Daily News

HOLYOKE — Holyoke Community College (HCC) will welcome U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren to campus for a town-hall-style meeting on Sunday, June 25.

Warren will talk about current issues and answer questions from the audience from 1 to 2 p.m. in the HCC Courtyard. In the event of inclement weather, the town hall will be moved into the HCC Campus Center. Doors open at noon.

According to a statement from Warren’s office, the senator is expected to answer questions, give updates on what she’s fighting for in Washington, and discuss the most pressing issues facing Massachusetts and the nation.

The event is free and open to the public, and admission is first come, first served. Tickets are not required, but an RSVP (at hcc.edu/warren-townhall) is strongly encouraged.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Elizabeth Dougal has joined Bulkley Richardson as counsel in the Trusts & Estates department, where her practice incudes preparation and administration of wills, revocable and irrevocable trusts, personal-effects memorandum, durable powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, real-estate deeds, homestead exemptions, and small-business succession plans.

For the past 19 years, Dougal ran a boutique legal practice providing clients with estate planning and related transactional work. She was also a consultant to estate, trust, and elder-care clients in several states through the Attorney Resource Center. She earned both a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, and a juris doctorate from Boston College.

“Our Trusts & Estates practice continues to thrive, and Elizabeth’s arrival at the firm is evidence of our commitment to engaging stellar lawyers to handle all of our clients’ most sensitive personal and business matters,” said Dan Finnegan, managing partner at Bulkley Richardson.

Daily News

WARE — Country Bank congratulates Dianna Lussier, vice president of Risk, on her recent graduation from the American Bankers Assoc., Stonier Graduate School of Banking.

The ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking continues to lead the way as the industry’s preeminent graduate banking program. Professional development is important now more than ever, and Stonier delivers the highest standard of executive education through its highly regarded program, the bank noted. Graduates receive both a Stonier diploma and a Wharton leadership certificate.

“During the past three years, I gained valuable insights into leadership, innovation, ethics, business strategy, and change management,” Lussier said. “I’ve learned new perspectives and skill sets and built meaningful connections with leaders in the banking industry across the country. I know these connections will be a great resource for me throughout my career. Thank you to Country Bank for providing me with this opportunity to advance my leadership and other developmental skills that will make a difference in my career, for my team, and the bank.”

Miriam Siegel, FSVP, chief Culture & Development officer, added that “we couldn’t be prouder of Dianna for her dedication to the completion of the American Bankers Association Stonier School of Banking. She has worked hard over the course of this three-year program designed to enhance her leadership skills as a banker, a risk professional, and a thought leader for the bank. Dianna has always been enthusiastic about the learning opportunities offered by the bank through her career at Country Bank, and we are appreciative of her continued commitment to excellence.”

Daily News

NORTH ADAMS — The Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) awarded Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) $1 million to fund the college’s new bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program. The grant will support the first two years of the program by supplementing its curriculum development and funding the cost of a simulation lab coordinator; nursing journals, textbooks, and testing software; and Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing fees.

MCLA’s BSN program received approval from the Board of Registration in Nursing in January and approval from the Board of Higher Education in March. The program will launch in the fall of 2024 and graduate its first class in 2027. It is the first BSN program in Berkshire County and the only four-year nursing program in the rural tri-state area of Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont.

The curriculum will integrate MCLA’s liberal-arts foundation with required courses in the humanities and natural and social sciences to complement theoretical and clinical courses in professional nursing. Nursing faculty will utilize a simulation lab to provide hands-on learning experiences for students in a controlled environment.

The EOHHS Home and Community Based Service (HCBS) and Human Services Workforce Development Grant Program is set to award up to $42.5 million in grant funding for training, recruiting, and retaining initiatives that support HCBS and the human-services workforce in Massachusetts. The program helps fund training organizations that develop healthcare professionals, including direct-care staff, nurses, behavioral-health staff, and community health workers. This mission aligns with MCLA’s goal to address the rural nursing shortage and the critical healthcare needs in Berkshire County through the creation of a BSN program.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Package Machinery

Plans are moving forward for a large warehouse facility on the former Package Machinery complex.

For more than 35 years now, the property at 330 Chestnut St. in East Longmeadow, known colloquially as the Package Machinery complex, has been the subject of question marks about what will come next there.

Indeed, while there have been sporadic uses of portions of the sprawling property, especially its massive warehouse facility, over the years, it has been mostly vacant. The once-mowed acreage adjacent to the administration and production facilities is completely overgrown with weeds and other forms of vegetation. And the large ‘X’s on the front of the property instruct fire crews not to enter because it has been deemed unsafe to do so.

So the questions persist — only, these days, months after a controversial plan to build a large warehouse facility there were first unveiled, and weeks after the plan was approved by the town’s Planning Board with a lengthy list of conditions, they are somewhat different in nature.

Now, the questions mostly concern what these conditions, including one requiring a right turn out of the property, will mean for certain areas of the community, including its downtown and famous (make that infamous) rotary, and other communities, including neighboring Enfield and Longmeadow. They also concern whether these conditions will be altered and new ones added, and even whether the project will hold up under potential litigation from residents.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families.”

The matter will be the subject of a reopened public hearing on June 20, said Planning Board Chairman Jon Torcia, adding that, when it voted to approve the project in May, the board noted the concerns about traffic and noise, but ultimately concluded that this was a use allowed within that zone, and one that should be approved, with conditions.

Overall, 2023 is shaping up as a possible watershed year for this growing community of more than 16,000 residents.

Indeed, beyond the controversy over the future of 330 Chestnut St., there is also the matter of a proposed new high school for the town, one with a sticker price now north of $177 million, with the town’s share expected to be roughly $120 million.

The matter is due to come up for a vote on Election Day, Nov. 7, and to say this a huge vote for the community would an understatement.

The current high school opened its doors in 1960 and is the last of the high schools built in this region during that time that is still standing. Some see the high school as a potentially limiting factor in the town’s ability to compete with other surrounding communities for families, current students, and even businesses. Meanwhile, the building is very much energy-inefficient at a time when municipalities are moving to build schools and other facilities that move in the other direction.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families,” said School Superintendent Gordon Smith, adding that, if voters approve the measure in November, ground would likely be broken in the summer of 2024, with the new building, to be built on athletic fields behind the current facility, to be ready for occupancy in the fall of 2026.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

But despite its aging high school and its uncertain future, East Longmeadow remains a popular landing spot for both families and businesses, especially with a uniform tax rate.

“The town has become very desirable,” said Bill Laplante, owner of Laplante Construction, a residential builder with offices on Main Street. And he speaks from experience — he grew up in East Longmeadow, graduated from its high school, and raised a family there. “When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

Elaborating, he said that, while there are more building lots in this town than in neighboring Longmeadow or many other communities, the inventory certainly isn’t what it was years ago. This means lots that become available in the few subdivisions being built go quickly, and the prices of existing homes move higher (more on all this later).

Beyond the warehouse and high school, there are some other big decisions that might be made in 2023, including what to do with another long-vacant property: the former home of Carlin Combustion Engineering on Maple Street. It is due to be acquired by the town, said Town Manager Mary McNally, adding that a request for proposals will likely be issued. Meanwhile, there are plans on the table for renovating one of the town’s gems, Heritage Park, plans that might move off the table — or not, depending on a number of factors, including the high-school project and its cost to the taxpayers.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at East Longmeadow and the many important decisions that will likely be made this year.

 

Developing Stories

As noted earlier, the property at 330 Chestnut, across the street from the Lenox manufacturing facility, has been a declining eyesore, and a source of seemingly endless speculation, for many years.

It appeared that an answer had been found several years ago, when a development group, East Longmeadow Redevelopers LLC, put plans on the table for a mixed-use facility, or ‘village,’ as it was called by some, one that would include housing and commercial uses. Those plans were conceived just before the start of the pandemic, said McNally, adding that the project essentially died on the vine amid COVID-related issues such as spiraling costs and supply-chain woes, as well as disagreement between the developer and the Town Council over how much of the space would be devoted to commercial uses.

“When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

In its place, East Longmeadow Developers LLC proposed the large warehouse facility — more than 500,000 square feet in size, with 100 docking bays — which has drawn considerable opposition from residents, especially those in an over-55 luxury condo development called the Fields at Chestnut, citing increased truck traffic and noise.

The project is allowed, from a zoning perspective, and the Planning Board approved the proposal, with approximately 20 conditions, earlier this spring, Torcia said. One of those conditions, mandating a right turn out of the property, away from the Fields of Chestnut, was not discussed at earlier hearings, he noted, adding that it would certainly be the focus of discussion at the public hearing slated for June 20.

The developers have estimated there will be roughly 400 vehicle trips per day at the site, he said, adding that he believes that most of these trucks will take a second right — rather than a left and head for the center of town — and proceed to highways through roads in Enfield and Longmeadow.

“I think this project will bring benefits in that it will rehabilitate a blighted property that has not been operational for quite some time,” he explained. “But we did hear from people who spoke at the meetings who were rightfully concerned about an increase in traffic, going from a property where there’s been no activity to one with considerable activity.”

Mary McNally

Mary McNally says there’s plenty of support for a new high school, but there are also cost concerns.

There has been no activity, or very little of it, at the Carlin Combustion site for the better part of a decade, said McNally, but that could soon change now that the town is acquiring the property from its current owner.

She noted that motorists navigating Maple Street at or above the posted speed limit might not even notice the property, with its overgrown weeds and rusting signs hinting at its former use. But it has not gone unnoticed by town officials or the authors of the master plan, who have identified it as a potential asset.

East Longmeadow at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 16,430
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.20
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.20
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lenox; Cartamundi; CareOne at Redstone; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center
* Latest information available

Indeed, there are many possible future uses for the property, said McNally, adding that some would like it devoted to open space — it abuts a rail trail and a rail depot converted into an ice-cream parlor — or as home to a new public-safety complex, while others, and she puts herself in this category, would like to see housing of a more affordable variety than most all of the homes currently being built in this community.

“I think housing is the best option, and the Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options,” she explained. “There are a lot of new homes going up for $600,000 and $700,000; a lot of people who live here would like to stay here and perhaps downsize from a $200,000, $300,000, or $400,000 home into something smaller.”

 

School of Thought

When asked what plan B might be if residents do not support the proposal to build a new high school this fall, Smith, said that, in essence, there isn’t one. Or at least one that makes sense, in his opinion.

The only option for the town would be to spend an estimated $120 million to renovate the school and bring it up to modern codes, he said, adding that this isn’t much of an option.

Elaborating, he said that, through two phases of a feasibility study and feedback from residents and other constituencies, the town has moved to the point where new construction has been deemed the best option.

“The public feedback was ‘you might as well go for new construction because of some of the challenges that have been identified,’” he said, noting, as one example, that if the town were to upgrade the HVAC system to bring it to code, doing so would decrease the room size because of the need to create new walls to fit the HVAC equipment that would go between those walls.

“The Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options.”

He said the town has been talking about a new high school for at least a decade. Over those 10 years, the price tag has only increased, and the current projections — and these could change with final design — is approximately $177 million, with $55 million to $57 million to be reimbursed by the state.

This will obviously be a large burden on the taxpayers, said McNally, adding that, for a small community like this one, “the numbers are frightening.”

The exact impact on the tax rate hasn’t been determined, she said, adding that some estimates put the hit at $1,000 annually for the average taxpayer. Overall, she said it is difficult to project how November’s vote will go.

“There’s a lot of support for the school; I think everyone acknowledges, or most people acknowledge, that it’s needed. But then there’s the cost barrier. But in the absence of a new school, I’m not sure we can compete as well with Wilbraham and Longmeadow, both of which have relatively new schools.”

Meanwhile, a project of this size and scope might impact or delay other capital projects, such as long-needed, long-talked-about improvements to Heritage Park.

Indeed, McNally produced a thick file folder detailing roughly $7 million worth of improvements that include a new recreation center, an indoor gym, walking trails, dredging the pond, athletic fields, and more.

“We need soccer fields and play areas,” she said, adding that soccer fields at the Lenox complex, used by the town for years, are being converted to solar farms, and other facilities will no longer be available for public use. “Unfortunately, the school vote has somewhat tapered my encouragement of the progress of some of these other projects because you can’t pay for everything at the same time.”

Despite some of these municipal issues and question marks moving forward, East Longmeadow remains a community in demand. That’s true on the commercial side — many area banks have located branches there over the past decade or so, for example, and Chase, which is renovating a property in the center of town, is the latest to join that list — and on the residential side as well.

Indeed, Laplante said building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

“You do a search for available building lots in town, and you find that there really aren’t that many,” he said. “There are scattered lots that are in established neighborhoods, but you don’t see many available building lots in a neighborhood setting.”

Still, there some new homes being built, including one his company is handling in a new subdivision off Prospect Street called Bella Vista. Overall, Laplante has built three of the homes in the complex — another high-end development where the lots are absorbed quickly, which in many ways reflects what’s been happening in this community over the past several years.

 

Franklin County

Putting the Focus on Community

Thomas Meshako

Thomas Meshako says Greenfield Savings Bank plans to grow organically and with a strategic expansion of its footprint.

Thomas Meshako acknowledged it was a quite a change moving from the large, regional institutions where he worked the first 30 or so years of his career in financial services to Greenfield Savings Bank.

But it’s a change he wanted.

“I decided I wanted to get out of the buying and selling of banks and really wanted to become part of the community — something I always felt was missing when you’re working in a bank and dealing with mergers and acquisitions and always trying to make the next quarter’s earnings,” he said, noting that most of the banks he’s worked for have been absorbed by larger institutions. “I wanted to be at a bank where we invested in the future, for the long haul, and that cares about the community it serves.”

He’s found all that GSB, where he arrived in 2016 as chief financial officer and serves now as president and CEO, new titles he was awarded late last fall following the search for a successor to John Howland.

Since arriving, and especially since becoming president and CEO, Meshako has been out in the community, taking part in events ranging from the Hatfield Bonfire music festival fundraiser to Northampton’s Pride Parade to Tapestry Health’s recent auction. As he talked with BusinessWest, he was gearing up for the Green River Festival, the massive three-day music fest (Little Feat is among the headliners) set for June 23-25 in Greenfield; the bank is a major sponsor.

He’s been at so many events, especially on weekends, that he’s spending far less time at his cabin in Vermont than he expected to be, but he acknowledged that “this is where I need to be.” By that, he meant Greenfield and GSB, an institution that crashed through the $1 billion assets mark in 2020 and is now focused on the next milestones — $1.5 billion and $2 billion — and what it will take to get there.

“When I looked at Greenfield Savings, I decided that it’s where I wanted to be. It’s a little different, but it’s exciting to work for a bank that was growing.”

The bank was celebrating its 150th anniversary when it passed the $1 billion milestone; when asked when he thought GSB might get to $2 billion, he joked, “sooner than 150 years.”

Elaborating, and turning more serious, Meshako said the bank plans to grow organically, and he is looking at expanding its footprint, specifically in Hampshire County, where five of its 10 branches are located. He didn’t pinpoint specific communities for new branches, but did say they would be towns deemed ‘underbanked’ by recent feasibility studies.

Meanwhile, GSB will be rolling out some new products, including a new rewards program for debit-card users, and continually upgrading its technology, with a new online product for loans and deposits, for example, to stay current and provide customers with what they want and need.

“Most people are looking for more convenience to bank from home, and we’re trying to make sure we offer that,” he said, adding quickly that brink-and-mortar branches, which provide visibility and other forms of convenience, are still a big part of GSB’s growth strategy.

For this issue and its focus on Franklin County, BusinessWest talked at length with Meshako about his new role, his long-term outlook for GSB, and his thoughts on Greenfield, Franklin County, and how this gem of a region is making major strides when it comes to economic development — and as a destination.

 

Generating Interest

As he talked with BusinessWest, Meshako gestured out the windows of GSB’s main conference room toward the other side of Main Street and the properties on either side of the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, one of the signature redevelopment projects of the past decade in this community.

“Just a few years ago, most of those storefronts were vacant,” he said, noting that they are now occupied, with everything from a book shop to a pop-up store that are, collectively, contributing to a new sense of progress and vibrancy in this city of almost 18,000 residents.

The GSB senior management team

The GSB senior management team includes, from left, Lori Grover, Mark Grumoli, Thomas Meshako, Steve Hamlin, and Shandra Richardson.

And there is more coming, he said, noting the highly anticipated redevelopment of the former Wilson’s Department Store, a few blocks down Main Street from the bank, into a mix of retail (specifically the Green Fields Market) and housing, which he believes is sorely needed in this community.

“Availability of housing is very tight in Greenfield and all of Franklin and Hampshire counties,” he explained. “This is something we desperately need, and that’s one of the reasons why this project is so exciting.”

Getting involved in a community at this level was an element missing for most of Meshako’s career, one that, as noted earlier, was marked mostly by work at larger, regional banks that have since been absorbed by larger institutions.

Most recently, he served as chief financial officer of Merchants Bancshares in Burlington, Vt., a commercial bank with branches throughout Vermont and the Springfield market. Prior to that, he served in several positions, including principal financial officer, at Brookline Bancorp in Boston. There were also stints at Union Bankshares in Vermont and Chittenden Corp. and the institution that acquired it, People’s United Financial.

After nearly three years at Merchants Bancshares, Meshako was a looking for a new and different challenge, and found it at GSB.

“When I looked at Greenfield Savings, I decided that it’s where I wanted to be,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a little different, but it’s exciting to work for a bank that was growing.”

And it has continued that growth pattern, he said, noting that the bank posted record earnings in 2021 and 2022. It won’t continue that streak this year amid spiraling interest rates that are negatively impacting both the residential and commercial loan portfolios and tightening margins, but it will be another solid year, he said.

And while achieving solid growth on the bottom line, the bank has also been able to increase its contributions within the community by 10% a year since he arrived — a pattern of improvement Meshako is committed to continuing.

Looking ahead, he said the bank has essentially ruled out additional expansion in Franklin County, where there are currently five branches, and instead will focus its sights on Hampshire County, where GSB currently has a physical presence in Northampton (two branches), Amherst (two branches), and Hadley (one location).

“We’re always the number-one lender in Franklin County, and we’re now the fourth-largest lender in Hampshire County,” he explained. “And we hope to continue to grow that market share as well. Within the Five College community, there is a need for housing, and being primarily a commercial real-estate lender, that’s a niche that I think we can fill; we’ve done very well there.”

GSB has conducted feasibility studies on which communities would make suitable landing spots, he went on, adding that he considers some communities underbanked because of some of the recent mergers and acquisitions which have left fewer banks in some markets and larger institutions in others.

In the case of community banks, and especially this one, the investment — and the commitment — in a new location involves much more than brick and mortar that goes into the actual branch building.

“We don’t just put a branch up … when we move into a community, we give to the local organizations, we hire local people, and we try to make sure that everything we do makes us part of that community,” he explained. “So it’s more expensive than just opening a branch or putting people in a location.”

 

By All Accounts

Getting back to that view out the conference-room windows, Meshako said Greenfield, and Franklin County as a whole, is seeing progress on many fronts, from tourism to Greenfield’s downtown, which has many new businesses and projects in various stages of development, from a new town library and fire station to the aforementioned Wilson’s redevelopment initiative.

“Greenfield is on its way up; it has a lot of character, and I hope it continues to grow and evolve,” he told BusinessWest, citing not only the new building projects and the new storefronts, but a greater livability — and relative affordability — that is attracting residents and entrepreneurs alike. “The people moving here want to be part of a community, and that’s what they find — community.”

And he believes more people are finding it these days, and will be finding it in the future, especially as technology, and changing attitudes in the workplace, enable more people to live where they want and work where they want at the same time.

“Because more people are now able to work remotely, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of people buying properties and moving to Greenfield,” he said, adding that, while this trend will certainly impact housing prices in the long run, it will also bring more support businesses, hospitality-related ventures, and general vibrancy to the region.

As Meshako talks about his bank, its plans for the future, and its involvement in the community, and also as he talks about Greenfield and the many positive developments there, it’s clear why he made that career change seven years ago.

As he said, he wanted to be at a bank that didn’t just have a mailing address on Main Street, but a stake in everything that that is happening on Main Street — and many other streets as well.

As Meshako said, it was a big change, but a change he wanted — and needed — to make.

And he has never looked back.

Construction

Pathway of Progress

An aerial view of part of the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail.

An aerial view of part of the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail.

 

A study initiated by the Norwottuck Network to assess the benefits of the completion of the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail (MRCT) system predicts that general health and wellness would improve and annual trail usage could quadruple, creating opportunities for overnight visitation, new jobs, increased local small businesses, and an overall economic benefit ranging from $87 to $182 million annually.

The nonprofit Norwottuck Network raised $75,000 to commission the study by Kittelson & Associates Inc. of Boston and Cambridge Econometrics of Northampton to evaluate the potential use and health and economic benefits of completing the 104-mile, multi-use bicycle and pedestrian trail system that runs east-west between Boston and Northampton along the historic Massachusetts Central Railroad corridor.

Findings outlined in “Envisioning a Statewide Connection: Mass Central Rail Trail Benefits Study,” released in mid-May, indicate that completion of the trail would result in increased usage of up to 4 million to 5 million people annually and reduced health costs from $4.1 to $5.8 million per year. On the economic side, a completed trail would create $87 to $182 million per year in new economic activity, including $55 to $114 million in new spending by trail users and up to 1,250 new jobs.

Leaders of the nine-member Norwottuck Network board, founded in 2000, will now ask the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to evaluate construction costs and create a timeline for completion.

Currently, 55 miles of the trail are officially open, with roughly 20 miles in the planning or construction stages. Challenging sections of the trail to be completed include areas where bridges are missing, trail segments that will need to be purchased from private owners, and needed repairs to a 1,000-foot tunnel near the Wachusett Reservoir.

A completed Mass Central trail would eliminate those barriers and open those sections, and also link the rail trail system to 18 additional existing and under-development rail trails, creating a 273-mile trail network within the state of Massachusetts.

“These long walking and biking trails produce a lot of benefits. The question was, is it worth spending public money? This report unequivocally says yes, it will be worth it.”

Craig Della Penna, president of the network board, said the DOT recently conducted a study to evaluate the feasibility of reassembling segments of the Mass Central Rail Trail into a unified trail system and released findings in 2021; no action was taken because the benefits had yet to be assessed.

“This report is the next step,” Della Penna said. “And we are not surprised by these findings. These long walking and biking trails produce a lot of benefits. The question was, is it worth spending public money? This report unequivocally says yes, it will be worth it.

“Consultants never overestimate benefits in an analysis,” he added, noting they are more apt to underestimate. “There are no negatives. Tourism is the third-largest industry in the state. A completed trail would allow people to bike right out of their neighborhood and explore the state in a way they’ve never been able to do before.”

Kittelson & Associates noted that the completed network would be within 10 miles of 64% of all Massachusetts residents and would offer a boost to 19 cities and towns defined by the consultants as gateway communities — those that face social and economic challenges but retain assets such as infrastructure or major institutions.

Among the gateway communities that would benefit are Barre, Billerica, Clinton, Easthampton, Hardwick, Hatfield, Lunenburg, Marlborough, New Braintree, Oakham, Palmer, Saugus, South Hadley, Southampton, Southwick, Ware, Warren, West Boylston, and West Brookfield.

The unequivocal positive impact on these gateway communities was the one surprise for Della Penna in the report. “This is a way to focus on making these communities better,” he said. “The state can’t help you improve your house, but it can help you improve your community. This is an infrastructure project that improves communities, helps to improve health outcomes, and will generate a significant positive economic benefit.”

 

Evolution of a Trail

Trains running along the Massachusetts Central Railroad traveled between Boston and Northampton, serving residents and industry through the early 1900s, until struggles with maintenance, negotiations over ownership, and damage from the hurricane of 1938 led to the railway’s eventual decline.

The MCRT began to form in 1980 when the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management each purchased unused sections of the railroad corridor from the Boston & Maine Railroad.

The first section of the Mass Central Rail Trail was a segment called the Norwottuck Rail Trail. Completed in 1993, the Norwottuck Rail Trail segment between Northampton and Amherst was instantly popular.

“The state can’t help you improve your house, but it can help you improve your community. This is an infrastructure project that improves communities, helps to improve health outcomes, and will generate a significant positive economic benefit.”

In 1995, community leaders and volunteers in several Central Mass. communities formed Wachusett Greenways, a nonprofit with a goal to develop the Mass Central Rail Trail segment in the Wachusett region, including Sterling, West Boylston, Holden, Rutland, Oakham, and Barre. Their work inspired other communities to build their own sections of the MCRT corridor.

Kittelson & Associates said investments in multi-use trails throughout Massachusetts have provided meaningful economic and health benefits, and long-distance, continuous trails have greater impact. They attract through-cyclists and overnight visitors, which, in turn, results in increased spending on lodging and restaurants.

As part of its study, Kittelson & Associates surveyed current Mass Central Rail Trail users, receiving responses from more than 2,000 participants. These are among the findings:

• If the trail is completed, 26% of current users would use the MCRT for shopping, 16% to commute to work, 5% to commute to school, and 86% to access parks and other features;

• Ninety-three percent of respondents anticipate using the MCRT more frequently and traveling on the trail for longer distances; and

• Almost 50% would take a multi-day trip.

Other findings were based on economic and health results associated with use of the Erie Canalway Trail in New York and the Great Allegheny Passage in Maryland and Pennsylvania. These trails generate $253 million and $121 million per year, respectively, so the planners on the team of consultants estimate the MCRT could generate between $117 and $212 million annually.

“The MCRT shares many characteristics with these two trails, including similar tourism opportunities,” the report notes. “It would connect historic towns and improve access to outdoors destinations, such as rural areas outside of the Quabbin Reservoir area and in the Connecticut River Valley.”

The MCRT has an additional benefit in that it connects numerous rail trails in the Boston metropolitan area as well as Northampton and Amherst, which provide a second population anchor that will encourage travel along the completed route. One of the 18 trails that connects to the MCRT is the longest interstate rail trail in New England, the New Haven & Northampton Canal Greenway.

 

Broad Impact

Existing trail systems generate 1.3 million annual visits, with 15,000 overnight trips, giving Kittelson & Associates cause to estimate the completed MCRT would bring between 4.1 million and 5.5 million visitors, including 120,000 to 390,000 overnight visits.

Visitors to the existing MCRT currently spend about $19 million annually, and spending is expected to increase to between $74 million and $133 million annually for the completed MCRT.

The completed MCRT could also generate an increase of $87 million to $182 million from the economic activity associated with the existing sections of the MCRT, including up to roughly 1,500 new jobs, for total economic activity estimated at $117 million to $212 million.

Della Penna, a longtime advocate of rail-trail systems said of the study and next steps, “it’s big, and it’s ongoing.”

More than 10,000 volunteers across the state are involved in developing bicycle and pedestrian trails in the state. To read the report detailing the benefits of linking the undeveloped segments of the Mass Central Rail Trail into one unified multi-use trail across Massachusetts, and to learn more about the MCRT, visit masscentralrailtrail.org. To learn more about the Norwottuck Network, visit nnnetwork.net/about-us.

Accounting and Tax Planning

Calling for a Recount

By Kara Graves, CPA

 

On Feb. 23, 2023, the Department of Labor, the IRS, and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., in conjunction with the Employee Benefits Security Administration, released requirement changes to Form 5500, Annual Return/Report of Large Employee Benefit Plans, and Form 5500-SF, Annual Return/Report of Small Employee Benefit Plans.

There are many changes to Form 5500 for 2023. One of the more critical changes relates to how the participant count is calculated at the beginning of a plan year. The count is used to determine whether a plan requires an audit by an independent accountant. Typically, a benefit-plan audit is required for all large plans with more than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year.

 

Old Rule

Before Jan. 1, 2023, the participant count included both active employees eligible to participate and terminated, vested employees with balances still in the plan. Using this calculation method, plans needed to include all employees currently employed and eligible for the plan, regardless of whether they were participating in the plan.

“Effective Jan. 1, 2023, plan sponsors will only need to consider participants (active and terminated) with account balances when calculating the number of participants at the beginning of the plan year. This means those active employees eligible to participate who have never contributed to the plan and/or received employer contributions will not be counted.”

Kara Graves

Kara Graves

Under the old rule, an audit was required for a plan with 100 or more of both active employees eligible to participate and terminated, vested employees with account balances. Even if a plan had fewer than 100 participant accounts with balances, an audit could still be required due to the eligible and not-participating employees.

 

New Rule

Effective Jan. 1, 2023, plan sponsors will only need to consider participants (active and terminated) with account balances when calculating the number of participants at the beginning of the plan year. This means those active employees eligible to participate who have never contributed to the plan and/or received employer contributions will not be counted. As a result, some plans might be able to file as a small plan.

 

What’s Next?

Plan sponsors should be aware of these changes and review their plan counts closely with their third-party administrators under this new methodology for the 2023 plan year. Plans with fewer than 100 plan account balances as of Jan. 1, 2023 (for calendar-year-end plans) will not need an audit, even if they previously did under the old rules.

What does this mean for plans that are hovering around the 100 account-balance mark during 2023? If your plan has 100 or more participant account balances on Jan. 1, 2023 (calendar-year-end plans), an audit is still required for 2023, but there are some steps that can be taken to reduce plan participants for Jan. 1, 2024 (the next plan audit measurement date for calendar-year-end plans).

Plan sponsors should be reviewing terminated employees with participant account balances of $5,000 or less. The plan sponsor should review with their third-party administrator the existing plan provision that allows the plan to force out terminated participants with balances of $5,000 or less. This plan provision could be utilized to reduce the participants with balances, which could potentially remove the audit requirement in the future.

 

Kara Graves, CPA is a senior manager and the Employee Benefit Plan Audit Niche leader at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Insurance

Sound Investment

By Hub International

 

Financial wellness is no longer just being a nice thing for employees or a way to help recruiting and retention — it’s an important tool for improving profits.

The demand from the workforce is clear. A recent survey indicated only 42% of employees feel compensation has kept up with higher living expenses, compared with 52% a year earlier. The same survey indicates that 19% of employees are looking for a new job primarily to improve their compensation.

With numbers like these, a strong financial-wellness program can have a significant impact on your bottom line.

Here are three ways financial wellness can improve the bottom line:

1. It drives down the cost of turnover. Losing employees is an expensive proposition. While estimates vary, it can cost more than $4,000 to replace an employee in terms of upfront ‘hard’ costs, while in terms of other costs, the price can be in multiples of salary. In addition, organizations lose the institutional knowledge of an experienced worker, which drives turnover costs higher through training and loss of productivity.

At the same time, 65% of workers have felt stressed regarding their finances due to the COVID pandemic, leading to increased turnover and lower productivity. Among employees who feel financial worries have hurt their productivity, two-thirds are struggling to meet their household expenses. One-quarter have saved less than $1,000 for retirement; more than half plan to postpone their retirement.

Given the high cost of employee turnover, it’s in employers’ best interest to improve employee financial well-being. Student-loan debt-management plans and financial coaching can lessen young employees’ stress of paying the bills, while improved education on retirement planning will lessen workers’ fears of the future.

2. Financial wellness lowers stress and boosts morale. Financial wellness does far more than lower turnover: almost half of financially stressed employees say money worries have had a negative impact on their mental health.

Given the connection between financial wellness and mental health, employers can consider offering financial coaching alongside mental-health resources. Employees are likely to respond to one-on-one financial coaching via phone or video chat because of the personal and confidential nature of their financial issues.

3. It boosts productivity. Even when financial issues don’t take a toll on employees’ mental health, the stress still reduces productivity. About 40% of workers say they’d be more productive if they didn’t have to worry about their personal finances while on the job, and employees spend around one-quarter of their time at work coping with financial issues.

Employers who promote financial-wellness programs (HUB’s FinPath is but one example) can reap tangible gains in employee focus and productivity. Mandated education on budgeting, debt management, and building emergency savings shouldn’t be considered an expense or loss of productive time, but an investment in worker well-being that will have a long-term impact on the bottom line.