Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced a recent addition to the museum’s iconic exterior, a state-of-the-art LED projection lighting display. The dome, one of the city’s most prominent structures, will be lit up every night and will display an array of festive colors and patterns for holidays and events throughout the year.

“We’ve completed a major renovation on the inside of the Hall, and adding this dynamic lighting package to the building’s exterior demonstrates our ongoing commitment to beautifying the property and enhancing the riverfront area,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the result and to be able to help light Springfield’s night sky.”

In an effort to honor those who have sacrificed everything in service to the nation, the dome and building will be lit red, white, and blue this Memorial Day weekend, May 25-29.

This summer, the Basketball Hall of Fame will light the night to celebrate the winner of the NBA Finals, Independence Day, Enshrinement Weekend, and more.

Daily News

EASTHAMPTON — bankESB recently announced that Joe Williams has been hired as vice president, commercial lender.

Williams has 12 years of banking experience, including his most recent roles as AVP, business banking officer at PeoplesBank, and AVP, credit officer at United Bank.

He holds a master’s degree in communication from Bay Path University and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and finance from Westfield State University. He serves as president of the East Longmeadow Baseball Assoc., as well as treasurer of the East Longmeadow Housing Authority.

Daily News

GREENFIELD — The Greenfield Recreation Department announced the soft opening of its new skate park located at 71 Chapman St. The 10,000-square-foot park, designed by Pillar Design and constructed by Mountain View Landscapes with Artisan Skateparks, is nearing completion and will be open for use beginning today, May 26. A formal grand-opening celebration is being planned for Wednesday, June 21, which is National Go Skateboarding Day.

“The park has been a true community effort that has finally come to fruition,” Recreation Director Christy Moore said. “We know the community is very eager to skate this new facility, so now that the contractor’s work is mostly complete, we are opening the park ahead of the grand celebration slated for the end of June. It’s been a long time coming, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”

While the park will open for use beginning today, the public is reminded that additional site work may continue into the weeks ahead. The park will be open daily from dawn until dusk, and skaters are asked to abide by all park rules, which are posted.

The new park is designed for all ages and abilities and features many street-style elements, including ramps, stairs, rails, hubbas, a pier seven, a flip bank, and a vert wall that resembles Greenfield’s own Poet’s Seat Tower. The tower was painted by local artist Suzanne Gale with financial support from the Greenfield Local Cultural Council. Additional park elements include a shade structure, benches, a water fountain with refill station, and a Lyra solar charging station.

The park, which broke ground in September 2022, has been long-awaited by Greenfield’s skate community, which has been petitioning for a new park since 2010, when the city’s former park closed. After more than a decade, skateboarders will now have a safe environment to participate in their sport.

The park would not have been possible without financial contributions from the Commonwealth’s Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grant, an appropriation through Greenfield’s Capital Improvement Program, and American Rescue Plan Act funding, as well as significant donations from the late Lewis Scott, the Kiwanis Club of Greenfield, Greening Greenfield, Friends of Greenfield Recreation, and the fundraising efforts of the skate community. More details about the park’s grand-opening celebration will be released in the weeks to come.

Daily News

EASTHAMPTON — Hometown Mortgage is hosting three first-time homebuyer seminars on Tuesday, June 6; Wednesday, June 7; and Tuesday, June 13 from 6 to 9 p.m. at 7 Campus Lane in Easthampton.

Jeff Hutchins, mortgage loan originator at Hometown Mortgage, along with other real-estate professionals, will lead this certified course recognized by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and MassHousing. This workshop will help attendees qualify for special mortgage products, provide tips to improve their credit, and prepare them as they approach this important life decision.

The cost to attend one of these first-time homebuyer seminars is $50 for two adults in the same household. For more information and to register for one of the upcoming events, visit valleycdc.org.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Molly Keegan

Molly Keegan co-founded the Hadley Business Council to address the needs of local companies.

Each spring, the town of Hadley attracts attention for its asparagus crops, as well as its crowded hotels and restaurants due to college graduations in surrounding towns.

This year’s asparagus crop is strong, and the Asparagus Festival is back and bigger than ever (more on that later). Graduations are all on schedule, too. Getting to all those events — well, that can be a challenge.

Route 9 — Russell Street in Hadley — is undergoing a reconstruction of two and a quarter miles of roadway, which involves replacing infrastructure below the road as well as upgrading and widening at the surface.

In most towns with just over 5,300 residents, a road project would present only a minor inconvenience. But Hadley’s geography places it in a unique situation because Route 9 serves as the main artery connecting it to Northampton, Amherst, and several other towns. Between the universities and businesses in the area, traffic through Hadley — a largely rural community both north and south of Russell Street — can easily top 100,000 vehicles a day.

To keep things moving, communication becomes essential. With college graduations scheduled for the latter part of May, followed immediately by Memorial Day, Carolyn Brennan, Hadley’s town administrator, said mid- to late May is among the most challenging times.

“Once we get through the next few weeks, that will be huge,” Brennan said, noting that traffic becomes more manageable once the colleges empty out for the summer.

The week of May 7 proved particularly disruptive, as town projects were scheduled on several side roads — the same side roads drivers were using to avoid the Route 9 construction.

“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example.”

“We called it the perfect nightmare,” Brennan said, adding that police got involved to encourage residents to sign up for daily notices about where construction was taking place. “I’m so proud of the Hadley Police Department for taking a proactive approach to send out alerts every morning to residents so they know what streets will be impacted.”

While it’s helpful when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) issues weekly updates on Route 9 construction, Molly Keegan, Hadley Select Board member and co-owner of Curran and Keegan Financial, felt businesses in town needed more.

As an active member of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Keegan felt Route 9 construction created several issues for Hadley businesses that did not affect chamber members in other towns. So she and Kishore Parmar, whose Pioneer Valley Hotel Group owns two hotels in Hadley, formed the Hadley Business Council.

“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example,” Keegan said. “Not everyone on the Amherst Area Chamber is keenly affected by the construction in the way that Hadley businesses are.”

Kelly Tornow

Kelly Tornow says cannabis companies like HadLeaf need to use every means to get the word out, as advertising is strictly regulated.

After reaching out to the DOT and Baltazar Contractors, the Ludlow-based construction company doing the roadwork, Keegan and Parmar met with town department heads. The purpose of all these meetings was to make everyone aware of the business council and to encourage better communication in all directions.

“We are trying to find ways to leverage the business council so we are all talking, rather than having it be a complaint department,” Keegan said. “Anyone can complain; we’re looking to leverage these relationships.”

Now that the entity has been established, there are already conversations about how it may address future opportunities for Hadley businesses. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber, has suggested the Hadley Business Council could look at designing a map that would promote agricultural tourism. Stops along the way would be ice cream at Flayvors of Cook Farm, petting a cow at Mapleline Farm, and more. Keegan noted that farmers in Hadley are looking for ideas like this to promote agri-tourism.


Green Days

Located on Route 9, HadLeaf Cannabis is one business accustomed to working through challenges. The group that started HadLeaf signed its community host agreement in February 2020, allowing it to start building the dispensary. Weeks later, COVID-19 shut everything down and caused huge delays. A planned opening for early 2021 was pushed back by delays until HadLeaf was finally able to open in October 2022.

“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open,” said Matt McTeague, regional manager for HadLeaf. “Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”

Kelly Tornow, general manager of HadLeaf, has worked in retail for most of her career. Since joining the operation in February 2022, she was part of the effort to get the dispensary up and running.

“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open. Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”

“This is the first time I’ve been involved with launching a retail operation from the ground up,” Tornow said. “The biggest challenge was learning all the laws and regulations that come with cannabis.”

To overcome situations like road construction, most retail businesses simply increase their advertising, but advertising cannabis is strictly regulated.

“We’re trying all the avenues that are open to us to get our name out there,” Tornow said, noting that membership in the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce is one avenue that has been successful. “Because we’re members of the chamber, we have a presence at their golf tournaments and other community events.”

Because podcasts are allowed under the advertising regulations, an informational podcast wil launch soon at hadleafuniversity.com. “We will produce it in the store with different speakers and vendors,” Tornow explained. “The idea is to educate consumers about different aspects of cannabis.”

The HadLeaf name has been a positive marketing tool as well. McTeague said many people compliment him on the creativity of the name. “We wanted something that would be relevant to cannabis and identify with the town of Hadley. We tried a couple combinations, but HadLeaf really stuck.”

But the term ‘Hadley grass’ has nothing to do with cannabis; that’s another name for the crop that has made Hadley the asparagus capital of the world.

For decades, Hadley asparagus has had the reputation of being served in fine restaurants across the globe. According to mediterraneanliving.com, for many years Queen Elizabeth II served Hadley asparagus at her annual Spring Fest.

Asparagus Festival

More than 8,000 people came out to last year’s Asparagus Festival, set for June 3 this year.
Photo by Erin O’Neill

New England Public Media (NEPM) sponsors the annual Asparagus Festival, scheduled this year for Saturday, June 3 on the Hadley Town Common. While the event is in its ninth year, the festival was not held for two years during COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the event drew between 6,000 and 7,000 attendees. Last year, an estimated 8,000 people came out on a sunny Saturday to enjoy the return of the festival. Vanessa Cerillo, NEPM’s senior director of Marketing, Communication, and Events, expects the same kind of crowd this year.

“The Asparagus Festival is about celebrating the wonderful agricultural heritage of Hadley,” Cerillo said. “We’re excited to produce the event and partner with the town of Hadley for the year-long planning that goes into the event.”

More than 100 local food, crafts, cultural, and agricultural vendors will be represented at the festival’s Farmers and Makers Market. Local breweries will set up in the Beers and Spears tent, while food trucks will be on hand with traditional fare as well as fried asparagus and even asparagus ice cream.

For the first time this year, the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) will take part in the festival, offering free bicycle valet service.

“Everyone who rides their bikes to the festival can leave it with a valet, where it will remain secure while they enjoy the festival,” Cerillo said. “The festival gets so packed with cars that we are encouraging people to ride their bikes to it, if they can.”

Festival attendance is free with a suggested $5 per person (or $20 per family) donation to support public media in Western Mass.


Worth the Wait

In addition to approving a new budget at the Hadley town meeting held in early May, the community unanimously approved expansion of ambulance service. Action EMS provides primary ambulance coverage for Hadley. A second ambulance run by the town will shortly be added due to the call volume, which is affected by those 100,000 drivers who use Route 9 every day.

“We certainly benefit from the entire commercial district along Route 9,” Keegan said. “Because of the high traffic volume, we need to provide services like we are a small city and not a rural hamlet.”

To staff the ambulance, the town will hire two additional firefighters trained as EMTs. Brennan said the ambulance is scheduled to be ready by July 1.

“There’s quite a lot involved when you put an ambulance into service,” she explained. “We spent all of last year outfitting the ambulance, training the staff, getting state approvals, and more.”

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,325
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $11.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.54
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

One long-term project Brennan discussed involves increased maintenance on the West Street levee along the Connecticut River that plays a vital role in flood control for the town.

“The levee is doing its job, but we are continuing to work with engineers to make sure it provides protection well into the future,” she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to achieve FEMA certification, which is a multi-year process.

More immediate town business involves compensation and succession planning. In order to make sure Hadley is paying its employees comparable wages, the town has hired a consulting firm to study compensation. The firm has also been charged with developing a succession plan.

“We have people in key departments who will be looking to retire soon,” Brennan said. “Like many small towns, we have several one-person departments, so we’re getting ready for the number of retirements that are likely to happen in the next few years.”

Another long-term project involves what Keegan called “a big conversation” about housing.

“We are taking a more focused look at our master plan, working with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and with UMass,” she said. “If we are going to expand our housing, we need to figure out where should it go and what should it look like.”

The old Russell School, located across the street from Town Hall, will undergo a feasibility study to figure out the best options for possible reuse. Like many Western Mass. towns with older buildings, the cost of rehabilitation to bring it in line with today’s public building codes can exceed millions of dollars.

“The Russell School is a beloved building with a good number of people who want to preserve it and others who don’t want to spend the money to keep it,” Brennan said, noting that the study will look at options for the town to keep the school, pursue a public/private partnership, or sell it outright to a private entity.

Meanwhile, Route 9 construction continues, with the work moving along on schedule — even if vehicle traffic slows, at times, to a crawl. The project is expected to be completed by 2026.

Despite the current headaches, the investment is necessary, Brennan said, with a wider road and new infrastructure transforming Route 9 in ways that will benefit the town for years to come.

Keegan agreed. “I keep telling people, it will be worth the wait.”


Smoke Show

Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher shows off a few dozen full racks of ribs that are still a few hours from being ready for prime time.
Staff Photo

Unlike many people in the restaurant industry, Bill Fletcher did not grow up in the business. And it was never really his dream to put his name over the door to an eatery.

Indeed, Fletcher ventured instead into the advertising industry, becoming co-owner of a firm, to be called Domani Studios, that eventually grew to 50 employees with offices in Brooklyn and Chicago.

“That was a great time … we did award-winning stuff, all digital-marketing stuff that was new to everyone at the time,” he recalled, noting that this was the start of this century. “All the major advertisers were still trying to figure out how to build a website, and Facebook was just coming into being.”

But while he was helping clients tell their stories, his — career-wise and otherwise — was starting to change, and in a big way.

“On the side, I just started really getting into barbecue,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this interest started small, on the weekends in the backyard, where he would cook for friends and neighbors. Eventually, though, it took him to competitions, mostly in the Northeast, where he would pit his ribs, chicken, pork, and brisket against friendly rivals from across the country.

“I was just obsessed with all that; I would do all this test cooking and travel around the Northeast competing,” he said, referring to the various competitions sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. “They were all-weekend-long things, and they were a party.”

He fared well against those rivals, winning enough prize money — and accolades — to convince him to bid farewell to advertising, sell his share of the company, and use the proceeds to open Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ in its namesake borough of New York City.

Skipping ahead a few chapters in this intriguing story — we’ll go back and fill in the gaps later — he has opened Fletcher’s BBQ Shop & Steakhouse at the site of the former Rinaldi’s in Longmeadow. It was an almost-two-year journey from conceptualization of this enterprise to the first day of operation on April 30, and it was a difficult process, he told BusinessWest.

“We were selling out early of a lot of stuff, which is a unique and tricky thing with barbecue, because it takes forever to cook it, so whatever I had is all I had — you can’t make more.”

But just a few weeks in, he’s already seeing the fruits of his considerable labor.

The new restaurant drew large crowds opening weekend, which became a learning experience on many levels when it came to what people liked — and what he needs to cook more of moving forward.

“We’re still learning the cadence — what sells,” he explained. “We were selling out early of a lot of stuff, which is a unique and tricky thing with barbecue, because it takes forever to cook it, so whatever I had is all I had — you can’t make more.”

Bill Fletcher adds some wood

Bill Fletcher adds some wood to one of the barbecue pits at his new restaurant in Longmeadow, one of his many responsibilities as pitmaster.

Overall, Fletcher is off to a solid start, but, limited by staffing issues, as most all restaurants are, he is easing his way into the local restaurant, and not by choice.

Indeed, his original plan was to be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. For now, it’s just dinner, Thursday through Monday — Mondays, because few of the area’s restaurants are open that day.

“That’s OK … it’s nice to start off slow,” he said. “We can make sure we’re doing everything right.”

For this issue and its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest talked with Fletcher about the road to his new venture on Longmeadow Street and where he believes that road will take him.


Taking it Slow

As he talked with BusinessWest about his venture at one of the front tables in the bar area of the restaurant, Fletcher took a quick break to tend to the fires in the two barbecue pits in the kitchen.

As he opened the bottom door to one of them to add more wood (sugar maple and red oak), he said simply, “I’m the pitmaster — this is my job.”

“I realized that I was spending all my time thinking about barbecue and not being a good president and leader of my crew in advertising. So I spoke to my partner and said it was time for me to get out; I decided I wanted to make this my career.”

Actually, it’s just one of many, he said, as he showed off five dozen full racks of ribs that had been slow cooking for several hours and still had a few more to go before they were ready for prime time.

Fletcher said his days at the restaurant start at 5 a.m. and generally run late into the evening. During that time, he and his team are preparing and then cooking meat, getting appetizers and sides ready for the coming night, and, overall, preparing to welcome guests to what it is in many ways something new and different for the region.

This is the life Fletcher has chosen. Actually, as noted earlier, it chose him as his passion for barbecue moved from the backyard to those competitions across the Northeast to the restaurant he opened in Brooklyn.

It was while taking part in those competitions that Fletcher said he learned that barbecue wasn’t just a hobby, and it wasn’t just a business in waiting. It was, and is, as he put it, “community.”

“You go to these different competitions, and you see some new faces, but a lot of old faces,” he explained. “It’s probably anywhere between 30 and 100 teams competing, and you stay up all night. It takes forever to cook barbecue, so everyone is up all night, sleeping in shifts. It was hard work, but we had a lot of fun and collected a lot of memories.”

it took nearly two years of feasibility studies and buildout

Bill Fletcher says it took nearly two years of feasibility studies and buildout, but his new restaurant is now a reality.
Staff Photo

Making a long story somewhat shorter, Fletcher said he started spending more and more of his time at these competitions, to the detriment of his ad agency.

“I realized that I was spending all my time thinking about barbecue and not being a good president and leader of my crew in advertising,” he explained. “So I spoke to my partner and said it was time for me to get out; I decided I wanted to make this my career.”

He took the proceeds of his buyout and opened Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ in the Gowanus neighborhood of the borough in 2012.

Actually, he was part of a wave of barbecue to hit Brooklyn — three new restaurants opening at roughly the same time — a movement that put his restaurant in the food section of the New York Times within weeks of opening.

“We all opened up within a month of each other,” he recalled. “Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, wrote a piece about us, saying ‘big league barbecue hits New York City,’ and reviewed us all. That was exciting, to be in the New York Times restaurant review in your first month of being open. That was unexpected, and he had some kind things to say about us; that was fun.

“And we won all kinds of awards there — it was a really great run. I was there for a decade … so many great people and great food,” he went on, adding that one key to the restaurant’s success was its operating model, whereby it served as a hub (he called it the ‘hive’), supplying barbecue to other pop-up or market locations.

“We would cook everything in one central location and then send it out to a number of satellites,” he explained, adding that the model worked well, especially in that metropolitan area. “You’re not building five restaurants; you essentially have a commissary, and you’re just sending food out. It was a great model for us.”


Meaty Issues

Eventually, though, Fletcher closed the location. First, he decided he had enough of Gotham and moved upstate. He kept the restaurant going, managing from afar. He then “started dating,” as he put it, and upon “not finding anyone in Upstate New York to my liking,” expanded the search to 100 miles (far for a dating app), which included Longmeadow, where he found what — and who — he was looking for.

“I met my future wife through Tinder,” he explained, gesturing with his hand to indicate that she lived just a few minutes from where he was sitting. When the relationship reached a degree of seriousness, he started looking at where he could open a restaurant in the area.

And after some hard searching and then some “feasibility studies,” as he called them, he eventually settled on the location of the old Rinaldi’s.

“When I walked in here, this place was completely gutted,” he said, adding that a restaurant was planning to move into the site, but those aspirations were derailed by COVID. “I’m completely independent — I don’t have any backing, so I was really concerned about the dollars going into it and whether I could actually pull it off.”

Eventually, the numbers worked, even if the project went 25% over budget, by his estimate, and the restaurant opened more than two years after the first negotiations on a lease began.

Before the opening, Fletcher handled a few pop-up events, including the town’s annual Fall Festival, that provided a taste of what he was getting into — literally and figuratively — as well as some encouraging signs.

“The community was so supportive,” he recalled. “I was selling out in two hours, when it’s supposed to last six. Those events were really encouraging, and I was super excited to be part of all that.”

As noted earlier, Fletcher said he’s still learning what people like most — the ‘cadence,’ as he called it. There’s a note on the restaurant’s website that states hours and then a notation: “please come early, we sell out daily.”

“Trying to figure out what the demand is going to be is part of the trick,” he explained. “And that will take us a little bit of time to figure it all out.”

The menu includes the staples of barbecue — beef brisket, pork (pulled pork and hot links), spare ribs, and chicken, as well as platters with two or three different meats — but also steaks (New York strip, ribeye, and filet mignon) and other choices such as catfish and grits, barbecue ramen, Cajun pasta, pulled pork sandwich, and brisket cheesesteak. Bar snacks and starters include barbecue wings, barbecue nachos, barbecue fries (the menu describes them as a “cult favorite”), hot links with pimento cheese, and spicy shrimp hush puppies.

As for those steaks, Fletcher says they’re unlike anything he believes is offered in the region.

“We’re cold-smoking them 10 to 15 minutes,” he explained. “So they come out raw — they’re just taking in some of our smoke flavor. And then, we’re searing them to order. It is a really complex flavor; it’s really unique. It might not be everyone’s liking, it’s a little smoky, but I think it’s outstanding.

“We’re a little weird,” he went on. “It’s kind of a fancy place — marble tabletops and brass everything — but you can get some sticky ribs and nachos next to a filet mignon and a glass of champagne.”

Looking ahead, Fletcher said he will continue the process of easing his way toward that schedule he originally put on the drawing board.

That means eventually adding lunch, maybe another night or two of dinner, takeout, and catering. He said he will not take the Fletcher’s act to the Big E this year, but will explore making that part of the equation moving forward.

For now, he’s settling in while also keeping the fires stoked — he’s going through two cords of wood a month.

As he noted, barbecue isn’t just food, it’s community, and that’s what he’s bringing to Longmeadow — and the region.

Creative Economy

Collective Soul

By Mark Morris

Hannah Staiger

Hannah Staiger displays her jewelry at the Sawmill River Arts Gallery.

The artists at Sawmill River Arts Gallery in Montague have taken a creative approach — not just to their art, but to how they run their business.

Organized as an artist collective 12 years ago, Sawmill River Arts consists of 15 member artists who run the business and 22 guest artists who display their work on consignment. The distinction between the two is significant. While guest artists share 40% to 50% of their sales with the gallery, member artists make a deeper commitment and receive a larger return.

Each member artist contributes to the rent and agrees to staff the gallery at least three times a month. Members also agree to serve on committees such as finance, marketing, and others that contribute to running the business. In return for their investment in time and expertise, each member artist enjoys a permanent space in the gallery and receives 100% of the sales when someone buys their work.

“All the tasks that one business owner might do, we have 15 people able to do these things,” said Hannah Staiger, a member artist and owner of La Boa Brava jewelry studio. “The gallery is our space that we own and operate together. We all have keys to the front door.”

“We’ve been here for 12 years, and we’ve been successful and growing. Now we’re in a position where we are a full-fledged business, and we have to treat it as such.”

As part of the creative process, artists tend to work alone for long periods of time. Staiger said being a member artist is a welcome opportunity to occasionally get out of her home basement studio and experience life not covered in dust and dirt from making jewelry.

“I get to put on nice clothes and come here to talk with customers and my co-workers,” she said, adding that having member artists also serve as the staff gives the gallery a unique positioning. “When you walk through our door, you interact with the artists who made the work that’s in the gallery. Staffing this way allows us to collectively maintain the store and provide a vital resource for all the members, as well as the 22 other local artists who sell their work here.”

To keep things running, the cooperative holds monthly meetings, but for the daily concerns that come up, email is the main communication tool.

Lori Lynn Hoffer

Lori Lynn Hoffer specializes in oil paintings of landscapes and botanical scenes.

“It can be a challenge to get consensus from 15 people via email to make a change to the gallery or vote a new member into the group,” said Lori Lynn Hoffer, member artist and owner of Waterlily Design, specializing in oil paintings of landscapes and botanical scenes. “While email is time-consuming, we do it to make sure all 15 of us are on the same page.”

As a customer of Sawmill River Arts for many years, Hoffer applied for membership in the collective last year after seeing it go through a positive transformation and deciding that she wanted to be part of that effort.

“I was willing to do the work of staffing the gallery and taking part on the committees because it’s so worth it,” she said. “It’s extremely unusual to be able to get 100% of the selling price for your artwork. When you exhibit at a commercial gallery, they take half of your sales.”

On the day BusinessWest visited Sawmill River Arts, it was Roy Mansur’s day to staff the store. In between helping customers, he was removing storm windows to prepare the gallery for spring and summer traffic.

A nature photographer for three decades, Mansur — a member artist at Sawmill River Arts for the past 10 years — explained why he joined the collective after years of displaying his work in different galleries, stores, and fairs. “The chance to have a wall of my own where I can choose what I want to exhibit was the first big pull to joining the gallery for me.”


Focus on Growth

In early 2020, Staiger applied to become a member artist just before the pandemic lockdown closed thousands of businesses, including the gallery. She wanted to become active with a local gallery when it became apparent that the types of fairs and markets where she usually sold her jewelry weren’t going to open for quite a while.

“I contacted the collective and suggested they reach out to the public during the lockdown,” she said. “I offered to help with online and social-media outreach, which was something they needed.”

Roy Mansur

Roy Mansur was drawn to the collective by the opportunity to display his photographic works in whatever way he chooses.

According to Hoffer, having 15 member artists seems to be the right number to keep the gallery growing. Two new members were recently added after one passed away and another retired. A new-member search committee takes on the job of finding people to apply to be part of the group.

“There’s a whole process involving interviews, deciding who is a good fit based on their art, and what strengths they bring to operating the gallery,” Hoffer said, noting the online experience Staiger brought to the group when she joined. “Hannah is far savvier about social media and online marketing than most of us in the group. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been looking to bring in younger members.”

As an example of new types of art featured at the gallery, Staiger called attention to a rack of printed T-shirts.

“The patterns are from hand-carved wooden blocks that are printed on to the T-shirts,” she explained. “We haven’t had something like this before. This type of art speaks to a younger crowd, and we’re excited to have this artist join us.”

Thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the gallery will look to upgrade its logo and branding. Staiger described it as a bit of a facelift to reintroduce the gallery to the community.

“We’ve been here for 12 years, and we’ve been successful and growing,” she said. “Now we’re in a position where we are a full-fledged business, and we have to treat it as such.”

The group is working with the Homegrown Studio, a local marketing agency known for its work with local farms and small businesses. Homegrown will create a new logo and a new look for the gallery. “Our vision is to create a modern local art gallery,” Staiger said.

Hoffer added that part of the branding effort will involve reaching out to locals as well as out-of-towners to make it easier to find Sawmill River Arts.

“From the universities to the prep schools, it’s not unusual to see students and parents who are not from the area,” she said. “We have an extraordinary destination, and we love it when they visit.”

The art gallery is one of several businesses located in the Montague Bookmill complex. In addition to the art gallery and the bookstore, there are two restaurants — the Watershed (sit-down dining) and the Lady Killigrew Café (pub atmosphere) — as well as a music shop, Turn it Up! The entire complex faces the Sawmill River, which can be heard rushing by in the background.

“We have art, music, books, and the river,” Hoffer said. “With lots of outdoor seating, it’s a real draw for people who want to get out of the house and see other people who also care about all these things.”


Picture This

Staiger said the mill complex is an iconic New England location makes people feel like they’ve stumbled upon it.

“Many people who come here for the first time feel like they’ve discovered this oasis in the middle of Western Mass.,” she said.

If all goes to plan, many more people will be discovering Sawmill River Arts, and the entire mill complex, for themselves … and maybe bringing home a unique piece of local art, too.

Nonprofit Management

Things Are CLICing


Jennifer Connelly shows off the wall

Jennifer Connelly shows off the wall in the wall that is the symbolic start of work to create JA’s new Career, Leadership & Innovation Center.

It was officially called a groundbreaking, but Jennifer Connelly says it was more of a “wallbreaking.”

Indeed, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, representatives of the many sponsors involved with the project, and other VIPs took turns swinging a large sledgehammer at a wall just off the entrance to the Tower Square offices of Junior Achievement (JA) of Western Massachusetts.

The hole they left behind is still there more than a month later, a poignant symbol of the work — at least the physical construction work — soon to commence on what is being called the Career, Leadership & Innovation Center, or CLIC, a facility that will focus on those first three words with a number of intriguing programs.

Indeed, the center will help students identify career options and make smart decisions regarding post-secondary education; expand their thinking and skill development, thus better preparing them to be future leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators; and provide them with the skills and knowledge that will allow them to make informed and effective decisions with their financial resources.

“For the past 10 to 15 years, the board has talked about having a center where people could come and learn about careers.”

JA is creating the center in collaboration with MassHire Hampden County, the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, other agencies, and several area employers, said Connelly, and is designed to address a gap when it comes to educating young people about careers and the paths to them.

“We found that there’s a piece missing in the pipeline when it comes to inspiring young people to have careers here in the region,” said Connelly, adding that the center will enable students to learn about and then explore options in fields they may not have been thinking about. In that respect, it will help open doors for young people while also helping to put workers in the pipeline for businesses across every sector of the economy, from healthcare to manufacturing.

In a way, this is a groundbreaking (there’s that word again) new initiative for JA of Western Massachusetts, said Connelly, and in another way … it isn’t. Indeed, while the CLIC is new, it’s also a throwback of sorts to what JA was decades ago — a place where young people could come to learn about business, actually make and then sell products, and gain financial literacy.

An architect’s rendering of the new Career, Leadership & Innovation Center.

“This is what JA used to be — and that’s what I like best about the center; this will be a place that students can come to,” she said, adding that, while JA of Western Massachusetts has been going into area schools for decades now, it hasn’t had a site that young people can come to since the ’80s.

Work on the CLIC is set to commence in the coming weeks, and the facility is scheduled to open in mid-September. Over the first nine months or so of operations, more than 750 junior-high and high-school students (up to 25 at a time) are expected to visit the center, spend the better part of a day there, and gain new insight into careers, how to attain them, and much more.

The project has drawn a number of supporters, including the city of Springfield, Beveridge Family Foundation, Balise Auto Group, M&T Bank, Country Bank, PeoplesBank, TD Bank, and Savage Arms, who have helped meet the $400,000 cost of the project.

A capital campaign will be staged over the next several months to raise the balance of what’s needed for the initiative, Connelly said, adding that the agency is hoping to gain the support of more area businesses, and is scheduling site visits for those interested in learning more about its mission and how it will be carried out.


Learning While Doing

Connelly told BusinessWest that the CLIC was conceptualized in the fall of 2021 amid what she considered an obvious need for a facility that would not merely take JA back to its roots in many respects, but also help to better prepare young people for life, careers, and the many challenges involving both.

And the need has been there for some time, she went on.

“For the past 10 to 15 years, the board has talked about having a center where people could come and learn about careers,” she said, adding that the idea came off the drawing board and into reality with the help of those aforementioned sponsors and a desire for JA to play a pivotal role in helping to solve the workforce needs of employers while also putting young people on a path to not just jobs, but careers.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno takes a swing at the wall that will be coming down to make way for the new center.

As plans for the CLIC began to materialize, she said, a search commenced for a space. Many options were considered, but eventually those at JA concluded they had everything they needed — space-wise, at least — in its suite of offices on the mezzanine level at Tower Square.

The 3,045-square-foot facility will be reconfigured and furnished for the new center, she noted, adding that the CLIC will include a number of components, including:

• A learning lab that will provide student groups with what Connelly called a “starting point for their career exploration journey.” It will also be a space to promote JA’s financial-literacy curriculum;

• A collaboration hub, which will provide groups with a space for interactive work, problem solving, and critical and creative thinking. The space will include modular seating, whiteboards, breakout laptops and tablets, and a leadership library; and

• A manufacturing lab, a makerspace that will provide young adults with the tools and programs to explore and accelerate a career in the manufacturing industry. The CLIC steering committee is currently working with local manufacturers to determine the best resources for the space, Connelly said, adding that equipment may eventually include 3D printers, a flow forge, a Cricut suite, hand tools, soldering kits, and STEM kits.

Overall, the CLIC will provide experiential learning opportunities for middle- and high-school students, said Connelly, adding that, by engaging students in hands-on experiences and reflection, “they are better able to connect theories and knowledge learned in the classroom to real work situations.”

And such connections are needed at a time when many young people need exposure to careers and the paths to them, she noted, adding that, for middle-school students, visits to the CLIC may help them with the all-important decision of deciding which high school to attend.

As she talked about a visit to the CLIC, Connelly said it will be preceded by completion of JA Inspire Virtual, a career-exploration program designed to highlight careers and educational opportunities in the region. At the center, students will participate in a seminar led by guest speakers from local businesses, and then rotate through the modular-based learning experiences at the learning lab, collaboration zone, and manufacturing space — followed by a working lunch with financial-literacy activities.

The center will also be open after school for students interested in pursuing entrepreneurial interests by operating their own student company. And in the evening, the center will be available to community organizations and local employers as a hub for learning and collaboration.


Bottom Line

Turning back the clock maybe 50 years or so, Connelly noted that what is now JA of Western Massachusetts was an agency, but also a place where young people from schools across the area could come and, through its ‘company’ program, form a business, make a product, and sell it.

Through the CLIC, JA will be able to provide that kind of experience again, she said, adding that, while the center is a blast from the past in some respects, it is really all about the future — as in the future of thousands of area young people and the area businesses that will, hopefully, employ them.


— George O’Brien