wider attention to her work.

Since then, Rothschild has been exceptionally busy, transitioning from a board seat with the Melanoma Foundation of New England to a job as marking and PR manager, where she’s the face of the organization’s “Your Skin Is In” campaign. She has testified in Boston and Washington, D.C. in support of laws restricting tanning beds. Meanwhile, she hosts a community talk show, “The 413,” on 94.3 FM, and co-founded chikmedia, a marketing firm that specializes in nonprofits and fund-raisers — all while supporting a raft of area nonprofit organizations with her time and resources.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — An executive summary of the FutureCity 2026 economic-development strategy was presented to about 120 business and community leaders and stakeholders at CityStage last week.

FutureCity is a joint initiative by DevelopSpringfield, the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the city of Springfield’s Office of Planning and Economic Development. Its purpose is to build on the strategies identified in earlier studies such at the Urban Land Institute study of 2006 and the Rebuild Springfield Plan of 2012 — both of which identified tangible goals that continue to be the focus of public and private economic-development strategy in Springfield. Both plans recommended the importance of developing a long-term strategy for economic growth in the city that would ultimately benefit the entire region.

“The goal of this project was to pinpoint and leverage the city’s attributes, including geographic location, infrastructure, workforce, and industries, and align these existing characteristics, assets, and conditions with pillars of realistic current and prospective market opportunities,” said Jeff Fialky, an attorney with Bacon Wilson and co-chair of the FutureCity initiative. “The objective was to develop an approach based upon realistic market opportunities that is obtainable rather than merely aspirational.”

The FutureCity strategy was prepared by the nationally recognized real-estate and economic-development consulting firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, guided by a steering committee representing a broad spectrum of businesses and organizations over the course of a nine-month period. The consultants were charged with an ambitious scope of work which took place over nine months to include the following: assess existing conditions, analyze target industries, assess logistics and supply-chain capabilities, assess talent-development strategies, develop a list of recruitment opportunities for target industries, and identify strategic initiatives and an implementation plan with measurable deliverables.

Newmark conducted over 100 interviews, which included city and state leaders, economic-development agencies, large employers, young professionals, elected officials, nonprofits, workforce-development organizations, real-estate and creative-economy experts, and more, in addition to deep dives into relevant data, peer-city comparisons, and several site visits to Springfield.

Major themes emerging from the study include site and space readiness, centralization of small-business resources, development of a multi-generational workforce plan, development of a unified marketing and messaging plan, fostering collaboration and connectivity, strategically unifying economic-development efforts, collaboration, and a focus on Springfield’s unique strengths.

“This was a very pragmatic exercise that shows there are many more pros than cons as we continue to market Springfield,” said Mayor Domenic Sarno. “As we have done with the Urban Land Institute and our Rebuild Springfield plans, we will follow through with this one, too. Now is our time. We will continue to capitalize on the synergy of our public and private collaborations and keep the momentum going as the ‘can-do city.’”

Added Jay Minkarah, DevelopSpringfield president and CEO and co-chair of the FutureCity initiative, “the FutureCity economic-development strategy is designed to be a guide to action, not simply a plan to sit on a shelf. The plan includes over 170 specific recommendations along with metrics for measuring success, estimated costs, potential impact, and priorities, and identifies the parties responsible for implementation.”

Funding was provided by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the U.S. Economic Development Agency, the Springfield Regional Chamber, Smith and Wesson, and DevelopSpringfield.

A link to the presentation can be found at www.developspringfield.com. Over the next few weeks, an executive summary and detailed report will be made available through DevelopSpringfield, the Springfield Regional Chamber, and the city of Springfield’s Office of Planning and Economic Development.

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Meeting Expectations

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra

As news circulates concerning construction of MGM’s $950 million casino in Springfield’s South End, the region is finding itself a player in many more of the spirited competitions taking place to host meetings and conventions. That’s no coincidence, said area tourism officials, as well as those who plan such events. Because of the casino and other visible forms of progress, they note, the city is now in a different, higher bracket for such gatherings.

The planned gathering of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America — the so-called ‘Big I’ — in August 2018 certainly won’t be the biggest convention ever to come to Greater Springfield.

In fact, with 600 to 800 members of that group expected, this event will be roughly one-sixth the size of the 64th National Square Dance Convention, staged in the City of Homes in 2015. It won’t be a hugely visible group, either — again, unlike those square dancers.

Resplendent in their colorful, often handmade outfits, the dancers were easy to spot as they walked to and from various downtown venues. Dressed in civilian clothes, the insurance agents will blend in; most people visiting or working in the downtown won’t even know they’re here, unless they’re wearing nametags.

Still, the announcement that the insurance agents are coming to Springfield was a significant one for this region and its tourism industry as they enter what would have to be called the ‘casino era’ —for many reasons. They range from the list of cities Springfield beat out for the honor — tier-one stalwarts such as Atlanta, New Orleans, and Austin, as well as neighboring rival Hartford — to the comments made by those who compiled a list of finalists and eventually chose Springfield.

Indeed, consider these remarks made to BusinessWest by Jeff Etzkin, an event planner hired by the Big I to scout and then recommend sites for the 2018 show.

“The casino was definitely a factor in this decision — in fact, if it wasn’t for the casino, Springfield would not have been a consideration,” said Etzkin, president of Etzkin Events, adding that there was sentiment to bring the 2018 event to the Northeast, and Springfield emerged as the best, most reasonable option.

There was more from Etzkin. “It’s not just the casino, though,” he explained. “It really helps that Springfield is changing certain aspects of its downtown to be more amenable to events like this. It’s the restaurants, the tourist activities … the whole package.”


Go HERE for a list of Meeting & Convention Facilities in Western Mass.


And there was still more. “We looked at this as an opportunity to get there before everyone discovers Springfield and the prices go up,” said Etzkin, adding that, while there was a tinge of humor in his voice, he was dead serious with that comment.

When — and even whether — event planners really start discovering Springfield and the prices do start to rise in dramatic fashion remains to be seen. But there are some strong signs that Springfield is emerging as a more desirable destination for gatherings of various types and sizes — from jugglers to Scrabble players; rowing coaches to women Indian Motorcycle riders (all scheduled to come here over the next 24 months), and that news of the city’s progress, not just with the casino, will prompt more groups to put Springfield and this region in the mix.

“I think people are going to be giving Springfield a harder look given the fact that we’re going to have this massive new attraction right smack in the middle of downtown that’s getting a lot of press, be it the parking garage going up or the Gaming Commission coming to town, or churches being moved,” said Mary Kay Wydra, director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “The press is shedding a lot of light on the city, and as these groups make decisions, many are going to be saying, ‘this is a really cool city to check out now.’”

MGM’s planned opening in the summer of 2018

MGM’s planned opening in the summer of 2018 played a key role in the decision of ‘Big I’ officials to bring their convention to Springfield.

Wydra said this region has always had — and always sold — what the bureau calls the three ‘A’s. These would be ‘affordability,’ ‘accessibility,’ and either ‘abundant attractions’ or ‘all those attractions,’ depending on who’s doing the talking. Now, it can add a ‘C’ for MGM’s $950 million casino and perhaps a ‘V’ for vibrancy.

And all those letters should put the city in a different bracket when it comes to competing for events.

“We usually compete against Des Moines or Little Rock or other third-tier cities if we’re talking about a national search,” she explained. “Now, we’re going head-to-head with Chicago and Atlanta; how great is that?”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes a look at some of those events on the books for Greater Springfield, and also at why all signs are pointing to much more of the same.

Show Time

Mike Sullivan says the International Jugglers’ Assoc. (IJA), which he currently serves as a site consultant, generally has no problem finding cities that have the various facilities and amenities it requires for its annual festival, including a large performance venue — the group prefers grand, Vaudeville-era halls, like the historic, 90-year-old Plaza Theatre in El Paso, site of this year’s festival. Likewise, it can easily find cities that would fit the broad description of ‘affordable.’

What is has long struggled with, however, is finding locales that can effectively check both boxes. But Springfield can, and that pretty much sums up why between 500 and 750 jugglers — professionals and hobbyists alike — will be descending on the City of Homes on July 18, 2018, although there is certainly more to the story.

Indeed, instead of the jugglers finding Greater Springfield, this region (and, in this case, the GSCVB) essentially found the jugglers. It did so as part of a broader effort to bring more sports-related groups and events to the area. (That initiative also explains why the U.S. Rowing Convention is coming to Springfield in December.)

As Sullivan relates the story, the IJA, as a member of the National Assoc. of Sports Commissions, posted its festival requirements to that group’s website. Sullivan also staged a webinar, during which he explained what it would take for a city to host the festival. Among those who took it in was Alicia Szenda, director of sales for the GSCVB, who quickly noted that Springfield fit the bill; she crafted a proposal that eventually became the winning bid.

But while strong outreach helped prompt the jugglers and rowing coaches to sign on the dotted line, it’s clear that more groups are discovering Greater Springfield — through referrals, hard research, news coverage, or some of those all-important local connections.

There were more than a few of the latter involved with the Big I and its decision, said Wydra, noting, in the interest of full disclosure, that Joseph Leahy, a principal with Springfield-based Leahy & Brown Insurance and Realty, is slated to be sworn in as chairman of the national organization at that 2018 convention.

But Leahy & Brown’s Allen Street address was certainly not enough by itself to tip the scales in favor of Springfield, said Etzkin, who returned to that ‘package’ he mentioned earlier, the broader Western Mass. region, one that offers attractive options for members who bring their families — and there are many of those.

Alicia Szenda

Alicia Szenda says many forms of progress in Springfield — from Union Station to new restaurants downtown — are making the city a more viable option for meetings and conventions.

Springfield’s ongoing efforts to revitalize its downtown helped bring the city into a discussion that usually involves much larger cities — including Chicago (where the convention will be held this year and next) and previous locations New Orleans, San Antonio, and Minneapolis — although smaller destinations, such as Savannah for 2019, have also been chosen.

But he made it clear that the casino was a huge factor in the decision, as evidenced by those earlier comments as well as his unique insight into the probable schedule for the casino’s opening (nothing approaching what would be considered official has been announced), which is very close to the chosen date for the start of the 2018 convention.

“There’s been talk of a soft opening and also a date for a hard opening,” he said, adding that all indications are the casino will be open when the Big I arrives on Aug. 22. “They were talking about September, but from what I understand, everything is moving along a little quicker.”

It Wasn’t a Toss-up

The casino did not play any significant role in the IJA’s decision to come to Springfield, said Sullivan, adding that, while his group was aware the city was soon to be home to such a facility and that it might be ready by the time they arrived, it did not really enter into the decision-making process.

What did, however, were some or all of those 3 ‘A’s Wydra mentioned, and especially the one that stands for affordability.

“No one gets paid to go to a juggling convention — everyone is spending their own money,” he explained. “We’re looking for very reasonable hotel-room rates, and we’re looking for rental rates on performance venues that would also be reasonable. A lot of cities that would be perfect for us, that have perfect facilities, and are very reachable by air, would also be perfect for lots of other groups, which means they’re busy, their rates are high, and we can’t afford them.

“We’re happiest when we’re in small cities where there’s a nice, small downtown with all the ingredients,” he went on, adding that, while the festival has been to large cities such Portland, Ore., Quebec City, and even Los Angeles, the IJA clearly prefers smaller communities such as Winston-Salem, N.C.

But the facilities certainly played a role in the decision, noted Sullivan, adding that Springfield Symphony Hall, similar in age and size to El Paso’s Plaza Theatre, fits the bill for the Las Vegas-style shows that are staged nightly during the festival/convention and are a big part of the gathering.

There are also seminars, open juggling 24 hours a day, competitions (attendees vie for the coveted gold medal and the accompanying $10,000 prize), and workshops, at which beginners and so-called hobbyists can learn from some of the most celebrated names in this entertainment genre.

“It would be like going to basketball camp and getting tips on your jump shot from Michael Jordan and Larry Bird,” said Sullivan, who has been attending the festival for a quarter-century now, adding that there are typically more than 100 of these workshops during the course of the event, some running several hours in length.

Wydra noted that the combination of attractive venues and affordability is a potent mix, one that, with the addition of the casino, should help Springfield turn more heads, especially those on event planners and convention schedulers looking to bring an event to the Northeast.

Both Sullivan and Etzkin said the groups they represented were definitely leaning in that direction, and as they mulled options in that geographic quadrant, Springfield emerged as an attractive option.

“We like to work the event into a location that’s convenient for people who want to attend the conference from a particular volunteer’s location,” said Etzkin, referring, in this case, to Leahy.

“Boston is a very expensive location, and Hartford, while it’s good from a flight perspective, it’s not exactly a great site for a conference,” he went on, using language that certainly bodes well for this region moving forward.

The Latest Word

Melissa Brown acknowledged that Scrabble is not exactly a spectator sport.

“It’s kind of like watching paint dry — some people will sit in on a match for a little while, but then they’ll get bored and leave,” she said, speaking, quite obviously, from experience gathered as a participant in events staged by the World Game Players Organization (WGPA).

The group will be taking its so-called Word Cup (yes, that is indeed a play on words) to Springfield in roughly 13 months, and while there won’t be many on hand at the Sheraton Springfield to watch, the competition, involving an anticipated 100 players, will be keen.

As was, in many ways, the contest for the right to stage this event, said Brown, a long-time member of that group and its current member liaison, who relocated to Wilbraham from the Midwest several years ago and was part of the team that chose Springfield to join cities such as Reno, Denver, and Phoenix (this year) as hosts for the event.

She said organizers were looking for some specific amenities — quiet spaces for the games and playing areas close to restrooms, because every minute counts (yes, players are on the clock for these games). But mostly, it was looking for a site in the Northeast as a way to help build membership there, and a location that was reasonably priced.

“We’ve had some smaller events in the Northeast, but this is the first time we’ve taken the Word Cup there,” she said, adding that she was the one who compiled the research given to those who made the final decision and chose Springfield over Detroit, Charlotte, and other contenders.

When asked what put the city over the top, she said it was a combination of factors, including everything from the cooperation of the GSCVB to the amenities at the Sheraton. “All around, it just seemed like the best option.”
It is the unofficial goal of the bureau to convince more groups to think in those terms, said Szenda, adding that a variety of forces are coming together to make this task easier.

These include more hotel rooms — new facilities have opened in Springfield and Northampton recently, pushing the number of ‘room nights,’ as they’re called, to 1,125 in Springfield and 4,000 in the region— as well as the casino and recognized progress in the region.

Together, these forces are getting Greater Springfield more looks, as they say in this business.

“The insurance group said they might not have looked at Springfield five years ago, and they’re not alone in that sentiment,” she said. “But because of what’s happening, not just with the casino, but with Union Station and the Chinese subway-car manufacturer and other things that happening, they are looking.”

Etzkin confirmed those observations, noting that, while Springfield still has a ways to go when it comes to having an A-list reputation within the galaxy of meeting and convention planners, perceptions of the city and region are certainly changing for the better.

“I was serious about getting there before the area gets too well-known and the prices go up,” he told BusinessWest. “That part of Massachusetts is beautiful, and people are going to want to go there.”

Staying Power

Despite Etzkin’s expectation that prices in Springfield may soon start to rise, Wydra believes that, for the foreseeable future, anyway, the city and region will be able to boast all three of those aforementioned ‘A’s.

And with the addition of MGM’s casino and growing vibrancy in Springfield’s downtown, the package that attracted insurance agents, jugglers, and Scrabble players should appeal to more of those who plan and stage events.

It won’t happen overnight, but it appears certain there will be, well, more overnights in the area’s future. And that means a new day is dawning for the region and its tourism and hospitality sectors.

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

Luxury Living Sections

Rising Tide

Oxbow Marina in Northampton

Oxbow Marina in Northampton

A boat is, for most buyers, a true luxury item, and price tags can get high. Yet, boat sales have remained steady over the decades, and even the Great Recession posed only a blip for the industry, which has posted steady gains for the past several years. The bigger challenge, sellers say, is generational — specifically, drawing young people into the activity who will then share the passion with their own children.

Diane Bassett Zable calls it “water therapy.”

“You go away on a Friday night, spend a couple days and nights on a boat, and come back refreshed — you feel like you’ve been away even longer than that,” said Bassett Zable, co-owner of Bassett Boat, whose family business has been in Springfield for 73 years.

“You might not get your kids to sit still in your 29-foot living room, but on a 29-foot boat, away from video games or TV — unless you choose to have a TV — they’ll start playing cards again with the family,” she went on. “It’s a wonderful family activity. You’ll find a lot of families that boat also snow ski together, and vice versa; they want that family unity. Boating really does give that to you.”

Maritime enthusiasts across the U.S. echo that passion, and boat sales nationally have remained healthy over the past few years, with steady improvement each year the norm, according to Boating Industry.

In fact, following a solid 2015, this sector is expecting an even stronger year in 2016, Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Assoc., told the publication, noting that the broader economic indicators that affect sales are healthy. “The economy, while not robustly strong, is still positive. Fuel prices remain low. Interest rates remain low. There’s nothing negative happening to adversely affect boat sales in the coming year that we can see today.”

Chuck Burke, who co-owns Action Marine in Holyoke with Paul Robillard, notes that the inverse is also true. “When you get high gas prices, when interest rates go up and the economy is shaky, we see a direct drop on sales,” he said.

Not lately, however. Through mid-May, Action has seen a 16% increase in business over this time last year, but Robillard said that number may be a bit deceptive. Last year, a longer, colder winter meant a later start on sales, which was followed by a very strong June. This year’s mild winter weather got sales ramped up earlier, but a mediocre June would bring the numbers in line with 2015, so the jury is still out. But the partners are confident that brisk business will continue through the spring and into summer.

Mick Duda, owner of Oxbow Marina in Northampton, which has long sold a wide range of boats alongside its slip-rental, service, and supply business, agreed.

“Business has stayed strong,” he told BusinessWest. “The only slow year was about seven years ago, in the recession. People didn’t have the discretionary income, so they didn’t buy boats, or they were buying repossessed boats.”

In a healthy economy, it’s a different story.

“The people we primarily sell to have the capacity to buy these things. We’re not selling small sports-store-type products. Our cheapest new boat starts off around $20,000, but some go up to a half-million. That’s the niche I want to be in.”

Diane Bassett Zable

Diane Bassett Zable says a passion for boating is often passed down from parents to children, so it’s important to get young families interested in the activity.

In a recent Boating Industry reader survey — including boat dealers, manufacturers, marina owners, and others working in the industry — 77%  said they expect their revenue to increase this year. More than half expect revenue to increase by more than 10% for 2016, while only 4% expect their revenue to decrease. That would be an improvement over 2015, a year when 71% said their revenue increased, 13% reported a decline, and 16% said business was flat.

Duda said his team at Oxbow — which includes his children, Clay Duda and Shelley Anderson — has been recording strong sales at regional boating expositions. “We go in with a positive attitude, and our shows are always really strong. We have top-notch products because we’ve been in it so long, and we get clientele who can well afford to buy a boat.”

Behind the Numbers

Still, nearly half the respondents in the Boating Industry survey said they are ‘very concerned’ about the challenge affordability poses to the industry, with 96% saying they were at least ‘somewhat concerned’ about the issue.

But Bassett Zable said many are looking at raw numbers instead of the monthly cost — banks will accept 15-year terms on new boats up to $50,000 and 20 years for pricier models — while too many look to buy used, not realizing that new boats bring warranties and lower interest rates.

“A lot of people might not realize how affordable a new boat is,” she said. “When they’re new to the sport, they say, ‘oh, what do you have used?’ I chuckle at that. If you’re new to something, why do you want someone else’s headaches?”

Instead, Bassett deals almost exclusively in new craft, backed up with long warranties and a service culture — the staff answers their phones even after hours and on weekends — that have ranked the business second nationally on the industry’s Customer Satisfaction Index. After all, she said, a negative experience will chase newcomers away much more quickly than the price of a new boat.

As for a boat’s value, if it has a sleeping area, she said, that can become a second-home writeoff. “A lot of people don’t realize that. It’s direct waterfront property. You can wake up with a cup of coffee and a seagull. You can finance that for $100,000 and pay $599 a month. That’s the cost of a fancy hotel room for one night. It’s really affordable, but I don’t think that message has reached everyone.”

Mild winter weather with minimal snow, as the region enjoyed this past winter, can help raise the profile of boating come spring, Burke said. “You’re not getting bogged down in shoveling snow, and when the shows start in January, February, and March, that kind of gets the ball rolling. February is more like mid-March, business-wise, because of the lack of snow.”

In addition, he recalled, the last few years have seen rainy springs that raised water levels and kept marinas and boat owners from opening their docks early. “This year, the weather was more consistent, which was conducive to early boating.”

Duda doesn’t have an issue at Oxbow, whose slips are protected from swells and heavy flooding. “On the river proper, you never know what’s going to happen, but here, there’s no current whatsoever,” he said, adding that the slips are secured by a network of underwater cables, keeping everything in place.

He said the marina benefits greatly from its visibility from Interstate 91, but he doesn’t wait for business to come to him, taking part in shows throughout the Northeast and delivering product from New Jersey up to Canada. But plenty of customers visit the spacious showroom, lined with Crownline fiberglass vessels, Bennington pontoons, and other models.

“You can’t beat the exposure from the interstate. This is the crossroads of the Northeast, the junction of 90 and 91,” he said. “And people with this kind of money want to see what they’re buying; they don’t want to look at a catalog. They want to come inside a nice showroom and look at the boats displayed.”

The property, celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of events this year, has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Duda was a dairy farmer in Easthampton when he came across some property for sale along the Connecticut River. He bought it with the intention of farming, but started to consider boating as a potential business opportunity. So he bought more land neighboring the first parcel — where hundreds of boats are now moored — and launched a marina. Today, he owns more than 200 acres, which is home to not only the marina, but two soccer fields and the headquarters of a waterski team.

“When I met with the neighbors, they were happy because it was a mess over here,” he said, recalling that the property was a popular site for nighttime parties before he began buying up the land — a good investment, it turned out, considering that waterfront property has become so expensive that many dealers can afford only small parcels with smaller showrooms. “But Oxbow has grown so much. We’re busy.”

Living Large

Sellers of large boats are experiencing a resurgence in business. Specifically, boats over 40 feet, hit hard during the recession, posted some of their strongest numbers, Dammrich noted, especially in the offshore fishing market.

Buyers who can work a larger boat into their monthly budget have more than one reason to do so, Bassett Zable said, including ease of operation. Twin-engine boats above 30 feet long can be fitted with a joystick and steered like a video game — in other words, much easier than a smaller boat.

However, many factors go into choosing the right vessel, Duda said. “A boat has to meet the needs of the family and what its desire is. If it’s just fishing, they want an offshore fishing-type boat. If they’re interested in cruising, overnights, that’s something different. If you can fit the family to the right model boat and price, then they’ll be happy. If not, they won’t be happy.”

Paul Robillard, left, and Chuck Burke

Paul Robillard, left, and Chuck Burke say a robust service business buoys the bottom line at Action Marine no matter what kind of sales year it’s been.

Still, despite the positive signs, Boating Industry reported that a decline in entry-level boaters remains an issue for the industry in 2016, which is reflected in the continuing decline in sales in the ‘runabout,’ or small motorboat, market.

“Back in the ’80s, young people were getting into boating, but fewer are now,” said Burke, a 50-year industry veteran who opened Action with Robillard 26 years ago. That’s why attending boat shows is important. “It gets the boating season going and allows people to see what’s out there, what’s new.”

Action specializes in fishing boats — alumimum vessels between $10,000 and $20,000, and some offshore fiberglass fishing boats in the $20,000 to $40,000 range. “Our strong suit is fishing. What we’ve got, our niche, we’re sticking with that.”

But fishing is just one way to enjoy the water, Duda said. “Boating is certainly very popular, and it’s a true family form of recreation, which everyone in a family can enjoy at the same time.”

Bassett Zable understands the family appeal, but knows it’s a constant challenge to attract families who have never experienced boat ownership.

“Boating is here to stay, and once people understand how great it is, they love it. It’s such a fabulous family memory. And if their children grow up with it, they’ll want to stay part of it, so we have to make sure it stays affordable.”

To that end, her goal is to make boat shopping a pleasurable experience, and stress service after the sale. “Dealers look like equals, but we’re not,” she said. “Not all manufacturers are equal, and neither are dealers. What’s their reputation? If they say they’re going to do something, do they do it? If you buy a boat from Bassett, you’re joining my Bassett Boat family — and I take that seriously.”

She recalled someone who called, panicked, on a Sunday evening. He needed to clean up a spill in the cabin of his 34-foot boat before his wife saw it, but couldn’t find the central vacuum. “He was so happy that I answered the phone and helped him. I was in a supermarket in Florida, but I took the call.”

Bassett Boat, which overlooks Lake Massasoit in Springfield and boasts a second location in Old Saybrook, Conn., also offers learn-to-boat programs to turn novices into capable captains.

“I want to deal only with quality products that bring quality customers, and then turn around and give them quality service,” Bassett Zable said. “When you can stick with that strategy, that’s a winning combination.”

Continued Growth

Speaking of service, Burke said that side of the business is what insulates Action from recessions like the one that struck eight years ago. “If the economy goes down, people tend to put their money into repairs to keep what they have going. Either way, it kind of balances out for us because we have a strong service background, and people bring their boats to us for service. In fact, that’s what keeps the door open. Sales are nice, but secondary.”

Duda also stressed the value of taking care of customers, and said many employees have stayed with Oxbow for decades and know the business well.

“Work is what I live for, and I’m still working at my age,” he said. “I still wake up at 3:30 to plan the day.”

With his children doing most of the selling these days, Duda can devote part of his time to growing vegetables on some of Oxbow’s acreage. Last year saw squash, and this year he’ll be growing sweet corn.

“After all,” he said, “I’m still a farmer” — one who, 50 years ago, saw a future in the boat business and took the plunge.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Departments Picture This

Email ‘Picture This’ photos with a caption and contact information to [email protected]

Pleasant Encounters

 The Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau


The Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau honored 11 individuals from the region’s hospitality sector on May 16 at the 21st annual Howdy Awards for Hospitality Excellence. They are, in alphabetical order: Monique Ball, desk clerk, Hampton Inn & Suites, Greenfield (category of accommodations); Silvana Cardaropoli, server, Palazzo Café, Springfield (food – casual); Andrew Demers, server, Bertucci’s, West Springfield (food – tableside); Michael Gabis, merchandise manager, Springfield Falcons (attractions); Carmine Manzi, bartender, Villa Napoletana, East Longmeadow (People’s Choice winner); Alicia Ralph, Visitors Center associate, Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce (public service); James Saul, motorcoach operator, Peter Pan Bus Lines, Springfield (transportation); Tom Savage, sales associate, Yankee Candle Village, South Deerfield (business/retail); the Springfield Armory National Historic Site (Spotlight winner); Gina Stevens, bartender, Atlas Pub, Chicopee (beverage); and Rebecca Whiteford, event planner, the Log Cabin, Holyoke (banquet and meetings).

Appreciating the Military

National Military Appreciation Month

In conjunction with National Military Appreciation Month in May, Lee Premium Outlets unveiled two reserved veteran/military parking spaces with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 20. Front row, from left: State Rep. William Pignatelli, VFW Post #448 Commander Arnie Perras, American Legion Post #68 Commander Bernie LaFramboise, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Pierce, and Lee Premium Outlets General Manager Carolyn Edwards.

Wild Success

Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts’ Creative Awards

“Make. Believe.” was the theme of the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts’ Creative Awards, the club’s annual recognition of creative excellence. The event was held May 19 at Open Square in Holyoke, and the judges included Kevin Grady, global head of design and communication for brand strategy firm Siegel + Gale, and Nikita Prokhorov, a freelance designer, author, and professor based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Among the winners was Wild Apple Design Group, which won a bronze award for designing and building the website for the 2015 Western Mass. Business Expo, the annual event presented by BusinessWest.

 

Walk This Way
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Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito visited the ongoing Ludlow Mills development on May 24 to announce a $429,500 MassWorks grant to the Ludlow Mills Riverwalk project, located behind the mill complex. The funding will boost pedestrian safety and education on the 3,500-foot trail along the Chicopee River, including lighting, benches, signage educating walkers about the history of Ludlow’s mills, and other improvements. The Riverwalk — funded initially with $600,000 from HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital and Westmass Area Development Corp. — opened up a previously inaccessible area of the riverfront with a paved walkway. Westmass bought the 170-acre Ludlow Mills complex five years ago with the intention of developing a mixed-use complex in the old mills, including Mill 8 with its iconic clock tower (pictured). It has since attracted $75 million in public and private investment, including the $26 million HealthSouth facility and a $24.5 million, 75-unit senior housing project by WinnDevelopment. Ludlow Selectman William Rooney (pictured bottom, with Polito and State Rep. Thomas Petrolati) praised the partnerships forged between the town, state agencies, and private interests in building momentum at Ludlow Mills. “Because of these partnerships, the future of Ludlow, especially the downtown area, are bright.”

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito visited the ongoing Ludlow Mills development on May 24 to announce a $429,500 MassWorks grant to the Ludlow Mills Riverwalk project, located behind the mill complex. The funding will boost pedestrian safety and education on the 3,500-foot trail along the Chicopee River, including lighting, benches, signage educating walkers about the history of Ludlow’s mills, and other improvements. The Riverwalk — funded initially with $600,000 from HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital and Westmass Area Development Corp. — opened up a previously inaccessible area of the riverfront with a paved walkway. Westmass bought the 170-acre Ludlow Mills complex five years ago with the intention of developing a mixed-use complex in the old mills, including Mill 8 with its iconic clock tower (pictured). It has since attracted $75 million in public and private investment, including the $26 million HealthSouth facility and a $24.5 million, 75-unit senior housing project by WinnDevelopment. Ludlow Selectman William Rooney (pictured bottom, with Polito and State Rep. Thomas Petrolati) praised the partnerships forged between the town, state agencies, and private interests in building momentum at Ludlow Mills. “Because of these partnerships, the future of Ludlow, especially the downtown area, are bright.”

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Up for the Challenge

The BusinessWest News Challenge is a program designed to engage students in the world of business, communication, journalism, and media. It was created by Westfield State University (WSU) Professor Janine Fondon and judged by BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien, who recently visited Fondon’s “Writing for the Media” class to announce the winners as well as lecture on the topic of journalism and news writing. Pictured, from left, are Fondon, Tom Lyon (honorable mention), Ian Flannery (third place), Meaghan Jablonski (second place), and Nate Barnes (first place).

The BusinessWest News Challenge is a program designed to engage students in the world of business, communication, journalism, and media. It was created by Westfield State University (WSU) Professor Janine Fondon and judged by BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien, who recently visited Fondon’s “Writing for the Media” class to announce the winners as well as lecture on the topic of journalism and news writing. Pictured, from left, are Fondon, Tom Lyon (honorable mention), Ian Flannery (third place), Meaghan Jablonski (second place), and Nate Barnes (first place).