Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Craig and Pat Sweitzer

Craig and Pat Sweitzer at the recently unveiled mural in the center of Monson.
Staff Photo

“Sophisticated rural.”

That’s how Craig Sweitzer, who has lived and worked in Monson for more than 40 years now — and served on the town’s Planning Board for most of that stretch — chose to describe this community of almost 9,000 people on the eastern edge of Hampden County.

By that, he meant that this town is certainly small and rural, but, as he put it, “you don’t have to leave town to eat.”

Indeed, the community’s downtown boasts several restaurants and, at last count, three coffee shops, said Sweitzer, who, with his wife, Pat, owns and operates Sweitzer Construction, a design-build firm that specializes in medical facilities (especially dental offices) and, more recently, cannabis operations of all kinds.

Indeed, the arrival of the cannabis industry has brought work across all aspects of that sector, Sweitzer said, from dispensaries to production facilities; from testing labs to an armored-car operation in Belchertown created to handle the large amounts of cash generated by these businesses.

“After you get your feet wet in something, you master it, and it leads to more work in that area,” he said, adding that the same is true of dental offices (his firm has now built more than 200 of them), and it is now true with cannabis facilities. “And when you do design/build, you offer the whole package — the architecture, the financing, the site selection … and we’ve done the same thing with cannabis.”

The Sweitzers made Monson their home and the base for their business back in the ’80s, and they’ve watched it grow and evolve. A little.

“Monson still has its rural quality — we still don’t have a traffic light,” Craig said, adding that the town has not changed much over the past four decades, and for those who live there, this is mostly a good thing; sophisticated rural is an attractive quality, one that many are seeking, especially post-pandemic.

Indeed, the town has seen a slight rise in population in the wake of COVID and the manner in which it prompted some living in large population centers to seek more rural areas in which to both live and work.

“Post-COVID, flexible work and hybrid models became very attractive, and so did communities like Monson, because obviously it costs much less to buy a house out here then it does in the Boston area,” said Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, who grew up in town and thus admitted to some bias, adding that, if the proposed east-west rail project becomes reality, Mosnon and communities like it will become even more attractive to those looking to work in Boston but not necessarily live there.

“There’s still that sense of small-town feel and community here in Monson, and that’s very attractive to many people,” he went on. “It’s a nice place to live, and I get the best of both worlds because I work there as well.”

He said Monson is close enough from Springfield and Worcester to be an attractive landing spot for those working in those metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, it has its own economy in a way, with those aforementioned restaurants and coffee shops, a supermarket, several service businesses, and some ventures that accentuate its rural personality while also making it a destination.

That list includes Silver Bell Farms, a multifaceted enterprise that features everything from Christmas-tree sales (although not this year as the farm builds up inventory for the future) to many different kinds of events, to a new lighting display called Silver Bell Nights.

“There’s still that sense of small-town feel and community here in Monson, and that’s very attractive to many people.”

Michael Moore, who runs the operation with his wife, Laura, said Silver Bell Nights is an intriguing addition to a portfolio of events and attractions that brings more than 50,000 people to the farm each year, with activities running year-round and especially in the fall and then around the holidays.

“This is something we’re really excited about — it’s a dazzling outdoor lighting display,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the lights were turned on amid considerable fanfare on Nov. 18, and the show will go on until the new year. “We’re looking forward to many new visitors discovering the farm and all that we have here.”

For this the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest visited Monson to get a feel for what sophisticated rural is all about.


The Nature of Things

Craig Sweitzer said that, during his long period of service on the Planning Board, the largest housing project to come before that body has been a subdivision of no more than 12 homes.

“Monson is quite hilly, and we have a lot of land that’s tricky to build on,” he said, adding that this topography helps explain why, unlike some of its neighbors, and especially Belchertown, it has not seen large-scale residential development.

What it has seen is slow but continuous growth, one or two homes at a time, on existing roads.

Michael Moore says Silver Bell Nights is an exciting new addition

Michael Moore says Silver Bell Nights is an exciting new addition to what has become a year-round destination.
Staff Photo

“Although there are no massive subdivisions, there’s always a steady flow of new lots being created from existing road frontage,” Sweitzer explained, adding that any growth has been incremental and not (like Belchertown) explosive.

What the new residents encounter, and what those already living there thoroughly enjoy, is a town that’s both isolated and accessible at the same time, one with a small yet thriving downtown, a lively arts community, some intriguing new businesses, and nature.

“There’s a lot here … it’s a quiet, vibrant town with its own personality,” said Pat Sweitzer as she walked with BusinessWest on Main Street. “There’s a lot to like here.”

All of this is captured in, and manifested in, a mural adorning the wall of Adams Hometown Market on Main Street. The byproduct of a project led by local artists Melissa Stratton-Pandina and Shara Osgood and unveiled in September, the mural is titled “Past, Present and Future.” It depicts town landmarks; some of its history, including its granite quarries and involvement in the Civil War; and rural nature — there’s an image of a mountain lion that has become part of town lore, said the Sweitzers, who believe they’ve seen the cat.

The mural, created with large amounts of feedback from the community, effectively tells the story of a town that celebrates its past — including the recent past and a still-ongoing recovery from the June 2011 tornado that roared through Main Street — as well as its present.

And there is much to celebrate, including a high quality of life; a stable, still-evolving downtown; a vibrant arts community thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Monson Arts Council; annual gatherings such as Summerfest and a popular food-truck festival; and what both Moriarty and the Sweitzers called an entrepreneurial spirit that has yielded a number of intriguing new business ventures in recent years.

Dan Moriarty says the broad goal in Monson is to attract new business

Dan Moriarty says the broad goal in Monson is to attract new business while maintaining the community’s rural look, feel, and personality.
Staff Photo

Overall, the business community is quite diverse, said Moriarty, and includes many ventures in the broad realm of tourism and hospitality. These include the restaurants and coffee shops downtown; small bakeries and specialty food producers, such as Cookies by Ray and Happy Hen Farmstand, which sells everything from eggs (hence the name) to a variety of baked goods; and agriculture-related businesses such as Echo Hill Orchards and Winery, Bryson’s Maple Syrup, and Silver Bell Farms, a relatively recent addition that continues to evolve.

Indeed, what started as a Christmas-tree farm roughly a decade ago has become a site for events and activities year-round, said Moore, listing everything from private events such as birthday parties to an Easter egg hunt, Christmas in July, a fall corn maze, barrel-train rides, tractor-pulled wagon rides, and even interactive theater productions.

There are plenty of holiday-season happenings and programs as well, including Santa story time, wreath decorating, and a farm store that sells everything from Christmas ornaments to cider donuts.

The big addition this year is Silver Bell Nights, the holiday light experience that features a number of different displays throughout the property.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,865
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $15.86
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.86
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Moore said the initiative represents a sizable investment, but one that will make Silver Bell more of a holiday destination — and tradition — for area residents, and a vehicle for continued growth at the farm.

Moriarity said Monson’s challenge moving forward — and it’s the same challenge facing many smaller towns — is to promote growth of the business community while maintaining the rural quality that makes it so attractive.

“Like most small towns, we try to be open-minded,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m very passionate and hopeful for continual pro-business decisions in town, where we can bring in some small-business opportunities for people, because I think that, for the town to be viable, we must be open to new business opportunities, while at the same protecting the open space and beautiful landscape the town has.”


Getting a Feel for It

Getting back to that mural, it tells a story — and it is quite a story.

A story of a community that is continually looking for ways to build on an already-attractive landscape and create more reasons for people to want to live and work there.

That’s the big picture in Monson — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Professional Development

Professional Development

Kimberly Quinonez

After getting some help rising out of poverty, Kimberly Quinonez is now in the business of helping others.

Kimberly Quinonez says she’s always had a passion for helping people, and a desire to make doing so a career.

But for most of her life, she was the one needing help.

A native of South Carolina, she grew up in a life of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and a sixth-grade education, and was desperate for a way out — and up — from all that.

After getting clean and moving to Western Mass., she completed her high-school equivalency at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) at age 43 and enrolled in the school’s two-year associate-degree program in social work. And while still earning that high-school equivalency, she told BusinessWest, she met Wally Soufane, social work specialist at Elms College, who became a mentor and essentially put her on a path to the bachelor’s degree-completion program offered at the school.

Completing that program, and the associate degree before that, were stern challenges, she said, noting that there were several times when she wanted to quit because the combination of life and school seemed like too much. But she persevered, with help (there’s that word again) from Soufane and others who helped provide her with the will to carry on.

“I kept on and kept on; I had some discouraging moments, but I just couldn’t give up because this was something that I really wanted for myself,” she said. “And I really like helping people.”

This past May, she completed that program and was among the speakers at Elms’ commencement ceremonies, her story riveting those in attendance. Today, she’s employed at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department as a care coordinator and counselor, while also working toward a master’s degree in social work at Springfield College.

“If we accept a student, our job is to support them. If they’re going to do the work, we need to support them as best we can and help them be successful, and we do that; our retention rates, over 80%, are very good, and our graduation rates, in the mid-60s, are very good.”

Her story touches on many elements of the bachelor’s degree-completion programs at Elms, said Walter Breau, executive dean of the college’s Kirley School of Continuing Education — everything from its ability to help non-traditional students set and achieve goals to the way its administrators and instructors work with students to help them overcome challenges and complete their degrees.

“If we accept a student, our job is to support them,” he went on. “If they’re going to do the work, we need to support them as best we can and help them be successful, and we do that; our retention rates, over 80%, are very good, and our graduation rates, in the mid-60s, are very good.”

Social work is one of the more popular programs at the Kirley School, said Breau, adding that others, many of them offered online, include computer information technology and security (CITS), computer science, healthcare management, speech-language pathology assistant, management and marketing, psychology, and RN-BSN.

Overall, there are now roughly 200 individuals enrolled in continuing-education (CE) programs at Elms, roughly 20% of the undergraduate population, said Breau, a veteran administrator at the college who recently took the helm at the Kirley School, noting that the goal is to grow enrollment to 300 and beyond.

Walter Breau says the Kirley School is focused

Walter Breau says the Kirley School is focused on not only enrolling people in degree programs, but seeing them through to the finish line.
Staff Photo

And there is certainly some momentum with regard to enrollment, as the region’s community colleges, bolstered by the MassReconnect Program, which provides free tuition to those over age 25, are seeing their first real rise in enrollment since well before the pandemic.

For this issue, BusinessWest continues its series spotlighting professional-development programs across the region with a visit to the Kirley School and an examination of how it can change lives, like Quinonez’s, in a profound way.


Grade Expectations

This past May, Elms’ School of Continuing Education was officially renamed the Sister Kathleen Kirley ’66 School of Continuing Education, following a donation to the school in her honor.

And the new name is quite fitting, said Breau, noting that Sr. Kathleen, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, now retired from the school, was director of Continuing Education at Elms from 1977 to 1990 and served as the dean of Continuing Education and Graduate Studies from 1990 to 1998.

“If you look at the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph, their goal is to serve the community,” he noted. “And at some point, instead of just having the traditional programs where you come to campus Monday through Friday, they understood that there was a population of individuals we could serve in a different way.”

That was the genesis of continuing education at Elms, he said, adding that, for more than a half-century now, the school has continued to serve non-traditional students with a variety of programs aimed at helping individuals not only earn degrees, but forge careers in growing fields.

These include collaborations with the region’s community colleges, whereby students can earn bachelor’s degrees on the community-college campuses. Indeed, there are social work programs at Asnuntuck Community College, Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College, said Breau, noting that many who earn their bachelor’s degrees at those locations, and on the Elms campus as well, go on to earn a master’s degree and become a licensed clinical social worker in the Bay State.

“If you’re a computer science major at STCC and you’re looking to earn your bachelor’s, we make sure there’s no loss of credits. You finish at STCC in May, and you start with us in August in the computer science bachelor’s program. It’s just another sign to students that we’ve deliberately thought about how to make you successful.”

“We have many of our students at STCC, Asnuntuck, and here on campus go forward and get their MSW,” he said, adding that there is “more than enough demand” for individuals who have those credentials.

Other popular programs include RN-BSN and speech-language pathology assistant, he said, adding that there is growing demand in both fields, and especially nursing.

Elms has articulation agreements, more than 50 in all, with the area community colleges, Breau explained, noting that these partnerships help create what he called “seamless pathways” as individuals take the credits they earned while completing an associate degree and apply them toward a bachelor’s degree at Elms.

“If you’re a computer science major at STCC and you’re looking to earn your bachelor’s, we make sure there’s no loss of credits,” he noted. “You finish at STCC in May, and you start with us in August in the computer science bachelor’s program. It’s just another sign to students that we’ve deliberately thought about how to make you successful.”

There are many such signs, he went on, adding that one point of emphasis at the Kirley School is to not simply merely get people enrolled in the various degree programs, but to see them through to completion.

And completion can be challenging, Breau said, noting that more than 75% of those enrolled in CE programs at Elms are 25 and older, which means they’re likely dealing with a number of life matters, such as work and family.

“They’re an older population who have decided, for one reason or another, that they want to fit in coursework with work, family, and other obligations,” he explained. “Our goal is first to show that it’s possible, it’s accessible, it’s affordable. People can see the end point even before they start.”

After showing it’s possible, the school then helps make it possible, with everything from flexible start dates to initiatives to help them step back in if they happen to hit pause for whatever reason, to many forms of student support, such as a 24-hour tutoring program.

Quinonez has seen these efforts to provide support up close and personal.

She said those at Elms were constantly supporting and “checking up on me” while she was in school. And they still do, months after she graduated.

“They still reach out to me today and say, ‘Kimberly, how’s it going?’” she told BusinessWest. “Elms changed me; I grew up and matured a lot — Elms College became my parents.”


Bottom Line

Today, Quinonez is working toward another degree at Springfield College and expects to complete that work in May. She said her time at Elms didn’t just help her find a career — instead of a job — but it instilled in her the desire to continue to reach higher and position herself to help people in more ways.

That’s what Sr. Kathleen Kirley had in mind when she laid the groundwork for today’s highly successful CE department at Elms.

The program has provided pathways to success and opened doors for people like Quinonez, who just needed a little help. And now they can help others.


At a Loss

By Dr. Jennifer Sowards


The year-end holidays are fast-approaching, and it can be a festive time, with many people busy meal planning and shopping for the perfect gift.

However, for people with hearing loss, it may also be a stressful time, filled with gatherings where it will be difficult to understand conversations with family and friends. Hearing loss is tricky because it’s not an all-or-nothing thing: most people report they can hear, but it’s the clarity that becomes a problem. This is why many people still have untreated hearing loss. Most people don’t notice their own hearing loss because, to them, it sounds like other people are mumbling.

One of the first signs of hearing loss is difficulty understanding speech when there is background noise present — and this is what happens at holiday gatherings.

Even with hearing aids, navigating group settings can be a challenge. Here are some tips for the upcoming gatherings:

• Try to pick a spot that will be less noisy (away from fans or music).

• Try to position yourself as close as possible to the people you are trying to hear.

• Try not to be embarrassed to tell people you are having difficulty, and ask them to speak less rapidly or to move to a quieter spot with you.

• Pay attention to context clues to help you predict what comes next. For example, if you hear the word ‘weather,’ the next topic will likely pertain to cold, snow, rain, warm, etc.

• Don’t nod your head and smile if you didn’t understand what was said; ask the speaker to repeat to avoid embarrassing exchanges.

• If someone tells you a phone number or spells a name for you, repeat back what they said to make sure you heard it correctly.

• If you misunderstood part of a sentence, ask a specific question about the part you missed, rather than saying “what?” (For example, “where did you hide the gifts?” or “who is Ted bringing to dinner?”)

• Try to keep a positive attitude. There are some situations where it is hard to hear even for people with normal hearing.

Communication partners can also support their friends and family with hearing loss during the holidays:

• Enunciate words and face the person you are speaking with.

• Make sure you have the person’s attention if you want to tell them something important.

• Help manage background noise. Lower the volume or turn off background music or television, put down rugs in areas with hard floors (echoes in a room can exacerbate the noise), and make sure the room is well-lit to allow for clear visual cues.

• It’s OK to be frustrated, but try not to take it out on the person with hearing loss. Gentle reminders about their dependence on you might actually be helpful motivation to address any untreated hearing issues.

• Hearing aids aren’t hearing cures; even those with treated loss or normal hearing can still struggle at noisy events.

At Florence Hearing Health Care, our recommendation is for anyone noticing any hearing difficulties to have a comprehensive hearing evaluation with an audiologist to establish a baseline. The first thing we do is check to make sure there is no wax blocking the ears. We also make sure there are no infections or eardrum problems that could be treated by a physician. From this evaluation, the audiologist will be able to tell you exactly what your hearing ability is and if treatment is recommended.

Sometimes, holiday gatherings provide the inspiration for this first step in diagnosing and treating hearing loss.


Jennifer Sowards, Au.D. is an audiologist and founder of Florence Hearing Health Care.

Building Trades

Beyond Four Walls

By Emily Thurlow

The Newman Catholic Center

The Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst is among PDC’s notable recent projects.

One of Nick Shaink’s earliest memories with Professional Drywall Construction Inc. was working as a laborer for the buildout of the Target store at the Holyoke Mall. As a teenager, he worked with the Springfield-based commercial drywall contractor on weekends and on summer breaks.

Now, more than two decades later, the firm is undertaking larger-scale projects, like a 900-room dormitory at the University of Connecticut, and Shaink is co-owner and vice president of PDC Inc.

While the company’s name reflects its origins in drywall, PDC offers services in structural metal framing, finish carpentry, acoustical ceilings, wood framing, plastering, toilet partitions, and more. Most recently, the company landed a job that solely involves installing metal panels on the exterior of a building.

“We’re starting to get work that’s not our traditional scope of work — it’s our expanded scope of work,” co-owner and President Ron Perry said.

Founded in 1994 by John Kendzierski, PDC has been affiliated with the local carpenters’ and laborers’ unions since 1997.

Over the course of Shaink’s career with PDC, he’s held nearly every job — from carpenter and general superintendent to vice president of Operations. A native of Connecticut, he had aspirations of running his own business and eventually relocated to Hampshire County.

Perry, who has been with the company for eight years, was previously a construction manager for two decades. In that prior capacity, he often hired PDC for construction projects, which is how he met Shaink. Over time, Perry learned that they shared similar ambitions. After Shaink approached Perry about going into business together, the pair purchased the company in 2018.

“I’ve always wanted to own a business; that’s always been a dream of mine,” Perry said. “So when this opportunity came up, it was something that I couldn’t pass up.”

Since then, the business has expanded its footprint into Connecticut, opening an office in Norwalk in 2018, and into New York, with an office in Malta in 2021. The multiple locations support each other, Perry said.

While PDC’s Springfield headquarters is handling some of the larger projects, such as the interior framing, insulation, and drywall for UConn’s hockey arena, its Malta location is currently working on a Starbucks at Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady. For now, the decision remains to take the growth pattern a little slower at the company’s newest office.

“I’ve always wanted to own a business; that’s always been a dream of mine. So when this opportunity came up, it was something that I couldn’t pass up.”

“We want to make sure that we build the right team. We want to make sure that we have the right manpower, instead of taking the giant job out in New York where we could potentially fail,” Perry said. “We’re starting a little slower and trying to grow responsibly there.”


Piecing It Together

Over the years, PDC has built a name for itself in renovation and new, large-scale construction projects for retail, medical, and educational organizations in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. The company also has a bonding capacity of up to $100 million.

Notable structures that PDC has had a hand in include the Bone & Joint Institute at Hartford Hospital, Baystate Medical Center’s Hospital of the Future expansion, Taconic High School in Pittsfield, and Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton.

PDC owners Nick Shaink (left) and Ron Perry

PDC owners Nick Shaink (left) and Ron Perry say they want to keep growing the company gradually and smartly.

The company has also worked on more than 30 projects at UMass Amherst in the last 15 years, Shaink said, from its striking design of Isenberg School of Management to the UMass Design Building and the Newman Catholic Center.

At the campus’s Old Chapel, the company installed pre-fabricated, structural cold-formed metal framing, sheathing, and roof blocking on the building’s exterior, and installed framing walls and drywall on the interior. Workers also installed soffits, which is the underside of part of an architectural structure like an arch.

Work also included the installation of wood stairs, acoustical ceiling tiles, and acoustical plaster systems.

“Our goal is to try to do as many of the things we’re good at under one contract. It gives us more control over costs. It gives us more flexibility … it gives us more work on that job, as contracts are a little bigger,” Perry said. “We’re able to do more work with less — that’s why we want our jobs to be bigger. We want to do a bigger scope of work.”

Drywall — a staple in modern homes and buildings in the U.S., also referred to as wallboard or plasterboard — is made of two paper boards with gypsum, a gray or white soft sulfate mineral, in the middle.

The prototype for the invention was patented by Augustine Sackett in 1894, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. However, it wasn’t widely accepted as a building material until the 1940s.

Taking the art of drywall a step further in customization, PDC uses a unique method to mill a perfect corner, called ‘origami.’ Much like the Japanese art of folding objects out of paper, PDC’s approach enables its employees to shape a piece of drywall to fit a space more efficiently at the Springfield shop beforehand. Instead of using three separate pieces of drywall to make a column, they can use one piece of drywall, fold it, and glue it together in the desired angle, then install it in one piece.

By using this method, Perry explained, the drywall is not only a durable solution, but it is also a more efficient one, as the profiles are pre-fabricated in the shop. “It makes our lives in the field less complicated. It’s efficiency in the field.”

And, as with most contractors, time and scheduling are of the utmost importance.


Leveraging Growth

About a decade ago, the annual drop in temperature also meant a drop in projects. But for the past five years, PDC hasn’t really slowed with the changing of the seasons, Perry said. “It doesn’t ever stop.”

In the months leading up to COVID-19, the company secured a number of jobs, which helped carry it through what were some trying times for other organizations. Despite the uncertainty, Shaink said the company’s workload never really slowed down.

Fortunately, even as businesses across all sectors, especially in the construction realm, have battled persistent workforce shortages, labor has not been much of an issue at PDC, as the company continues to fluctuate between 280 and 300 employees.

The main obstacle during the pandemic — and it’s still an issue — is supply-chain issues for materials. The variety of metal studs the company uses for projects has traditionally been available within a week or two. But in the post-pandemic world, those same metal studs are taking up to eight weeks to arrive. That delay impacts the schedule, which in turn impacts the company’s ability to forecast as accurately as it would like.

“When that lead time is eight weeks and you’re buying material that’s eight weeks away, and it comes, and it turns out you don’t have enough — that’s eight more weeks,” Perry said. “And guys standing around is what costs us the most amount of money.”

One of the hardest-to-get products has been insulation. At one point, insulation, which was typically available within a few weeks, took up to nine months to arrive. In an effort to overcome such delays, Perry said PDC purchased multiple truckloads of insulation in advance and then had to find a place to store it all, hoping the job would still come to fruition.

“It’s complicated to forecast,” he said. “It’s a risk of where to put so much money.”

As for future projects, PDC has been awarded the construction of the new Holyoke Veterans Home. The 350,000-square-foot facility will include a chapel, outdoor gardens, and a pavilion for physical and occupational therapy, as well as outdoor events.

PDC will be tackling the interior and exterior framing, installation of medical headwall systems, drywall installation, and finishing. Once completed, the $483 million project will house 234 long-term-care beds for the medically vulnerable veteran population. Work is slated to begin in the fall of 2024.

In the meantime, both Shaink and Perry still have their sights set on growth, and they’re not getting hung up on a particular volume of work, but rather focusing on sustainability.

“We want to grow the business to be as big as we can and as profitable as we can,” Perry said. “I’d rather do a little bit less work, and make the margins that we need to be sustainable, than to try to take on additional risk and maybe not make as much money. We’re finding that balance between growth and profit.”


‘A Labor of Love’

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton demonstrates that on-site solar power can reach net-zero for a grocery store.


River Valley Co-op and Co-op Power recently announced a significant achievement: 65 families with low incomes or who are situated within Eversource’s environmental-justice neighborhoods have signed up for low-cost solar power, marking a local step toward mitigating the environmental impact of global warming while promoting community well-being.

In 2014, River Valley Co-op set a sustainability goal to generate 50% of the electricity used annually for its then-future second store through on-site green energy. Upon engaging in real-estate negotiations in 2017 for the second store, on the site of a former Oldsmobile dealership in Easthampton, the co-op simultaneously engaged Co-op Power for support with feasibility of solar power at the store.

Working with the engineering team of Solar Design Associates, a solar canopy over the rooftop and parking lot was proposed. The result was a preliminary, groundbreaking grocery-store design that could achieve River Valley Co-op’s net-zero goal, offsetting 100% of the new store’s electricity.

“The journey has been filled with challenges, but after six years of relentless effort in partnership with our solar developer, Co-op Power — a labor of love for and with our community — we successfully energized the rooftop system,” said Rochelle Prunty, general manager of River Valley Co-op, adding that “we finalized the subscription of 65 community solar shares that were essential to the project, and within a month, we anticipate energizing the solar canopy.”

The success of this project demonstrates that on-site solar electricity can reach net-zero for a grocery store. Moreover, it brings significant relief to 65 community households with low incomes or those situated within Eversource’s environmental-justice neighborhoods, collectively saving them $20,000 on their annual electric bills through the community solar aspect of this project. The economic relief to these community families, including some co-op employees, is timely as many people are struggling with especially high inflation in electric costs over the past year.

“River Valley Co-op remains committed to our mission of creating a just marketplace that nurtures the community through our community-owned retail grocery business operations,” Prunty said. “We leverage our business for addressing the pressing issues of fostering sustainable local food-system development, fighting global warming, and working for overall environmental and social justice.”

The hope, she added, is that this grocery-store solar project inspires others and drives systemic changes that support more widespread community ownership of solar- and green-energy innovations to democratize sustainable energy production. Partners on the project include Co-op Power, PV Squared, EOS Energy Systems, Sunwealth, Solar Design Associates, Wright Builders, Thomas Douglas Architects, and Berkshire Design Group.

Prunty also credited support from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, and Eversource in making the project a reality.

“It feels great to have been able to exceed our 2014 stretch goal of 50% for site-generated solar power to net-zero,” she added. “It took years of work to get here, navigating a system that was not designed for short-term profits for corporations, but instead for net-zero, local, community-owned solar production for either individuals or businesses. But with steadfast support from Co-op Power and so many others in our community, we are about the reach the finish line.”



The Road Ahead


Last year, trucks moved 73% — 11.5 billion tons — of the freight in the U.S., making trucks, and truckers, crucial to the U.S. economy. With automation in trucking projected to grow 22% over the next 10 years, a team of UMass Amherst researchers has received a grant to explore how automation will affect the role of American long-haul truckers.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers led by Shannon Roberts, associate professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, has been awarded nearly $2 million over four years by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Future of Work Program.

“We know that, when automation is introduced into trucks, it changes the role of a trucker,” Roberts said. “The question we are asking is, how do we examine and improve upon the future of work in long-haul trucking not by focusing on technology development, but rather by focusing on the trucker?”

Laurel Smith-Doerr, professor of Sociology and co-principal investigator on the study, noted that, “unlike other research projects on the future of work in long-haul trucking that assume driverless automation, our interdisciplinary, NSF-funded project centers the driver in the process of imagining the future of work in trucking.”

Roberts added that the role technology plays and the needs of truckers have to be carefully balanced. “Let’s focus on taking the best of both worlds to make sure they work together seamlessly. In the end, that will reap the greatest benefit.”

“Technology is good at handling consistent situations with predictable, rational people, but humans are not predictable, rational beings. Because of this, technology will not be able to react to everything that might happen on the road. It’s impossible. We will need a person in the truck.”

Automation has many benefits, like fewer crashes and better efficiency, but that doesn’t mean the human should be removed from the equation entirely, she added. “Technology is good at handling consistent situations with predictable, rational people, but humans are not predictable, rational beings. Because of this, technology will not be able to react to everything that might happen on the road. It’s impossible. We will need a person in the truck.”

At the same time, automation can’t make workers feel expendable, she said. “People take pride in what they do. We don’t want to take everything out of that job such that people are unsatisfied and unhappy. Many people get into trucking as a means to move into the middle-class lifestyle with a high-school diploma or a GED. It’s a means of betterment for a large chunk of the population.”

Roberts added that there’s a significant equity factor to consider as well. She sees how automation can also help relieve the ongoing trucker shortage by making the field more accessible to people who are underrepresented in the field — veterans, women, and minorities.

Ultimately, these questions converge on a topic she calls the human-truck symbiosis. “How do we take advantage of all the things that people are good at doing, and all the things that technology is good at doing, to make sure we have a system that works really well?”

Such a complex landscape requires an interdisciplinary team to evaluate it from all angles. Other principal investigators include Henry Renski, professor of Regional Planning; Shlomo Zilberstein, professor of Computer Science; Michael Knodler, professor of Civil Engineering; and Robin Riessman of the UMass Transportation Center as senior personnel.

Some of the methods the team plans to use to collect the information include ride-alongs with truckers, participatory design with truckers, and workforce-development analysis.

“We’re working with this workforce — that is, truckers,” Roberts said. “One of the things that will make this project successful is our stakeholders.”