Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Nominations are now open for the Springfield Regional Chamber’s 2023 Super 60 event. This year, Super 60 is reimagined and expanded with newly configured categories, providing an opportunity to honor more deserving businesses and nonprofit organizations within the Greater Springfield region.

Super 60 seeks to recognize and celebrate businesses that have achieved remarkable success and made significant contributions to the region, as well as nonprofit organizations that have displayed selfless dedication to serving the community through exceptional programming and support.

Carol Campbell, president and CEO of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, reflected on the company’s 2022 Super 60 wins, noting that, “in the face of the worst pandemic and an unpredictable business cycle, our company not only survived but emerged stronger and better than ever before. Winning in two Super 60 categories was a truly special moment, celebrating our resilience and success during such a difficult time.

“Being recognized by your peers is the greatest honor, and certainly, as a marketing tool, it increased exposure,” Campbell added. “It has amplified our reputation and credibility in the industry, opening doors to new opportunities and partnerships. The recognition has undoubtedly played a crucial role in our continued success.”

The Super 60 2023 categories are:

• Revenue Award, recognizing companies for total revenue in the latest fiscal year;

Growth Award, recognizing companies for revenue growth over a consecutive three-year period;

• Start-Up Award, recognizing companies that have been in business for five years or less and have achieved revenue growth over a full three-year period;

• Non-Profit Award, recognizing nonprofit organizations based on the percentage of their total spending dedicated to programs; and

• Give Back Award, recognizing companies that give back to the community, emphasizing the impact of their charitable work and employee engagement in their efforts.

“We are thrilled about this year’s Super 60 event,” said Diana Szynal, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber. “The expanded categories allow us to celebrate the incredible diversity and innovation within our business community. As we continue to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic, we believe it’s more important than ever to shine a spotlight on the achievements and resilience of our local businesses and nonprofits. I encourage everyone to submit their nominations as soon as possible.”

Interested businesses and nonprofits can submit their nominations until Friday, Sept. 8, and the Super 60 luncheon will take place on Thursday, Nov. 9 at the MassMutual Center.

The Super 60 luncheon attracts more than 500 business leaders each year. Super 60 sponsorships are now available. For information, call (413) 755-1309 or email Szynal at [email protected]. Click here for full eligibility guidelines and to submit a nomination.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Bulkley Richardson announced that 15 lawyers from the firm were recently selected by their peers for inclusion in the 2024 edition of The Best Lawyers in America. These lawyers were recognized in 24 unique areas of practice. They are:

Peter Barry: construction law, healthcare law, and education law;
• Kathy Bernardo: real-estate law;
Michael Burke: medical malpractice law (defendants) and personal-injury litigation (defendants);
Mark Cress: banking and finance law, bankruptcy and creditor-debtor rights/insolvency and reorganization law, and corporate law;
Francis Dibble Jr.: bet-the-company litigation, commercial litigation, white-collar criminal defense, labor and employment litigation, and securities litigation;
Daniel Finnegan: administrative/regulatory law, construction litigation, and construction law;
Scott Foster: business organizations, including LLCs and partnerships;
Mary Jo Kennedy: employment law (individuals) and employment law (management);
Kevin Maynard: commercial litigation, banking and finance litigation, and construction litigation;
David Parke: corporate law and mergers and acquisitions;
Jeffrey Poindexter: commercial litigation and construction litigation;
John Pucci: bet-the-company litigation, general-practice criminal defense, and white-collar criminal defense;
Jeffrey Roberts: corporate law and trusts & estates;
Michael Roundy: commercial litigation; and
Ronald Weiss: corporate law, mergers and acquisitions law, and tax law.

Lawyers who are nominated for consideration are voted on by currently recognized Best Lawyers working in the same practice area and located in the same geographic region. Lawyers on The Best Lawyers in America list are reviewed by their peers based on professional expertise, and recognitions are based purely on the feedback received.

Daily News

MONSON — Monson Savings Bank recently made a $1,000 donation to Springfield’s Hispanic-American Library in support of its newly established event, the New England Latino Festival.

The festival will take place at Riverfront Park in Springfield on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 25-26. The first-time festival will celebrate New England’s vibrant Latino community through food, music, and more. The event will bring together individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds and age groups, with an expected attendance of 12,000 visitors.

“On behalf of the Hispanic-American Library, I would like to extend a warm thank you to Monson Savings Bank for their generous donation,” said Juan Falcon, executive director of the Hispanic-American Library. “This donation will help to ensure the festival is an unforgettable experience. The festival will showcase Latino culture, and all proceeds will be used to help secure a larger space for the library so that we can better serve the community. We are grateful for our friends at Monson Savings.”

Dan Moriarty, Monson Savings Bank President and CEO, shared his excitement for the New England Latino Festival being in Springfield and how the event is a great opportunity to bring communities together.

“We are incredibly grateful for our relationships with organizations like the Hispanic-American Library that are committed to promoting diversity and inclusion among our communities,” Moriarty said. “The New England Latino Festival happening in Springfield is exciting and provides a chance for people to come together and celebrate the vibrant culture that makes this area great. We are thrilled to sponsor this event and are looking forward to the festival.”

Daily News

HOLYOKE — The Cannabis Education Center at Holyoke Community College (HCC) will begin its fall schedule of industry training programs on Oct. 14-15 with Cannabis Core: Foundations of the Industry, a two-day, introductory cannabis course.

A second fall session of Cannabis Core is set for Dec. 2-3. All classes meet over Zoom on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The fall calendar also includes a cannabis-industry job fair at HCC on Thursday, Nov. 9 from 4-7 p.m. in the PeoplesBank Conference Room on the third floor of the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development on the main HCC campus, 303 Homestead Ave.

“The growing cannabis industry in Western Massachusetts has sparked a demand for innovative approaches to address the unique employment needs of this emerging sector,” said Cara Crabb-Burnham, co-founder and director of education at Elevate Northeast, one of HCC’s partners. “As the region experiences a surge in cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and retail enterprises, the necessity for specialized talent and a skilled workforce has become evident. Cannabis job fairs play a crucial role in bridging the gap between job seekers and employers within this industry and offer a platform for individuals to explore diverse career opportunities.”

The Cannabis Core program provides an overview of the cannabis industry in Massachusetts and is geared for people looking for general knowledge as they consider a cannabis career. The program is a foundational course and a prerequisite for career-track courses, such as culinary assistant, patient-service associate, cultivation assistant, and extraction technician.

The cost of the Cannabis Core training is $599; scholarships are available to those who qualify. To register, visit hcc.edu/cannabis-core or contact Jeffrey Hayden, HCC vice president of Business and Community Services, at [email protected] or (413) 552-2587.

Cover Story

President Says It’s Been a ‘Journey,’ but Casino Is in a Good Place

President and COO Chris KelleyPhoto courtesy of MGM Springfield

President and COO Chris Kelley
Photo courtesy of MGM Springfield

In most respects, Chris Kelley says, five years isn’t a long time when it comes to the life of a casino.

But as he quickly draws an analogy to an automobile, or an individual, for that matter, he notes that it’s not the years that count, necessarily … it’s the miles.

“And we’ve run a lot of mileage through the odometer,” Kelley, president and COO of MGM Springfield, told BusinessWest.

By that, he meant that the nearly $1 billion facility in the city’s South End has seen and experienced a lot since it opened to considerable fanfare in late August 2018, enough to make it seem as though it has been in operation much longer than five years.

At the top of that list, of course, is the global pandemic that closed the facility’s doors for four agonizing months and also forced a number of operating changes, some of which have actually paid dividends in some respects.

“We had significant changes on our gaming floor in ways that I never would have predicted could have been possible before COVID,” he said. “We have close to 1,000 fewer slot machines than we did when this property opened, yet we’re making significantly more; we have fewer table games, but we’re making significantly more; we have fewer poker tables, but we’re making significantly more.

“So what we have found is that, through COVID, guests really developed a preference for spacing and the way we arrange and offer our amenities,” he went on. “And the end result is a floor that is much less populated than it was before, but it is much more attractive to our guests. We see that with visitation, and obviously we see it on the gaming end as well.”

But there has been evolution beyond the pandemic, he noted, listing everything from huge changes to the competitive landscape, starting with the opening of Encore Boston Harbor and continuing with other additions in neighboring states, to the introduction of sports gambling in the Bay State, to a lingering workforce crisis that currently leaves the casino with 200 open positions, some of which place limitations on which facilities, especially restaurants, can operate, and when.

“We have close to 1,000 fewer slot machines than we did when this property opened, yet we’re making significantly more; we have fewer table games, but we’re making significantly more; we have fewer poker tables, but we’re making significantly more.”

Through all of this — and, again, it adds up to a lot of miles — MGM has emerged after five years in what Kelley described as a fairly good place, while there is still certainly room for improvement.

He notes that the past three quarters have been the best, from a gross gaming revenue (GGR) respect, since the casino opened. Meanwhile, sports betting has brought additional revenue and an intriguing new element to the operation, as well as a good deal of anticipation as a new NFL season begins in less than a month.

On the entertainment side of the equation, the casino continues to build on a solid track record of success, he said, with recent shows featuring Bruno Mars, Carlos Santana, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and a recently announced show presenting Jon Stewart, John Mulaney, and Pete Davidson, set for Sept. 8.

“The MGM Springfield comeback story is alive and well,” Kelley said, noting that this comeback, from the pandemic and everything else, is ongoing. “We have had a pretty extraordinary journey, starting with the parade down Main Street in August 2018; the introduction of a new competitor in Encore Boston Harbor; the closure from the pandemic, something that no one could have anticipated; the impacts from COVID following the closure; the introduction of sports betting; and where we sit now, with record results. At the same time, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of entertainment that we’re bringing into the city, levels that we haven’t seen in decades.

COVID have made MGM more responsive to the wants and needs of members and guests.

Chris Kelley says some of the lessons learned, and changes made, because of COVID have made MGM more responsive to the wants and needs of members and guests.

“We look back with a lot of gratitude and look forward with a lot of optimism,” he went on, adding that, while the current picture is fairly bright, there is ample reason to believe there will be continuous improvement, in part because of the many lessons learned over the past few years. “It has been a journey, and I’m very optimistic as we look ahead.”


Doubling Down

Kelley has nearly three decades of experience in the casino industry. Reflecting on those years, he said he’d never been home on New Year’s Eve before — a huge day in this business — and certainly never expected to be in 2021.

But after casinos were allowed to reopen in July 2020 after a COVID-forced shutdown, there were several restrictions placed on those facilities, most of them without precedent. And one of them of them is that they had to close at 9:30 p.m., even as the world was ushering in a new year.

“In a 24-hour business, I had never experienced a New Year’s Eve at home when the clock struck midnight, but that’s exactly what happened,” he told BusinessWest. “We had to reinvent ourselves.”

Reflections on New Year’s Eve at home, and not on the casino floor, is one of countless elements that contribute to Kelley’s comments about miles on the odometer when it comes to this facility’s first five years of operation. Looking back over those five years, and especially his three and half years at the helm, he said they have been a challenging time, but also a learning experience, with some lessons coming unexpectedly during the pandemic, which was, overall, an experience without precedent in the industry.

“The time period that was most impactful was what we went through during COVID,” he said. “We had our challenges even prior to the closure in March of 2020, but we had no expectation of a long closure when it happened. I don’t think anyone did; we thought this would be a short-term impact, and we wound up being closed for four months.”

During that time, the company decided it would, despite not seeing any revenue whatsoever, continue to make the payments to the city outlined in the host-community agreement inked prior to opening.

“That was the first really challenging decision that we had, and it was very difficult to make,” he recalled. “I’m proud of the fact that we made the right decision, which was to continue those payments without question.”

“We have learned, and we have grown, and we have improved, and we’ve done that to the enhancement of the guest experience.”

When the casino reopened in July, he went on, those at the casino knew it would not be business as usual, and as it made mandated adjustments, especially with regard to social distancing, some key lessons were learned.

Kelley refrained from using the phrase ‘silver linings,’ but said there were certainly some good things that came out of the pandemic and that reinvention process he mentioned earlier.

“Ultimately, that has been a great teacher for us; it has been a great benefit for us as operators,” he explained. “We have learned, and we have grown, and we have improved, and we’ve done that to the enhancement of the guest experience.

“One of the reasons why I think we’re seeing record results now is because we’re focused, first and foremost, on the experience of our guests from the minute that they walk through the door,” he went on. “And we’re using that that as a differentiator against a much larger competitive set; we’re competing against two of the largest properties on the planet in Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun and also against Encore Boston Harbor, with a metro population of 5 million versus the 150,000 we have in Springfield.”

Elaborating, and returning to his thoughts on the benefits of a less-crowded gaming floor, Kelley said the team at MGM Springfield is focused less on the volume of offerings and more on having the “right” products, such as the hugely popular Dragon Link and Lightning Link slots.

“We have a very dynamic floor — we’re bringing in new product all the time,” he said. “And we’ve adjusted the spacing on the banks, so when you sit down at a game now, you have a lot more room, you have a lot more visibility — lines of sight to other games — and people really enjoy that.

“Prior to COVID, a lot of the thought process had been, ‘let’s get as many games, as many tables, as you possibly can in any area of the floor,’” he went on. “What we’ve found is that this is not the most effective use of the space.”

These sentiments, he said, are reflected in GGR figures from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which show total slot and table GGR of $22.2 million in June, $23.35 million for May, $23.7 million for April, $24.1 million for March, and $23.3 million for the short month of February, continuing a solid run for the casino.

Q1 of 2023 was the best quarter the facility has had since it opened, Kelley said, adding quickly that Q4 in 2022 was the second-best quarter, and Q2 of this year was the best second quarter the casino has recorded. “We’re on a run of the three best quarters in our history,” he said, adding that COVID restrictions were in place through Q1 of 2022, meaning that, once those restrictions were lifted, the numbers started to dramatically improve and outperform even those months before Encore Boston Harbor opened.


Odds Are

Moving forward, Kelley believes this run can continue as the casino continues to apply the lessons learned during the pandemic, keep its floor dynamic, market itself aggressively, and create draws to bring guests to the South End facility.

“We do things here that we don’t do anywhere else in the company,” he explained. “Probably the best example is that there is not a Saturday night when we’re not giving a car away; you often see that done on a monthly basis or a quarterly basis — we do it on a weekly basis. So our marketing efforts have become very aggressive and very focused.”

Another element in the recent success formula that will continue is a hard focus on the overall guest experience, personalizing it as much as possible.

MGM’s music and comedy shows

MGM’s music and comedy shows have been a key contributor to vibrancy in Springfield’s downtown, and the casino’s promotions have generated buzz as well.
Staff Photo

“We recognize that we compete against properties that have more hotel rooms, more slot machines, and more restaurants, so the only way we win is by providing a better experience for our guests, a personalized experience that begins when they walk through the door. We have focused our training and our attention on guest service, getting to know our guests, and personalizing their experience when they’re here, and the combination of those three things has been very effective.”

Overall, Kelley said, it takes three to five years for a casino property to “come to life,” as he put it, and reach a certain level of stability. He believes MGM Springfield is at that point, although he quickly noted that the ramping-up process is not done yet.

“I think we’re through a lot of the initial learnings — we packed a lot of life into a short amount of time; we learned a lot, and we’ve changed a lot,” he noted. “That said, particularly in the post-COVID environment, I don’t think you ever stop ramping, and by that I mean that we’ve learned the impact and the importance of a dynamic operating model and bringing continuous improvement into the daily operation in a meaningful way.

“When I think of ramping, I think of making positive change tomorrow that positively impacts the guest experience,” he went on. “From that sense, I don’t think we’re done with by a long shot. This is a property that has not seen its best day, and it’s up to us to continue to change in positive ways to realize that.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge moving forward when it comes to continuous improvement is on the labor front, Kelley said, noting that those 200 openings he mentioned earlier are about three or four times what the number would be in what would be considered a normal labor market.

“And this does impact what we can offer and when we can offer it,” he told BusinessWest, noting that this is especially true with food and beverage operations, which are particularly vulnerable when positions go unfilled or when existing employees call in sick, leaving teams short-handed.

“Our restaurants are all open, but not every restaurant is open every day of the week,” he said, adding that this is not uncommon within the industry and a situation certainly exacerbated by the ongoing workforce issues.

As for sports gambling, he said there is not enough hard data to gauge its overall impact on operations and revenues, but anecdotally, he said it is certainly having an impact, especially when it comes to bringing new life to what had been a quiet corner of the casino floor, where a multi-million-dollar sports lounge has been created.

Kelley noted that, while the majority of sports wagers are made on mobile apps, the lounge has become a destination for Super Bowl Sunday, March Madness, the Kentucky Derby, and other prominent sporting events.

“That place just blows up when you have a big game,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to the first full NFL season since sports gaming was introduced, noting that pro football is hugely popular, not only from a fan perspective, but a gaming perspective as well.

Time will tell how that NFL season impacts the sports lounge … and whether the casino can continue what those who gamble would call a hot streak.

But Kelley is certainly optimistic. As he said, it’s been a journey, one in which many miles were put on the odometer. But the road ahead would seem to be clear, and with fewer hills to climb.


Cannabis Special Coverage The Cannabis Industry

What’s Next for Cannabis?

Payton Shubrick

Payton Shubrick says she understood she was entering an increasingly challenging market for cannabis sales when she opened her doors last year.

By the time Payton Shubrick opened the doors to 6 Brick’s Cannabis Dispensary in Springfield last fall, she was well aware of how challenging the business was becoming.

“The market is getting tougher across the board in Massachusetts,” she told BusinessWest. “Gone are the days when you could open a dispensary and just have people lined up. Gone are the days when cultivators could guarantee sales. We’re seeing that you must earn customers’ loyalty and have a competitively priced product and have decent quality to do well in the Massachusetts market.

“I’ve been able to see growth with my company, despite coming online in September of 2022, when prices had just fallen by over 30%,” she added. “So we essentially started with less-than-ideal conditions, but it’s not all doom and gloom.”

Because Springfield set out a long, rigorous process to open a dispensary, Shubruck had time to witness a total evolution of the Massachusetts cannabis market; when she first applied for a permit, the few dispensaries that were open saw an early ‘green rush’ of customers; though the industry’s onerous tax and regulatory burdens and tight profit margins never made it easy money, exactly, the early shops took advantage of a clearly favorable supply-and-demand picture.

“We essentially started with less-than-ideal conditions, but it’s not all doom and gloom.”

By the time Six Brick’s opened, the landscape was considerably more cluttered; prices, as Shubrick noted, were falling; and some shops were struggling.

Those struggles have turned into actual contraction. The first Western Mass. dispensary to close, back in December, was the Source, on Strong Avenue in Northampton, a city with nearly a dozen retail cannabis shops. But it was Trulieve’s departure from the market that will resonate more broadly; the national company closed its three retail locations in the Bay State at the end of June, and is also closing its 126,000-square-foot growing, processing, and testing facility on Canal Street in Holyoke — another city that invested heavily in the new cannabis trade.

“These difficult but necessary measures are part of ongoing efforts to bolster business resilience and our commitment to cash preservation,” said Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers said. “We remain fully confident in our strategic position and the long-term prospects for the industry.”

At the same time, several proposed cannabis facilities in Western Mass., including one planned for the former Chez Josef banquet house in Agawam, have been scrapped due to an inability to secure financing amid dramatically changing market conditions.

“The market is correcting itself,” Shubrick said, reflecting a throughline seen in all states that legalize cannabis. “A lot of folks raked it in during the green rush. But only 24% of cannabis companies in the U.S. are profitable. So you actually have to view this as a business. You can try to increase volume and think that’s going to fix the problems, but the market has matured in a real way. And now, other states are coming online.”


High Stakes

Erik Williams, chief operating officer at Canna Provisions (see sidebar on page 20), explained that a typical dispensary needs to take in about $6 million in top-line revenue annually in order to break even. “A whole bunch of companies are not there. They’re sitting on big tax bills without the cash flow, and they’re going to close under the weight of taxes; we’re seeing that right now across the state.”

He also noted the 24% profitability figure, and said anyone coming into the market should be aware of it.

Steven Lynch

Steven Lynch says cannabis businesses doing things the right way and for the right reasons will survive any contraction in the sector.

“There’s a survivability factor we’ve written about from day one. We were the second adult-use-only store in Massachusetts to open [in Lee], and there’s definitely a sort of glory time which happens with every new market, where the demand outstrips the supply, and businesses are just opening their doors and slinging weed,” he said. “They saw pie in the sky, and they have not operated their business with real-time controls over every dollar they’re spending. It’s a tough thing.”

Simply put, too many cannabis businesses in Massachusetts based their business plans on supply-and-demand figures that no longer exist, he added. “There’s a lot more competition. The pie is always growing, but competition is far outstripping the growth of the pie, so you’re seeing price compression.”

Williams agreed with Shubrick that a dispensary must be run like a business from day one, with hard decisions around every dollar spent — or the enterprise will fail.

“If you’re at the point where you have to readjust everything, it’s almost too late,” he said. “Really tough business decisions need to be made across the board. We’re seeing how other companies are failing, and one of the first analyses is what it takes to be profitable as a standalone dispensary. A bunch of different people have run a bunch of different numbers, and when it comes down to it, the consensus is $6 million.”

So, how does one succeed in this environment? Shubrick has some ideas.

“At Six Bricks, we have a clear focus on who the customer is, and we’re focused on our competitive advantages, which are the cannabis experience over transaction, having knowledgeable staff, and being an option for conscious consumers who want their dollars spent close to home,” she explained, noting that the pandemic years taught people the value of spending their money with local businesses, and those lessons could carry over to cannabis. “There’s still a lot of work to be done with social equity for businesses, but consumers can support more a more equitable industry by what brands they support and where they spend their money.”

Erik Willaims

Erik Willaims

“There’s a lot more competition. The pie is always growing, but competition is far outstripping the growth of the pie, so you’re seeing price compression.”

Steven Lynch, director of Sales and Marketing at SaveTiva Labs, agreed about the appeal of strong, local brands.

“I see a lot of parity with when the big-box stores, the Home Depots and Lowe’s, first came to the market. It was great because they had these big stores you could go in, but ultimately, you’re not going to get the service that you’re going to get from your local hardware store,” he told BusinessWest. “So you saw a lot of stores go away initially, but then you saw a whole wave of small mom-and-pops come back into the market because they did things completely from a quality, service, and educational standpoint.

“I think that’s what’s going to happen in cannabis,” he went on. “The people who had no business doing this, or got into it for the wrong reasons, will fall by the wayside, and the people that that are doing it for the right reasons, the right way, are going to continue to flourish.”


Blazing a Trail

For Shubrick, ‘the right way’ is reflected in the 6 Brick’s tagline, “people, plant, and purpose.”

“People — how can we help show that cannabis can be a part of an individual’s wellness routine? Plant — how can we make this more of a cannabis experience than a transaction?” she explained. “And lastly, purpose — we want to be a viable option for those in the community that want diversity of price point and diversity of products. I can’t overemphasize the community aspect of it. You can try marketing to pull customers out of Connecticut, but it’s the local community that’s going to show up every day, whether they’re buying a pre-roll or a present for a friend.”

Though Springfield’s licensing process was slow and rigorous, she noted, it’s a plus for operators that there’s not a shop on every corner, as opposed to cities like Holyoke and Northampton that allowed many more licensees.

“We’re the third-largest city and have only four dispensaries; that does prevent what we’ve seen in Worcester and Northampton, which is a race to the bottom in terms of providing a product. Many customers are saying they want it as cheap as possible. The reality is, that hurts the entire supply chain and drives prices so low, it compromises quality.”

That ‘race to the bottom’ has occurred in other states where cannabis was legalized, but the assumption is that the market will eventually level out — and not everyone will survive.

“A lot of folks made the assumption that cannabis companies just open the doors, and people show up,” Shubrick said — and at the earliest-opening shops, like NETA in Northampton, they certainly did. “I never anticipated 100 people show up on day one. I knew it would be a slow climb. The first 15 companies to open their doors, some of them now have to make a comeback because the product wasn’t great or they didn’t have the right people.”

It’s not an unusual track in other business sectors, she added. “Car dealerships and restaurants rise and fall, and the same is happening in cannabis. A lot of naive operators thought they were untouchable because there was this pent-up demand and a thriving black market. But that’s not the case. Couple that with the realities of 280E, and this is not for the faint of heart.”

She was referring to Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids businesses from deducting otherwise ordinary business expenses from gross income associated with the ‘trafficking’ of Schedule I or II substances, as defined by the Controlled Substances Act; cannabis is a Schedule I substance.

According to the National Cannabis Industry Assoc., “federal income taxes are based on a fairly simple formula: start with gross income, subtract business expenses to calculate taxable income, and then pay taxes on this amount. Owners of regular businesses often derive profits from these business deductions. Cannabis businesses, however, pay taxes on gross income. These businesses often pay tax rates that are 70% or higher.”

“Most companies spend a dollar to get $1.10, and you’re ten cents up,” Williams said. “Here in the cannabis business, because of the 280E tax situation, you need to make $3.50 for every dollar you’re spending just to break even. That changes the math in a really big way.”

It also changes the way cannabis companies do business, he added, returning to those earlier thoughts about closely tracking all spending. “Being tight with advertising dollars and watching ROI on every dollar you’re spending is super important.”

Canna’s model, as a vertically integrated company that cultivates product as well as selling it, helps stem those tides, he noted. “Doing cost analysis is a little different, but you also are putting things through your stores at much higher margins. If you’re controlling your supply, you have more control over your business. We’re seeing it happen right now.”


Rolling with the Changes

Shubrick said it was worth navigating a thorough licensing process to open a cannabis shop, alongside her family members, in her hometown. “If I wasn’t selected in Springfield, I wouldn’t have picked up and gone to another city or town.”

It’s an example of the thoughtfulness that must accompany entering a very challenging cannabis marketplace in Massachusetts, especially now.

“Companies come in, and they’re not profitable, and they can’t pay back the tax bills. So they have to close,” Williams said, echoing not only the stories of the Source and Trulieve, but other casualties to come. “But their consumers don’t go away; they go elsewhere. So the lesson from the contraction of the market has always been that the survivors are going to do better long-term.”


Weathering the Storm: a Resilient Path Forward

By Meg Sanders


We are at the precipice of a significant contraction in the cannabis market, not confined to Massachusetts alone, but reverberating across the U.S. and even globally. As business owners navigating this turbulent landscape, it is essential to recognize the imminent challenges — in particular the ones staring down cannabis across the Commonwealth — prepare to face them, and, more importantly, cultivate a hopeful vision for the future.

Let’s begin with third-party vendors, the cogs in the machine that keep your cannabis enterprise running smoothly. We must ask ourselves: how do these vendors weather the storm if they lose 30% of their business suddenly? If a small vendor employing just six people experiences a 20% revenue loss from a key account, what could that mean for the business?

These are not mere speculations. These scenarios are unfolding right now, causing ripples across the industry. It’s a risk-management issue that warrants our immediate attention.

Meg Sanders

Meg Sanders

“It’s critical to identify how exposed our vendors are to the same downturn we’re grappling with, especially if their clientele consists primarily of cannabis companies.”

As we sail through these choppy waters, we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We need to question the depth and financial security of our vendor base, especially since many struggling businesses might not be able to pay their bills. The aftershocks of such downturns typically hit marketing, advertising, and street teams the hardest. But what does that mean for us, the business owners who rely on these very vendors?

Imagine your vendor pool as a ship’s crew, each playing a vital role in keeping your business afloat. What happens if your vendor’s ship starts sinking? The ripple effect could capsize your own vessel, and that’s a scenario we must guard against.

Indeed, there’s a sense of camaraderie in this industry. We are all in the same boat. When one sinks, we all feel the tremor. It’s critical to identify how exposed our vendors are to the same downturn we’re grappling with, especially if their clientele consists primarily of cannabis companies. The domino effect could span from your point of sale to merchant services, banking, all the way down to your graphic designer.

We have to play the long game, keeping our eyes on the horizon and the changing tides. Let’s envision a situation where you’re sourcing packaging from a company whose revenue is all cannabis-related. What happens when it loses 20% of its business overnight? What does that mean for your buying abilities, purchasing decisions, their supply chain, and your overall purchasing power and profit and loss (P&L) statements?

To chart a path through this storm, we must adopt a three-dimensional approach to risk management, particularly for those selling cannabis products wholesale to local companies. The strain on accounts-receivable departments is a testament to the rising pressures within the industry. Payments aren’t arriving on time, and some aren’t arriving at all, affecting everyone from packaging and label companies to small cannabinoid providers and cultivators.

But amidst this storm, there’s hope. And here’s the silver lining: we can mitigate these risks with strategic planning and robust backup systems. By identifying alternative vendors, knowing their offerings and lead times, we can prepare for any disruptions in our sensitive systems. We need to ensure that we’re not left without a resource simply because we didn’t think far enough down the track.

This contraction isn’t just a challenge; it’s an invitation to innovate. To think differently. To challenge the status quo. Industries shift, technologies evolve, and we must keep pace. We need to think about all the ways a contraction impacts everyone: vendors, landlords, municipalities. The effects when a cannabis company exits a market or closes its doors are far-reaching.

Even as we’re witnessing companies in Massachusetts entering receivership, it’s not a time for despair. It’s a time for planning, for taking stock of where we stand and where we aim to go. Think about your ‘what-ifs,’ and devise your backup plans. Be ready to replace a critical item on your menu if it goes away. Be prepared to find an alternative source if your main provider hits financial turbulence.

This is not a doom-and-gloom narrative. It’s a story of resilience, of weathering the storm, and emerging stronger. It’s about recognizing opportunities amidst adversity, shoring up your P&L, and seizing the chance to negotiate better pricing with your vendors. Many might be willing to partner with you to push through these challenging times in that way, and the worst thing that happens is they say no. That’s just good business practice, no matter the state of the industry. Always make sure you’re checking where every dollar is going, from your expenses to getting quotes on best prices.

So, in these uncertain times, let’s remember one thing: hope is not lost. Even in the face of contraction and economic downturn, there’s an opportunity for those vigilant and ready to adapt. And as we navigate this storm together, we can create a more resilient, more robust industry ready for a brighter future.

We are, after all, in this together.


Meg Sanders is CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee.

Architecture Environment and Engineering Special Coverage

What Goes Around…


Frank Antonacci, left, and Jonathan Murray

Frank Antonacci, left, and Jonathan Murray have been leading many different constituencies on tours of the MRF in Berlin, Conn.

Frank Antonacci says he’s lost track of how many tours he’s led of the All American Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Berlin, Conn., which handles material from across the Nutmeg State and Western Mass.

“Suffice it to say, it’s a big number,” said Antonacci, a principal with Murphy Road Recycling, an operator of several recycling facilities, which, in partnership with Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, suppliers of the system’s equipment, opened the state-of-the-art facility in early 2022.

Since then, in addition to overseeing this intriguing operation, which processes more than 50 tons of recyclable material an hour, Antonacci and Jonathan Murray, director of Operations for Murphy Road Recycling, have been leading individuals and groups through the massive facility to show them what goes on there and why this operation is among the most advanced of its kind in the country — and the world, for that matter.

And there have been many different constituencies donning the bright orange vests, hardhats, and audio systems needed to hear and be heard over the din of countless conveyer belts and sorting machinery. These include elected officials, business leaders, public-works crews, press members (including BusinessWest), and, perhaps most importantly, representatives of the companies that buy the recyclables — and many of them have made the trip to Berlin.

What they take in is a facility that was built with three primary goals in mind: to increase the quantity, quality, and purity of recyclables; to provide an innovative and safe working environment; and to have the flexibility to adapt to ever-evolving consumer habits (more on that later) and recycling market conditions.

And more than a year after it opened to considerable fanfare, this MRF is accomplishing all three, especially with regard to the purity of recyclables, said both Antonacci and Murray, noting that this is something that communities, states, and those buying the recovered products are demanding.

“Today’s curbside material isn’t what it was 10 or 15 years ago. Then, it was heavy on newspaper and relatively clean. Today, everyone reads news online and orders everything from the internet. Today’s stream is full of small cardboard boxes and shipping envelopes and requires that we, as recyclers, innovate and change our thinking around the sorting of recyclables.”

The fully integrated system, replete with artificial intelligence and high-tech scanners, is dedicated to the maximum recovery of all recyclable material, with several second-chance mechanisms in place to make sure valuable material doesn’t slip through the cracks, said Murray, adding that the design includes state-of-the-art equipment to target paper, cardboard, boxboard, glass, and five types of plastic.

Elaborating, he said the system first separates paper from aluminum and other metals and plastic and then digs deeper to identify and sort different types of plastic, such as the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used to make water and soda bottles, and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) used to make food and beverage containers, shampoo bottles, cleaning-product bottles, and similar products.

“The optical scanners are trained; they’re learning all the time to know what the makeup of a PET bottle is,” Murray explained. “If a scanner’s job is to pick PET bottles, it knows it by reading the makeup of the bottle. Everything else travels on to the next optical scanner, which may be looking for HDPE or milk jugs or laundry detergent bottles; it scans for those and shoots those out.

Murray Road Recycling’s MRF

Frank Antonacci says Murray Road Recycling’s MRF has “moved the industry forward a generation” with its design.
Staff Photo

“The scanners are actually looking for the makeup of what’s in that material,” he went on. “It shoots a blast of air to kick it out or leave it in, and they’re trained at the factory and adjusted, so if we’re seeing a higher level of PET in the mix than HDPE, we can make adjustments so it will recognize that quicker and make sure we’re getting it all out.”

For this issue, BusinessWest toured the massive facility in Berlin and talked with Antonacci and Murphy about this operation, the evolving recycling market, and how the Berlin MRF redefines what would be considered state-of-the-art in this industry.


Leaving Little to Waste

Murray calls it the “Amazon effect.”

That’s a term he and others in this industry use to describe the influence of that giant corporation on life in general — and especially the world, and business, of recycling.

“Today’s curbside material isn’t what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” he noted. “Then, it was heavy on newspaper and relatively clean. Today, everyone reads news online and orders everything from the internet. Today’s stream is full of small cardboard boxes and shipping envelopes and requires that we, as recyclers, innovate and change our thinking around the sorting of recyclables.”

And these sentiments effectively and concisely explain what the All American Material Recovery Facility is all about — innovation and changing how people think about recycling and waste-disposal diversion.

“We took a significant amount of risk and leveraged our expertise, as well as a very strong team, to develop what we have here.”

The facility, and the roughly $40 million invested in it, represent another entrepreneurial venture, and gambit, undertaken by the Antonacci family, which was recognized by BusinessWest as its Top Entrepreneurs in 2018 for their creation of an eclectic and highly successful stable of businesses, with ‘stable’ being one of the operative words.

Indeed, this large and impressive portfolio includes a horse farm, Lindy Farm in Somers, which has bred and trained a string of champion trotters; Sonny’s Place in Somers (named after the patriarch of the family, Frank’s grandfather, Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci), a huge and continually growing family-entertainment venue; GreatHorse, the high-end, horseracing-themed private golf club created on the site of the former Hampden Country Club; and Murphy Road Recycling.

All of these ventures represented considerable investments and risks, Antonacci said, adding that the MRF in Berlin is no different.

“You’ll see many of the same themes throughout this facility as you would at our other operations,” he explained. “We took a significant amount of risk and leveraged our expertise, as well as a very strong team, to develop what we have here.”

The company looked at a number of recycling facilities starting in 2018 and made the decision to buy the Berlin facility in 2020, at the height of COVID.

“It was a considerable risk and investment at that point,” he went on. “But we knew that there would be life after COVID, and we believed that the region really needed a reliable, scalable solution to handling the growing amount of single-stream material.”

the primary goals for the new MRF

One of the primary goals for the new MRF is to increase the quantity, quality, and purity of recyclables for sale to companies that will use them to make new products.

By single-stream, he noted that recyclables from businesses and consumers come with various materials mixed together, often with materials that shouldn’t be placed in recycling bins but are anyway — from batteries to electronic devices.

This venture represents the expansion and modernization of an existing recycling facility, Antonacci said, adding that everything about the facility is state-of-the-art, a phrase he used early and often in this conversation, because it’s certainly warranted.

“We integrated tried-and-true mechanical separation though screens with optical technology,” he noted as he talked about what is really the heart of this operation. “We have machines that are optically looking at the material to polish any contamination or any mixture of different grades of recycling, and that’s done through highly advanced camera systems with artificial intelligence.”


Reading Material

The facility handles recyclables from roughly 100 communities in Connecticut and Western Mass., Antonacci explained, noting that materials from many communities in the 413 are aggregated and then brought to Berlin for processing. Overall, it handles upwards of 1,000 tons of material per day, a huge jump from the 350 tons a day handled by the largest facilities in the area prior to the opening of the MRF in Berlin.

Beyond size and scope, this facility stands out for many other reasons.

Indeed, the operation employs a dozen optical scanners that can identify and separate materials based on their chemical composition, and utilizes robotics and AI to perform additional quality control.

“The quality of the material that we’re able to glean from the blue-bin mix is really remarkable,” Antonacci said. “Leveraging our expertise and that of Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, we’ve moved the industry forward a generation with the design of this plant, based not only on the scale, but on the quality of the materials coming out of here.”

As they were developing the Berlin facility, those at Murphy Road toured a number of recycling operations in this region and other parts of the country, Murray said, with an eye toward adopting best practices and technologies. But there are some things being done here that would be considered unique and groundbreaking, he went on.

This includes a dual-feed system set in parallel lines, Antonacci said, adding that this is a different approach to preparing materials for final processing. Other innovations include the picking stations, where employees handle quality control, which are enclosed in dust-controlled, climate-controlled boxes which place a premium on worker comfort and safety.

“We went through a painstaking effort of keeping people away from places that could harm them,” he told BusinessWest. “We invested heavily in automation to further increase the safety and productivity of the facility.”

Beyond these safety features, the facility was designed to effectively handle ongoing evolution in consumer habits and thus the recycling stream. As he talked about this and pointed to the streams of paper moving along conveyer belts, Murray noted that, despite declines in readership, a large amount of newsprint still winds up in recycling bins.

“We took a significant amount of risk and leveraged our expertise, as well as a very strong team, to develop what we have here.”

But these same bins are being increasingly dominated by both cardboard packaging — that aforementioned ‘Amazon effect’ — as well as myriad kinds of plastic, aluminum, and tin cans.

Overall, the bins are cleaner than they were years ago, he went on, adding that the overall quality of the end product — what is ultimately sold to companies to make new products — is a function of how effectively the different materials, especially the many types of plastics, are separated.

And this is where the All American MRF stands out from other facilities.

Elaborating, Antonacci said this facility’s sorting capabilities extend to polypropylene, used to make everything from yogurt containers to margarine tubs; from Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups to the packaging for to-go food products.

“This is something that has historically been hard to separate,” he explained. “But we have both the optical technology to look for polypropylene number 5, which those containers are made out of, and there’s also a laser on our optical machine that enables us to see those black plastics — the to-go containers — which most facilities can’t.”


Bottom Line

There are ever-larger amounts of polypropylene #5 winding up recycling bins, and the ability to separate it from everything else is becoming increasingly important, said Antonacci, adding that this is just one of the reasons why he and Murray are giving so many tours these days.

People want to see what separates this facility from most others — with the emphasis on separates. It not only represents state-of-the-art in this industry, it defines it.

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Applying Lessons

Founder and CEO Nicole Polite

Founder and CEO Nicole Polite

As the staffing and recruiting company she launched in 2013, the MH Group, celebrates 10 years in business, Nicole Polite explained that her path wasn’t always in the employment world. But she quickly found a passion for it.

After serving as an MP in the Army National Guard, she thought her natural progression would be into law enforcement, as a police officer or a correctional officer.

“My dad was working at Ludlow at the time, so I went to my dad and said, ‘can you give me a job?’ — like all kids do with their parents. And he did just that,” she recalled. “But after I received the job offer, I was having second thoughts. It was third shift; I didn’t want to do that. I was a new mom as well. And it just wasn’t the career path I thought I wanted to take.”

So she shifted gears and landed a job at MassMutual, which was a valuable experience — starting right at the interview process, when the woman who perused her résumé said something that has stuck with Polite to this day.

“She said, ‘you know what? You’re not qualified for the position we have open in my department. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do — I’ll get you the job interview.’ At 23, that was the first time someone told me I wasn’t qualified, but that was good to hear because she was correct. And it really stayed with me.”

It also spurred her to study and prepare rigorously for that interview, and she got the job. “And that led to a 10- or 11-year career. It completely changed my entire life.

“My takeaway from that was that someone sat at a table I was not privy to and put my name forward and granted me the opportunity to have a career that lasted all those years. So that was fuel to my fire, my passion in life. I want to go back and be able to do the same thing for other people.”

“That was fuel to my fire, my passion in life. I want to go back and be able to do the same thing for other people.”

While volunteering at a MassMutual Community Responsibility event at Western New England University, helping high-school students through a Junior Achievement employment-awareness program, Polite (then known as Nicole Griffin) was assigned the task of mentoring a young man and teaching him how to interview for jobs. After two days of career and interview prep work, she invited him back for a mock interview. And he showed up wearing jeans and a baseball cap.

“After the interview, I said, ‘you did a very good job, but you’re not really dressed appropriately for an interview, especially with a baseball cap on.’ And I’ll never forget his response. He said, ‘look, my parents never worked. I don’t even know what that looks like.’ And that was like a dagger to my heart because that was his reality. And I said, right then, ‘I’m going to help people in those situations and see how I can make an impact.’ And it grew, like a burning desire.”

While working at MassMutual as a financial underwriter — providing analysis, sales, and marketing for the company’s products — she became a certified interviewer and started a small nonprofit on the side, called the ABCs of Interviewing. There, she consulted with other nonprofits, companies, and individuals, helping them with interviewing skills.

From there, she made the leap into entrepreneurship, leaving MassMutual in 2013 to open Griffin Staffing Network.

The company would change names twice: the first to ManeHire about five years later. As she told BusinessWest at the time, she wanted a new name that evoked lion imagery. “I like the lion — it represents strength and courage and resilience, and those are some of the key components you need when you’re looking for employment.”

Nicole Polite (top) with Kassaundra Woodall, senior recruiting manager at the MH Group.

Nicole Polite (top) with Kassaundra Woodall, senior recruiting manager at the MH Group.

Today, she still likes the name, but explained why a change to the MH Group was in order. “It was fierce — empowering women. That was the goal of the name with me and my marketing partner when we came up with it. But it lost some of its brand and became a little confusing. People were confusing the name as ‘man hire,’ like a job-ready type of employment firm, and we are the complete opposite; about 70% of our jobs are direct-hire. So we dropped that and just go by the initials, which is the MH Group.”


Getting to the Next Level

The MH Group’s recruiting and staffing work focuses on the nonprofit sector, as well as healthcare, insurance, and manufacturing.

But it does so in a way that ensures that matches stick, and that goes back to Polite’s experience landing that job at MassMutual. For instance, the firm conducts workshops to teach people how to interview for a job.

In addition, “I teach my staff and train them that, when you have someone in front of you, you mentor on the spot. And that’s from entry-level to C-level positions. If you have the opportunity to tell someone about something that could be answered in a better way, or just give them some pointers on their résumé, things to highlight and things not to highlight, just mentor it on the spot.

“And then, in terms of employers, we do a lot of vetting up front. So you’re getting an applicant from the MH Group that has been highly vetted and has had some training as well.”

That’s especially important at a time when employers in most sectors are struggling to attract and retain sufficient talent — which gives job seekers more leverage than normal.

“I have clients that have really met the needs of the applicants and employees. They’ve changed their benefit structures, their PTO time, their flexibility, their hybrid schedules. I would say employers are really trying their best to meet the needs of the workforce.”

“It’s a very competitive market — and the workforce knows that it’s competitive. So they’re asking for things they’ve never asked for before. They’re pushing back in ways they’ve never pushed back before; they’re really going through benefits, medical benefits, with a fine comb to make sure it’s something that is valuable to them and their family structure.

“But I will say my clients are meeting their needs,” she added. “I have clients that have really met the needs of the applicants and employees. They’ve changed their benefit structures, their PTO time, their flexibility, their hybrid schedules. I would say employers are really trying their best to meet the needs of the workforce.”

As part of its 10-year anniversary, Polite is also launching the MH Cares Foundation, which uses the power of mentorship to help underserved populations achieve fulfilling careers.

“Most people in HR and CEOs can understand this: you post a job position, and you have hundreds of applications — and, out of those applications, maybe a few that qualify. And you wonder, ‘why is that? Why do so many people apply for positions that they may not be qualified for?’”

Playing off the saying ‘no child left behind,’ Polite sought to create a program where no job seeker is left behind. So the foundation matches job seekers with mentors, using a curriculum to help that job seeker get to the next level.

“It’s more than just applying for a job. We’re going to put you with a mentor who can actually mentor you through that process, whether it be helping you with your résumé or coaching you on interviewing,” she explained. “And then, the second component is giving you volunteer work within that industry or that field and having you work there so that you can gain some experience. The goal is to make sure that we are meeting job seekers where they’re at and bringing them to the next level.”

The foundation will host a kickoff event this fall, and in the meantime, volunteers who want to be mentors to job seekers can visit www.mhcaresfoundation.org and register to be a volunteer.


Deepening Roots

Polite notes that “a core philosophy for the MH Group is the need for both roots and wings.”

For her, those roots run deep in Springfield, as her great-great-granduncle was Primus Parsons Mason, a Black entrepreneur and real-estate investor who is most well-known as the namesake of the city’s Mason Square neighborhood.

Active in the community, she has served the Greater Springfield region on multiple nonprofit boards, such as the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Dora D. Robinson Women’s Leadership Council, and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission council. She has also served as a business advisor at the Entrepreneurial & Women’s Business Center at the University of Hartford.

MH Group

Nicole Polite says the MH Group name more clearly conveys the firm’s purpose than its former name, ManeHire.

Because of her success to that point, she was selected to BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2014 and then won the magazine’s Continued Excellence Award (now known as the Alumni Achievement Award) in 2017. And she was only getting started.

“This has been extremely gratifying — for one, to take such a huge risk of leaving a very good company with great benefits, great structure, great financial standing, and to launch out into my own business … and then just to still be here for 10 years, is very gratifying,” she said.

The MH Group provides staffing for companies from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., and Polite believes it has the potential for a national reach. But locally, she wants to continue outreach to the community, including partnering with local schools to teach job-readiness training.

“We can reach them at a younger age. Then, one day, I hope this will be a part of the curriculum … because job readiness and career readiness is something that’s taught, but not taught the level it should be.”

Polite told BusinessWest she attended its annual 40 Under Forty event this past June and felt emotional seeing many people her company had helped to find employment.

“That’s very gratifying to see them all really excel within their fields. We have people we placed in entry-level positions that are now in management, vice presidents, heads of corporate compliance. It’s amazing to look back and to see people’s growth.”

She’s also encouraged by the many employer clients who have remained partners since the day she opened her doors.

“That makes my heart extremely happy. They’ve grown into family,” she said. “It’s like a dream sometimes — like, pinch me, I’m dreaming. I didn’t think this dream of mine could grow to where it’s at today.”

Construction Special Coverage

Bringing It Home


Oliver Layne

Oliver Layne stands in ‘his’ bathroom, with a walk-in shower, one of many projects undertaken by those involved in the JoinedForces program.

Oliver Layne has come to call it “my bathroom.” Others in his family simply call it “dad’s bathroom,” for reasons that will become clear.

This is the small half-bath in his home on Border Street in Springfield, the one that was renovated to include a walk-in shower, something that became a necessity for Layne, a U.S. Air Force veteran of both Gulf wars, after he was afflicted with a rare muscle disease whereby his immune system attacks his muscles. This disorder made lifting his leg to get into a bathtub difficult, if not impossible.

“My day starts off with my cane, by the middle of the day I’m in my walker, and by the evening I’m in my wheelchair — I just get more and more tired throughout the day; I’m very limited in what I can do,” said Layne, whose bathroom renovation was realized through the JoinedForces program administered by Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC) and funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Veterans Home Modification Program.

That well-thought-out name speaks volumes about this unique program and the many people who are involved in it.

For starters, the name helps convey that this is a program designed to assist veterans, many of whom are disabled and need help to stay in their homes or, in the case of Layne, live more comfortably in their home.

“Veterans are a big part of our focus,” said Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, noting that the nonprofit agency also serves low-income families with children, the elderly, and individuals with special needs through initiatives such as its #GreenNFit and Healthy Homes programs. “Many are looking to age in place in their homes, many have injuries from their service, and this has become a particular focus of ours.”

“Veterans are a big part of our focus. Many are looking to age in place in their homes, many have injuries from their service, and this has become a particular focus of ours.”

The JoinedForces name also hints at how these projects to assist veterans are acts of collaboration, often involving a number of parties, including those at Revitalize CDC, other agencies focused on veterans and their needs, contractors, and area businesses.

That was certainly the case with Layne’s project, and also a coordinated effort to assist Ron Schneider and his wife, Cara, during a recent Volunteer Day initiative.

Schneider, a Vietnam War veteran now battling cancer he attributes to his exposure to Agent Orange, made his living as a general contractor. But his declining health left him unable to undertake many of the projects around the home that would have been so simple years earlier.

Fast-forward (we’ll fill in some details later) to this past spring, when there were two major projects at the Schneider home — one undertaken by a contractor to replace windows that had ceased to open easily, if at all, and the other involving an army (not a term we use loosely) of volunteers from Revitalize CDC and Home Depot to tackle a number of projects, from repairing the patio and driveway to building a shed and undertaking some landscaping work. New doors, also part of the mix, were put on earlier this month.

“All of this has taken a lot of pressure off me because I can’t do things around the house — I’m not physically able to do some of the projects that they handled,” Ron said. “And they did it in a day’s time because they had almost 100 volunteers.”

Suzanne Larocque (left, with Ethel Griffin)

Suzanne Larocque (left, with Ethel Griffin) says projects range from roof repairs and replacements to installation of handicap ramps and bathroom renovations.

These comments from Layne and Schneider effectively convey the sentiments of those veterans and their families who have had work done on their homes. As for those doing the work, they say there are many types of rewards, but especially the pride and satisfaction that come from helping those who served their country.

“I love it — it’s not about the money,” said Frank Campiti, a general contractor who handles many projects for Revitalize CDC and its #GreenNFit, JoinedForces, and Healthy Homes programs. “I get a lot of satisfaction from helping these veterans. We do everything we can to make their lives better with whatever their repair is.”

Myles Callender, who served as construction manager for Revitalize CDC before starting his own construction company with his brothers, and still handles projects for the agency, agreed.

“Some of these projects may not look big in terms of their size and scope,” he said. “But they make a huge difference in the lives of these veterans. It’s very rewarding to help improve the lives of those who have served.”

“All of this has taken a lot of pressure off me because I can’t do things around the house — I’m not physically able to do some of the projects that they handled. And they did it in a day’s time because they had almost 100 volunteers.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the JoinedForces program and its efforts to help veterans and their families feel more at home — in all kinds of ways.


Building Hope

Layne told BusinessWest that his physical issues started several years after he returned from his service in the Gulf and started his professional career, working first at a college and then for AT&T. He suspects the disorder results from exposure to contamination at two bases where he served — Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan (now closed), and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.

He started noticing that he was having trouble walking straight and that his hands didn’t work right.

“My body just didn’t work the same as it did before; I couldn’t run anymore, I couldn’t walk long distances,” he recalled, adding that it took doctors more than two and a half years to figure out what was wrong with him.

In 2017, he was officially diagnosed with a muscle disorder, and it was determined that there was no known cure. All medication was stopped, he said, adding that he is doing what he can to try to slow down or mitigate the condition’s progress, though diet and physical therapy, for example.

He has soldiered on, but increasingly has struggled with everyday tasks. He walls with a significant limp and can no longer navigate stairs — the Veterans Administration put a stair lift in his home — and has trouble getting in and out of the shower.

Ron and Cara Schneider (center, with their daughter, Bridget, between them)

Ron and Cara Schneider (center, with their daughter, Bridget, between them) celebrate the work done on their home in Ludlow by dozens of volunteers.

He became aware of Revitalize CDC and filled out an application for assistance late last fall. “That was on a Monday, and on Wednesday, I got a call; they were asking me what I needed done in my home and how they could help.”

Layne’s bathroom renovation is, in many ways, typical of the projects undertaken through the JoinedForces program, said Ethel Griffin, vice president of Community Engagement for Revitalize CDC.

She told BusinessWest the agency works with other veteran-related organizations on outreach to help make sure people know about JoinedForces and the agency’s other programs and encourage them to apply for assistance.

“Our work with veterans is important because they’ve served our country, and they deserve to have comfort in life,” she told BusinessWest. “A lot of our veterans are very old, and it’s amazing to see the conditions they are living in. We do spend a little more time and bit more money with the veterans — because they deserve it. This program gives us the feeling that we’re helping our country as well, even though we’re helping individuals; it’s our time to serve.”

Larocque agreed. “I don’t come from a military background at all, so meeting these veterans has been such a great experience. They’re so appreciative, and it’s been really rewarding to work with them.”

Since Loveless came on board in 2009, the agency has assisted between 200 and 300 veterans across the state, with the vast majority of them living in the 413, and veterans’ homes are included in all Revitalize CDC programs, including #GreenNFit.

Ron Schneider

Ron Schneider is grateful that JoinedForces has taken pressure off him because the volunteers completed projects he no longer can.

The projects vary in size and scope, said Suzanne Larocque, HUD project manager for Revitalize CDC, adding that they range from roof repairs and replacements to installation of handicap ramps and bathroom renovations like Layne’s.

Other projects have involved removal of asbestos from one home, installation of a drainage system and dehumidification system to relieve water issues in a basement, and many window-replacement initiatives. Meanwhile, the agency is undertaking more projects to replace heating systems with more modern — and green — systems.

Revitalize CDC hires licensed contractors to handle such work, obviously, Loveless said, adding that there is an emphasis on hiring minority- and women-owned firms. In some cases, the agency can get materials and labor donated, as it did for a veteran in Springfield who needed a new roof.


The Battle Is Joined

Ron Schneider, who served in the Army as an engineer building roads, tells a story somewhat similar to Layne’s, one of returning from service, launching a successful career, and then being beset with health problems that left him unable to do things around the house.

“I’m disabled, and I just can’t do much physically,” he said, noting that, in addition to his cancer fight, he has fought other health battles over the years.

As Ron’s condition deteriorated, and as needed work at his home on Prospect Gardens in Ludlow piled up — as noted earlier, many of the windows, originally installed in the 1940s, would no longer open or close easily, if at all — the Schneiders filled out an application for assistance through the JoinedForces program.

“Ron was a contractor for more than 40 years; these were all projects that he’s been hired to do over the course of his career that he can no longer do. For him, it was challenging; it was hard for him to be able to say ‘yes, I need help.”

That was prior to COVID, Ron said, adding that they received a call from Larocque early this year, and work commenced in phases this spring.

The first phase was replacement of the windows in April, work handled by a local contractor. Then, in May, Revitalize CDC joined forces (there’s that phrase again) with Home Depot, for a massive Volunteer Day effort at the home.

Cara Schneider put the improvements and what they mean to her husband and the rest of the family in their proper perspective.

“Ron was a contractor for more than 40 years; these were all projects that he’s been hired to do over the course of his career that he can no longer do. For him, it was challenging; it was hard for him to be able to say ‘yes, I need help,’ she said. “And then, to have these people come in and do it in a way that was respectful and that made our lives so much more functional and for him not to have to worry about these things while he’s going through treatment … it took all the stress off. And he’s able to open windows now.”

These sentiments hit at the true mission of the JoinedForces program, said Campiti, who has worked on dozens of projects over the past several years.

He said most are not large in scope, but can be rather involved. And in many cases, these are projects most contractors would pass on because of their degree of difficulty, the conditions in the home, or their small margin for real profit.

“I get involved with projects that other contractors look at, but they don’t even call them back,” Campiti said, adding that, in other cases, contractors will take on the work, but at a cost beyond what the veteran is willing or able to pay.

Such was the case with Layne, who said he looked into renovating his bathroom and installing a walk-in shower, but the cost was prohibitive. A friend, also a veteran, told him about Revitalize CDC, and he applied for assistance to undertake the bathroom renovation.

He was hesitant to install a walk-in shower in his main bathroom due to concerns about impact on the resale value of the home, but, after consultation with Campiti, was convinced that his half-bath, also home to his washer and dryer, could be renovated and outfitted with such a shower.

This was a fairly complicated project that involved moving the laundry equipment to the basement, constructing the shower, and redoing the floor, he went on, adding that it took several days to complete.

Overall, he’s working on two or three projects a month, most of them addressing the accessibility issues that many veterans face, whether it involves a bathtub, stairs, or a backyard deck.

“We do a lot of railings and grab bars in places that would be considered non-traditional,” he explained. “We put them in places beyond the bathroom, like with a person walking out to their patio; they can’t step down anymore.”

He stopped short of calling this work fun, but reiterated that it is gratifying on many levels.


On with the Fight

Returning to this concept of ‘his’ bathroom, Layne injected some needed background.

Indeed, he said he has four daughters, including twin 14-year-olds who still live at home.

“Bathroom time is extremely difficult to get,” he said with a laugh, adding that he obviously has to share his facility, which has actually become quite popular.

“They’ll say, ‘can I take a shower in your shower?’” he said of his children, adding that he used to ask why. “They say, ‘because it’s big; you can move around in there.’”

That’s because Campiti made it big enough to put in a chair, which is necessary, as Layne is prone to falling because his legs don’t move as they should.

It’s quite unfortunate that Layne, a veteran of two wars, needs this walk-in shower with all that room in it. But he — and his daughters, for that matter — are fortunate to have it.

And it was made possible by an agency with a name that truly says it all.


Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Divesting the Portfolio

The Paramount Theater/Massasoit Hotel

The Paramount Theater/Massasoit Hotel complex is one of several properties in the New England Farm Workers’ Council portfolio now under agreement.




Dan Knapik says that, when he became executive director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council in the summer of 2021, he found a multi-faceted nonprofit agency at what amounts to a crossroads and in need of what he called a “kick start.”

That was especially true when it came to the agency’s broad commercial real-estate portfolio, assembled over the preceding decades with the goals of housing programs, spurring economic development, and creating revenue streams — goals that, in most cases, have not been realized.

“We needed to go aggressively to rent out what we could or sell it,” said Knapik, adding that, in most all cases, the latter option is being pursued. “We put a multi-pronged strategy together; we started renting what we could rent and sell what we couldn’t rent.”

Indeed, a few of the agency’s holdings were sold prior to his arrival, in the winter and spring of 2021, including 1600 Main St. in Springfield (the International Bier Garten), sold for $700,000; and 297-299-301 Main St. in Holyoke, sold for $150,000.

The selloff has continued into this year, with 276 Union Ave. in Bridgeport, Conn. (a rooming house) selling for $656,000 in January. Then, in May and June, the property at 21-23 Hampden St., home to the Shakago Martini and Piano Bar, sold to an Alabama-based real-estate company for $240,000; 2345 Main St. in Springfield sold for $85,000; 203-205 High St. in Holyoke sold for $134,900; 211-213 High St. went for $134,000; and 211-213 High St. sold for $49,900.

“We needed to go aggressively to rent out what we could or sell it. We put a multi-pronged strategy together; we started renting what we could rent and sell what we couldn’t rent.”

There are several other properties now under agreement, Knapik said, including the 1610 Main St./20 Fort St. complex, home to the Student Prince restaurant, and the Paramount Theater/Massasoit Hotel complex further north on Main Street, a historic property that has long been considered a key to revitalization of the downtown. And the agency is actively showing other properties, including 32-34 Hampden St. in Springfield and 217-225 High St. in Holyoke.

“I am determined to divest the portfolio,” Knapik said, adding that doing so gives the agency, an affiliate of Partners for Community, capital to pay down debt, while also freeing it from some heavy tax burdens — nearly $70,000 each quarter for the properties in Springfield alone — and debt service, an estimated $200,000 per quarter. And it will provide the agency the time and opportunity to focus on its mission.

Overall, this is not a particularly good time to be selling real estate, said Knapik, adding that higher interest rates — and they keep getting higher to due to actions by the Federal Reserve to cool the economy and tame inflation — have made this assignment more challenging.

The nonprofit’s board voted last fall to sell the remaining 13 properties in the portfolio, including 1666-1670 Main St. in Springfield.

“It’s been difficult — the Fed’s interest-rate environment has been less than favorable for us, and some of the buildings were not in great shape,” he told BusinessWest, noting that interest rates are more than five points higher than they were just a year or so ago.

But given these market conditions — and the state of the some of the properties — he is not unhappy with the results to date.

“I haven’t been horribly displeased,” he went on. “We’re obviously not selling class-A real estate, but we haven’t lost money on the sales, either.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the council’s active efforts to shift away from the commercial real-estate business, what this means for the agency, and what it might mean for area communities, especially Springfield and its downtown.


Setting Sale

When BusinessWest toured what is known colloquially as the ‘Fort building’ or ‘Fort complex’ not long after it was purchased by the Farm Workers’ Council in 2010, then-President and CEO Heriberto Flores (he still holds those titles at the agency) talked enthusiastically about bringing new life to the vast spaces in the multi-story complex that had been vacant for years, and, in many cases, decades, with some of the abandoned offices still featuring brightly colored shag carpeting.

The Fort complex

The Fort complex is one of several properties in the New England Farm Workers’ Council portfolio now under agreement.

Today, they are still vacant — the Student Prince and the Latino Economic Development Corp. (an affiliate of the council) occupy the ground floor, and they are the only tenants in the complex — and those quiet spaces speak volumes about why the Farm Workers’ Council is divesting itself of its real-estate portfolio, Knapik said, adding that, in many respects, the properties have been underperforming and losing money for several years.

Recapping the history and state of this portfolio, Knapik said the properties were acquired with good intentions and solid goals in mind, but most of the promise has not been realized.

“They weren’t really aggressive about seeking out new tenants, and there was a lot of deferred maintenance on the buildings,” he explained. “A lot of the buildings were bought years ago to put programming in, and one of the mistakes I think the council made was, when programming lost funding, for whatever reason, buildings should have been sold off, and they weren’t. They were held onto for a variety of reasons, and they then became big liabilities, and this is where a lot of the accumulated debt came from.”

“A lot of the buildings were bought years ago to put programming in, and one of the mistakes I think the council made was, when programming lost funding, for whatever reason, buildings should have been sold off, and they weren’t.”

This fact was certainly not lost on the nonprofit’s board, which voted last fall to sell the remaining 13 properties in the portfolio, he said, adding that many have been, and most of the rest are under agreement.

That list includes several properties in downtown Springfield, including 1666-1670 Main St., 1655 Main St. (the Board of Trade Block), 1628-1640 Main St., and 1618-1624 Main St.

As noted earlier, that includes the Fort complex, which is under agreement to a group led by Peter Pan Bus Chairman and CEO Peter Picknelly, one of group of local entrepreneurs who stepped in to rescue the Student Prince several years ago when closure seemed imminent.

It also includes the Paramount and adjoining Massasoit Hotel, a complex that has been envisioned as a multi-use property, with the theater being a host for events and the hotel being converted for housing.

“We have a purchase-and-sale with a development group that goes back pre-COVID,” Knapik explained. “We continue to work with that development group for a project; we continue to talk with them, and I’m hoping that, within the next 60 days, we can execute a final agreement.”

Shakago Martini & Piano Bar

The property at 21-23 Hampden St., home to the Shakago Martini & Piano Bar, is one of several already sold by the New England Farm Workers’ Council.
Staff Photo

He noted that the same rising interest rates that are making sales of these properties more challenging is driving up the cost of redevelopment of the Paramount/Massasoit Hotel complex.

Overall, the sale of the properties in the portfolio should provide the council with some needed capital, Knapik noted, adding quickly that there is substantial debt to pay down.

“There’s about $4 million in total equity after all the mortgages are paid, but there are some legacy debts, some operating debts that Farm Workers’ has accumulated over the years, and we’re hoping to clear that off,” he said, adding that many of the properties do not have mortgages.


Bottom Line

Meanwhile, by getting out of the commercial real-estate business, the council can concentrate its full energies on its programs, and there are many working in several different realms, from economic development to housing to youth and education.

And it can develop and execute the next strategic plan.

“This will allow the council to take a breath and figure out to position itself for what it wants to do in the future,” he said. “We’ve been in business for 52 years, responding to the needs of the community. When this gets done, we’ll propose some ideas to the board of directors and let them decide how they want to go forward.”