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Commercial Real Estate

Making Some Noise

Jeremy Casey, managing partner of SR Commercial Realty

Jeremy Casey, managing partner of SR Commercial Realty

Jeremy Casey had decided it was time to move on from the banking business.

He had already been with several area institutions, working in commercial lending and, to a large degree, commercial real estate, and was seeing the industry change — and consolidate — around him.

He was with Chicopee Savings Bank and doing well there, but could see the handwriting on the wall in the form of a seemingly inevitable merger with Westfield Bank, one of his former employers.

“I didn’t want to be one of those people who jumped from bank to bank and to higher positions in those banks and then to another bank,” he said, adding that he had decided it was time to think about a change.

It would come first with some entrepreneurial undertakings, including an ill-fated venture called Name Net Worth, an app that would essentially measure what he called the ‘ripple effect’ from networking encounters. When that initiative failed, he took a big leap into commercial real estate and a managing-partner position with Springfield-based SR Commercial Realty, a company soon to mark five years in business.

It’s a growing, evolving venture that is making some noise in the market — figuratively but also quite literally. Indeed, Casey said that one trait that separates this company from other players in the market is its progressive and aggressive — some would say loud — marketing of properties.

“We’re noisy — you can’t get away from us,” he explained with a laugh, noting that the company has used large signs (the largest allowed by local ordinances), drone footage, videos, and other methods for bringing attention to properties in the portfolio, which is dominated mostly by industrial properties, retail, and land for development.

Many companies are using some of these tactics now, but Casey says SR Commercial Realty was breaking ground with such methods several years ago.

“Some brokers were actually mocking us at the time, but now, it’s the standard five years later,” he said, adding quickly that ‘noisy’ marketing is only one of three pillars that shape the company’s operating style. The others are communication and responsiveness, traits that have helped SR consistently build on its portfolio and add properties ranging from Thornes Market in Northampton to the former Channing Beete complex in Deerfield, sold to Treehouse Brewery; from the former Berkshire Industries property in Westfield to several properties in downtown Springfield and also downtown Hartford.

“Commercial real estate has been the same forever, but it will change, whether people like it or not. Technology will pay a huge role, and that gives us a good competitive advantage, because we’ve already been using it.”

Each of these properties is in some way unique, and they have been handled differently, he said, adding that this is one of the linchpins of the company’s operating philosophy.

“In commercial real estate, no building is the same, and no buyer is the same,” adding that this reality separates this sector from residential real estate to a large degree. “Residential is so black and white; with commercial, there’s very black and white and so much gray.”

Moving forward, Casey said the goal is to obviously continue to build the portfolio and expand the company’s reach — it has already added properties in the Boston area and on Cape Cod — while also being on the cutting edge of changes coming to the industry, not just in how properties are marketed, but to how business is done in general.

These are changes he believes are needed — and also inevitable.

“The industry needs to be disrupted,” he said. “Commercial real estate has been the same forever, but it will change, whether people like it or not. Technology will pay a huge role, and that gives us a good competitive advantage, because we’ve already been using it.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked at length with Casey, one of its 40 Under Forty honorees from his days in banking, about SR Commercial Realty and where he hopes to take this company in the years to come.

 

Building Momentum

The wall behind the desk in Casey’s office features a treatment depicting several of the landmark buildings in downtown Springfield — Tower Square, Monarch Place, the Colonial Block, the Campanielle, among others.

It’s one of the countless touches in the Willow State Building (so-called because it sits at the corner of Willow and State streets in downtown Springfield), which he co-owns with a few partners, that he did himself.

In fact, the partners did just about everything themselves, he went on, pointing to everything from the red, black, gray, and a little bit of green paint used on the walls in the SR Commercial Realty offices to the bathroom fixtures in all the suites; from the exterior façade (more black) to build-out for several new tenants, which range from Suit Up Springfield to HomeCare Hands to a new restaurant in the early stages of construction.

“We’ve put thousands of hours into this property — we’ve been working on it for three years straight,” he said, adding that he and his partners have succeeded in creating what he called a “community.”

Willow State Building

Renovating and securing new tenants for the Willow State Building has been one of Jeremy Casey’s passions. Growing SR Commercial Realty and expanding its portfolio and geographic reach has been another.

The Willow State Building has been a passion for Casey since he and his partners acquired it just prior to the start of the pandemic — or, more accurately, one of his passions, with SR Commercial Realty being the other.

Both have been works in progress and studies in entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, and well, different ways of doing things.

In many respects, anyway.

Indeed, Casey said the fundamentals of the commercial real-estate business, mostly the same as they are in banking, have not changed and won’t change.

Both sectors are grounded in relationship building and responding to the needs of customers, he explained, noting that he has taken these principles from his time in banking to this next chapter in his career.

This chapter started just after the demise of Name Net Worth, a very difficult time in Casey’s life, one when he looked inward and decided to move forward rather than look back or dwell on the present.

“I could have sat there and pouted and gone ‘poor me’ … it was a tough time, I had a newborn baby, we just bought a house, and we were gutting the house and redoing it, and I had no job, nothing,” he recalled, adding that he called his eventual business partner, who already had a small commercial real-estate business, and proposed a new venture.

“I linked up with him, and we took the same methodologies we used in the startup world and took them to commercial real estate,” he explained. “Specifically, that means listening to customers, not just coming up with what we think, but listening to where the pain points are in the industry.

“And, candidly, there were a lot of them,” he went on, adding that the company was founded with that focus on marketing, communication, and responsiveness.

With marketing, as he said earlier, the goal was to push the envelope and look for new, different, and more effective ways to do things.

“The way things were marketed before, you put a sign up, and you put the property on LoopNet or maybe that book you see in the convenience store,” he explained. “No one was using social media, no one was using video, no one was using professional photography.”

Partnering with Seven Roads Media (so named because it was based in East Longmeadow, where seven roads come together at that famous rotary), which is now a tenant in the Willow State Building, SR Commercial Realty worked to take commercial real-estate marketing to the proverbial next level with video and other strategies, including large signs.

“The largest sign we did was nine by 18 feet, and we did two of them — they were so large, they needed wind slits,” said Casey, referring to a property in Middletown, Conn. “We’ve painted buildings to bring attention to them … we try to get as much exposure as possible.”

This is what Casey meant by ‘noisy,’ which he believes is just one of the company’s attributes as it works to expand its portfolio and grow market share.

Others include the staff itself. It is young, with the average age of the brokers being in the 30s, and diverse, with brokers coming from different backgrounds in business, he said, adding that these various attributes are beneficial in this market and many others where demographics are changing.

“Not one person in this company had commercial real-estate brokerage experience prior to joining,” he said, adding that the different work experiences have brought fresh perspectives on how to do things.

Also beneficial, he said, is the high level of involvement, and communication, with clients, that has been the company’s MO.

“A broker is, by definition, someone who introduces two parties to consumate a relationship of a deal,” Casey explained. “But we’re very involved … the staff that we have here act like paralegals, so our deals don’t fall apart. We like to say that we provide a hands-on, white-glove experience with transaction coordination and transaction management; we work with clients so they truly get the experience they want.”

 

Signs of the Times

Like the lobbies of most all commercial-real estate firms, the one at SR boasts photos of properties it handles or has handled.

Casey pointed to framed aerial images of Thornes Marketplace, a section of downtown Hartford, and the Channing Beete property in Deerfield, before it was transformed by Treehouse.

The goal moving forward, obviously, is to build on this collection and fill more walls with pictures.

This can be done by focusing on the proverbial big picture, he went on, referring, again, to the company’s focus on listening to customers, hearing what they’re saying, and responding accordingly.

By continuing to do that, this growing company can make even more noise in this highly competitive industry.

 

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

Cover Story

Building a Foundation

 

As he talked about the foundation he created with some of the proceeds from the sale of Pride Stations and Stores — the business he started more than 40 years ago — and the many difficult societal problems it will address, Bob Bolduc summoned an often-paraphrased quote from John F. Kennedy.

It went this way:

“The great French Marshal Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and wouldn’t reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshal replied, ‘in that case, there is no time to lose — plant it this afternoon!’”

Bolduc recalled the story to drive home the point that the country, and Kennedy’s administration, faced some stubborn, deep-rooted problems, and because they would take a long time to resolve, no time should be wasted in addressing them.

Bolduc, the hugely successful entrepreneur also known for his high level of involvement in the community, and especially Springfield, struck those same tones while talking about the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation, launched earlier this year, and its broad mission.

“Helping youth and families achieve sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that’s not going to happen overnight,” he told BusinessWest. “It starts with the youth, and it’s going to take time to get them from pre-kindergarten into a career. So we’re looking at a long-range plan.

“And along the way, a lot of things have to be done right,” he went on. “So it’s absolutely a long-term, major project.”

Even before Bolduc launched the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation, back when he was planting the seeds and talking in broad strokes about its mission and how it would be carried out, he stressed repeatedly that this endeavor was not about writing checks — although it would undoubtedly write some.

“Helping youth and families achieve sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Instead, it was about creating a foundation that would be — and he would use these three words early and often — a convener, a facilitator, and a catalyst.

Shannon Mumblo, who became executive director of the foundation — and its first employee — just a few months ago, agreed.

She said the foundation’s mission statement — “to work within under-resourced communities, create alliances, and find solutions in all aspects necessary to help youth and families achieve sustainability” — speaks to the work it will carry out and how it will go about this work.

Indeed, as they talked about the new foundation and how it will go about its work, both Bolduc and Mumblo noted there are many other foundations, individual agencies, and major institutions already doing good work in this region. The goal moving forward is not to duplicate such work, but build on it, forge new alliances, and create more momentum with the many issues involved with creating sustainability.

And the foundation has already launched several new initiatives, everything from a Trauma Institute — born from the knowledge that trauma is one of the lead social determinants of health and a key contributor to many challenges facing youth and families — to an ‘Inspirational Speaker Series’ at which students will learn about career opportunities in various fields.

The Trauma Institute, which will provide training and consultative services to area agencies and nonprofits serving youth and families, is an early example of those at the new foundation listening to others and responding to identified needs.

Shannon Mumblo

Shannon Mumblo says the Hope for Youth and Families Foundation will, through its Trauma Institute, put a focus on providing trauma-informed services and training.

“We’re not here to replicate anything that’s already being done — we’re here to add value, and to meet needs where they arise,” Mumblo said. “We heard there was a need for something like this, and it has been very well-received within the community.”

For this issue, one that includes its annual Giving Guide, BusinessWest talked with the team at the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation about its broad mission and the long, challenging, and rewarding work that lies ahead.

 

Listening and Learning

There’s a box of tissues on the conference-room table at the foundation’s new office in Springfield.

It was added several months ago, and it’s now a permanent feature, said Bolduc, adding that many of the topics discussed — and stories heard — at the table have prompted those assembled to reach for the tissue box.

This process of listening is a big part of the early work being done at the foundation, said those we spoke with, adding that all those involved are still in the process of learning, identifying issues and ways in which the foundation can become involved, and then developing strategies for this involvement.

Summing it up, Bolduc and Mumblo called it the “Sustainability Challenge,” noting that it has both foundational building blocks — funding, alliances both local and national, data collection, and tracking of progress are just some of them — and a number of initiatives and programs ranging from foster care and supportive housing to summer camps, mentoring and tutoring programs, and scholarships.

The foundation’s work on the Sustainability Challenge is still very much in its infancy stage, said Bolduc, adding that, while he has been talking about his new foundation for the better part of a year now, the sale of the Pride chain was quite complicated, and it took several months to “unravel a lot of complicated issues,” as he put it.

Mumblo, the foundation’s first employee, did not come on board until July, he said, adding that this hire was an important initial step.

For Mumblo, the offer from Bolduc to lead the foundation, extended about a year ago, came somewhat out of the blue. When Bolduc called, she was serving as executive director of Christina’s House in Springfield, a nonprofit focused on providing transitional housing for women and their children, work that earned her status as one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2021. And she was quite happy in that work.

“I thought Christina’s House was going to the place where I retired eventually,” she said, adding she asked for time to think about this opportunity, and was given it. Her career plans changed when she learned more about the new foundation and the initial roadmap for how it would carry out its mission.

“Bob’s vision and values in the world really aligned with mine,” she noted. “And the bottom line for me was that it was not about handing out checks; it was about doing work — not just talking, but being immersed in the community and listening to what the community really needed and then building the foundation around that need. That’s what brought me here.”

She’s now leading a foundation that has that broad mission statement — and was inspired by all that Bolduc saw, heard, and learned about area communities and specific neighborhoods, and the many kinds of challenges they are facing.

“Because, over my career, I’ve had stores in all the different neighborhoods, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the populations in these neighborhoods, and I saw the need in the inner cities to help youth and families,” he explained. “When our family decided to start a foundation, we made that our mission — to work with youth and families in the inner cities.

“We had to define the problem and set goals,” he went on, adding that this work is in many ways being shaped by some interviews with 15-year-old girls conducted several years ago.

“When sustainability becomes the goal, we then need to look at what we have to do to make this happen. And we found that we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work — in all the ways.”

“We asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up,” he recalled. “And when the question came, ‘do you think you’ll go to college?’ every one of them said, categorically, ‘no, I could never go to college.’

“That became one of the points in our mission, and that is to help youth to be sustainable and find a job,” he went on. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be college, but to have a better life, be sustainable, stay in the city — which is a great city — and to ultimately give back, like we want to do.”

Sustainability is the identified goal, or mission. Attaining it is, of course, a challenge, and it has been for decades, he continued, referencing JFK’s famous quote and the need to plant the tree and get started.

“When sustainability becomes the goal, we then need to look at what we have to do to make this happen,” Bolduc told BusinessWest. “And we found that we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work — in all the ways.”

 

Addressing Needs

This ‘getting to work’ has taken many forms thus far, but much of it has involved meeting with the many agencies working on issues involving sustainability, listening to what they have to say, and thinking about ways to partner with them.

“Over the past few months, we’ve been meeting with every agency and nonprofit that fits into this plan — and we have a few more to go,” Bolduc said. “And we’re finding great people and great programs already in place; unfortunately, we’re finding some silos, and lots of problems. But those problems … we’re calling those opportunities to improve.”

And while listening and learning, those at the foundation have already launched several new initiatives aimed at addressing the needs conveyed to them.

One of these steps is creation of the Trauma Institute, which has its own mission statement — “to provide trauma-informed and responsive support services to youth and families and those who work with them in under-resourced communities.”

And it carries out that mission in many ways, including training and consultation focused on serving youth and families and those who work with them in under-resourced communities, partnerships, and policy and advocacy.

“We’re focused on helping to create pathways to graduation and then on to careers or college. We’re starting young and getting students involved in their education, wanting to go to school, and wanting to further their education or career goals.”

“There is a lot of work being done in mental health, specifically in trauma, but there are gaps because the need is so great and there aren’t enough resources to meet the need in the community,” said Mumblo, noting that she became well aware of these needs and gaps while leading Christina’s House and convinced Bolduc that work to address trauma needed to be a primary focal point of the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation.

“In my previous work with mothers and their children, I came to understand that their trauma is great, and it has many levels and many layers,” she explained. “You can teach life skills and provide a lot of education to help move someone from a point of homelessness or near-homelessness into independent living and stability and success. But until you really reach the root of the issue — which, for me, I saw time and time again, was the trauma that they had experienced and the severing of trust on so many levels and inability to feel loved — until that work really began to happen, the process to change had started, but there was only so much change that was going to happen until you peeled away the layers of that trauma, built that trust, and provided a loving and safe environment.”

Elaborating, she said the need for trauma-informed support and services extends to individuals in the community, obviously, but also to those working in the agencies that provide such services.

“There are many organizations who are serving youth and families in this area and doing a tremendous amount of work,” she said. “But the vicarious trauma that comes from that as providers is great, and a lot of times we’re not great at taking care of ourselves.”

Overall, the foundation’s work with trauma is in its early, formative stages, said Mumblo, adding this is true of other initiatives as well, including the Inspired Speaker Series, which kicked off recently with an event at Springfield Symphony Hall, where students from several area high schools had the opportunity to hear about careers in the military.

Future gatherings, and there will be many of them, will focus on different career paths, said Mumblo, including STEM, healthcare, law and government, law enforcement, and business. The broad goal is to introduce students to careers, inform them of what it takes to forge a career in these fields, and help put them on a path that will take them where they want to go.

There are several initiatives, most all of them still in the formative stages, that fall into this broad realm, said Alison Schoen, director of Administration for the foundation, listing mentoring and tutoring services, as well as after-school and summer programs, as other examples.

“We’re focused on helping to create pathways to graduation and then on to careers or college,” she said. “We’re starting young and getting students involved in their education, wanting to go to school, and wanting to further their education or career goals. We’re working with local organizations that already have established mentoring and tutoring programs and helping to create ties that will bind them and enable them to learn from one another.”

This is just one example, said Bolduc, of those guiding principles he mentioned for this foundation — to be a convener, a facilitator, and a catalyst for positive change.

 

Bottom Line

Such change, as noted earlier, will not come quickly or easily.

That’s why, like that gardener mentioned at the top, those at the Hope for Youth and Families Foundation aren’t wasting any time planting that tree — or, in this case, trees.

The problems related to sustainability are deep-rooted, and addressing them will involve time, patience, persistence, imagination, and more.

Bolduc had those qualities in mind when he began the next chapter of what has been a remarkable career in business and in giving back to the community.

He knew that they would be needed to build a foundation — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says the city has made great strides when it comes to growing and diversifying an economy once dominated by GE.

It’s called ‘Site 9.’

This is a 16-acre parcel within the William Stanley Business Park, created at the site of the massive General Electric transformer manufacturing complex in Pittsfield, which closed nearly 30 years ago.

The site has been available for development for more than two decades now, said Linda Tyer, Pittsfield’s mayor for the past seven years, but there have been no takers because, in a word, this site is ‘intimidating.’

“Every time we host a business and we identify this as a potential location, they look at it, and they’re instantly intimidated because of the condition that’s in,” she explained. “It’s a big scar in the heart of our community that’s a remnant of our past. People have looked at it, and they’ve just said, ‘I can’t envision my business here.’”

Gov. Charlie Baker was in the city a few weeks ago to hand-deliver a $3 million check that might change this equation. The money will go toward infrastructure work, putting new roads in, greening the space, and other measures that will make this parcel more shovel-ready and, ultimately, a part of this city’s future, not merely its past.

“If we don’t get any interest for the next 10 years, at least it’s not this giant wound in the heart of our city,” Tyer went on, adding she is expecting plenty of interest in the years to come.

Site 9 is where we begin our look at Pittsfield, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series. This is a city that has been trying to move beyond its past, and the dominating influence of GE on just about every facet of everyday life, since the company left. And in many ways, it has been making great progress.

Its economy is far more diverse and far less dependent on one company or one sector, said Tyer, adding that this was quite necessary given the devastation and outmigration that occurred when GE pulled up stakes. Today, the city boasts a few large employers — such as Berkshire Health Systems and General Dynamics — but the economy is dominated by small businesses across several sectors including manufacturing, IT, healthcare, and especially tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Those latter categories now provide a good number of jobs and have contributed to a rebirth of North Street, the main thoroughfare in the city, after it was decimated by GE’s departure, said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, a county-wide organization focused on economic development and promotion of the region.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago,” he said, adding that a strong focus on the arts and hospitality has changed the narrative in this community.

The pandemic obviously took a heavy toll on these businesses and the overall vibrancy of Pittsfield, said Butler, but it has managed to come almost all the way back this year, with the arts venues rebounding and hospitality venues back to something approaching normal.

James Galli, general manager of the Hotel on North, so named because it is on North Street, agreed. He said the hotel is on pace to have its best year since opening in 2015, and the mix of guests that it attracts provides some good insight into Pittsfield and what now drives its economy.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago.”

“We get a lot of travelers coming in from Boston and New York to go to Barrington Stage and the Colonial Theatre,” he said, citing two of the main cultural draws in the city. “We get a lot of millennials coming in for hiking and the beauty of the area, some business travelers coming in for General Dynamics and some of the area businesses in town — and it’s a good mix. We are the center of the Berkshires, so we get people staying with us for two, three, four days at a time; they’ll go down to South County or up to North County or into the Pioneer Valley, but they’ll stay with us because we’re very central and they can do a lot more if they stay with us.”

In some ways, the pandemic has actually benefited the Berkshires and especially its largest city, said those we spoke with, noting that the remote-work phenomenon has made it possible for those working for businesses in New York, Boston, and other expensive metropolitan areas to do so from virtually anywhere.

And with its high quality of life and (comparatively) low real-estate prices and overall cost of living, Pittsfield has become an attractive alternative, said Tyer, noting that the city is in the midst of a housing boom that has slowed only slightly even in the wake of rising interest rates and persistently high prices.

 

The Next Chapter

It’s called the ‘Library Suite.’

This is the largest suite among the 45 guest rooms at Hotel on North, and easily the most talked about. That’s because, as that name suggests, it’s decorated with books — some 5,000 of them by Galli’s count.

“There’s a moveable ladder, and … it looks like a library,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s everything from full sets of encyclopedias to children’s books, the Harry Potter collection; we’ve found them at tag sales over the years and made it into a unique, different type of room. It speaks for itself.”

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years.”

The library suite, which boasts about 850 square feet and goes for as much as $700 a night, depending on the season, has been occupied most every night over the past several months, said Galli, noting, again, that visitors of all kinds are coming back to Pittsfield, and to this hotel, which was created out of two historic buildings on North Street.

Business started to pick back up in June 2021 as the state essentially reopened, he said, and momentum continued to build into this year, which has yielded better numbers than the years just prior to the pandemic.

He attributes this to many factors, including some pent-up demand for travel and vacations as well as the unique nature of the hotel, which has several different kinds of rooms, each of them is unique.

“A lot of people are looking for a hotel that’s a little different — a boutique or independent hotel,” he said. “There’s a clientele that goes for the branded properties, but the people who stay with us are looking for that unique experience when they walk in the door.”

But Galli also credits Pittsfield’s resurgence in recent years, especially its cultural attractions and other quality-of-life attributes, making the city a destination for people of all ages.

Hotel on North is part of a new look and feel on North Street, said Butler, noting that the well-documented vibrancy of the GE chapter in the city’s history was followed by the dark and dismal time that he grew up in: “North Street was not a place to be in the ’90s.” The vibrancy has returned in the form of cultural attractions and new restaurants and bars.

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years,” he told BusinessWest. “You have investments like Berkshire Theatre Group with their theater in downtown Pittsfield, and Barrington Stage Company, which has become a major anchor, as well as a number of smaller cultural offerings and pop-ups and galleries in downtown Pittsfield.

“And this has been further bolstered by the emergence, over the past eight to 10 years, of a vibrant food scene — an exciting, trending type of food environment,” he went on, citing establishments, new and old, like Methuselah Bar and Lounge, Berkshire Palate (located in Hotel on North), Pancho’s Mexican Resaurant, Trattoria Rustica, Flat Burger Society, Patrick’s Pub, and Otto’s Kitchen & Comfort.

“There’s some finer dining options — downtown Pittsfield’s a great place to go host some clients if you’re a business or to have a good date night as a couple or a fancy night out with friends,” Butler explained. “But there’s also a lot of great casual offerings in downtown Pittsfield; there’s some great pubs, some great cocktail lounges. There’s also a lot of immigrant-owned businesses in downtown Pittsfield, which adds to the diversity and provides a more rich experience.”

 

At Home with the Idea

This diversification and strengthening of the city’s economy has become the main economic-development strategy for Tyer since she became mayor.

“I have some family history with General Electric — my great-grandparents were part of the GE economy,” she told BusinessWest. “And when I became mayor, I felt strongly that the economy cannot be dependent on one sector; my priority has been that we have diversity in the economy, and that includes everything from the travel, tourism, and hospitality sector to the cultural economy, and it also includes manufacturing and science and technology.”

To attract businesses across all these sectors, and to help existing companies expand, the city has created what Tyer calls its ‘red-carpet team,’ a name that hints strongly at its mission.

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 43,927
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.56
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.90
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

“We want to make sure that businesses that are here now, that are homegrown and might want to expand into a new market, expand their facilities, or grow their employment base, have the same level of support from the city of Pittsfield as we would give to a new business that wanted to start up in the city,” she explained. “We’ve been successful at balancing that approach.”

The red-carpet team consists of a number of city department leaders who work collectively to help counsel and guide a new or existing business toward fulfillment of whatever goal they might have. This integrated process enables a CEO to have one meeting, rather than several, said Tyer, adding that having everyone seated around one table enables the city to be more responsive and move more quickly.

And, overall, there have been a number of interested parties, she said, noting that the Berkshires, and Pittsfield, has a lot to offer employers, including quality of life and lower cost of living, as well as a population that is stabilizing, rather than declining, as it had been for decades.

“We have great neighborhoods, we’re still affordable, and we have beautiful outdoor recreation,” she said. “The combination of all of that is the magic that Pittsfield has going into the future.”

Much of this magic became even more forceful during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that, while most hospitality-related businesses had to shut down for an extended period, the Pittsfield area’s outdoor recreation and quality of life came more into focus for many looking to escape what COVID brought with it.

The hiking trails became even more popular, and the Berkshires — and its largest city — became an attractive alternative for those looking to escape larger cities, their congestion, and their higher costs.

“Our housing market has been on fire,” said Tyer, noting that many professionals from Boston, New York, and other major cities have moved to the Berkshires. “And I think it speaks to this phenomenon that people can be employed by a Boston firm but work from home here in Pittsfield and have all the amenities and quality of life of a small city in a beautiful region of the state.”

The housing market shows no signs of slowing, said those we spoke with, despite rising prices and, more recently, soaring interest rates as a result of Fed action to stem the tide of inflation.

“There’s still this competition, these bidding wars, for homes,” Tyer said. “And the seller is still selling; the market hasn’t really slowed down.”

This phenomenon has led to an increase in the value of homes across the city, she went on, adding that this brings benefits on many levels — everything from the city’s bond rating to its tax rate. It also creates some problems for first-time homebuyers and those looking to trade up, and rising prices within the rental market as well, creating shortages of what would be considered affordable housing.

But in the larger scheme of things, these would be considered some of those proverbial good problems to have, said the mayor, especially in a city that had seen so much hardship over the previous 30 years.

 

The General Idea

The sports teams at Pittsfield High School are still nicknamed the Generals, said Tyer, adding that this just one of the myriad ways to measure the influence that GE had in this city for the better part of a century.

But while the city can still pay homage to its past in this and other ways, it has managed to move past it in almost all others.

Yes, Site 9 and many other parcels that were part of the massive complex remain undeveloped, but overall, Pittsfield and its economy have moved on. It took some time, as it does when a city loses an employer of such magnitude, but the city’s economy, like North Street itself, has been reinvented, and vibrancy has returned.

“We’ve overcome that group depression that we all suffered, and I think there’s a lot of excitement around the art and culture economy; the small-business, science, and technology economy; and some long-standing businesses that have grown since my time in public service,” she told BusinessWest. “I think we’ve overcome the ‘we’re a dying community because we lost GE’ sentiment, and I think we’re a growing, emerging community.”

 

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

Architecture

Blueprinting a Succession Plan

new leadership team at Dietz & Co.

From left, the new leadership team at Dietz & Co.: Kevin Riordan, Tina Gloster, Jason Newman, and Lee Morrissette.

As he talked about the transition in ownership, and leadership, taking place at Springfield-based Dietz & Co. Architects, Jason Newman used the phrase ‘ease-in, ease-out mentality’ to describe the process.

By that he meant that Kerry Dietz, founder of the firm and its principal, has been easing out of the many responsibilities involved with leading this company of nearly 30 employees and its many projects, while a team of four leaders — architects (and principals) Jason Newman, Lee Morrissette, and Kevin Riordan, and CFO Tina Gloster — have been easing into them.

That’s a simple yet efficient way of describing what’s been happening at the Dietz firm for roughly the past two years now as it transitions from a single owner to one with an employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP, which is a form of employee benefit plan, similar in many ways to a profit-sharing plan.

“Kerry didn’t want to just hand us the keys and walk away, and we didn’t want her to do that either,” said Newman, who studied under her while earning his degree in architecture at UMass Amherst. “We’ve been in our new roles and taking on new responsibilities as principals in the firm, but we also have the comfort, and benefit, of Kerry being here on a limited basis to help guide us and mentor us and still bring all the positive energy she brings to the office, which will sorely be missed when she finally steps away.”

And with Dietz, who is now working just a day or two a week, set to fully retire at the end of this year, the transition process is now pretty much complete, said Newman, adding quickly that those involved are still easing in or out in many respects, but settling into their new roles.

For Dietz, that means the next stage of her life after a more than 40-year career in architecture that saw her make her mark not only in her field, but in the city of Springfield, where she moved her firm into the renovated Union Station; and in the community, where she has been active and philanthropic, and made sure her company and its employees were as well. For this strong combination of business success and involvement in the community, Dietz became a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural Women of Impact class in 2017.

For those succeeding her in leadership positions, it’s a time to write the next chapter for a company that has changed the landscape in the region, literally, designing buildings across many different sectors, from housing to education; office to gaming (it designed many of the spaces at MGM Springfield).

 

Transparent Approach

As they start writing those new chapters, those we spoke with said the ESOP model, one in which ownership of the firm is essentially shared by all employees, will work well at Dietz, and for a number of reasons.

“It’s a very interesting way to look at a business, especially in the design industry, where so much of what we do is teamwork,” said Newman, adding that the ESOP model dovetails nicely with the company’s operating structure in ways that were not really anticipated, or fully understood, when the concept was first proposed in late 2020.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee. If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Another factor is the high level of transparency that has defined Kerry Dietz’s management style and now characterizes the company, said Morrissette, an experienced architect who came to Dietz in 2019 after working at firms in the Boston area.

“One of the things that is most remarkable to me, coming from other firms in the Boston area and elsewhere before that, is the level of business transparency that the Dietz company has offered from the very first meeting I came into,” he explained. “The quarterly performance of the company and our business initiatives are clear to all the employees, and we have an open-book policy when it comes to salaries, and that’s very uncommon in our industry.

“There has been a very consistent approach to sharing the business of architecture with the entire staff,” he went on. “It’s an education for everyone; it was for me when I first came here — I learned a lot about the business of architecture, and it’s made it a lot easier to do this transition, because we were included the whole time so we could take on more and more understanding and more and more responsibility.”

Riordan, who has been with Dietz for nearly 20 years, agreed.

“Kerry was one person running the firm, and that was a huge responsibility, with a lot of tasks and pieces attached to that,” he said. “It’s been really great to see everyone step into those roles in their own way and actually make a better process for running the firm, because there’s no one person trying to manage it all, plus run projects. There are four of us that are actually taking on the tasks and developing our own initiatives for how we make those tasks better.”

Still, there has been a sharp learning curve with this transition, said Newman, adding that it’s still ongoing.

“It’s definitely a completely different way to run a business,” he said. “Many of the aspects of being an ESOP are quite positive; we have a lot more opportunities for our employees to engage and reap the benefits of being a company owner, from the financial side as well as the cultural side. It’s not one person at the top who has full authority on decision making and the strategic direction of the company.”

Elaborating, he said that, in addition to the four in the four leadership positions, there is also a board of directors charged, in essence, with making sure the company is being run fairly and that all voices are heard.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee,” Newman went on. “If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

With the transition in leadership, the three principals have taken on new responsibilities. Morrissette said he will be working on marketing, alongside Marketing Coordinator Ashley Solomon, while also directing the many housing projects the firm takes on, as well as municipal projects. Meanwhile, Newman said he will be working closely with Gloster and focusing on the business side of the company — “talking with our lawyers, corporate governance, contracts, insurance, all this stuff you love to do as an architect.”

Riordan, meanwhile, said he will be focused on “quality control” and developing systems to enable the firm to operate better and more efficiently, adding that all three principals will be involved in several aspects of management, including the recruitment and hiring of talent and building the book of business.

 

Branching Out

Moving forward, those we spoke with expect some changes at Dietz. One of them involves a broadening of the firm’s reach and getting closer to clients — quite literally, said Morrissette, adding that, with the firm doing consistently larger amounts of work in the Boston area, it will open an office in that city in the near future.

With the pandemic and the manner in which it allowed firms to connect with and work for clients remotely, he explained, the firm has taken on more projects outside the 413 and in areas like Boston, a trend that will continue into the future.

“We’re reaching out, geographically, more than we have in the past, and that’s very exciting,” he said. “This [remote] interaction is something we’re getting very comfortable and familiar with, and it has allowed us to reach much farther than we have before … that’s a big step forward, and it’s something we definitely gained from the pandemic.”

What won’t change, though, is the high level of commitment to the community, and giving back, that Kerry Dietz made part of its fabric of doing business.

“We have a long and strong history in affordable housing and in serving the organizations and the nonprofits that serve our communities,” Newman said. “And our passion to continue to fill that role has not wavered in the slightest. When Kerry was running the company herself, she had a very generous charitable-giving strategy, which we have looked at, revisited, and ramped up.

“We pride ourselves on being an architecture firm that supports the people who support us,” he went on. “And that won’t change.”

 

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

Cover Story

The Next Stage

Donald Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre

Donald Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre

When asked how many tours he’s given of the Victory Theatre in Holyoke, the landmark that went dark in 1979, Donald Sanders gave a hearty laugh — something he does often — and just shook his head. That was his way of saying ‘more than I could count.’

Those tours have been given to elected officials, economic-development leaders, city department heads, arts groups, members of the media … you name it. They’ve all been in for a look at this piece of history that a city, and a region, have been desperate to renovate and make a part of the future, not merely the past.

And while the tours given today are essentially the same as those given years or even decades ago — they go everywhere from the front lobby to the mezzanine to the stage area — there is a new sense of urgency, optimism, and, yes, momentum — with these visits, said Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre, which has been at the forefront of efforts to restore the theater for the past 20 years.

Indeed, over the past several months, there has been a new tone to the discussions about restoring the 1,600-seat facility back to a Broadway-style theater. Specifically, there is a growing sense, after more than 40 years of talk, that this project is real.

“It’s more than just arts and culture; it’s really about impact to community and the secondary impact it offers.”

“I’ve always been optimistic that this could happen, but now, there is greater reason for optimism,” said Sanders, noting that MIFA (the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts) acquired the Victory Theatre from the city in 2009 and has been committed to its revival since because it region’s best option for bringing large Broadway shows back to the Pioneer Valley. “There is a greater sense of momentum now than perhaps ever before.”

Several factors have contributed to this momentum — everything from a visit to the theater by gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey back in late June to a recent bus trip to Schenectady, N.Y. to take in the restoration of the Proctors arts complex, a project that is similar in many ways to the Victory initiative, to progress with the closing of a persistent funding gap thanks to federal ARPA money.

renovated Victory Theatre.

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre.

Some of that money has been aside for “transformative projects” in communities, said Sanders, adding that he and others have long been making the case that a restored Victory Theatre hosting Broadway shows and other large events can and will have a transformative effect on the local economy.

But there are other factors as well, said Susan Palmer, a principal with the Palmer Westport Group, which focuses on strengthening and developing fundraising and leadership capacity of theaters across the country.

She has consulted on a number of projects aimed at bringing formerly dark theaters back to useful life, and she credits the leadership in Holyoke, and especially Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, with injecting some needed energy and confidence in the Victory Theatre project.

“He has been fearless; he has been relentless,” said Palmer, who was a theater producer at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield and also worked at Jacob’s Pillow, the Colonial Theater, and the Berkshire Theatre Festival before launching her consulting firm in 2005. “He has a three-legged stool of priorities for the city; he wants to increase and improve the housing stock, he wants to improve educational outcomes, and he wants Holyoke to be the center of economic revitalization in that area, and he feels putting the Victory Theatre back in service is a key to that.”

Garcia, who has put together a strike force (led by his wife, Stephanie) to keep the focus on the project and raise funds within the community for the efforts, said the theater project is, indeed, a key element in efforts to revitalize the city and its downtown and bring new businesses and vibrancy to the community.

The theater has been closed since before he was born, but its importance to the city, from a cultural, economic-development, and pride standpoint, is certainly not lost on him, and he believes the remaining hurdles to restoration of the Victory can be cleared.

“This project is in the ninth inning, as I like to say, and we have a short window to close the funding gap,” Garcia said. “The gap is $15 million to $20 million, but a very clear and doable path has been identified.”

He said the trip to Schenectady, during which participants got to take in a performance of Aladdin, showed not only what can be done to restore a landmark, but what doing so means for the community.

children watch a movie at the Victory Theatre in the ’70s

At top, children watch a movie at the Victory Theatre in the ’70s. Above, a view of Suffolk Street and the theater from 1955.

“It was such an eye-opening experience to know what Schenectady has been able to accomplish with their community,” he said. “It’s more than just arts and culture; it’s really about impact to community and the secondary impact it offers; their story felt very similar to ours.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Victory Theatre project and at how those involved believe that now, more than 40 years after the last movie was shown there, there is sufficient funding, and momentum, to get this initiative over the goal line.

 

Marquee Moments

Palmer told BusinessWest that she has been involved with several theater-restoration projects, including the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, a project credited with helping to revitalize a city that had been devastated by the loss of its largest employer, General Electric.

While all of these initiatives differed in some ways, there was a common denominator: time.

Indeed, almost all of these projects took several decades to complete, she said, adding this is an element that is often overlooked in some communities undertaking such initiatives, including Holyoke.

“They all take a long time,” she said. “But the people who are working in these individual communities are only working on their project; they don’t realize that they’re in a pool of companions who have experienced the same thing.

“I worked on one in Ohio, the Woodward Opera House, that took 33 years. So there are two generations of people who have been involved with that. I was brought in in the last three years, and I would talk to people who would say, ‘my parents were working on this back when I was in grade school.’”

“I worked on one in Ohio, the Woodward Opera House, that took 33 years,” she went on. “So there are two generations of people who have been involved with that. I was brought in in the last three years, and I would talk to people who would say, ‘my parents were working on this back when I was in grade school.’”

There are at least two generations of Holyoke residents who have been hearing about, and been part of, efforts to restore the Victory Theatre.

Time has mostly stood still for the landmark since its last showing of the Clint Eastwood comedy Every Way Which Way but Loose in 1979. As one enters the theater, there are some remnants from that final showing, including a few old popcorn tubs, still to be seen.

Movie showings were the last chapter for the Victory, which was commissioned by leading industrialists in the city, including silk-factory owner William Skinner, in 1918, said Sanders, adding that it was intended to be the largest, grandest theater in a thriving city that already boasted many of them.

Turning back the clock a century or so, Sanders said Holyoke had several theaters in its downtown area, as well as a 3,000-seat opera house that stood where a parking garage now exists across from City Hall. The theaters included the Strand, the Majestic, the Suffolk, and the Bijou.

The site selected for the Victory Theatre, a name chosen to commemorate the Allies’ victory in World War I, was adjacent to the Holyoke House, then the finest hotel in the city, said Sanders, adding that this was a pattern followed by many cities at that time.

The Victory Theatre closed in 1979

The Victory Theatre closed in 1979 and hasn’t seen much light since then.

The Victory was what’s known as a ‘legitimate house,’ said Sanders, meaning that it had the finest of accommodations and was the therefore the preferred theater of choice for many performers of that era.

“That terminology means it hosted the highest level of shows and was a theater that was the best-equipped, had the best dressing rooms, etc., etc.,” he said, adding that Holyoke didn’t have a ‘legit house,’ and its leaders were determined to build one.

Fast-forwarding through the history of the Victory, Sanders said its fortunes mirrored those of the city. As the paper and textile mills that enabled Holyoke to boast one of the highest per-capita income rates in the country a century ago began to move south and then eventually offshore, the theater and the area around it started to decline, and the Victory eventually became a movie house.

As the trend in movie theaters shifted to smaller facilities in large complexes with multiple screens, its fortunes faded further until it ultimately closed. After it was taken for non-payment of taxes in the early ’80s, there were various efforts to restore the landmark, said Sanders, adding that, in all cases, the money needed — $9 million maybe 30 years ago and then progressively higher figures as the scope of the work increased — could not be raised.

In 2005, an item came before the Holyoke City Council to raze the Victory Theatre, he said, adding that he lobbied that group to stay the execution, arguing that such a vital landmark — and potential economic-development engine — should not be lost to the past.

The council listened, he said, and the Victory lived to fight another day.

To the casual observer, meaning those who haven’t been in for a tour, the facility seems frozen in time and unchanged. But that’s not the case, said Sanders, noting that a number if improvements have been undertaken over the years to ready the theater for restoration.

Steps have included asbestos removal, installing a new roof, converting the gas utility to electric (a project still underway), restoration of historic murals located near the stage, replacing non-compliant window coverings with new polycarbonate clear coverings, and other initiatives that together total nearly $5 million.

Overall, the structure is very sound, noted Sanders, adding that no expense was spared in building it.

 

Victory Is in Sight

To bring a project like the Victory Theatre to a successful result, a number of elements have to come together, Palmer said. These include leadership, a commitment from the community, funding, of course, and sometimes a little luck.

In the case of the Victory, the luck, if one chooses to call it that, comes in the form of ARPA money in the wake of the pandemic, funds that are expected to close most, but not all, of a $5 million to $6 million gap between the $58 million needed for the project and what has been raised through various means, including historic tax credits and new market tax credits; private, individual, corporate, and foundation donations; and public grants.

“ARPA money is what helped this project turn the corner,” Palmer explained, adding that the federal government has released $350 billion in funds to individual cities and states, and those working on the Victory Theatre project are currently working with several lobbyists to position this initiative for a $12 million ARPA allocation.

“It hasn’t happened yet … it’s coming in dribs and drabs, pieces here, pieces there,” she said, adding that the ARPA funds will constitute roughly half of what still needs to be raised for the project.

The rest will be raised locally, she said, adding that $7.5 million has been pledged, and there are plans for a community effort with a goal of raising $2 million.

Local fundraising will include mostly smaller donations, Palmer said, but that grassroots effort, which will involve phone calls, knocking on doors, letter-writing campaigns, and fundraisers and friendraisers of all kinds, will bring area residents and businesses into the fight to restore the theater, and it will send a strong message to elected leaders about the importance of the initiative — to the city and region as a whole.

Mayor Garcia agreed, and noted again the importance of the project, not just from the standpoint of the arts, as significant as that is, but to the proverbial big picture in Holyoke and the region.

“The Victory Theatre checks off a lot of boxes,” he said. “When we think of what we’re trying to do in our city, in our downtown, in terms of tourism and economic development, this is just another piece of the greater economic system puzzle that we’re trying to solve here.”

Elaborating, he said the theater cannot exist in a vacuum, and there must be an infrastructure of supporting businesses — restaurants, bars, and other hospitality-related ventures — to make a revitalized Victory Theatre succeed.

Palmer concurred, and to explain, she did some math.

“When the theater opens, it’s going to be substantial — there are 1,600 seats in there,” she said. “The average occupancy, or utilization, rate of any nonprofit regional theater on any given night is 65%, so there will be 1,100 people bopping around that neighborhood several times a week. Right now, there aren’t many things to do, and certainly not enough to accommodate 1,100 people.

“So, there’s a parallel effort we’re working on to make sure, when the theater opens its doors, that the ancillary economic benefit will be ready to go,” she went on, adding that city officials and the strike force are working to help make sure that there is an infrastructure in place to support the theater.

Meanwhile, work continues to build on the current momentum and convince the public that there is a path to getting this done, said Aaron Vega, Holyoke’s Planning director, adding that more than 40 years of waiting for action on the property has created some stubborn skepticism that still must be overcome.

“It does take a long time for these projects to happen, and there has been work done,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not visible from the outside; people drive by and say, ‘it looks the same as it did 10 years ago or 20 years ago.’ Overall, we need to reinstill some energy and some trust that this project is real.”

The bus trip to Schenectady and the Proctors arts complex was part of this larger effort, said Vega, noting that Schenectady and Holyoke are very similar in that they were both devastated by the loss of large employers (in the former’s case, it was General Electric). And their respective restoration projects are similar as well in that they involved long periods of time and a deep commitment from the community.

“One of the reasons we took that trip is to have people be able to come back and tell the story of what a theater like this could do for Holyoke, obviously, but also the entire region,” he said, adding that these discussions are now being had, generating what he and others expect will be more momentum.

And momentum not just for theater, he said, but what can come because of such a facility.

“I’m hoping that people can see the spinoff,” he explained. “The new restaurants, the buildings that were unoccupied being reoccupied — that’s the thing we want to see, the spinoff and the ripple effect; that’s what is going to affect everyone, not just those who will go to the theater.”

 

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of those tours he has given — and will continue to give — Sanders said they do more then enlighten. They also educate and inspire those who take them.

In most all ways, they are better than a marketing brochure, better than talking to someone about the history and importance of this landmark.

“It’s our biggest selling point; it’s much better than me saying, ‘we have the last Broadway house in the region,’” he noted. “People walk through the door, they see 800 seats and the stage … and they realize what a treasure this is.”

It’s been 43 years since this treasure was anything more than a piece of history, but if all goes well — and things are tending in that direction — it will soon be an important piece of the future.

 

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

Shop Local Special Coverage

Local Call

Michelle Wirth, left, with Lexi Walters Wright

Michelle Wirth, left, with Lexi Walters Wright, owner of High Five Books, one of the many area companies now showcased on the Feel Good Shop Local platform.

If anyone needed any proof concerning the importance of buying local to the regional economy, Michelle Wirth said, it came during the pandemic.

As consumers were forced to shop from their computers, except for what they could find at the supermarket or the big-box stores allowed to stay open, they resorted to Amazon and, for the most part, the national brands with which they were familiar.

As a result, a good number of smaller retailers were just not able to carry on and had to close their doors, putting some people out of work as they did so. Many of those storefronts are still vacant, impacting vibrancy on Main Street — and many other streets as well. Meanwhile, the jobs created by those stores, and the local spending generated by them — on everything from marketing to signs; electricity to office supplies — have been lost.

“During COVID, all of us were relying on online shopping more than ever before — we were relying on Instacart or some of the big names, Amazon, Nordstrom’s, L.L. Bean, Walmart … and when we could finally raise our heads and we were comfortable leaving our houses and driving around the neighborhood, I noticed that a lot of the stores that I had frequented prior to COVID were closed or closing,” said Wirth, who said this harsh reality was one of many factors that led her to launch Feel Good Shop Local, or FGSL, as it’s called, an online e-commerce platform that makes it easier for area residents and businesses to find local retailers, and much easier to do business with them.

In a word, the site — feelgoodshoplocal.com — ‘connects’ consumers with local retailers, said Wirth, adding that these connections benefit consumers, retailers, and communities alike.

“The vitality of our local communities is important. How do you ensure the vitality of our local communities? By supporting our local neighbors, the local stores, things that are happening in our backyard.”

There are now more than 20 businesses on the site, including Lenny Underwood’s Upscale Socks; High Five Books in Florence; Hallie’s Comet Fine Jewelry; Feather & Bloom, a florist, plant, and gift shop in Suffield, Conn.; Relax.Rinse.Repeat, a Westfield-based provider of organic health and beauty products; and many others. Upon visiting a participating shop, one can learn about it, see products, read reviews, and — this is the ultimate goal — place orders (more on all this later).

The Feel Good Shop Local site is one of the listings in our annual Buy Local Holiday Gift Guide, which includes a lengthy list of gift suggestions and places to find them starting on page XX. Wirth and others we spoke with said that the holidays are a good time — although any time is a good time — to remind people of the importance of shopping locally for all those reasons mentioned above.

In many ways, that message is resonating, said Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of Placemaking at the Mill District in North Amherst, a mixed-use community that now features more than 130 housing units and an eclectic array of small shops. She noted that shopping with local retailers has become a priority for some, and even a political statement for others.

show off some of the many items at the store.

From left, Shauna Wallace, interim manager of the Mill District General Store; Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of Placemaking for the Mill District; and Tim O’Brien, senior Communications director for WD Cowls Inc., show off some of the many items at the store.

“People really find that, for them, shopping locally is meaningful beyond just the fact that it’s nice to go in and touch something and connect with someone,” she said. “They also feel a point of pride shopping locally, giving a gift that has a story they heard right from the artist that made it.

“It becomes this sense that people are part of the recovery,” Rechtschaffen went on. “And I think that this is both real and important. At places like this, people are able to come out and shop and meet the store owner, meet the people working there, meet people making things … it’s just a nicer experience and gives everyone a sense of recovery and reclaiming things.”

Melissa Peavay, marketing manager for Grove Real Estate, owner of the Longmeadow Shops, agreed. She said shopping local has, indeed, become a priority for many consumers, especially after the lessons — and the casualties — of the pandemic.

But she noted that ‘shopping local’ is a broad term. It means buying from local vendors, obviously, she said, but it also means buying from a local outlet of a national chain, one that is providing jobs and contributing to the vibrancy of a downtown, a mall, a shopping plaza (like the Longmeadow Shops), or a community.

“Shopping with people who own their own business and live locally is wildly important,” she said. “But it’s very important to come out and shop local, even if it’s a national chain; it’s local people who work at these stores.”

 

The Going Rate

There are two bathrooms in the General Store at the Mill District. One, very popular with children, features a jungle motif. The other one? Well, it features one-way glass on the entire wall facing the parking lot. Those using it can see out, but no one can see in.

“People really find that, for them, shopping locally is meaningful beyond just the fact that it’s nice to go in and touch something and connect with someone. They also feel a point of pride shopping locally, giving a gift that has a story they heard right from the artist that made it. It becomes this sense that people are part of the recovery.”

“Still, it can a little disconcerting or unnerving at first, but overall, it’s different, and it’s fun,” said Shauna Wallace, interim manager of the store, adding that the bathroom, said to be one of just a handful in the country with such one-way glass (the others are in tourist spots), has become a talking point. There’s even a sign on the property directing visitors to it that says “you have to go!”

While people might use this bathroom while visiting the store, and others at the Mill District, it is not the reason they go there, said Rechtschaffen, adding that their primary motivation is to find a unique mix of stores and shop locally. And the General Store provides maybe the best example of this.

It features thousands of different items, almost all of them from local vendors and artists: hand-made quilts from Night Sky Quilts in Amherst, maple syrup from Boyden Bothers Maple Syrup in Conway, dog treats from Berkshire Dog in Lanesboro, reclaimed cutting boards from Firefly Hollow in Leverett, local sauces and grocery items from the Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland … the list goes on.

Melissa Peavay

Melissa Peavay says the pandemic helped motivate many consumers to shop local.

As noted earlier, the General Store is just one of many small, locally owned shops in the Mill District. Others include the Closet, which offers vintage and ‘new to you’ clothing; Graze Craze, which offers customizable charcuterie boards and catering; the Lift Salon; Provisions, the Mill District Local Art Gallery; and many others. Collectively, they provide opportunities for people to find what they’re looking for, locate some unique gifts, and shop local in one spot.

It was this same objective that motivated Wirth to create the Feel Good Shop Local platform, which was sparked by the reality that local artists and retailers are simply not as visible as they would like to be.

“One of the reasons some people don’t shop local is because it’s hard — it’s time-consuming, especially if you’re a newcomer to the area, to find these places,” she said. “If you Google items, they don’t show up; if you Google ‘black sweater near me,’ you get the big-box stores, not the local stores. It’s a connection issue.”

Feel Good Shop Local was created to forge connections and enable people to shop at those stores when it’s convenient for them.

“As a mother of four, I’m shopping early in the morning and late at night, and, unfortunately, our local stores are not open at those hours,” Wirth said, adding that many people are similarly constrained by time.

But convenience is only part of the equation. The platform, which was launched during the Big E and is focused largely on gift giving, enables people to shop by recipient (everything from family members to pets; from teachers to co-workers), price, occasion, interest (from travel to wellness to pets — again), and values, everything from women-owned to BIPOC to ‘sustainable practices.’

Wirth considers the platform a classic win-win, or win-win-win, because it benefits consumers, local shops and artists, and communities across the region.

“The vitality of our local communities is important,” she said. “How do you ensure the vitality of our local communities? By supporting our local neighbors, the local stores, things that are happening in our backyard.”

As noted, 25 stores now participate on the platform, with another 25 or 30 in the pipeline, and as the holidays approach, Wirth expects interest in the site to rise. Participating businesses pay a 15% commission on each sale to FGSH, a lower rate than most other sites of this type.

The Mill District General Store is one of those businesses. Click on that site, and one can find a few dozen different items with the store’s own label, including spicy pickles, cracked peppercorn dressing, jams, salsa, and ‘Moonshine Barbecue Sauce.’

Wirth said the platform is essentially just getting started and is still “learning and growing.” She expects that as word of mouth spreads about its ability to make connections and generate sales, it will draw more local shops and artisans.

“The intention behind this is to create community — a community of sellers and a community of like-minded shoppers that are supporting these sellers in a way that is convenient for everyone.”

Meanwhile, with the holidays just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the season, which is increasingly clouded by questions about the economy, recession, inflation, and the impact of all that on spending.

Amid these concerns, there is, as noted earlier, growing encouragement of efforts to shop local and support businesses looking to make a full recovery from the pandemic.

Peavay said 2020 and 2021 were very difficult times for most all retailers, and some, as Wirth noted, were not able to successfully pivot and navigate their way through the whitewater.

The Longmeadow Shops saw a few casualties, she said, adding quickly that these vacancies have been filled, and the outdoor shopping plaza is now fully leased.

It features several locally owned stores, including Caren & Company, a clothing store; In Chic Shoenique, a merger of two stores, In Chic and Shoenique; Batch Ice Cream; Delaney’s Market; Max Burger; Posto; and the Shot Shop, a salon and spa.

In addition, it features a number of national chains, from J.Crew to Ann Taylor to the Gap, that provide jobs and contribute to the overall vibrancy of the complex and the town itself.

“If people don’t come out and stroll our sidewalks and shop in our stores, those national chains will leave,” Peavay said. “And then, people are disappointed; you always hear after someone closes, ‘I loved that store … why did it close?’ It’s super important to shop locally owned stores and to shop local, at the Longmeadow Shops or any shopping center, if you find that shopping center convenient.”

 

Bottom Line

There’s a ticker of sorts on the Feel Good Shop Local Site. It keeps a running track of the money spent at participating businesses through the site, under the header ‘Money Invested in the Local Economy.’

At present, that number is still in the five digits as the site continues to build visibility and a presence across the region. In time, it will go much higher, said Wirth, adding that, beyond this number, the site is creating those all-important connections that make it much easier for consumers to shop local first.

When they do, it is truly a win-win-win scenario.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Group Created to Stem the Brain Drain Remains Loyal to Its Roots

YPS leaders past and present
YPS leaders past and present, from left: Michael Kusek, Kathleen Plante, Ryan McCollum, Kara Bombard, Heather Clark, and Tyler Hadley.

The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. That’s not a big number, but for a ‘young’ organization, in every sense of that word, it is a significant milestone. What is being celebrated is ongoing work to carry out a mission to bring young people together, to get them involved, to help shape them into leaders, and, while they’re at it, motivate them to stay in the 413. Much has changed over those 15 years, but that important mission hasn’t.

Fifteen years.

Depending on how old you are, it’s either a long time or … a really long time.

To those who were involved in the creation of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS), it certainly seems like the latter. The city and the region have changed considerably since 2007, and their lives have as well. Most are in different jobs than they were back then, and if they were in business for themselves, their venture is probably exponentially larger and more diverse.

Meanwhile, technology and social media have advanced in ways that probably could not have been imagined back then — early meetings were all planned by email, word got out through Evite, and organizers had real rolodexes, for example — and the physical landscape has been altered; many of the venues that hosted those early gatherings of this group, from the Keg Room and Cobalt to the Skyplex nightclub and Sam’s at the Basketball Hall of Fame, have been relegated to memories.

But through all that change — and, yes, there has been a lot of it — the core mission, YPS’s reason for being, is still the same. It is a vehicle for bringing ‘young’ — and that’s young in quotation marks — people together to network, do business with one another, learn, grow, get involved, consider the problems of the region and the world, and maybe discuss some ideas for solving a few.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room. Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

While doing all that, it has made the phrase ‘Third Thursday,’ the traditional gathering night, part of the local lexicon, a tradition that has endured.

The motto back then was ‘live, work, play, and stay,’ with the last word perhaps being the most critical, said Mike Kusek, noting that it was added to convey the importance of keeping young talent graduating from area colleges and universities in this region and minimizing the brain drain that was considered a major problem for the region.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room,” he said of those days. “Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

Kusek is one of those founding members, if you will, who has seen his life and career change considerably since 2007. Back then, he was handling marketing for the Valley Advocate. Today, he is the founder and publisher of Different Leaf, a publication dedicated to all things cannabis, especially the growing industry within Massachusetts and across the country (talk about a major change in the local landscape!).

Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.
Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.

He is one of several founders, as well as some current officers of YPS, who gathered for a roundtable to talk about YPS as it marks 15 years, a milestone that provided a time for reflection on how it got started, what has been accomplished, how the group has evolved, and what might come next.

As to that last question … a 15th-anniversary party is part of the answer. Those at the table agreed that one is certainly needed, and a format and date will come later.

As to those other questions … those at the table agreed that YPS has succeeded with its original mission, but it has also expanded it to include education — through initiatives like its early CEO Roundtables, where members could ask questions of leading area executives — and also involvement (YPS helped spawn the Onboard event aimed at recruiting young people, women, and diverse populations to serve on the boards of area nonprofits), charity, and even politics by encouraging members to register to vote (as part of the national Rock the Vote movement) and staging ‘meet-the-candidates’ gatherings.

The process of evolution continues, and it was accelerated in many ways by the pandemic, said Heather Clark, event manager for Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Baystate Health Foundation, the current president of YPS, noting that the group managed its way through that difficult time by bringing people together through Zoom meetings and finding new and different ways to connect young people and channel their collective energy.

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently,” she explained, adding that, now that COVID is essentially over, the challenge, and opportunity, moving forward is to determine what the future will look like in terms of where and how members will connect — with each other and the community. “We’re still trying to figure out what that looks like.”

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently.”

Tyler Hadley, director of Marketing for DDS Acoustical Specialties LLC in Westfield, and current co-vice president of the board, agreed.

“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” he explained. “Fifteen years ago, young people wanted to get out and do something; now, young professionals may just want to go on a website and look through a business directory. There’s always a place for the in-person gatherings, but we have to look at what else people are looking for.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several current and past leaders of YPS about this organization’s place in the region and within its business community, and about how the process of evolution will continue.

Young Ideas

As they talked about that first, very memorable gathering of YPS back in 2007, those founders (we won’t call them old-timers) we spoke with could remember many things, but especially the lines formed outside the Keg Room on Main Street, the huge crowds that gathered inside, the surprise with those numbers (especially on the part of some chamber and economic-development leaders who had expressed doubts about such an initiative), and the satisfaction that came with those numbers and how they validated the concept.

“We put the word out, there were lines down the street … the place was packed,” said Kathleen Plante, who was handling membership and events for what was then the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield and is now an advertising consultant for BusinessWest. “The leaders of the chamber and EDC [Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council] were shocked by the size of the turnout.”

Those founders just couldn’t remember the date of that memorable gathering.

From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.
From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.

Most recalled that it was warm. Most thought it had to be early fall, while others were convinced it was late summer. But a quick check of some early news stories on their phones revealed that the first meeting was in July.

Still, while the actual date is not etched into those founders’ minds, the motivation behind creation of the group certainly was.

Indeed, many can come from other markets — Plante from Seattle, and Ryan McCollum from Boston, where he worked at the State House, for example — where such groups were commonplace. With one voice, they were asking two questions: ‘why don’t we have a group like that?’ and ‘why don’t we start one?’

“I was working for Dave Panagore, then the chief Economic Development officer in Springfield, after coming back from Boston and working in the state Senate — and there were a bunch of young professional groups out there that I was a part of,” McCollum, now a political consultant and lobbyist, recalled. “I asked him almost in passing, ‘why we didn’t have anything like this,’ and he said, ‘why don’t you call down to the chamber and the EDC and find out?”

Plante recalled that there were already many discussions going on about a group for young professionals, and a core group of business and nonprofit leaders — including herself, Kusek, Tricia Canavan with the Springfield Public Forum, Michelle Sade with United Personnel Services, Maria Burke with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Alyssa Carvallo with the EDC, and Taryn Markham Siciliano at the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce — took the ball, ran with it, and started planning what would the first Third Thursday, even though that name would come later.

From the start, the idea was to bring young people together, on the theory that doing so would, first and foremost, give such people something fun to do with people their own age — or close to their own age. And in the early days, that’s mostly what it was, with gatherings that certainly helped many of the bar and club owners that were bringing a new vitality to downtown Springfield.

So much so, in fact, that YPS developed — and had to fight back against — a reputation of being a party group. But it only fought so hard, said Kusek, adding that it was created to give young people a place to go, a reason to want to stay in this market. Social gatherings with adult beverages are part of that equation.

“There’s real value in that,” he said. “There’s all this talk about the brain drain at the colleges … 22-year-olds want to do what 22-year-olds do, and if your city or town doesn’t give that social outlet and opportunities that 20- and 30-somethings want, then you’re never going to retain them for jobs; they didn’t graduate from college to be a drone.”

McCollum agreed. “There was a thirst and desire to do something like that, and a lot of it was social,” he said of the early days, adding the requisite ‘no pun intended.’ “For 15 years, it’s been Third Thursday, and that’s really cool.”

Today … and Tomorrow

From the beginning, the word ‘young’ in Young Professional Society has always been a relative term. While the broad implication is that it is for people under 40, this has never been a benchmark, much less a requirement.

“You can be young of age, you can be starting a career, you can be 40 years or older starting a new career,” Hadley said. “There’s lots of ways to be ‘young.’”

And YPS has celebrated all of them through a progress of birth, growth, evolution, and diversification, said Plante, adding that one of the early steps was to create a path toward sustainability.

This was accomplished by establishing a board of directors and officers and generating revenue through membership, which comes on several tiers, from ‘partner business membership’ to nonprofit and student membership, as well as sponsorships, events (beyond Third Thursday, such as the annual golf tournament and dodgeball tournament), some bylaws, and endeavors such as the CEO Luncheons.

By giving YPS that needed structure, the organization was able to move past that ‘party group’ reputation, to some extent, and become a stronger force within the local business community.

Today, the attendance at Third Thursday events is a fraction of what it was in the beginning, say the current board leaders. (The after-party at BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty gala in June was a notable exception.)

There are many reasons for this, but among the clearest is the fact that there are now several organizations devoted to young professionals. Indeed, each county now has its own, and some businesses, including MassMutual, have their own groups, which have the same basic mission — to bring young people together to connect.

Meanwhile, the pandemic forced groups like YPS, which currently boasts roughly 140 members, to come together in different ways, including Zoom, and now, hybrid formats have become the most popular option, and for a reason — they make it easier and more convenient for people to take part.

But Third Thursday lives on, and at a wide variety of venues across the region, including the Boathouse in South Hadley, the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, the Town Tap in Agawam, Hardwick Winery, and even a local Fred Astaire Dance Studio.

“They gave everyone a quick, 30-minute group dance lesson; it was a lot of fun,” said Hadley, adding, as others did, that with COVID receding into the past tense, there is more of a willingness on the part of many people to get out and attend events again.

Events like a membership drive at Paper City Bar and Grille in Holyoke, staged in conjunction with the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, that drew more than 170 people, said Clark. “I think that event really showed that people want to get back out,” she noted, adding that Third Thursdays remain just part of the equation.

Indeed, YPS carries out its mission the same way it has since the beginning, by bringing people together and getting them involved. There is camaraderie, learning — a series of Leadership Luncheons continues — and team building, through events such as an annual ‘golf escape,’ as it’s called, and an adult field day — the modern-day dodgeball tournament — which is just what it sounds like, a series of team field events that test “speed, wits, and strength (minimal).”

“The winning team gets to choose a charity of their choice for a donation,” said Clark, adding that the event drew 20 teams in its first year and has grown consistently in recent years. Meanwhile, the annual golf tournament continues to thrive as well.

Moving forward, YPS will continue to survey its members and the community at large to determine what they want and need from a young-professionals group, said Hadley, adding that, through such research, the group can continue to provide value to the many constituents it serves, including the region’s business community.

“We would love more data so we can go back to businesses and explain why this is valuable,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, since the beginning, providing value to those involved has been part of the mission.

Bottom Line

Over the past 15 years, YPS has helped spawn several business partnerships, some new ventures among members, some personal relationships, and even a marriage or two.

Mostly, though, it has succeeded in doing what it was created to do: bring young people together, get them involved and keep them involved, keep them in this region, and, overall, more effectively harness the energy and talents of those young people to make this a better place to live and work — and play and stay.

Fifteen years later, this is certainly something to celebrate — and there will eventually be a party. More importantly, there will be more chapters written in this unfolding story — a success story on many different levels.

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

Women of Impact 2022

Principal, Kuhn Riddle Architects

She’s Created a Blueprint for Being an Effective Leader

Aelan Tierney

Aelan Tierney was recalling her search for an internship opportunity while in high school.

This was before the internet, so she used something quite foreign to people of that age today — the phone book. Starting in the A’s, she came to ‘Advertising,’ thought about it for a minute or two, and then continued turning pages until arriving at ‘Architecture,’ and decided that this was a profession she needed to explore.

When asked why she moved down the book from advertising, she said simply, “it was interesting, but it wasn’t three-dimensional.”

Architecture is, and that’s just one of the many things she likes about what eventually became her chosen field.

“Architecture impacts every aspect of our life, whether it’s your home, school, or place of work,” she told BusinessWest. “The experiences you have are shaped by the spaces that you’re in; if you’re in a good space, you do and feel good, and if you’re in a bad space, it can make your life difficult. I like how architecture makes an impact on people.”

As it turns out, that high-school internship spawned more than an interest in architecture. It started Tierney down a truly impactful career path, as an employer (she’s president of the Amherst-based firm Kuhn Riddle), as someone active her in profession and trying to diversify its ranks (much more on that later), and as someone active in her community, as a member of the board of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, for example, and also as chair of the Northampton Central Business Architecture Committee.

“Architecture impacts every aspect of our life, whether it’s your home, school, or place of work. The experiences you have are shaped by the spaces that you’re in; if you’re in a good space, you do and feel good, and if you’re in a bad space, it can make your life difficult. I like how architecture makes an impact on people.”

One internship didn’t inspire all that, obviously. What has is an ongoing desire to get involved (she’s a former Peace Corps volunteer), inspire and mentor others, and, yes, impact everyday lives through her work in architecture.

In all aspects of her life, Tierney would be considered a leader, and to her, that means someone who possesses many skills, but excels at listening and responding to what is heard. This is true when it comes to the relationship between an architect and a client, in the workplace, and in life in general.

“Listening and hearing what people are saying is really important,” she said. “We all come from very different life experiences that shape who we are and how we see and understand the world. Strong leaders try to best understand the goals and aspirations of the people they are leading.

“I think strong leaders also know how to bring the best people to them and then bring out the best in them,” she went on. “They learn the strengths of the people on their team, and they cultivate and support the growth of those strengths while also figuring out how to help them strengthen their weaknesses.”

Aelan Tierney says the past few years brought challenges
Aelan Tierney says the past few years brought challenges the industry hadn’t seen before, but Kuhn Riddle was able to ride out the storm.

Tierney certainly fits these descriptions, and her strong leadership skills and ability to change the landscape, in all kinds of ways, makes her a Woman of Impact.

New Dimensions of Leadership

Architecture is one of those fields that is most impacted by the ups and downs in the economy, especially those downs.

And those in this profession feel the impact usually before most others.

Indeed, as the economy starts to decline, or even before that as storm clouds start to gather, building projects large and small are often put on hold or scrapped altogether. Tierney has seen the phone stop ringing, or ringing as often, several times in her career, especially during the Great Recession of 2009, when most building ground to a halt.

Still, the pandemic that started in March 2020, was something altogether different, unlike anything she or anyone else in this profession had seen before.

“Listening and hearing what people are saying is really important. We all come from very different life experiences that shape who we are and how we see and understand the world. Strong leaders try to best understand the goals and aspirations of the people they are leading.”

“It was scary,” she recalled, noting that many of the public institutions Kuhn Riddle has worked for, and it’s a long list, simply shut down and shelved most all construction and renovation work. “We actually started talking about … ‘well, what happens if we have to close the firm?’”

The firm didn’t close, obviously, and it was Tierney’s work with her partners and others at the company to diversify its portfolio — as well as those leadership skills she described earlier — that enabled it to ride out this and other storms.

“During the pandemic, I learned that leaders have to think quickly on their feet; they have to gather as much information as possible about things they never thought they would be dealing with,” she said. “They need to communicate clearly and frequently in an ever-changing and rapidly changing crisis. They need to make tough decisions, and hopefully keep the business and all of the staff afloat.”

Tierney said everything she experienced prior to the pandemic helped prepare her for that moment — as much as anyone could have been prepared. And to understand, we need to go back to that internship. Actually, our story goes back further, to Tierney’s childhood, when she spent considerable time in her father’s woodworking school for fine furniture and watching him craft pieces to meet a client’s specific needs. It was through such experiences that she developed an interest in architecture.

“I thought it was fascinating to take something from paper and transform it into an object,” she said, adding that this interest eventually led her to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she majored in architecture and minored in architecture history.

She graduated during one of those aforementioned downturns in the economy, the lengthy recession of the early ’90s. Unable to find work, she joined the Peace Corps as a community-development volunteer and was assigned to work in Guinea in West Africa — a learning experience on many levels, and one in which she put her education to good use.

“I was a health and community-development volunteer, and I renovated an old warehouse building into a workshop for a women’s cooperative,” she recalled. “It was amazing job to have to have as young woman in a developing country.”

She started her career in architecture at Dietz & Co. Architects in Springfield, led by Kerry Dietz, a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural class of Women of Impact, whom Tierney described as a great mentor. She then joined Kuhn Riddle in 2005 and became president and majority owner in 2016.

As an architect, she works on projects across a broad spectrum, including residential, commercial, education, and nonprofits. Her portfolio includes a number of intriguing projects, including the renovation of Easthampton’s historic Town Hall, the Gaylord Mansion historic renovation at Elms College, the new Girls Inc. of the Valley headquarters and program center in Holyoke, the Olympia Oaks affordable-housing project in Amherst, the Kringle Candle Farm Table restaurant in Bernardston, and many others. While the projects vary in size and scope, a common thread is the partnership between the client, architect, and builder that makes a dream become reality.

The new Girls Inc. headquarters in Holyoke
The new Girls Inc. headquarters in Holyoke
The new Girls Inc. headquarters in Holyoke is one of many projects in the diverse portfolio compiled by Kuhn Riddle and its president, Aelan Tierney.

“As an architect, I strive to listen to my clients to learn about what types of spaces would make their lives better, and then, hopefully, we create those spaces together,” she said. “My greatest satisfaction is facilitating the collaboration between the client, design professionals, and builders to realize a client’s vision.”

In her current role, she balances her design work with her leadership responsibilities, which include setting a tone, leading by example, and creating an effective culture for the firm.

“As president of Kuhn Riddle, I strive to make our work environment as supportive as possible for our staff,” she explained. “We love what we do, but we also have lives and families outside of work, and it is important to me that everyone here has a work/life balance. I believe that people will give their best when they feel that they are being given the best possible support and appreciation.”

For Tierney, balance means time with family, but also for giving back to the community. She has been a member of the Amherst Area Chamber board for several years now, and is currently a member of its diversity task force. Formerly, she served on the board of the Enchanted Circle Theatre.

As noted earlier, she is chair of the Northampton Central Business Architecture Committee, and also vice chair of the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Architects, as well as a member of the diversity committee of the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards.

“ It was an anti-beauty pageant, because it wasn’t about looks. It was all about owning who you are, being who you are, doing some community service, sharing whatever talent you have … they didn’t have to show up and look a certain way.”

In recent years, bringing diversity to the profession, one historically dominated by white males, has become one of her priorities. She noted that, while there are more non-whites, and many more women, in architecture schools than when she was at Carnegie Mellon, they are not becoming licensed architects at the same rates.

“Diversity is important to me, not only as a woman, but as the mother of a biracial child,” she explained. “I recognize that this profession is lacking diversity, and I believe that architecture is better when all the voices are represented in the design process.”

To create a more diverse mix of voices, Kuhn Riddle now funds a scholarship for UMass Amherst’s Summer Design Academy for high-school students, specifically targeting women and people of color.

“If you get kids interested in high school, maybe they’ll go to college,” she explained, adding that several area firms now contribute to that scholarship, one of many steps she believes will eventually change the face of the profession, literally and figuratively.

Progress — by Design

As she talked with BusinessWest about her life and career, Tierney presented a small card, a marketing piece used by the firm.

On one side is a brief history of Kuhn Riddle, a quick summation of its specialties and client base, and even mention of its own headquarters, an open-design studio with no private offices to promote communication and “cross-fertilization of ideas.”

On the other side, in gray, is a map of Amherst, with properties designed by Kuhn Riddle (either new construction or renovations) in yellow.

“That’s a lot of yellow,” said Tierney as she referenced the card, noting projects in every corner of the community.

Indeed, the firm has certainly changed the landscape in Amherst over the past 32 years, enhancing, improving, supporting, and in some cases changing lives through ‘good architecture.’

Tierney has been changing lives herself, going all the way back to her Peace Corps days, as an architect, an activist, and, most of all, a leader. All of that makes her a true Woman of Impact.

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

Women of Impact 2022

Executive Director, Nuestras Raíces

This Leader Helps Others Achieve a Sense of Belonging

Hilda Roqué

Hilda Roqué was 14 when she and other members of her family arrived in Holyoke from her native Puerto Rico.

It was February, she recalled, noting that the extreme climate change from the tropical Caribbean provided a constant reminder that she was a long — as in long — way from home.

And, unfortunately, weather was far from the only such painful reminder. Language was a considerable barrier, she said, and there were myriad cultural differences as well. Overall, she did not feel included.

“I had no sense of belonging when I came here; when you come from a different country, it’s always difficult, especially when you’re trying to find your own identity,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that she worked hard to overcome what would be considered stern challenges to lead the Spanish newspaper at Holyoke High School and become the first recipient of its Latino Leadership honor, a poignant sign of what was come.

Indeed, fast-forwarding to today — we’ll go back and fill in some gaps later — Roqué has become a leader in this community on many levels.

She is the executive director of Nuestras Raíces, a Holyoke-based nonprofit with a broad mission that involves connecting people with the land through agriculture programs, empowering communities, and advocating for food justice.

While doing all that through a process of growth, evolution, and essentially breaking agriculture into two words — agri and culture — the team at Nuestras Raíces, and especially Roqué, have made it part of the mission to make sure that current and future generations of people coming to Holyoke from Puerto Rico and elsewhere don’t have to feel as far away from home as she did all those years ago.

“I had no sense of belonging when I came here; when you come from a different country, it’s always difficult, especially when you’re trying to find your own identity.”

Indeed, they strive to make them feel at home in as many ways as they can.

“It was always my dream to make it easier to transition,” she said. “I went through a lot of bullying and a lot of racism … there were so many barriers, including language, that I didn’t want people to feel like I felt when I came here.

“That’s why I fought so much, and why I’m still fighting, for that to happen,” she went on. “Equality — that’s something that this organization stands for. We are all worthy of eating healthy, we should all be eating healthy, there shouldn’t be so much discrimination when it comes to food; we all have the same rights. This is something that is also my passion; we should live in better places, and we should aim for the stars like everyone else.”

Roqué, who first came to Nuestras Raíces as a volunteer more than 30 years ago and took on several different roles before being named executive director in 2011, is a Woman of Impact for many reasons, starting with what she has done with this nonprofit.

Working with others, she has taken the mission in many different directions, from incubating new businesses to providing an education in financial literacy, to taking an annual harvest festival to new heights as a tradition and celebration of many different cultures.

Nuestras Raíces
Nuestras Raíces translates as ‘our roots,’ and the agency, led by Hilda Roqué, connects people with their roots in many different ways.

“People from Puerto Rico thought they were in Puerto Rico; people from Colombia thought they were in Colombia; people from the Dominican Republic thought they were in the Dominican Republic,” she said of that event. “That’s what we celebrate when we separate the word ‘agriculture’ — because it is a great part of what this organization wants to pass on to the next generation, not only safe and sustainable practices in agriculture, but also the love for their culture.”

For Roqué, this is not a job, but a passion, and she sees the agency’s programs as a powerful force for change and empowerment within the community.

“It’s very rewarding when you see that we’re trying to help the environment, that we’re providing socioeconomic opportunities for people in this community so they can live a dignified life, when we can actually have people in the community graduate from our programs and they become business owners,” she said, adding that, while she has seen a great deal of progress made, there is still much work to be done.

But she is also being honored for her mentoring of young people and especially girls, her commitment to improving quality of life for those she touches, and for her various efforts to make all those in Holyoke, but especially those who come from other countries, as she did, feel included, not excluded.

All this clearly explains why she is a Woman of Impact.

Food for Thought

Nuestras Raíces translates neatly into ‘Our Roots.’

It’s a fitting name, and a play on words, obviously. Those two short words hit on both sides of the organization’s mission succinctly and effectively. The agency encourages people to put roots in the ground, both literally and figuratively, while connecting them with their roots.

The agency was born in 1992 by a group of community members in South Holyoke who had the goal, the dream, of developing a greenhouse in downtown Holyoke. The founding members were migrating farmers from Puerto Rico with a strong agricultural background who found themselves in a city with no opportunities to practice what they knew.

“I love teaching kids that there’s a future and that the future holds something good if you actually grasp opportunities and grow as a community.”

Eventually, these community leaders located an abandoned lot in South Holyoke, one full of trash, needles, and criminal activity, and came together to clean the lot, which would become the first community garden, sparking the growth of urban agriculture in Holyoke under the umbrella of Nuestras Raíces.

Today, the agency coordinates and maintains a network of 14 community gardens, including the gardens of the Holyoke Educational System and community partners, and also operates a 30-acre farm, called La Finca, that focuses on urban agriculture, economic development, and creating change in food systems.

Those gardens, and the farm, grow a wide range of crops native to Puerto to Rico, from several different types of peppers to lettuce; from garlic to peas. These are just some of the items made available at a mobile farmers market — a refurbished school bus — created as a grassroots response to address health issues and food access by providing access to produce grown at local farms in neighborhoods across the city, many of which would be considered food deserts.

“To see the foods that we used to grow in our backyards in Puerto Rico be actually grown here … there are no words to really explain the feeling that you get when you get reconnected to your roots,” Roqué told BusinessWest. “And that’s why I feel so passionate and I love this organization so much.”

She joined it as an office manager and developed into a program developer and program manager, and eventually worked her way up to executive director. It’s a broad role with a number of responsibilities, both within the offices on Main Street and across the community, that she summed up this way:

“I don’t sit behind my desk — I go out there,” she said. “I hear; I listen to people. Nuestras Raíces provides programming that is a response to the needs that we hear from constituents. We ask and respond in ways that reflect our mission, which is to connect the agriculture and the socioeconomics and the food-justice piece of it and tie it together in ways that bring opportunities to this community.”

Indeed, over the years, the mission at Nuestras Raíces has been broadened into the realms of education and economic development.

For example, the agency has created what it calls the Holyoke Food and Agriculture Innovation Center (HFAIC), which serves as a food hub for Holyoke in the form of a center of food production, innovation, and education. The agency boasts two industrial kitchens and leases those spaces to community food entrepreneurs.

It also hosts a seven-week educational program focused on providing financial and business-management assistance to community entrepreneurs based in Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield, and other area communities. It offers bilingual lessons covering a wide range of topics including business and property insurance, permitting, bookkeeping, investing, marketing, business planning, and many others.

Beyond these offerings, Roqué and her team strive to help others understand the opportunities and open doors that are available to them through hard work, education, and perseverance.

“I love teaching kids that there’s a future and that the future holds something good if you actually grasp opportunities and grow as a community,” she explained. “If you hold each other’s hand — and that’s what we do here with our businesses and our program participants; we hold their hand — you can help them navigate their way and feel included.”

As the leader of Nuestras Raíces, as a leader in the community, and as a mentor to young people, Roqué says she tries to “teach by example,” as she put it, especially when it comes to treating all people with the respect and dignity they deserve.

“I don’t do unto others as was done unto me,” she said. “I see everyone, and when I see them, I don’t see color or race — I see people as human beings, and I try to instill that in the younger generations; I tell them to pass on the love, not the hate, and treat others the way you would like to be treated.

“I try to be an example to others, especially women, who feel that maybe they didn’t have value or are not being heard,” she went on. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my voice; I’m trying to be someone in this community who is respectable and who respects, and who likes to be heard.”

When asked to assess what has changed and improved since she arrived and the work still to be done, Roqué said there has been considerable progress, and she points to City Hall as just one example. There, Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, sits in the corner office.

“For a lot of years, Holyoke did not reflect the community that lives here,” she said. “Things have been getting progressively better, but there is still a lot more to do when it comes to navigating through systemic challenges. There’s still work to be done and a lot of effort needed to come together as one community.”

Bottom Line

Roqué will certainly be putting in that effort.

As she has said, and others have said of her, the work she does at Nuestras Raíces is not really work. It is, indeed a passion.

Specifically, a passion to serve, to educate, to inspire, to create opportunities, and to change lives. She does all of that, and that’s why she’s always been a leader and a Woman of Impact.

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

Women of Impact 2022

President, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc.

She’s Spent a Lifetime Paving the Way for Others

Laurie Raymaakers
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

The company was called SealMaster.

That name was chosen because it specialized in seal-coating driveways and crack filling, said Laurie Raymaakers, who started it with her husband, John, after work they were doing in property management dried up amid the banking crisis and deep recession of the late ’80s and they needed to find something — anything — to generate revenue and help provide for a growing family.

She joked — only it wasn’t really a joke — that they should have called it ‘We Can Do That,’ because while they seal-coated a lot of driveways across Western Mass., they quickly picked up other skills and took on other assignments related to driveways, landscaping, and small-scale construction.

In many ways, ‘we can do that’ describes not only the company the Raymaakers partners created, but the mindset that has driven them, and especially Laurie, over the past 40 years or so. It sums up her approach to business and life itself — always learning, always evolving, always doing whatever it takes to make ends meet, first and foremost, but also create opportunities and grow a company.

“That was the attitude that I had, that John had, and we’ve instilled it in everyone around us,” she explained. “It’s ‘I can do that’ — you can always learn, you can research, you can read … you can evolve and adjust and do what it takes.”

And she has. Over the course of those four decades, she’s worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time — everything from shifts as a police dispatcher to plowing snow to working at the local Boys & Girls Club — to help support the family and enable their Westfield-based business, now known as J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc., to gain a foothold and eventually thrive.

This is a story of perseverance, determination, imagination, and, well … ‘we can do that.’

Laurie Raymaakers and her husband, John
Laurie Raymaakers and her husband, John, have persevered through a number of challenges to lead their company to continued growth.

Laurie Raymaakers is a Woman of Impact for many reasons, but especially the manner in which she has become a role model and mentor to others, especially women in the construction trades and other male-dominated sectors.

She can remember the early days, showing up with her sister-in-law to seal-coat driveways and finding homeowners, men and women, being indifferent about women showing up to do the work. In more recent years, she can remember being the only woman in construction-management meetings and having the others look at her as if she was there to take minutes or pour coffee. Through the course of her career, she’s been asked more times than she could remember if she worked for her husband, not with him in a leadership role.

One can only overcome such actions and sentiments by proving they are good at what they do, exhibiting large amounts of confidence, and believing in themselves, she said.

And she has always been that person.

Today, the company she leads as president is handling projects with budgets in the millions of dollars. It specializes in excavation and site work, water- and sewer-line installation, snow removal, and more.

Meanwhile, she has been involved in her community in quiet ways, be it lifelong support of the Boys & Girls Club or encouraging those in local trade schools, especially Westfield Technical Academy, that there are real opportunities in the trades, and that they should not be overlooked as one considers career options.

All along the way, Raymaakers has been convincing others that there is nothing beyond their reach if they are willing to work hard for it, make the needed sacrifices, and, as Bill Belichick might put it — ‘do your job.’

She knows, because she’s been there and done that. The sum of her life and work, as well as that ‘we can do that’ attitude and her ability to instill it in others, explains why she is a Woman of Impact.

Sealing the Deal

As she talked about the early days of SealMaster, Raymaakers got up from her desk and retrieved a photo. Actually, it was one of those wooden frames, partitioned off to hold several different photos of various sizes and shapes.

Some of the larger images were of a huge house in Longmeadow, the owner of which commissioned the biggest project the company had taken on to that time, a long, curving driveway. But there were other shots of her moving five-gallon buckets of sealer into position.

“That was the attitude that I had, that John had, and we’ve instilled it in everyone around us. It’s ‘I can do that’ — you can always learn, you can research, you can read … you can evolve and adjust and do what it takes.”

Raymaakers has kept those photos all these years because they serve to remind her of where and how things started — and of how far she and John, and now their two sons, have come since. It’s an inspiring story in many ways, and it serves as a reminder — not that anyone who has ever started and grown a business needs one — that nothing about having your name over the door (literally or figuratively) is easy, and that success only comes to those who have what it takes to ride out the hard days and find ways to create better days.

Our story really begins with Raymaakers, soon after relocating to Westfield from Hardwick when she was 24, taking a job with the Westfield Boys & Girls Club in the early ’80s.

“I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference somehow,” she recalled, adding that she started working at the club part-time, and later, after some grant funding was secured for the facility, was assigned to be program director at a satellite office in a large apartment complex called Powdermill Village.

“It was a great experience … I met some wonderful kids that have turned into great adults,” she told BusinessWest. “And what we did was needed. The kids that lived there needed a place to go after school to empower them, tell them they could make a difference, and just let them be themselves. It was a really good program, and I was there for six years.”

Looking back, she said her work went beyond the day-to-day programming and into the realm of mentoring and helping those young people overcome a difficult childhood.

“I can remember saying to them, ‘you can do it, you can do it — you can do anything you want to do,’” she recalled, adding that she stayed in touch with many of them, standing up for one at her wedding and becoming a godmother to one of her children.

Laurie Raymaakers has become a role model
Laurie Raymaakers has become a role model to others, especially women in the construction trades and other male-dominated sectors.

Her time at Powdermill was life-changing in many other respects. It was there she met John Raymaakers, who worked in maintenance at the facility, and “fell in love, got married, and all that goofy stuff.”

‘Goofy stuff,’ in this case, is decades of working together to forge some dreams and make them come true.

After a brief and unfulfilling time in Oklahoma, where John took a job, they returned to Westfield and started working for a property-management company, handling apartment complexes in several area communities, and later opened their own company. As noted earlier, with the sharp downturn in the economy, their portfolio diminished in dramatic fashion.

“We lost 70% of our business in six months,” she said, adding that they soon began looking for something else to do, settled on sealing driveways, and started SealMaster with some grit and an old Chevy pickup.

“I had to put a quart of oil in it every day to drive it down the road,” she said with a hearty laugh, noting that, while there were many tough times, especially when John was severely burned while on a job and out of action for a lengthy period of recovery, the company persevered.

She remembers preparing for the annual home show and sitting at the kitchen table with her children folding marketing pieces that she would load into the family station wagon and put in newspaper boxes across the region.

But John’s accident came at a time when the couple had allowed their health insurance to expire. It was a scary time, and one that convinced her that she needed to take a job that offered health insurance.

“This was a case of ‘when one door closes, another opens,’” she said, adding that the former director of the Westfield Boys & Girls Club, whom she worked with and for, had taken the same position in Springfield, and he hired her to manage three satellite offices — and provide more mentoring and counseling to young people.

“These were rough neighborhoods; there were a lot of gangs,” she recalled. “And I tried to convince them that they didn’t have to do it this way, with the street life, the gangs — I said, ‘you have opportunities out there. You don’t have to be a follower; you can be a leader.’”

She worked at the club from 2 to 10, which gave her the opportunity to work at SealMaster before that, she said, adding that, over the years, she would work several different jobs to help make ends meet.

In 1998, she and John started J.L. Raymaakers, specializing in paving and site work, crack-filling at places like the Holyoke Mall, snowplowing, and more, a venture that has grown over the years to now boast 41 employees. The ‘& Sons’ part of the title came later, as sons John and Joshua, who first started helping out when they were 12, officially joined the company.

While the company has enjoyed steady growth over the years, success has not come easily, and Raymaakers remembers many years when she — and John — would work at least two jobs.

“I worked at the Westfield Police Department for five years, 4 to midnight, as a police dispatcher,” she recalled. “It was exhausting; I’d get up at 6 in the morning and get the kids off to school, and then I’d do company work, and then I’d have to go to work again.

“At night, the boys used to plow,” she went on. “And then they’d come to the police station at night and switch vehicles with me; I would go out and plow all night, and they’d take my car home.”

When asked what she does day in and day out at J.L. Raymaakers, she laughed, as if to indicate that there is little she doesn’t do. The list includes project management, estimating, marketing, and many other assignments.

Summing up what it’s been like for her — and for all business owners, for that matter — she put things in perspective in poignant fashion.

“It’s been a challenge … it’s been a struggle … it’s been rewarding … it’s been frightening,” she said. “But there’s nothing else I’d rather do. Growth doesn’t come easy — it comes at a cost; you have to be willing to pay that cost.”

Concrete Example

Raymaakers recalls a time she visited a job site about eight years ago, with the intention of getting her hands dirty — literally.

“I went to pick up a wheelbarrow of asphalt to patch, just ’cause I wanted to, and I couldn’t pick it up,” she said with exasperation in her voice all these years later. “I was so ticked off … I’m like, ‘I’m out of shape!’”

It was one of the few times over the past four decades when she couldn’t say ‘I can do that.’

Because she was able to say it all those other times, she’s been not only a force in the workplace — whatever that might be — but a force in the lives of those around her, a true Woman of Impact.

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

Women of Impact 2022

Director, Rachel’s Table

She’s Choreographed a Broader, More Holistic Mission at This Critical Nonprofit

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Jodi Falk knows what it’s like to be like food-insecure.

For a brief time, she received assistance from the program known as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children). It’s not something she can easily talk about — and, in fact, it was something she couldn’t talk about until very recently, mostly because of the stigma attached to being in the program.

She recalled that time for BusinessWest, however, because, by doing so, she believes she’s helping to address that stigma, while also putting into perspective the feelings of those that she and the organization she leads, Rachel’s Table, serve day in and day out.

“Those were the days when it wasn’t a card you can give to a cashier or put in a machine, but checks to hand to a person who made sure that what you purchased was on their list — and this could take a while, which was embarrassing,” she recalled. “I used to look around the store to see if I knew anyone, and if I did, I would wait until I was sure they had left the store before going to the register.”

Elaborating, she said she is still embarrassed to talk about those experiences, but admits that they made her aware, and understanding, of what others may be going through when they are on government assistance. And she believes her story has given her some perspective that each individual needs to be treated with “dignity and care.”

In short, those experiences have helped in her role as director of Rachel’s Table, a program of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, and they are not the only chapter from her past that she says has earned that distinction.

Indeed, Falk spent many years professionally as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, both here and abroad. And while her work administering Rachel’s Table might seem worlds removed from those vocations, the skill sets, and her many experiences in those roles, dovetail nicely with her current assignment. In many ways, they inspired it.

“For several of those years, besides working in the professional arts world, I also taught and choreographed in the community dance and arts world, where I worked with various populations, such as young teen moms or young women who were incarcerated and in treatment centers, elders in nursing homes, people in recovery, families in foster-care communities, and more,” she explained.

“I focused on art making as a means of making voices heard and bodies seen that aren’t always heard and seen. I became more interested in the lives of those with whom I was dancing, in their nourishment, and when Rachel’s Table had an opening for a director, I felt that I could serve more people with nourishment from a literal as well as figurative perspective.”

“We live in a world where we sometimes we don’t see the ‘other,’ if you will. How do we learn to live to live together in a much bigger society, a much broader world? We don’t know each other’s story until we really know each other’s story.”

With that, she referenced not only why she took on this new career challenge, but how dance and choreography have made her a better administrator and problem solver. And, in some ways, they help explain why she is a Woman of Impact.

To gain more perspective on why Falk has earned this honor, we need to look at all that she has accomplished since taking the helm at Rachel’s Table in 2019. In short, she has taken the agency “to a new level of food rescue for our very needy community,” said Judy Yaffe, vice president of the advisory board for Rachel’s Table, in nominating Falk as a Woman of Impact.

And she has done this through many new initiatives, including:

• A broadening of the agency’s reach; in the past, it has served only Hampden County, but has expanded into Hampshire and Franklin counties;

• A new program called Growing Gardens, an offshoot of the agency’s gleaning program, whereby constituents focus on growing and harvesting their own food;

• A new partnership with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to pick up food from Big Y stores and other large donors;

• A new, fully refrigerated van that will enable the agency to deliver larger quantities of food throughout the year;

• Steps that have enabled Rachel’s Table to rescue 50% more healthy produce, meat, milk, and prepared foods for the more than 50 agencies it serves;

• Upgrades to the volunteer-management program; and

• A significant increase in the number of grants received by the agency, and in the amounts of those grants, as well as a surge in the number of donors to the program.

In short, Falk has been instrumental in essentially expanding the mission and taking it in new directions, while also modernizing the agency, making it more efficient, and, yes, guiding it through a pandemic that brought challenges that could not have been imagined.

As we examine all this in greater detail, it will become abundantly clear why she’s been named a Woman of Impact for 2022.

Growing Passion

As noted earlier, Falk brings a diverse résumé to the table.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown and master of fine arts and Ph.D. degrees from Temple University, and she has put them to work in several different capacities.

Most recently, she served as founding director of the dance program at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, where she created nationally recognized dance programs for more than 400 students, produced more than 15 original and critically acclaimed concerts, and oversaw a national touring company. Prior to that, she was program director of the Trinity Lasban Conseratoire of Music and Dance in London. There, she directed and developed a program in choreography and community-engaged arts-education outreach for the institution, among a host of other duties.

Earlier, Falk served as chair of SEPAC (Special Education Parent Advisory Councils for the Greenfield Public School District and Franklin County Region), a family-advocacy organization that provides resources, support, and advice on policy for families of children with special needs. Before that, the was coordinator of Community Engagement for the Five College Consortium in Amherst.

As she mentioned, these various assignments, which provided in experience in everything from teaching and mentoring to grant writing and new program creation, helped prepare her for, and in many ways inspire her interest in, the position at Rachel’s Table. It also provided perspective on the need to fully understand the plight and the challenges of others in order to effectively serve them.

“We live in a world where we sometimes we don’t see the ‘other,’ if you will,” she explained. “How do we learn to live to live together in a much bigger society, a much broader world? We don’t know each other’s story until we really know each other’s story.”

As she goes about her work, she doesn’t talk much about her experiences with WIC, for many reasons. Stigma is one of them, but a bigger reason is that she received assistance for only a short time and moved on from her food insecurity. Her story, she said, doesn’t really reflect the true hardships of those in need.

A gleaning program is one of many new initiatives launched by Jodi Falk
A gleaning program is one of many new initiatives launched by Jodi Falk since she took the helm at Rachel’s Table in 2019.

It is those individuals’ stories that should be told, she said, and their needs that should be addressed.

And this is what she’s been doing since she took the helm at Rachel’s Table, an organization now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over that time, and especially in recent years, it has evolved and become much more of a holistic agency while still “nourishing people with dignity,” as Falk likes to say.

It carries out its broad mission of battling food insecurity and not only distributing food but first rescuing much of it from restaurants, supermarkets, and other venues in a number of ways and through several different initiatives, including:

• A gleaning program, known as Bea’s Harvest, that works with young people and school groups to engage them in the service of collecting excess produce and donating it to agencies that serve the hungry and homeless in Western Mass.;

• Growing Gardens, which provides the Pioneer Valley with direct access to healthy foods by helping local organizations build gardens to grow culturally appropriate food;

• Bountiful Bowls, a gala staged every two years to raise funds for the agency;

• Outrun Hunger, a biennial 5K run/walk and one-mile fun walk that raises funds to “fill the bowls of those in need”;

• A Hunger Awareness Arts Fest, at which issues of local hunger were highlighted by music and dance performances and art exhibits; and

• A Teen Board, which, partially sponsored by a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, aims to alleviate childhood hunger and educate their peers about local hunger and poverty issues, and then involve them in being part of the solution.

While overseeing all of this, Falk guided the agency through the pandemic while also blueprinting the agency’s response to it, a response that included raising more than $95,000 for food in the agency’s Healthy Community Emergency Fund; purchasing and delivering more than 5,000 pounds of meat and potatoes, 3,000 pounds of fluid milk, and much more; participating with a network of partners in the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, delivering, at times, more than 140,000 pounds of food a month to families in need; and creating and funding a program to give lunches to first responders in all three counties.

Falk brings to all her work that perspective from being on WIC for a short time, but, far more importantly, decades of experience in leadership, inspiring those she works with to be creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative, and forging the partnerships that are critical to a nonprofit being able to not only carry out its mission, but take it in new and different directions, as Rachel’s Table has.

And she brings even greater emphasis to keeping in mind, always, the ideas, thoughts, and feelings of those most affected by food insecurity.

“This model, which we’ve had for 30 years, helps the planet — food doesn’t go into a landfill; it gets delivered to agencies that support people who are in need,” she explained. “And at the same time, I wanted to make sure that we address, more directly, some of the problems that cause food insecurity.”

She’s done that through initiatives such as the Growing Gardens program, which helps any of those agencies that want to grow their own food in collaboration with those they serve.

“Young kids from Christina’s House are getting their hands dirty in the garden, and they’re making their own salads,” she said, citing the example of the Springfield-based nonprofit that provides services to women and their children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness (and whose leader, Shannon Mumblo, was named a Woman of Impact in 2021).

“To me, that’s a bigger story than how many thousands of pounds of food we can deliver,” Falk said, “because it means there is a dignified approach to food choice, a dignified approach to having a choice about what you want to plant and grow, and we’re helping to teach people — or learn with people, because I think we all teach each other — how to make our own food and not wait for a handout.”

Food for Thought

‘Learning with people.’ That’s something that Falk has been doing throughout her career — and, really, her whole life.

It’s a pattern that has continued at Rachel’s Table, an model that has enabled the agency to expand, evolve, rescue more food, deliver more food, grow food, and, in sum, be much more responsive to agencies serving those in need.

It has enabled Rachel’s Table to do something else as well — to hear those it serves and understand their story and their needs.

That’s what Falk has brought to Rachel’s Table. And her accomplishments, not only there but at other institutions where she has enabled voices to be heard, certainly make her a Woman of Impact.

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

Women of Impact 2022

For Nearly a Century, She’s Been Fighting for Good Causes

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Sister Mary Caritas, SP has always remembered something that one of the doctors, a cardiologist, at Mercy Hospital told her while she was doing duty on one of the floors as a nursing student more than 75 years ago now.

“He told me, ‘little nurse … when we’re born, we’re born with a certain amount of energy; at the rate you’re going, you’re going to be dead by 40.’”

Turns out, he was wrong. Big time. And an entire region can be very glad that he was.

Sister Caritas was obviously born with more energy to expend than the rest of us, and she’s still proving that at age 99. She’s spent her whole life proving it, in ways large and small, highly visible or seen by only a few.

Space does not permit us to get into all that Sister Caritas has done during her remarkable life and career, at least in any detail. Hitting the highlights, she has been a hospital administrator — she was president of Mercy Hospital for 16 years, and before that was administrator at St. Luke’s Hospital and associate director of Berkshire Medical Center. She’s also been very active with the Sisters of Providence and its broad mission, serving as president from 1960 to 1977, as vice president from 2009 to 2013 and from 2016 until today, and in other roles as well; she is now the oldest member of that order.

She has also been very active in healthcare, serving on the boards of the Sisters of Providence Health System, Trinity Health Of New England, Catholic Health East, the Massachusetts Hospital Assoc., the American Hospital Assoc., Partners for a Healthier Community, Cancer House of Hope, the New England Conference of the Catholic Health Assoc., and perhaps two dozen other local, state, regional, and national institutions and organizations.

And she’s been active in the community, serving in capacities ranging from corporator of the former Community Savings Bank to trustee of the board of the Massachusetts Easter Seals Society, to chairperson (quite famously, by the way) of the Task Force on Bondi’s Island in the mid-’90s.

But it’s not the lines on the résumé — no matter how many there are, and yes, there are a lot them — that explain why Sister Caritas is a Woman of Impact. It’s what you can read between those lines.

It’s the story of an extraordinary individual driven at a young age to learn, teach, serve the community and especially those who are less fortunate, and simply make this region, and the world, a better place.

She has, in fact, said ‘no’ to a few people who have asked her to take on an assignment because there are only so many hours in the day — she tried to turn down the Bondi’s Island Task Force, for example, but those asking wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. But almost always, she said ‘yes.’

And she became known not merely for serving, but for fighting, doggedly, for what she thought was right and just and needed at the time, whether it was a cancer-treatment facility at Mercy Hospital, fairer Medicare reimbursement rates, or, yes, a solution to the odor problems at Bondi’s Island.

Sister Mary Caritas, seen here when she was president of Mercy Hospital
Sister Mary Caritas, seen here when she was president of Mercy Hospital, has been a leader in the community and an inspiration to generations of area decision makers.

As one might expect with someone who started working professionally in the mid-’40s, talk of her accomplishments obviously involves the past tense. But she remains a Woman of Impact for the way she counsels, mentors, and inspires others, especially women, in leadership roles today. She didn’t officially coin the phrase ‘no margin, no mission,’ but many area nonprofit managers will attribute those words to her as they strive to live by them.

Meanwhile, her life and career has been marked by being thrust into a series of new and daunting challenges, many of which she considered herself quite unprepared for. She’s proven that, with hard work, energy, and a focus on the best outcome for all, one can thrive despite adversity.

“Every role I’ve had, despite the challenges, was the happiest time of my life,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she made the most of every situation and turned them all into invaluable learning experiences. “Every day is a present, and if I haven’t learned something new in a day, then it wasn’t a good day.”

Energy. Yes, Sister Caritas still has large amounts of that commodity. She doesn’t play golf as much as she used to, not because she has slowed down, but because most of those she played with over the years have slowed down. She drives, and she sets a good pace when walking the halls of Providence Place.

She doesn’t have the same level of energy she did 40 years ago or when she was a nursing student, but she’s still very much involved — and clearly a Woman of Impact.

Small Wonder

Those who know Sister Caritas, who came to be known as ‘little sister’ to some because of her small stature, would say it’s not what she does — whether it’s in healthcare, the community, or with the Sisters of Providence — that makes her a true leader, still, at age 99.

Rather, it’s how she goes about … well, whatever it is she is doing. One hears the word ‘determined’ early and quite often when people describe her, and that word fits. So does ‘relentless.’ And ‘unstoppable’ works as well.

Those adjectives certainly apply to her lengthy battle to win approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for a cobalt unit for cancer treatment at Mercy Hospital. She first filed an application in 1978, and it was denied. Applications could only be filed biannually, so she tried again in 1980. And in 1982. And in 1984. And in 1986 … you get the picture.

“There was nothing wrong with the applications, it was just that the Department of Public Health deemed it was not needed,” she said. “But I thought otherwise.”

“He told me, ‘little nurse … when we’re born, we’re born with a certain amount of energy; at the rate you’re going, you’re going to be dead by 40.’”

So she kept on filing applications until finally, in 1993, after she had given notice to the board at Mercy that she would be retiring, the state said ‘yes.’

There are many examples of such determination and perseverance from her lengthy career. Before getting to some, for those who don’t know the Sister Caritas story — and most do — we’ll recap quickly.

Mary Geary was born in Springfield and attended schools in the city. Her parents thought it would be good for her to pursue a career as a secretary, and for a short while, she did, at Commerce High School.

“I was in the secretarial program, learning shorthand and all that … and I was flunking; I hated it every single minute of it,” she recalled, noting that her life changed when she met a girl training to become a nurse at Providence Hospital in Holyoke.

“That absolutely turned my life around,” she told BusinessWest. “I knew … I was so incredibly inspired that I went from Commerce over to Tech [Technical High School], took all my sciences, and eventually went to nursing school.”

Fast-forwarding through the next half-century or so, Geary joined the Sisters of Providence and was sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester as a nurse. But upon making her final vows after her fifth year, in 1949, she was sent to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, a move she was thrilled with until she found out that, instead of nursing, she would focus on dietary services, a decision made by the reverend mother.

After receiving a master’s degree in nutrition education at Tufts University and undertaking a dietetic internship at the Francis Stern Food Clinic at the New England Medical Center in Boston, she was assigned to be administrative dietitian at Providence Hospital in Holyoke, an assignment she enjoyed for seven years.

She then got another call from the Mother House, this one to inform her that she was being named administrator at St. Luke’s Hospital.

When she replied that she didn’t know anything about hospital administration, her superior responded with a simple ‘you’ll learn,’ which she did.

After St. Luke’s and Pittsfield General merged in 1969 to become Berkshire Medical Center, Sister Caritas served briefly as associate director of that facility — briefly because she was chosen to lead the Sisters of Providence and take the title superior general, a title that intimidated her about as much as the long list of responsibilities that came with it.

“I was totally unprepared for this,” she said, adding that, as she did with other stops during her career, she learned by doing.

And that ‘doing’ included work to create a new Mercy Hospital, a facility that would replace a structure built by the Sisters of Providence in 1896; it opened its doors in 1974. Sister Caritas would be named president of the hospital three years later, and would serve in that role until 1993.

Highlights during her tenure, and there were many, include an in-hospital surgery center; an eye center; an intensivist program; one of the nation’s first hospitalist programs; creation of the Weldon Center for Rehabilitation, the Family Life Center, the Healthcare for the Homeless initiative; and much more.

Sister Act

As noted earlier, it’s not the lines on the résumé that explain why Sister Caritas is a Woman of Impact, but the determination she showed when there was a fight to be waged, whether it was for the cobalt unit, to solve the odor problems at Bondi’s Island, or to gain needed adjustment in the Medicaid Area Wage Index.

That last fight was one that took her from Springfield to Washington, D.C. with several stops in between. If there’s an episode from her career that best sums up her persistence — her willingness to fight for something important — it is this one. It’s a story she enjoys telling, and she did so again for BusinessWest.

“The change in the rate meant that Mercy Hospital was going to lose $6 million that year, and $6 million then is like $30 million now,” she said, noting that all the other community hospitals in the area, and there were many more at the time, were looking at similar losses. “So I became very involved because I was so upset with what they were doing.”

That is an understatement.

“Richie Neal was a very young congressman at the time,” she said, noting that he secured a revision in the rate on the House side of the budget. “I thought my friend Mr. Kennedy [U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy] had put it in on the Senate side, it had gone to vote, and it was now in conference.

Sister Mary Caritas says “every day is a present, and if I haven’t learned something new in a day, then it wasn’t a good day.”
Sister Mary Caritas says “every day is a present, and if I haven’t learned something new in a day, then it wasn’t a good day.”

“We learned that it was in conference and that it had not made its way into the budget,” she went on. “So I was panicked; I called all the other hospital administrators and said, ‘we’ve got to go to Washington; I can’t afford to lose $6 million this year — Mercy will go out of business. They all they felt the same way, but none of them wanted to go to Washington, so I went on my own; I went for all of us.”

Here’s where an already revealing story becomes even more so. She first went to see Neal, who told her that a revision was, indeed, included in the House side of the budget. The problem, he said, was in the Senate.

“So I marched across the Capitol to the Senate side, and Kennedy wasn’t there,” she said. “They told me that he may not be back that day, and I told them, ‘you better plan on me staying here all night; I’m not leaving here. I’m a constituent, I have a right to see my senator, and I will not leave this office until I see him.

“They kept trying to placate me, offering me cookies and tea, and I just kept saying, ‘no, I’m not leaving until I see my senator,’” she went on. “I waited, and waited, and waited, until finally, about 4 in the afternoon, he shows up.

“He tells me it’s in conference, and I said, ‘I know; that’s why I’m here,’” she continued, adding an exclamation point through inflection on her voice. “He said, ‘who do you know on the conference committee?’ I poked him on the chest and said, ‘it’s not who I know, it’s who you know.’”

Sensing that the battle might be lost if she had to rely on the senator, Sister Caritas went to work. She went to the nearest pay phone (this is the early ’90s, remember) and instructed her administrative assistant to call the other area community hospital presidents and have them in her office the following morning. Before that, though, she called the Mercy Hospital print shop and had it print 6,000 postcards that would eventually be sent by area constituents to legislators imploring action on the Medicare issue.

While Kennedy would call Sister Caritas after the vote to revise the wage index a few days later, she believes it was those postcards that turned the tide. And those involved would say that it was Sister Caritas herself who really drove that outcome — again, just one of many examples of her fighting spirit.

Century Unlimited

The last page of Sister Caritas’s résumé has the single word ‘Honors’ at the top. And there is a long list that follows, including honorary degrees from several area colleges, a William Pynchon Award, a Paul Harris Fellowship from the Springfield Rotary Club, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Girl Scouts of Pioneer Valley, and a Woman of Achievement Award from the YWCA — a few of them, in fact.

She’s also won several from BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, including Business Person of the Year in 1992, Difference Maker (awarded to the Sisters of Providence) in 2014, and Healthcare Hero (in the Lifetime Achievement category) in 2018.

And because of all that she did earn these honors, she now has one more line to add to that page: Woman of Impact.

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

Women of Impact Women of Impact 2022

Program Officer, Mass Humanities

This Writer, Coach, Mentor, Educator, and Motivator is a True Renaissance Woman

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When asked about her day job, Latoya Bosworth said she actually has quite a few of them.

She’s the program officer for Mass Humanities’ Reading Frederick Douglass Together program. She’s also an adjunct professor at Springfield College’s School of Professional & Continuing Studies. She coaches professionals and especially women. She mentors young people. She’s a writer. She’s a mother and a grandmother. She motivates others to get a mammogram to protect their breast health.

Ok, that last one’s not a day job, but it’s something she takes very seriously, having seen the disease take lives in her family and making a decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy.

Summing up all that and much, much more, Bosworth likes to say that she “helps others transcend limits and transform lives.”

And she does this in many ways, but especially by setting a tone, leading by example, helping individuals discover who they are, and inspiring others to set a higher bar for themselves and then clear that bar.

Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director for Public Services for the Springfield City Library and one of BusinessWest’s first Women of Impact back in 2018, who nominated Bosworth for this award, has come to know her through some of her many initiatives, including an open-mic poetry series for young teen girls at the library. Those experiences made an impression.

“I think of Latoya as a Renaissance woman,” said Canosa Albano, noting that the many accolades, avocations, and interests on Bosworth’s résumé reflect a wide range of interests and expertise. “That phrase also evokes for me that period of history when writing, ideas, discovery, and exploration flourished, centering on humans and humanity.

“Latoya has a tremendous impact on people, especially women and girls in so many ways,” she went on. “Through writing, spoken word, and coaching, she shares her journey. She has motivated many people to get a mammogram to protect their breast health. She has inspired at least five women to go to college, heading to Bay Path University for master’s degrees.”

As she goes about her coaching, mentoring, and even her teaching, Bosworth focuses on an acronym she created: HERS — short for health, empowerment, resilience, and self-worth. These are the qualities she preaches and that she helps others find. Her efforts over the years have earned her a number of honors, from BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty award in 2016 to inclusion in the 2015 100 Women of Color cohort, to the 2014 Eyes of Courage Award for empowering women and girls.

Bosworth spends considerable time and energy helping others, especially younger women and women of color, create and build confidence, with the accent on ‘helping others’ because this is something they ultimately have to do themselves.

“Latoya has a tremendous impact on people, especially women and girls in so many ways.”

“It starts with learning who you are, because you can’t show up and be who you are if you don’t know who you are,” she explained. “And learning how to be authentic — when we show up to our authentic selves, we give people the freedom to do that, and with that freedom comes that confidence.”

When mentoring young women and girls, Bosworth tells them to essentially follow her lead and “pour into themselves.”

“By that, I mean taking time with yourself to figure out who you are, because there are so many outside influences and people telling you what you should be doing, people telling you what it means to be successful, what it means to be beautiful, all of these things,” she explained. “You have to pour into yourself and figure out what’s important to you, what your values are, and how to turn off the noise.”

‘Renaissance woman.’ That’s an apt description of Latoya Bosworth. As we’ll discover, so too is ‘Woman of Impact.’

Impact Statement

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

That’s the name attached to an iconic Independence Day speech delivered by the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, during which he answers that question by saying ‘…a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

As program officer for this Mass Humanities initiative, Bosworth schedules public readings of that speech at gatherings of all sizes and many different places.

“And they’re followed by discussions on equity and race and what that speech means today, as an American,” she told BusinessWest. “Sometimes, it’s just children; other times, it’s multi-generational, multi-racial … and it’s all over the state of Massachusetts, so it’s looks different in different communities. Sometimes it’s a small organization; other times, it’s a larger event with hundreds of people at a public square.”

Arranging such readings is just one of many assignments that add up to a very full plate for Bosworth, who also goes by ‘Doc Boz’ to some — a nod to her doctorate in human services she earned at Capella University and the nickname given her grandfather (Bozzie) — and also ‘Brenda’s Child,’ a pen name, if that’s even the right term, she uses to honor her mother, Brenda Kay Swinton, who died from breast cancer at age 23 when Latoya was only 4.

By whatever name she goes by, she keeps her days full. As noted, she’s an adjunct professor at Springfield College, teaching courses ranging from “Race, Culture & Religion” to “Contemporary Issues in Education” to “Communication Skills.”

She also has her own business as a workshop facilitator and ‘speaker/life coach.’ She told BusinessWest that she specializes in “confidence, purpose, and joy,” and facilitates writing and empowerment and educational workshops for women, youth, and youth workers for organizations, schools, and professionals. She also creates and hosts empowerment events under that acronym HERS.

Much of what Bosworth does when coaching is focused on that intangible — and precious commodity — known as confidence. And when asked how she helps individuals, and especially women, find it and build more of it, she said she does this in several ways.

“What I find is that, when people have issues with goal setting or trying to change their lives, a lot of it comes down to some of the things they’ve internalized — from society, from family — that they need to unlearn and reprogram so they can develop that confidence that they need to take the risk,” she explained, “and know that, if they take the risk, it’s going to be OK, no matter what; even if doesn’t work out, there’s going to be something they can learn from and grow from.”

BusinessWest honored Latoya Bosworth as part of the 40 Under Forty class of 2016
Long before her Woman of Impact award, BusinessWest honored Latoya Bosworth as part of the 40 Under Forty class of 2016 for her work with young people.

Elaborating, she said she tries to help individuals and groups understand that trying and failing — if that’s what happens — should always be preferable to simply not trying at all.

“What happens if you fail? What does that look like? What does success look like to you? What does failure look like to you? And if you fail, what will happen? These are the questions I want people to think about,” she said. “Sometimes, we get caught up in these thoughts — I call it worst-case-scenario thinking. I want people to tell me what would happen if they fail, and then I ask them, ‘is that really a big deal, or are you overthinking?’

“Most of the time, people come to find out that it’s not that big a deal if something doesn’t work out the way they want it to,” she went on, adding that this helps in that process of transcending limits and helping people transform their own lives.

Taking Control

Another focal point of Bosworth’s life and work to help others is breast cancer, and here, she tells her own story to inspire others do to what they can to understand this disease and protect their own health.

That story involves tragedy and overcoming adversity on many levels. Her mother, as noted, died from breast cancer. Her father, a veteran, was injured in a training exercise and left paralyzed from the waist down. She and her siblings were raised by her maternal grandmother, who died of ovarian cancer.

These tragedies led to a profound awareness of cancer and its ability to take lives and impact many others while doing so, she said, adding that this awareness led to a proactive approach to caring for her health and encouraging others to follow that lead.

“As I grew up, I learned how to do breast self-exams when I was 12 or 13 — it’s something we pay attention to in our family,” she said, adding that, over the years, she has seen multiple family members, on both sides, die from breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

“So I did some genetic testing; I was negative, but there was some sort of variant there,” she went on, adding that she made the decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy in 2015, and also to have her ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer.

“I share that experience with other people because I want them to know that, while this wasn’t easy, there are options,” she said. “I tell people that they need to understand about genetic testing, and also the health disparities and the fact that African-American women are twice as likely to die from breast cancer because it’s more aggressive in us than it is in other people, even though we are less likely to be diagnosed.”

“What I find is that, when people have issues with goal setting or trying to change their lives, a lot of it comes down to some of the things they’ve internalized — from society, from family — that they need to unlearn and reprogram so they can develop that confidence that they need to take the risk.”

Health is the ‘H’ in HERS. The ‘E,’ ‘R,’ and ‘S’ — empowerment, resilience, and self-worth — are just some of other qualities she helps others discover, and build, through her coaching, mentoring, and a nonprofit youth program she created called Keep Youth Dreaming and Striving Inc.

The mentoring started when she taught in the Springfield Public Schools earlier this decade, and has continued ever since, with Bosworth staying in touch with those she first counseled years ago.

“As a teacher, I was just getting involved in my students’ lives and showing up outside of school for things,” she said. “And as they graduated, I would stay in contact with them, attending baby showers, unfortunately some funerals … but really just showing up for them. And on the side, I started an after-school mentoring program, primarily with girls.”

Keep Youth Dreaming & Striving, which caught the attention of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty judges and made Bosworth part of the class of 2016, featured a number of initiatives, including a Gifted Diva Showcase, what she calls a “self-esteem exhibition” that followed eight weeks of intensive workshops, trainings, and a discovery process.

“It was an anti-beauty pageant, because it wasn’t about looks,” she explained. “It was all about owning who you are, being who you are, doing some community service, sharing whatever talent you have … they didn’t have to show up and look a certain way.”

Leading by Example

Returning to that phrase ‘Renaissance woman,’ in her nomination of Bosworth, Canosa Albano noted that word comes from the French for ‘rebirth.’

“Her journey epitomizes someone who has faced trauma, great loss, and illness, and has reframed those challenges, learned, and grown from them, ‘rebirthing’ herself as Brenda’s Child and Doc Boz.

Reframing challenges and learning and growing from them — this is what Bosworth helps others do as she enables them to transcend limits and transform their lives.

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

Cover Story

Making Progress

The Latino Economic Development Council recently opened the doors to its new facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More importantly, it is off to a fast and impactful start as it works to open doors — and keep them open — for business owners and entrepreneurs, especially those in the large, and growing, Latino business community. It will offer microgrants and facilities for meetings and co-working opportunities, but most importantly, it will provide much-needed coaching in subjects ranging from finance to human resources to mental wellness.

 

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

 

Andrew Melendez says he’s led a number of tours of the new Latino Economic Development Council headquarters facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More than he can count, actually.

He said the comments from those taking those tours vary, but there is a common, and very important, theme. Most say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — but wish they had.

Indeed, the Latino EDC, or LEDC, as it’s called, an affiliate of Partners for Community, is different. It is not a chamber of commerce, although it has some of those qualities and it partners with those institutions. It’s not an incubator, but it has some of those qualities, and it partners with those critical components of the entrepreneurship ecosystem as well.

It is a place where more than two dozen coaches, experts in many aspects of business, will make themselves available to business owners — especially those within the large and growing Latino business community, looking to take the next step with their venture, whatever that might be — and share what they know.

The council will also provide microgrants of a few thousand dollars or even less to assist with startup costs, while also providing co-working space and facilities — the PeoplesBank Business Lounge — that the business community can use for meetings and teleconferences.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level.”

In short, what the LEDC wants to do is convert employees into employers, spark the growth and development of new businesses, and change the landscape on Main Street — and many other streets — in area communities, said Melendez, director of Operations for the LEDC.

It will do this not necessarily with microgrants — although they can certainly help a microbusiness or startup buy a sign, secure a new piece of equipment, or do some social-media marketing, perhaps — but with a combination of those grants and training programs from those coaches on how to qualify for a business loan, workforce training, mental wellness, and much more.

“We’ll be able to offer ‘Finance 101,’ ‘Accounting 101,’ ‘Building Wealth,’ ‘How to Lead by Example,’ and so on,” said Melendez, adding that the LEDC is partnering with a host of entities and agencies, from the state to the U.S. Small Business Administration in its efforts to build a larger, more sustainable Latino business community.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

Overall, he said, the agency will focus on what he calls the three ‘Cs’ of helping business owners get to where they want to go: coaching, capital (those microgrants, but also counseling and technical assistance that might help them secure loans from area banks and credit unions), and connections to other business-development and economic-development-related agencies on the local, state, and national levels.

Adriano Vaccaro, CEO of Culture Redesigned, a culture strategist by trade and a workforce training coach for the LEDC, agreed.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the agency is putting together a comprehensive catalog of training programs. “And we’re attaching key performance indicators to the coaching sessions, so we can not only provide the skills and fill the gaps, but make sure we’re producing the results that are needed. It’s not just training — it’s training connected to a particular result.”

That’s an important distinction, she said, noting that the coaches are results-oriented and emphasize measuring — and sustaining — those results.

“It doesn’t mean that every business needs everything,” she went on. “We will do a needs assessment and make sure every business gets whatever they need, from where they’re starting their journey with us.”

Melendez concurred. “We want to make sure that, whether it’s a small business making $3 million or a microbusiness making $300,000 or an entrepreneur just starting up, they all have access to the same resources; that’s the fairness,” he said. “In January of 2020, Joe Biden said it’s not fair that some people get to pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer or an HR professional or someone to guide them in a workers’ comp claim, and other people don’t. This is us ensuring that our community — and I want to define our community as this whole community; anyone can come to the LEDC — has access to resources.”

As for the microgrants, made possible by federal ARPA funds awarded to Springfield and funneled to the LEDC, Melendez said there have already been more than 125 applications for such grants, and he expects that number to go much higher in the weeks to come.

BusinessWest recently sat down with Melendez and several of the coaches that are part of the LEDC to get some perspective on how this unique agency will work, how it will address stated goals, and, perhaps most importantly, how it will measure success.

The quick answer, as we’ll see, is that there will be many ways to do just that.

 

Getting Down to Business

It’s called the ‘imposter syndrome,’ and most business owners and professionals are by now quite familiar with that phrase.

It connotes persistent feelings that one isn’t … well, entirely comfortable in their own skin, professionally, and not fully credentialed, either literally or figuratively, to be worthy of the title on their business card.

Dr. Edna Rodriguez, director of Behavioral Health at Mercy Medical Center, one of the coaches at the LEDC (and one of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty honorees for 2022), said that many within the minority community fall victim to imposter syndrome.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community.”

“Many doubt if we have the level of skill, the ideas, and the tools … they struggle with confidence and knowing that that they can do and achieve the things they are good at,” she explained. “And that can really create a lot of anxiety and other issues that can definitely impact the mental health of an individual.”

And that’s just one of the matters she addresses with those she counsels as a mental-wellness coach for the LEDC.

“Our culture is beautiful and colorful and very integrated, but with that comes a lot of burden, especially when we’re talking about taking on everything that happens both at work and to home,” she noted. “Often, our Latino folks find a hard time managing stress and taking care of their physical and mental health, especially when they’re in the role of being a business owner.

“So my role is to individually help people understand how they can care for themselves, how they can find balance, and how to communicate their needs in an assertive way to both the people around them and the people who can help them,” she went on. “Sometimes it’s hard to just take that first step and open up and seek help.”

Helping business owners — and, again, especially those within the Latino community — cope with such issues is just one of the many focal points of the LEDC, which grew out of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce and continues and expands upon its work, Melendez said.

Latino Economic Development Council

From left, Jose Hernandez, restaurant coach; Deborah Roque, accounting coach; Adriano Vaccaro; workforce training coach; Gilberto Amador, professional-development coach; Jesse Santos, finance and loan coach; Andrew Melendez; and Dr. Edna Rodriguez, mental-wellness coach.

And its model is unique, he went on, both in what it offers and that the services it provides are free.

“We want this to be free to the community, and I’m committed to that,” he said, adding that the LEDC was created to provide critical coaching and insight to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs who may otherwise not be able to access such expertise.

Which brings him back to those tours he mentioned at the top and the comments from those who take them.

“I’ve taken dozens of people through the doors — people from Boston, Holyoke, Springfield, all over,” he said. “They’ve seen incubators with various businesses … but to walk in, and right where you walk in, there’s a marketing agency; an accountant; a psychologist; a professional-development trainer on safety; a professional-development trainer on diversity, equity, and inclusion; someone who can write a loan for you from beginning to end for free and send it to our partner banks … they haven’t seen that before.”

This is the essence of the LEDC, which Melendez likened to a credit union that doesn’t exclude anyone from membership. And the heart of the agency is its coaches, 28 of them at last count.

People like Rodriguez, the mental-wellness coach; Gilberto Amador, president of the Mass 2 Miami Consultant Group and professional development coach for the LEDC; Deborah Roque, owner of Affordable Accounting Services & Tax Preparation and an accounting coach for the agency; Jose Hernandez, owner of Palete Latin Cuisine in Springfield and the restaurant coach for the LEDC; Carlos DeLeon, a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial, who provides guidance on personal finance; and Jesse Santos, a business finance and loan coach and officer with Latin Financial.

They and many others offer specific areas of expertise and, more importantly, a willingness to share it, that Amador summed up this way: “we bring something important to the table — experience, drive, and vision. And with the young people today, there’s going to be a generational gap if we don’t bring this information to them.”

 

Getting a Leg Up

Like Melendez and others we spoke with, Santos said capital is obviously critical to the advancement of any business venture, and is also an area many need help navigating, which is why he is now part of the coaching lineup at the LEDC.

“I’m here to guide those in the Latino community, and others as well, to get alternative funding, equipment financing, lines of credit — just help them get some funding,” he explained. “If the conventional banking system doesn’t help them or the rates are not to their favor or what they consider fair, they can come to me and we can broker it to other banks and other vendors to see what other opportunities we can get them.”

His work is an example of how the LEDC will work to provide guidance where and when it’s needed, and fill in gaps — in service, opportunities, and knowledge. And the coaches gathered around the conference room table at the LEDC said there are many such gaps, especially when it comes to the intricacies of running a business or simply taking an idea and transforming it into a business.

There are the basics — writing a business plan, deciding on a business classification, obtaining a doing-business-as certificate, and more, said Melendez, and coaches can help with all that. But then, there are the day-to-day, year-to-year matters, such as training staff, creating a culture, and handling HR matters. And the LEDC’s coaches can assist in these areas as well.

Amador, a serial entrepreneur himself but also an educator, said he’s been working with entrepreneurs for many years now and understands that many need help not only with their business, but with balancing business and life.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of these basics is simple financial literacy.

“A lot of them have ideas for starting a business, but they don’t realize that the financial piece is very important,” he said. “What does your profit-and-loss statement mean? What does you balance sheet mean? What is your cash flow? There are things that many in this [Latino] community don’t understand about business because we’ve been doing it a certain way, and we need to change that thought process. If we learn about investment and if we learn about how numbers work, then that makes it easier.”

While some coaching is broad in scope, it can also be specialized in its nature as well. Such is the case with Hernandez, who brings his experience in owning a restaurant, and in presenting Latin cuisine, to the forefront, and leads by example while also coaching others.

“I brought something different to the table and raised the bar with it,” he said of his eatery, located on Boston Road in Springfield. “A lot of people took notice, and you’re beginning to see where other restaurants are beginning to change the way they present the food, and I’m really happy about that.”

Overall, Amador echoed the thoughts of Melendez and others we spoke with when it came to seeing more individuals within the Latino community, which is entrepreneurial by nature, make the often-challenging leap from being an employee to being an employer.

“If there’s a McDonald’s in the North End of Springfield, I want to see a Latino owner of that McDonald’s,” he said. “I don’t want to hear people say, ‘let’s go to McDonald’s’ — I want to hear them say, ‘I want to own a McDonald’s.’”

Such sentiments, and such goals, are what prompted PeoplesBank to want to become involved with the LEDC, said Matt Bannister, the institution’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, adding that the bank became sold on the concept and its place in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“Other groups have a mentor of two that can help you,” he said. “But they have specialists in whatever your issue is, and I think that’s a smart business model; it’s not one generalist who may or may not have experience with what you’re trying to do — they have a whole team of people, and it’s right in downtown Springfield.”

The bank’s participation started with the business lounge that now bears its name, he went on, adding that involvement may go to a higher level, perhaps by matching, or partially matching, the microgrants awarded to businesses by the LEDC.

 

Connecting the Dots

Summing up what the LEDC is and want he expects it will become in the months and years to come, Melendez said the agency strives to build individuals into “leaders, business owners, and change makers.”

That’s a tall task, he went on, but the ingredients are there for the agency to become transformative when it comes to the Latino business community and the overall economic landscape in Western Mass.

That’s why those who take the tour say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — and why they wish they had. u

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Century Unlimited

 

President and CEO Glenn Welch (center) with some of his team.

President and CEO Glenn Welch (center) with some of his team.

When asked what might come next for Freedom Credit Union, Glenn Welch said simply, “we’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years.”

By that he meant … well, a whole lot of things, from continued growth and innovation to embracing new technology; from growing the base of customers to extending the institution’s geographic reach; from finding new ways to serve members to giving back to the community.

There will be more of all of that, said Welch, president and CEO of Freedom, who offered what amounted to a ‘state of the credit union’ report for BusinessWest on the occasion of its 100th birthday.

The milestone (July 22 was the official birthday) has been marked in various ways — from a 100-day summer food drive that raised $4,100 for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and collected 930 pounds of food for the Gray House, to a week of ice cream at all the branches in late July for members and employees; from raffles and giveaways for members to specials on loans and CDs.

“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to be around that long,” Welch said. “So we wanted to celebrate with the community.”

Mostly, though, the institution has been quietly continuing those patterns of behavior listed above, he added, noting that he and his team are being both innovative and entrepreneurial as they go about writing the next chapter in a history that began with an institution known as the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union, formed when Warren Harding was patrolling the White House.

“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to be around that long. So we wanted to celebrate with the community.”

Listing examples of both, he said Freedom will soon be introducing its first interactive teller machine (ITM) as well as credit cards and a new debit-card product. Meanwhile, it is continuing and broadening its push into Connecticut with the opening of a loan-production office on Elm Street in Enfield. Also, the credit union, which now boasts roughly $650 million in assets, more than 32,000 members, and 10 branches across Western Mass., has been making some inroads to service companies in the broad and ever-expanding cannabis industry in Western Mass., while continuing to aggressively pursue more business on the commercial-lending side of the ledger.

With the cannabis sector, the credit union recently started providing deposit and cash-management services for businesses in different kinds of businesses, said Welch, adding that this could become a vehicle for growth at Freedom.

“We have several clients that have signed on with us and we have a pretty good backlog of businesses that are looking to come on board with us,” Welch said, noting that the credit union is working with its regulator to make sure it is complying with guidelines for doing business with those in this sector.

It is certainly not the only institution looking to garner cannabis customers, he went on, adding that, as competition mounts, Freedom will work to remain competitive and secure market share in a sector where new businesses open every month, if not every week.

Cannabis was recently made legal for recreational use in the Nutmeg State, he went on, adding that this could be another avenue for growth in that market. “We think we’re in a good position with our expansion into that market.”

Overall, Freedom is still finding its footing in Connecticut, he said, adding that, over the next few years, it will explore opportunities to branch out south of the border, literally and figuratively.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says the basic strategy at Freedom is “to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years.”

“We’re going to explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there,” he explained. “There could be a possibility of branching down there; we signed a two-year lease in Enfield, and we want to explore the market with the loan production first; we thought that was a good way to get a good foothold.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Welch about the first 100 years for Freedom Credit Union, and what is on tap for this Western Mass. institution.

 

Answering the Call

Tracing the history of the credit union, Welch said it started in a small office in the telephone-company building on Worthington Street, serving only employees of that large and fast-growing industry.

In 1978, the institution relocated to a new home on Main Street in Springfield’s North End, which still serves as its headquarters today. In 1987, the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union merged with Monarch Credit Union. As demand for the benefits of a credit union grew, the institution applied for a community charter. In January 2001, membership eligibility was expanded to include anyone who lived or worked in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire county, and in early 2020, further expansion of membership eligibility included Hartford and Tolland counties in Connecticut.

In 2004, the institution merged with FHBT Credit Union, and the name of the larger entity became Freedom Credit Union. And with that new name came geographic expansion, with new branches in Chicopee, Northampton, and, later, Turners Falls, Greenfield, Feeding Hills, Easthampton, the Sixteen Acres neighborhood in Springfield, Ludlow, West Springfield (after a merger with West Springfield Credit Union in 2019), and then Connecticut.

Throughout its history, Freedom has consistently sought out new opportunities to expand and bring its products, services, and mission to new zip codes, said Welch, while also looking for new and better ways to serve its members, said Welch, adding that these trends continue today.

Especially with its push into Connecticut, but also with its work to attract residents and businesses in its service area that are looking for options in the wake of a seemingly endless string of bank mergers, the latest being M&T’s absorption of People’s United Bank.

“We’re going to explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there.”

Connecticut has become the next frontier for many banks and credit unions based in Western Mass., and so it is with Freedom, said Welch, adding that the new office in Enfield, which opened earlier this month, will include both a commercial-lending officer and a mortgage originator.

“We had a lot of people in Connecticut who wanted to bank with us, so that’s why we expanded our charter in 2020,” he said, adding that COVID obviously slowed the pace of progress into that state, but with the pandemic easing in most all respects, the credit union is expecting to see growth in the numbers of members from across the border.

Meanwhile, Freedom will continue and escalate what has been an aggressive push into the commercial-lending market on both sides of the border, another initiative that has been slowed somewhat by COVID.

“We’re trying to expand on the commercial side, but obviously not ignoring consumers,” he told BusinessWest. “We did hire a new hire lender for the Connecticut market; we believe there is a lot of opportunity there — on both the commercial and consumer side.”

Overall, the credit union began its push into the commercial market roughly seven years ago, he said, adding that it has been making good inroads since, with two lenders in this market and now the one in Connecticut.

Its legal lending limit is $7 million, with a large sweet spot of $2 million to $5 million, Welch explained, adding that this range leaves plenty of growth potential in a region dominated, on both sides of the border, by small businesses.

“We have a very experienced lending team — we’ve been in the market in a long time,” he said, adding that Freedom will be rolling out some new products in the next few months that will make it easier for companies to obtain small-business loans.

“We’ve partnered with a credit-union service organization with an online app where people can go, and they will make the credit decision for us, based on our guidelines in place,” he explained. “That’s how we hope to help the small businesses in the area.”

Another new service soon to be unveiled by Freedom will enable area retailers to offer financing for purchase of their products through the credit union, an initiative that he believes will help small businesses while also creating potential new members for the credit union on the consumer side.

The credit union’s headquarters have been located on Main Street in Springfield since 1978 — before it was called Freedom.

The credit union’s headquarters have been located on Main Street in Springfield since 1978 — before it was called Freedom.

Overall, growth in membership has been steady, at perhaps 1% a year on average, which is typical of credit unions in this market, he said, adding that Freedom is trying to capitalize on the ongoing consolidation of the banking market and mergers like the one involving M&T and People’s United, which, by most accounts, did not go smoothly.

“I think that’s our biggest opportunity, especially in Connecticut, with M&T and People’s United being such big players in that market,” he said, adding that the credit union is conducting some marketing targeting customers of those institutions.

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, the credit union will soon roll out its own credit card as well as a new debit-card product, its first ITM, and other products and services aimed at making banking easier and more convenient for members.

“We just keep automating things as we try to make it easier for our members to do business with us,” Welch explained. “A lot of things are being done online, and I think we have very competitive products for that; if people want to apply for loans or open accounts, they can do it on their own time, but certainly we have the branch system in place to support them when they need help.”

 

By All Accounts

Looking at the business plan for the next several years, Welch said Freedom is looking at a number of growth opportunities — in Massachusetts, Connecticut, within the cannabis industry, in commercial lending, and with several new consumer products.

It is moving on several different fronts at once, with the goal of expanding its membership base, providing new and better products and services, and taking its mission in new directions.

These initiatives are new in some respects, but overall, they’re simply a continuation of what the institution now known as Freedom has been doing for a century.

 

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

Education Special Coverage

Learning Experiences

Spearheading the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program are Elms College officials

Spearheading the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program are Elms College officials, from left, Anne Mistivar, project faculty coordinator and cultural consultant; President Harry Dumay; Maryann Matrow, director of School of Nursing Operations; and Deanna Nunes, assistant clinical professor and associate dean of the School of Nursing.

 

Harry Dumay says the initial talks began more than four years ago.

They involved nurse educators in Haiti and leaders at Elms College, including Dumay, who is from Haiti, and they centered around how Elms, which has a strong Nursing program, might be able to partner with those in Haiti to continue the education of nurses in a broad effort to improve health outcomes in that country through nurse-faculty development.

Through a $750,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partnership between Elms and the Episcopal University of Haiti School of Nursing (EUH) was created that brings together nurse faculty from across Haiti and uses a ‘train-the-trainer’ approach to instruct the faculty with leading-edge nursing skills.

To date, more than 47 nurses in two cohorts from all provinces of Haiti have gone through the program — there was an elaborate graduation ceremony in May for both groups — and a third cohort has begun, with a fourth and perhaps more planned, thanks to a second grant from the Kellogg Foundation for $1.1 million.

That is the short, as in very short, version of a truly compelling story.

“The Elms program was very helpful because in Haiti they don’t have this type of training for nurses. They have nurses that are in different specialties and in different roles, and they find themselves teaching, but they’ve never been taught how to teach, so this program is very important because they are learning how to be an instructor.”

The longer version involves how all this has been accomplished during a time of global pandemic and an earthquake, a severe hurricane, and extreme political upheaval and general unrest in Haiti, including the assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moise, more than a year ago.

In short, very little about this initiative has been easy, but those involved — here and in Haiti — have persevered because the stakes are high and need to train nurse faculty is great, said Dumay.

Elaborating, he noted that the original model for this program called for in-person learning, with educators from Elms flying to Haiti once a month to lead classes.

Those plans were eventually scrapped because of the pandemic and other factors, including safety issues, in favor of a remote-learning model that came with its own set of challenges, especially the securing of needed equipment (tablets, hotspots, and even solar chargers in case power was lost) and getting them in the hands of the students who would use it.

In May, the first two cohorts of nurse educators in the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program attended their graduation ceremony in Haiti. With the graduates in the front row are, from left, Anne Mistivar, project faculty coordinator and cultural consultant for the program; Hilda Alcindor, project co-director from the Episcopalian University School of Nursing in Haiti; Harry Dumay, president of Elms College; Joyce Hampton, associate vice president of Strategic Initiatives and dean of the School of Arts, Sciences and Professional Programs at Elms; and Bapthol Joseph, project co-manager from the Episcopalian University School of Nursing in Haiti.

And these issues were compounded by other challenges, including those aforementioned natural disasters and the general upheaval in the country. Some students had to stay at their workplaces to take part in the classes because the WiFi was better there; meanwhile, class times were shifted so that students wouldn’t be traveling after dark to take them because of the increased risk to their own safety.

But, as noted, all those involved have pushed through these challenges because of the importance of this training. Indeed, most healthcare in Haiti is provided by nurses, not doctors, so the need to train nurse educators and thereby heighten the skills of those providing care is paramount.

People like Lousemie Duvernat, a nurse who was part of the second cohort that went through the Elms program. Via Zoom and through an interpreter — Anne Mistivar, project faculty coordinator and cultural consultant for what has come to be known as the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program — Duvernat said the program, and, specifically, its ‘train-the-trainer’ approach, has made her a better nurse, not to mention a better educator.

“The Elms program was very helpful because in Haiti they don’t have this type of training for nurses,” she explained. “They have nurses that are in different specialties and in different roles, and they find themselves teaching, but they’ve never been taught how to teach, so this program is very important because they are learning how to be an instructor.

“This, in essence, has helped them to understand the students, how to deliver the message, how to present, and how to evaluate the students and make them better educators,” she went on, adding that she would like to see the program continue because they simply don’t have anything like the ‘train-the-trainer’ approach in Haiti.

Such sentiments clearly explain why this initiative was undertaken and why it has persevered through so many extreme challenges, said Deana Nunes, associate dean of the School of Nursing and assistant clinical professor at Elms and nurse educator and course faculty for the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program, adding that the results thus far have been encouraging on many levels, but especially in what she called the “thirst for learning” she has seen from the nurses from Haiti who have been involved with the program.

For this issue and its focus on healthcare education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this inspiring program, its goals, and the many ways in which success is being measured.

 

Course of Action

Duvernat — again, through her interpreter, Mistivar, who is also from Haiti — told BusinessWest that, since she was a child, she harbored dreams of becoming a doctor. In Haiti, though, the road to that profession is long and difficult, and she eventually set her sights on becoming a nurse, a vocation that, as noted, brings even more responsibilities than it does in this country.

But, and also since childhood, she has wanted to be an educator. And these twin passions, coupled with her desire to help others, have now come together as she advances her career as a nurse educator, with the goal to one day earn a doctorate — a path that has been accelerated and helped in many ways by the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program and its heavy emphasis on those words ‘continuing education.’

This is what all those involved with the initiative had in mind, said Dumay, noting that the program was born out of need, one that he was quite familiar with, and a desire among those at the college to meet that need.

“Elms College has a great School of Nursing and a strong reputation in the area for preparing great nurses and healthcare professionals in general,” he said. “But Elms College has also had a desire, and some efforts, in reaching outside Chicopee, outside Massachusetts; some of our students have gone to Jamaica for clinical programs, and we’ve had conversations with our partners in Japan around global health initiatives.
“I’ve also had interactions and collaborations with those in higher education in Haiti, and I’ve also had interactions and collaborations with the Kellogg Foundation,” he continued, while explaining the genesis of the initiative in that country. “And I know that one of the strong desires of the Kellogg Foundation has been to support the reinforcement of human resources for health in Haiti, particularly around the support of maternal and child healthcare.”

Looking at those synergistic aspirations and competencies, it was natural to propose to the Kellogg Foundation to help Elms in efforts to reinforce nursing education in Haiti, he continued, adding that the pieces eventually fell into place for what would become the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program, for which Elms would partner with the Episcopal University of Haiti and its school of Nursing.

That was back in early 2019, said Dumay, adding that there were visits to Haiti by officials at Elms and those with the Kellogg Foundation to explore the facilities of the Episcopal University of Haiti’s School of Nursing and meet with officials there to brainstorm about how the initiative could take shape.

Eventually, continuing education for nurse educators became the focus, he went on, adding that a ‘train-the-trainer’ model was identified as the most effective course of action — figuratively but also quite literally.

“We know that a lot of the nurse educators in Haiti are at varying degrees of preparation, and we heard from our partners from the healthcare system in Haiti that the nurses that are coming out of the various schools of nursing in that country have varying degrees of preparation as well,” Dumay explained. “So helping to reinforce the capacity, the level, and the preparation of nurse educators in Haiti so that they, in turn, can teach the nurses who are on the front lines became the concept that we created.”

Lousemie Duvernat shares the stage with Elms College President Harry Dumay

Lousemie Duvernat, a graduate of the second cohort of nurse educators, shares the stage with Elms College President Harry Dumay at the recent graduation ceremonies.

With a $750,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation, plans were put in place for two cohorts of 24 faculty members from approved nursing schools across Haiti to take part in this ‘train-the-trainer’ program, he noted, adding that the original plan was for in-person classes at the Episcopal University of Haiti — specifically a “very intense” once-a month model.

Obviously, this plan had to change, because of COVID but also other factors, including the growing danger of traveling from one province to another in Haiti, said Dumay, noting that the program was halted at one point as plans were developed for an online format. This was a challenging adjustment because of the need to provide the nurse educators with needed equipment in the form of laptops and hotspots — and then actually getting this equipment into their hands, an assignment fraught with challenge on many levels, from the transportation and safety issues to the pandemic itself.

“We worked with and leveraged the network of the telephone company in Haiti, which has stores throughout the country,” he said. “We worked with them to coordinate the distribution of the technology to individuals all across Haiti; it was a logistical feat to be able to have all of the students have access to that material so they could complete the program.”

Overall, said Mistivar, the move to a remote format provided other learning opportunities.

“Not only did they learn about nursing, but also about technology,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the students were nurses representing all 10 provinces in Haiti. Some were already nurse educators, and many were working in various hospitals. Some had bachelor’s degrees, while others had a master’s.

The common denominator was that they wanted to take their education, and their ability to train others, to a higher level.

 

School of Thought

Nunes told BusinessWest that the shift to remote learning in Haiti was similar to what was happening at Elms College and other schools in this country during the pandemic. But there were many subtle, and not so subtle, nuances and adjustments that had to be made.

“Each week, on Wednesday afternoons, we met with the students via Zoom,” she explained. “We had to adjust our course time because, once darkness comes, it becomes much more dangerous. It became an example of the ways we had to work with our students to make sure we were not only providing them with a great education, but also keeping them safe.”

Overall, the nurse educators displayed great resilience, she went on, and a strong desire to learn, despite the many challenges they are facing in their daily lives, because they understood its importance to them becoming better educators and nurses — and perhaps advancing in their careers.

This resilience, desire to learn, dedication to helping others, and the knowledge and experience they already brought to the table certainly made an impression on those at Elms.

“Speaking with them, it was just fascinating to learn the way Haitian medicine and nursing care is delivered, and the amount of experience these nurses have is incredible,” Nunes told BusinessWest. “For me, as an educator, I feel I learned so much from them in addition to what they learned from us.”

As she talked about what was taught, and how, Nunes said there was prepared curriculum, obviously, but those leading the courses would often take their cues from the students, the nurse educators.

“One of the courses I taught was ‘Health Assessment,’ and in the beginning, we asked them, ‘what do you want?’ she recalled. “One of the things they identified was maternal health, but one of the things that surprised me was that they wanted to know more about how to use a stethoscope because, in Haiti, they said, the physicians do that.

“But they wanted to become more competent as nurses and develop that skill, so we were able to provide resources online, such as videos that demonstrated the sounds they’d hear and where to listen, things like that. In the development of our curriculum, we wanted to integrate knowledge in addition to keeping the focus on how to teach this knowledge.”

This same approach is being used with the third cohort of nursing educators, which just began its course work several weeks ago. This latest chapter in the story has provided more insight into the many challenges to be overcome, and more lessons in perseverance, said Maryann Matrow, director of the School of Nursing Operations at Elms and project co-manager for the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program.

She noted, for example, that some students were held up on the road as they traveled to the kickoff for the third cohort, but eventually made it there safely. She also noted some the difficulties in getting new models of laptops to the students that will be using them.

“Once we found and ordered it, things began to get more difficult in terms of travel and delivery,” she said. “As for the kickoff ceremony … to be able to get the people there was trying.”

Despite all this, the attrition rates for the first two cohorts were extremely low, only a few students, said Matrow, adding that she attributes this to everything from that thirst for knowledge that all those involved recognized to the strong support system involving those in both Haiti and Chicopee that has helped students make it to the finish line.

For Duvernat, the challenges involved in taking part in this program went beyond transportation, navigating around extreme weather, and coping with crime. She also had a baby during the course and was working full-time as well, adding up to a juggling act and very stern test that she and others have passed.

“Life in Haiti is very stressful,” she said through Mistivar. “Every day, people have to deal with that stress, which makes them resilient and able to adapt. I was motivated to continue to attend the class because it was something that was very important to me. I tried to focus on the experience because I did not want to miss the opportunity.”

 

Bottom Line

While there are many words and phrases that can be used the describe the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program, including all those in its title, ‘opportunity’ probably sums it up the best.

For those in Haiti, it is an opportunity to continue their education and, as Duvernat said, learn how to become better teachers. Meanwhile, for Elms College, it is a chance to extend its reach and its ability to make a difference in the lives of others, well beyond Chicopee and Western Mass.

In short, it has become a learning experience on many levels and for all those involved. It is a compelling story that hopefully has many new chapters still to be written.

Insurance Special Coverage

Putting a Premium on Measured Growth

Current and future leaders at the Dowd Agencies

Current and future leaders at the Dowd Agencies, from left: Evan Dowd, account executive; John Dowd Jr., president and CEO; Dave Griffin Jr., senior vice president; and Jack Dowd, vice president of Personal Lines.

There’s a framed picture of downtown Holyoke on one wall of the conference room at the Dowd Agencies — downtown Holyoke circa 1870.

The view is looking west along Dwight Street by the first-level canal. City Hall, prominent in the upper-left corner, looks … exactly as it does today. The other side of Dwight Street, not so much — most of the buildings seen in the image have been gone for decades. For perspective, a horse-drawn carriage is moving east down the hill.

John Dowd Jr. said the picture was owned by a long-time client who offered it to him after Dowd repeatedly raved about it. He accepted the offer and gave the picture a prominent home — across the conference room from another framed photo, this one of the insurance company’s founder, James J. Dowd, who went into business just a few decades after that picture of downtown was taken.

Together, the pictures provide some needed perspective — about time, Holyoke, the company, change, what hasn’t changed — and how they all come together. And the juxtaposition of all this will come into even sharper focus in 2023, when the agency, which Dowd claims is the oldest family-owned insurance agency doing business in the Bay State, celebrates its 125th birthday.

“We want to continue to grow, but want to make sure we’re not growing too quickly; we don’t want to get over our skis, as we like to say.”

There hasn’t been much hard planning about how to mark that milestone, he said, adding that he and others will pick up the pace in the coming months and put together some events and programs, as they did for the company’s centennial in 1998.

“We have a few things we’re planning that are in the works,” he said. “We’re trying to do some things that involve the community; overall, it’s an opportunity for us to say ‘thank you’ to the community for supporting us for 125 years and through five generations. That’s an important ‘thank you,’ and we’re thinking long and hard about what we’re going to do.”

In the meantime, the company is taking steps to ensure that it can continue its long history as an independent agency, said Dowd, noting, for example, the latest in a series of recent acquisitions that provide needed size and flexibility at a time of continued consolidation in the insurance industry.

Just last month, the firm acquired the Ideal Insurance Agency in Ludlow, which, like many smaller, family-owned agencies in the area, became available for one of many reasons, ranging from COVID-19 to lack of a clear succession plan to the inability to effectively compete in a market increasingly dominated by larger firms.

photo of downtown Holyoke, circa 1870

This photo of downtown Holyoke, circa 1870, has earned a spot on the wall in the conference room at the Dowd Agencies.

This was the third such acquisition over the past two years, coming after Dowd bought the J. Raymond Lussier agency in West Springfield and the Wilcox agency in Westfield and Feeding Hills. This expansion has given the agency much greater size, and in insurance, as in banking and most all other sectors, size matters, and it bring benefits.

“The advantages come with volume with carriers,” Dowd explained, noting that the firm is roughly 30% larger than it was a few years ago, and almost double the size it was a decade ago. “The more volume you have, the better compensation you negotiate, as well as profit sharing, services, and other perks. We’ve been able to achieve some of that volume leverage through aggregation with other agencies and through M&A.”

Moving forward, the agency will continue to look for opportunities for growth organically, and also through additional acquisitions, said Dowd, adding that it approaches this assignment with an eye toward smart growth and not taking on too much too quickly.

“We want to continue to grow, but want to make sure we’re not growing too quickly; we don’t want to get over our skis, as we like to say,” he noted, borrowing a phrase used often in business to connote getting ahead of oneself with a specific strategic initiative. “A healthy company grows organically and also through M&A. With the M&A, it has to be measured growth, but organic growth is essential — that’s boots on the ground, bringing in new clients, retaining your current clients; that’s good, healthy growth, augmented by acquisition, which comes with debt, which obviously has to measured and balanced.”

Meanwhile, there are other matters to consider, said Dowd, including succession planning for this agency, something that is obviously taken seriously at a company that has been around this long, covets its independence, and wants things to stay that way.

For this issue and its focus on insurance, BusinessWest talked with Dowd about … well, everything conveyed by those two photos in the conference room.

 

Cover Story

Dowd told BusinessWest that the phone calls come maybe once a week, or five or six times a month on average.

They’re from representatives of private-equity firms who want to know if Dowd Insurance might be for sale, and, if so, under what circumstances. He tells them ‘no,’ and in a polite way — at least the first time they inquire.

“I’ll usually have one conversation with them and let them know that we’re not interested in selling and are happy to stay the way we are. And then when they call the next month with the same question, my patience starts to wane, and I start to wonder about how obligated I am to answer every email and every phone call, especially when I’ve already talked to them and told them my plan.”

“They are relentless,” said Dowd of those on the other end of the phone. “I’ll usually have one conversation with them and let them know that we’re not interested in selling and are happy to stay the way we are. And then when they call the next month with the same question, my patience starts to wane, and I start to wonder about how obligated I am to answer every email and every phone call, especially when I’ve already talked to them and told them my plan.”

These days, there are even more people calling and asking about the agency, he noted, and that’s because of those acquisitions over the past few years and the scale they generate.

It’s a somewhat minor annoyance, and at the same time a reminder of the agency’s track record for success, he said, adding, again, that he is polite, but only to a point.

Dowd has other matters to occupy his time, he noted, adding that, overall, the firm is still trying to make its way all the way back to where it was before the start of the pandemic, especially with “behind-the-scenes” work, as he called it, when it comes to quality, efficiency, and serving clients.

“We have a quality team that evaluates what we do and how we do it,” he explained. “They would get suggestions every month from anyone on the staff — ‘here’s an area that I think we can look at and get better at’ — and the quality team would research and come to us with suggestions for developing a plan. That’s an example of an area where we lost some momentum.”

Some momentum was also lost when it came to connecting with potential new customers, he went on, adding that this put far greater emphasis on growth through acquisition, which is exactly what the company did.

“From a revenue standpoint, we were flatlining — if we held onto everything,” he explained. “And we didn’t hang onto everything because businesses were closing. It was a scary time because there was so much uncertainty. But then came the M&A opportunity, and we looked at it and said, ‘this is not a great time to be taking on some debt, but we think this is prudent.”

John Dowd Jr., seen here next to a photo of the company’s founder, Joseph Dowd

John Dowd Jr., seen here next to a photo of the company’s founder, James J. Dowd, says the Dowd Agencies targets controlled, ‘smart’ growth, both organically and through acquisition.

Elaborating, he said the agencies that came into consideration were good fits, culturally and otherwise, and under normal circumstances, they would be consider logical acquisitions. The circumstances weren’t normal, but the times dictated some aggressive action.

“Sometimes you’ve got to stick your chin out there and, when opportunity knocks, take advantage of the opportunity,” he said, adding that this is just what the firm has done.

In doing so, it has put itself in and new different position — an independent agency of considerable size — and it is determined to sell both of those qualities.

“We’re a good-sized agency, certainly in Western Mass., and the only one of our size that is still independently owned — not owned by one of the big guys,” he said. “We like that distinction, and we use it to our advantage. We’re totally local — not only do we live and participate in our community here, we’re also locally owned, and profits go right back here in to Western Mass., and not Chicago or anywhere else.”

But with that independent status comes the challenge to compete with those often much larger concerns, Dowd explained, adding that this challenge, as in banking and other sectors, is very real and becoming more stern with each passing year.

“We’re at a point now where getting to the next level requires a higher level of sophistication in just about every area,” he said. “Obviously, technology is huge because it creates the efficiencies we need. Meanwhile, the labor market is extremely difficult and challenging right now.

“The investment in technology and the way we staff ourselves, the levels of management … all of these important areas have to be looked at and adjusted accordingly,” he went on. “You can’t keep doing things the way you were when you were half the size. You have to be forward-thinking in this business; you have to be looking ahead and be prepared for what may come, and you know the unexpected will happen. You have to be nimble enough to be able to adjust.”

 

Prudent Policy

As he looks forward, Dowd sees the agency doing what it has been doing all along and especially over the past decade or so — seeking to grow organically, but also looking for opportunities to grow through acquisition and expand geographically.

The agency currently has nine locations, all in Western Mass., but it is exploring options well beyond this area code, he noted.

“We’ve looked at Northern Connecticut, we’ve looked at acquisitions in Vermont and New Hampshire, and we’ve also looked at Eastern Mass., toward Worcester, working our way in that direction,” he said, adding that, while the agency serves clients in those areas and others, including Boston and New Jersey, it does not have a physical presence in those locations, but could attain some if the conditions are right.

“In our business, it’s about where your network of contacts takes you and what your appetite for challenge is,” he told BusinessWest. “Do you want to do what it takes to be regional and available and able to support services? You just have to be realistic that you can do what you say you can do.

“We’re careful and selective with regard to companies where there’s some distance,” he went on. “But we’re looking at some relationships in New York right now where we could possibly have an ofice and be able to operate similarly, but on a smaller scale, to what we’re doing here.”

Overall, there are a number of ways to get to the proverbial next level in terms of size and revenues, he went on, adding that, while remaining independent is the preferred route, the agency will consider all its options. “We’re evaluating what steps we need to take in order to continue to grow and build the company.”

Returning to those phone calls he gets from the private-equity firms, Dowd noted, again, that he doesn’t take many of those calls anymore.

“I feel bad about that, but not too bad,” he explained. “I get a lot of messages — they call and they say they’re from such and such firm, and he’s calling again; I talked to him a year or two ago and told him I’ll call if anything changes.”

Nothing has really changed, at least on that front, he went on, adding that there has certainly been change with regard to the company’s size, reach, and position among area agencies.

Over the course of 124 years, many things have changed, but the most important ingredient hasn’t — this is still an independent, family-owned agency.

And as it prepares to mark another important milestone, that’s a quality worth celebrating.

 

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

Special Coverage Technology

A New Gig

SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald

SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald

‘Ahead of schedule and under budget.’

Those are the words that any business owner or board of directors would love to hear regarding a specific project or undertaking. They are not heard often, to be sure, and they are being heard even less frequently, if at all, in these days of soaring inflation, supply-chain issues, and a workforce crisis.

But that phrase can certainly be applied to the ongoing work of the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) to provide commercial and residential customers in that community with fiber internet service, a project that had the additional challenge of being launched only months before the pandemic arrived in Western Mass.

“In the last financial report we gave to the board, we were under budget and ahead of the construction schedule,” said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s general manager, noting that roughly 75% of the town now has fiber service, with the rest to be built out by July 2024.

The fiber program, which had been known as Fibersonic, has been rebranded as Fiberspring to avoid any potential problems with another internet provider using ‘sonic’ in its name, said Fitzgerald (more on this new name later). It now boasts more than 1,600 customers, including residents, businesses, municipal entities, public schools, and the majority of town departments, and to say the initiative has been successful and is turning some heads would be an understatement.

Indeed, the early success in South Hadley has led to new agreements to provide internet service to nearby towns Leverett and Shutesbury, and inquiries from, and preliminary talks with, other communities, said Fitzgerald, adding that SHELD’s board of directors must now decide just how entrepreneurial it wants to be with this product.

Indeed, the Fibersonic program, similar in many ways to a fiber initiative launched by Westfield Gas & Electric — which Fitzgerald was part of — was initiated with the simple goal of providing better, more reliable service to South Hadley residents and businesses. But its pattern of success, the new contracts with Leverett and Shutesbury, and the potential to add more small towns and even larger communities (there have been talks with Easthampton) have the potential to turn this into a dynamic new profit center for SHELD.

“Customers are streaming more; they’re going into Best Buy, they’re buying a TV that is all streaming,. And with the internet of things, with everything from doorbells to vacuum cleaners connected to the internet, people are increasingly concerned about bandwidth and performance.”

“Originally, the vision from the board was not to expand; it was to improve quality of life for residents of South Hadley — that was the initial plan,” Fitzgerald said. “But in doing that, other towns became aware of us being an option; we did it very well, and we did it to what I would call the gold-standard level, so these expansion opportunities have fallen into our lap.”

SHELD has scheduled a strategic planning event for October, at which discussions will be had about where the utility can go from here with its fiber endeavor and whether further expansion should be pursued.

“That’s a discussion point that the board and I will have to have — how aggressive should we be as a municipal light plant in going after expansion of fiber?” he said, noting that, with scale, the utility can ultimately reduce the cost of the service it provides. “And these are questions we don’t have full answers to yet.”

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest talked with Fitzgerald about what is now officially known as Fiberspring (the recently detailed trucks with the brand can be seen on the roads), and what the next chapters in this intriguing story might be.

 

A New Gig

‘Big Gig.’ ‘Fiber Galaxy.’ ‘Gazoo.’

Yes, Gazoo, the extraterrestrial character from the old Flintstones cartoon show.

These are just some of the dozens of names Fitzgerald and his team at SHELD considered as they went about rebranding Fibersonic in conjunction with Darby O’Brien Advertising, the South Hadley-based firm that has developed a strong reputation for helping businesses and nonprofits with such endeavors.

As they talked about the process, Fitzgerald and O’Brien said potential new names would be tossed around, with their merits and shortcomings weighed, before most all of them would have to be discarded because they had been completely, or partially, trademarked by someone else. Such is the growth of this sector of the economy, where the word ‘fiber’ has been attached to just about every conceivable noun.

one of utility’s trucks with the new brand, Fiberspring

General Manager Sean Fitzgerald shows off one of utility’s trucks with the new brand, Fiberspring.

Oddly, and both O’Brien and Fitzgerald thought it was odd, and that’s why they made very sure that Fiberspring was not trademarked. That’s the colorful brand name — literally and figuratively — now, or soon to be, seen on trucks, business cards, letterhead, and everything else.

By whatever name it goes, South Hadley’s new telecom business has become an intriguing success story, one that begins with SHELD’s hiring of Fitzgerald in 2017 with the intent of launching a business division to bring fiber to the home. As noted, Fitzgerald had been working for Westfield G&E and had developed the business component for that municipal utility’s Whip City Fiber project.

What eventually emerged in South Hadley was a $17.4 million initiative, said Fitzgerald, with roughly $15 million going toward fiber construction, with the other $2.4 million in funding needed for advanced meter infrastructure, or AMI. It was financed mostly through a $12 million bond secured through the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. at a favorable 2.7% rate.

As he assembled a team to take this new business division, named Fibersonic, off the drawing board and make it reality, Fitzgerald borrowed from the successful Whip City model in many respects.

These include everything from ordering materials well in advance — a strategy that has brought dividends in these times of supply-chain issues and soaring prices — to the concept of ‘fiberhoods’ — bringing fiber to a community neighborhood by neighborhood.

As he gestured to a map of the town on a large screen in the SHELD conference room, Fitzgerald noted that there are many fiberhoods in South Hadley now, with those currently without fiber to be completed by 2024.

As neighborhoods become fiberhoods, the ‘take rate,’ as it’s called, a statistic that tracks how many households are signing up for the service, is roughly 43%, a good number that grows higher as more residents add the gig-speed service and word of mouth spreads about its speed and reliability.

And as more and more household devices and appliances are driven by the internet — everything from lighting to security to thermostats — demand for fast, reliable service grows.

“Customers are streaming more; they’re going into Best Buy, they’re buying a TV that is all streaming,” he noted. “And with the internet of things, with everything from doorbells to vacuum cleaners connected to the internet, people are increasingly concerned about bandwidth and performance.”

As for ordering materials ahead of schedule, that has been one of the keys, along with a solid team, effective buildout strategy, and staying under budget and ahead of schedule, Fitzgerald said.

“We proactively ordered our equipment and materials in advance, before we knew COVID was coming,” he explained. “I learned that in Westfield, and it was a great strategy.”

As South Hadley adds more fiberhoods, it’s becoming apparent that SHELD’s fiber-service initiative could expand well beyond the borders of that town.

Indeed, just as Whip City Fiber has moved beyond Westfield and into the surrounding hilltowns, Fiberspring is now expanding into other communities.

Shutesbury, northeast of South Hadley, was the first town to enter into a contract with the company, and Leverett, which borders Shutesbury, followed soon after. Those two communities, which both had existing networks in place, will bring another 3,000 customers into the fold.

After that … Fitzgerald said there is potential to expand the footprint in several directions.

“We could go pretty much anywhere in this region,” he told BusinessWest. “The key is the truck rolls — if you have to roll a truck to a customer, you need to be able to reach that customer in a reasonable period of time. If a town in New Hampshire or Maine wanted to hire us, we could do it, but we would probably have to put a satellite building there or a small hub or hire technicians that live in that area.

“Just as Westfield is now serving a number of hilltowns, we can now do the same,” he went on, adding that Fiberspring is now competing with Westfield and other providers. “These towns chose us because of our team and our ability to serve them.”

Moving forward, Fitzgerald said there will be several factors that will determine if, when, and to what degree Fiberspring expands.

“First and foremost, we don’t want to negatively impact the service that we provide to South Hadley — those customers are priority one,” he explained. “Second, we want to make sure we have enough resources to adequately perform any of those contracts. And third, does it make sense for our customers? The whole reason we’re doing this is to reduce the cost to the South Hadley customers and at the same time provide a good service to Shutesbury. But ultimately, we need to show cost savings for South Hadley customers, who are our owner, which we will do with these contracts.”

 

Speed Thrills

Summing up where the telecom business now known as Fiberspring is, and where it could be a few years or a decade down the road, Fitzgerald said everything is happening faster than he or the SHELD board anticipated.

That statement goes for everything from the buildout in South Hadley — again, it’s ahead of schedule — to the expansion of the business into neighboring communities.

That’s a good problem to have — if it’s even a problem — and a business story that bears watching in the months and years to come.

In other words, this new gig — as in gig — has vast potential to be a huge player in this market.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

School of Thought

Rachel Romano

Rachel Romano, founder and executive director of Veritas Preparatory Charter School, shows off one of the classrooms in the recently opened high school.

Rachel Romano says she started Veritas Prep Charter School after becoming frustrated as a middle-school teacher in Springfield with just how ill-prepared students were to succeed — at the next level in their education, and in general.

She called it “unfinished learning,” and it was occurring at many levels, especially with reading.

“They really hadn’t made that shift from learning how to read to reading to learn, which should happen around third or fourth grade,” she explained. “But if it hasn’t happened and they come into the middle school, most middle schools are not designed to keep teaching that, so students really fall behind. When your foundation is weak, there is nothing to build on.”

It was with a desire to provide middle-school students with a better, stronger foundation so they would not fall behind that Romano started Veritas Prep Charter School, opening the doors in a former nursing home on Pine Street nearly a decade ago. And almost from the day it opened, parents and students alike were asking, ‘when are we going to start a high school?’

It took several years, considerable planning, the transformation of what was manufacturing space on Carando Drive, and many other pieces to fall into place, but that high school opened its doors late last month.

As Romano, an educator but also a true entrepreneur (and BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013), put it, in some ways, the new Veritas facility is high school reimagined. This is a career-focused, early-college model designed, like the middle school, to enable students to succeed at the next level — whatever that might be.

“To get two years of college under their belt while still in high school … it just compresses their timeframe to earn a degree.”

For many, it will be college, she said, but higher education is not the goal of every child.

“But every kid should have the choice,” she said. “And if they’re prepared for college … then they have options open to them; the doors are not closed to them.”

The early-college model is just what it sounds like, she noted, adding that students can take college courses while in high school and could even have an associate degree upon graduation.

Having a track record of success in college even before walking across the stage to pick up their high-school diploma instills confidence in students and a mindset that they can accomplish anything they might dream, she said, adding that this model also brings great advantages when it comes to the overall cost of a college education.

“To get two years of college under their belt while still in high school … it just compresses their timeframe to earn a degree,” she explained. “That can be a huge help when they decide to go and get their degree.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Romano about the new high school, but also the broader mission to provide students with that stronger foundation and the tools to build upon it.

 

Grade Expectations

As she offered BusinessWest a tour of the new high school, Romano started in the gym.

The gym is an important part of this equation, she said, noting that the middle school doesn’t have one, and students, parents, and others involved in the design process of the high school identified it as priority.

The gym thus represents an example of how a vision became reality, one that officially started with 90 students (many of them being graduates of the Veritas middle school), teachers, and staff gathering on opening day in late August.

The student demographic at the high school essentially mirrors the grade 5-8 enrollment, said Romano, adding that 70% are Latinx and another 20% are Black. Meanwhile, 83% have what she called ‘high needs,’ and 77% are economically challenged.

The plan is to add a grade a year and build enrollment to roughly 400 students by 2025, she said, adding that for Veritas to realize that size and scope (800 students across nine grades) is something she could not have imagined when she first started conceptualizing this concept.

Indeed, to appreciate where Veritas Prep is now, we need to go back to the beginning, and that’s where we find Romano, a frustrated middle-school teacher, looking to find something better for the city and its young students.

Actually, the story starts in New York, where Romano was working in advertising sales in 2001, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which essentially left her homeless and heading back to Western Mass. and her parents’ home in South Hadley. She took a job substitute teaching to essentially get out of the house — “my mom kept nagging me about what I was going to do next” — and wound up loving the work.

She applied for a full-time teaching job in Springfield for the following year and wound up at Duggan Middle School, where she worked for six years and experienced what could be called a stern reality check.

“I didn’t have traditional training as an educator, so I came in with the expectations that had been set for me as public-school student myself,” she explained. “And I sort of believed that education was the great equalizer; everyone got a public education, and if you worked hard enough, you could go on to college and do whatever you wanted.

“And when I began teaching in Springfield, I realized that this just wasn’t true for everyone,” she went on. “My eyes were really opened to the inequity that exists in our public education system.”

What stood out to her — and eventually compelled her to start a new charter school — were the expectations for students and the system’s inability to prepare students for success.

“The expectations for students in Springfield were not that high,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is how and when the seeds were planted for a new charter school.

“I didn’t have traditional training as an educator, so I came in with the expectations that had been set for me as public-school student myself. And I sort of believed that education was the great equalizer; everyone got a public education, and if you worked hard enough, you could go on to college and do whatever you wanted.”

She started by looking at urban settings with similar demographics but different results when it came to student performance and success.

“We went to New Haven and Boston, where we found schools serving similar populations of students and getting very different results,” she said. “These kids were outperforming their neighboring wealthy districts, like kids in East Boston outperforming kids in Wellesley, and we saw the same in New Haven, and we went and looked at those schools and said, ‘wow, what are they doing?’ They were charter schools.”

The schools were different in some ways, but a common denominator was a needed level of autonomy to “actually respond to the needs of the kids in front of them and create the kind of school and systems that could generate different results.”

Fast-forwarding significantly — getting a charter school off the ground is a lengthy, complicated ordeal — Romano set about creating Veritas, a middle school that would “reset the bar,” as she put it, one that borrowed (‘stole’ was the word she used) best practices from high-achieving schools, set high standards for its students, and prepared them for high school.

And, as noted earlier, it wasn’t long before parents and students alike were asking if the same model could be used to create a high school, questions that grew louder as the first classes of Veritas students were graduating and moving on to the city’s schools.

The cafeteria in the new high school

The cafeteria in the new high school is one of the many aspects of the facility that are state-of-the-art.

Eventually, the chorus became too loud to ignore, she went on, adding that she went to the Veritas board of trustees with the concept of a high school, and the ambitious concept was greeted with enthusiasm.

A request for expansion was submitted to the state Department of Education in 2019, and, upon approval, what became a two-year planning process commenced. With that time, a design team comprised of former students (those now in high school or their first year of college), current students, families, teachers, staff members, representatives of area colleges, and community partners put together for a blueprint for a high school.

 

Course of Action

And by blueprint, she meant not just the actual design of the school — and its gym. Rather, she meant a plan for helping to make sure that graduates of the school would not have doors closed to them.

“We looked at different models, and we looked into what was happening — where is the innovation in high schools now,” she said, putting the accent on ‘we.’ “We focused on what we could do better and what we could do that was different.”

And the chosen model was early college, or EC, as it’s called, she said, adding that it is a somewhat unique model for this region.

“There’s not a lot of it in happening in Massachusetts,” Romano went on. “There’s a lot of talk now in the Legislature and the Department of Education about early college, but there are some great examples in other states.”

Elaborating, she said this is certainly not a new concept — many area school districts have dual enrollment, with students talking college courses while in high school. But this model is different in that it’s “wall to wall” early college and not merely for exceptional students in accelerated programs, as it is in many schools.

“Every student will be able to earn 12 college credits — it’s not for a subset, but for everyone,” she said, adding that, while some might earn as few as 12 credits, some may actually garner two full years of college credits while at Veritas.

“They can literally walk across the stage with a high-school diploma, and an associate degree awarded by Springfield Technical Community College,” she said, adding that STCC and Worcester State University have both signed on partners in the initiative.

“The cool thing about this model is that it really just breaks down the barrier that it’s really tough for a first-generation college student to access college,” she told BusinessWest. “So our kids will actually have a college transcript; they’ll have a track record of success in college when they graduate.”

And, as she noted, having that head start brings advantages on many levels, from a student’s confidence level to the cost of a college education.

“For some of our kids, they may go straight to college, while others will have to go to work, and they’re going to have to finish college at night and on weekends,” she explained. “This just gives them such a leg up because they’re halfway done — they’ve already got it, they’re on a roll, they’ve built some momentum.”

Building needed momentum was just one of the goals for Romano, the Veritas board, and other supporters as they went about conceptualizing the new high school. The overall mission is to eliminate barriers to success, open doors, and provide that leg up that she talked about, and it shows enormous promise for doing all that.

Returning to that question of why and how a high school came to be reality, she said that she and others at the middle school simply didn’t want to let go of their students.

“Many of our students come in not loving school, for whatever reason,” she explained. “School and learning hasn’t been an experience they’ve really enjoyed and felt that they’re really good at; we’ve kind of turned that around for them in the middle grades. By eighth grade, they’re really invested in their education.”

And now, they can continue investing at another important level.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Landmark Decision

The historic Alexander House

The historic Alexander House

Amy Royal first started taking notice of the Alexander House in Springfield when she was a high-school student at nearby MacDuffie, and soon became taken in by its beauty, 200 years of history, and place in the city. Later, she started viewing the property in a different light — as a potential home for her growing law firm. Earlier this year, that dream came true.

Amy Royal says she’s long had an affection for the historic Alexander House in Springfield.

She first took hard notice of it when she was in high school at MacDuffie, located a mile or so away from the home’s former location on State Street. Back then, she recalled, it was a beautiful home with a lot of history, and she’s always had a fondness for structures that fit that description and now lives in a home that is nearly 250 years old.

Later, after beginning her career as an employment-law attorney and eventually starting her own firm, she started looking at the 6,000-square-foot home, built in 1811, in a much different light — as a place to locate her business.

Amy Royal, seen at the grand staircase of the historic Alexander House, has long had her eye on the landmark as a home for her business.

“I’ve always really, really loved the building,” she told BusinessWest. “Everything about it — the design, its place in the city’s history … it’s magnificent.”

These thoughts only intensified after the Alexander House was moved from its long-time location around the corner to Eliot Street to make way for the new federal courthouse in Springfield that eventually opened its doors in late 2008. Royal had business in the courthouse, and eventually found parking a few hundred yards down Eliot Street, necessitating a walk past the Alexander House.

“At that point in time, it was beautiful, but you could tell that it needed a lot of help — even though it had been moved by the federal government, it needed a lot of love,” she recalled. “I remember thinking ‘I wish I could buy that building; I wonder if that building is for sale?’”

Today, Royal is living the dream, literally — the one about moving her growing business, the Royal Law Firm, into the Alexander House’s 14 rooms, and the basement as well.

She’s needed a new home almost from the day she moved into her now-former home, leased space in the large office building at 819 Worcester St. in Indian Orchard. She looked at both options, leasing and owning, and decided that the latter made far more sense.

But owning the Alexander House? Like she said, this was a long-held dream come true.

“I’ve always really, really loved the building. Everything about it — the design, its place in the city’s history … it’s magnificent.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Royal about how her affection for this historic home became a quest — and eventually a dream realized. We also got a tour, one that quickly revealed why this landmark has been a career-long pursuit for Royal.

 

At Home with the Idea

Royal said she’s looking forward to being able to walk to the federal courthouse when she has business there, especially when she considers the large amounts of paperwork she traditionally brings with her when she’s in court.

Which … isn’t very often at all, she told BusinessWest.

One of the 14 rooms at the Alexander House

One of the 14 rooms at the Alexander House has become home to the Royal Law Firm’s main conference room.

“We’re civil litigators … if I don’t see the inside of a courthouse in a year, that’s not unusual,” she said, adding that location, location, location, the driving force in many decisions concerning real estate, was only a minor factor in this case. It was the property that drove this decision.

Since launching her own law firm, Royal has had lengthy drives to that federal courthouse. After starting in a small office on Center Street in Northampton, she relocated to larger quarters on Pleasant Street, and remained there until moving her headquarters office — she has satellite locations in several other cities — to a suite of offices in the building on Worcester Street in March 2020, just after the pandemic found its way to Western Mass.

She wasn’t expecting to be looking for a new home so quickly, but rapid growth — traditionally put in the ‘good problem to have’ category, although it does present challenges — made a change necessary.

“I knew we were outgrowing our space where we were — I just didn’t expect to outgrow it as quickly as we did,” she explained. “I just casually started looking for something.”

In a nice twist of fate, this casual search coincided with the Alexander House being put on the market in June 2021, signaling the start of a new chapter for a home that had seen plenty of history and had become historic in its own right.

Designed by the prominent architect Asher Benjamin and built by noted builder Simon Sanborn, the Greek revival home draws its name from its fourth owner, Henry Alexander Jr., a mayor of Springfield who acquired the property in 1958. But it has another, less-known known name, the Miss Amy House, derived from Alexander’s daughter, Amy, who lived in the house for many years and was quite active in the community on a number of philanthropic fronts.

Rooms at the Alexander House have been converted into a small conference room and lawyers’ offices.

The home has had a relatively small number of owners over the years, said Royal, who has come to know the history of the property — she learned in high school that one of the dorms there was designed to reflect the Alexander House — and is always seeking to learn more about it.

When a search was commenced for a home for a new federal courthouse at the start of this century, those involved, and especially U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, became determined to find a location on State Street, long the cultural and historic thoroughfare in the city and home to several schools, churches, and government buildings.

The property on which the Alexander House stood became the preferred location, and to make it happen, a short but complicated — because of the size, age, and condition of the home — move had to undertaken, one that was well-chronicled and captured the attention of the city.

After the move, the home became to several small businesses, including an architect and an attorney, but much of it was unoccupied. As noted, it came on the market in the summer of 2021, and soon after, Royal commenced her pursuit of the home.

Because of that aforementioned move, the home now has a new foundation, one of many features that caught her eye when she toured the property after it went on the market.

“The foundation they put in is incredible — there must be 10-foot ceilings there,” she told BusinessWest, adding that her firm will use that space as a filing center but may eventually build it out.

“I’ve always really, really loved the building. Everything about it — the design, its place in the city’s history … it’s magnificent.”

But there was so much more, obviously.

“I thought it was magnificent — the spiral staircase alone just stood out to me,” she recalled. “But every facet of the architecture — the crown molding, the ornate craftsmanship in all of the trim work, the grand ceilings, the chandeliers, the fireplaces … to me, it just spoke of having a law-firm practice inside; it’s a magnificent place to have a law firm.”

Royal said she heard anecdotally that there were a number of other suitors for the Alexander House when it came on the market. She believes she prevailed because her passion for the property quickly became evident, and she convinced then-owner Thomas Schoeper that she would be a good custodian of the landmark.

“He really wanted someone who would be a good steward of the property and really cared about its history and character and the integrity of the building itself,” she noted. “I spent a lot of time talking with him about all that.”

Royal closed in February of this year and has spent the past several months giving the property that ‘love’ she said it needed. Improvements have included a new HVAC system, an alarm system, remodeling the kitchen, installing IT wiring throughout, and painting many of the rooms, she said, noting that the property is subject to historic covenants and monitored by Historic New England, and also subject to an annual inspection and historic preservation.

The firm moved in a few weeks ago and is still settling in, Royal said, adding that, with a property of this vintage, there will always be work to do.

“That’s going to be a never-ending project,” she said. “That’s the way it is with historic buildings.”

Meanwhile, her new mailing address is everything she hoped it could be and would be when she first started thinking about it as a future home all those years ago.

“Everyone here just loves it — it’s a great place to work,” she said.

 

Right Place, Right Time

Noting the continued growth of her law firm, Royal was asked if the Alexander House provides the requisite space for additional team members.

She said it did, but in a more emphatic voice, she noted that she would not be moving again — soon or probably ever.

“We may grow in other regions — that’s the plan — but this will be our headquarters building,” she said. “This is home.”

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

This Critical Team Provides Hope — and a Roadmap to Recovery

Team members of the Addiction Consult Service

Team members of the Addiction Consult Service at Holyoke Medical Center, from left: Eddie Rodriguez, John Martinez, Lauren Carpenter, Maria Quinn, Kelly Jean Deming, Em Moulton, and Jose Ramos.

 

Patrick Hamel remained calm and collected as he chronicled his quarter-century-long battle against addiction.

In telling that story, he recalled more relapses than he could count; how he lost jobs, alienated family and friends, and had run-ins with the law (including some B&Es to support his drug and alcohol use); getting thrown out of the house by his wife on a few occasions; the awkwardness of having his daughter visit him in a halfway house; and even that night a little more than two years ago when he decided that enough was enough and tried to end his life.

He didn’t become emotional — though he did have to stop and collect himself a few times — until he started talking about the Addiction Consult Service (ACS), or the Recovery Support Team, as members call it, at Holyoke Medical Center’s Comprehensive Care Center (CCC) and, especially, Maria Quinn, the charismatic psychiatric mental-health nurse practitioner and leader of that unit.

That’s because Quinn, those who work with her, and those to whom she has referred Hamel have enabled him to move beyond all that has happened to him and now lead a much better life.

“She just listened, and we came up with a plan. She got me hooked up with an amazing therapist. We saw each other every week — she was there for me; she was my support.”

“She is so amazing; she’s like my knight in shining armor,” said Hamel, who would then concisely and effectively sum up what Quinn and other members of this team do. “She just listened, and we came up with a plan. She got me hooked up with an amazing therapist. We saw each other every week — she was there for me; she was my support.

“Mind you, I’ve been in other types of medical treatment facilities and other programs,” he went on. “And I always felt like I was a number, or I was there to meet a quota; it was just a job. You can see with Maria that it’s not just a job; it’s something she’s passionate about.”

Patrick Hamel

Patrick Hamel says those at the Addiction Consult Service listened and helped him come up with a game plan for recovery.

Hamel didn’t nominate the ACS for the Healthcare Heroes award, but his words, and the emotion attached to them, help explain why this special unit is being honored this year in the Community Health category.

In short, there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of people, who would say the same things if they were asked — about not just what the ACS does, but how it goes about its difficult and critically important work.

“We’re essentially ever-present — we like to make jokes that we stalk our patients while they’re here, even if we’re not fully involved,” she explained, adding that this is her way of saying that Recovery Support Team members make sure that those patients with addiction issues, either from the Emergency Department or inpatient units at the hospital — many of whom don’t have anyone to visit them while they are in the hospital, for many of the reasons Hamel listed above — have someone to talk to. And, far more importantly, someone to listen, someone who can help them determine what comes next for them, whatever that might be, including ongoing support at the CCC.

“That connection needs to happen so that people can stay and continue to get the treatment that they need,” said Quinn, adding that one of the goals of the program is to build trust among those touched by the ACS, because such trust has often been missing, and it is a key ingredient in their success.

“Historically, people with addiction haven’t been treated well in the healthcare system, so there’s a lot of mistrust, and we see that,” she noted. “We talk about it often and sense that the wall may be coming down and people are starting to bloom because we see our patients become a little more trusting.”

“One thing I’ve learned in this process is that everyone’s recovery is different. You have to listen to the patient to understand what they’re looking for in their recovery. By listening to them, I’ll know what kind of direction I can give them.”

Lauren Carpenter, a certified addictions nurse, agreed. When asked how she got into this specific line of work and what she likes about her work with this constituency, she said simply, “being able to help and care for people who aren’t used to being helped and cared for — building that connection and that rapport and making sure they know there is someone there who cares.”

The ACS is comprised of a nurse practitioner, a certified addictions nurse, a recovery-support coordinator, and recovery coaches. And, as noted, it is a collaborative effort, involving partners such as Tapestry Health, the Gándara Center (which employs the recovery coaches), River Valley Counseling Center, Hope for Holyoke, and the Holyoke Health Center. Together, these agencies are working to reduce opioid overdoses and help people like Hamel find a path to a better life.

The positive results of their efforts can be seen — and heard — with people like Patrick Hamel and countless others like him.

 

The Power of Hope

John Martinez’s battle against addiction was and is very similar to Hamel’s.

He described several stints of incarceration, homelessness, and, by his count, four suicide attempts.

He’s been sober now for 13 years and has spent the last several as a certified recovery coach, helping others find the strength and conviction to change their lives, as well as needed referrals and direction. The process starts simply with providing hope that life can get better, he said, adding that this isn’t all that coaches provide, but it may well be the most important thing.

“I remember being hopeless — I know what that’s like,” he recalled. “One thing I’ve learned in this process is that everyone’s recovery is different. You have to listen to the patient to understand what they’re looking for in their recovery. By listening to them, I’ll know what kind of direction I can give them.”

Recovery coach John Martinez

Recovery coach John Martinez says that, among other things, he provides those he counsels with the hope that life can get better.

As noted, recovery coaches are part of the team at the Comprehensive Care Center, and part of a broad, collaborative effort that has come together at a critical time for the Greater Holyoke area.

Indeed, while much of the focus the past few years has been on the pandemic, and understandably so, addiction has only become a bigger, more dangerous, and more deadly problem for the region.

The number of opioid-related overdose deaths increased 9% in Massachusetts in 2021 over 2020. Meanwhile, there are significant disparities in overdose rates, particularly among Black and Latino individuals in Massachusetts; from 2019 to 2020, there was a 70% increase in overdose deaths among Black/non-Hispanic individuals and a 10% increase in Hispanic/Latinx individuals. From 2020 to 2021, there was a 6% decrease in Black/non-Hispanic deaths and an increase of more than 7% for Hispanic/Latinx individuals, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Steadily rising numbers over the past several years prompted the HEALing Communities Study, whereby scientists from the nation’s leading health agencies and four major academic institutions are partnering with communities in four states, including Massachusetts, to test a set of interventions designed to reduce overdose deaths by 40% over three years in participating communities.

Through a grant awarded to Boston Medical Center, a collaborative was created involving several agencies in Greater Holyoke, with Quinn taking the lead as the appointed addiction expert for the Holyoke community. The goal is to address opioid use, with a specific focus on overdoses, she said, adding that the linchpin of the initiative was creation of the ACS and the CCC.

“Prior to that, it was just me trying to do it all — start people on medication, get referrals out, try to make appointments, trying to get people to stay here [the hospital] — and it was challenging.”

“Our goal is not to cure them; our goal is to treat them with dignity and respect, and that includes treating their withdrawal. It includes giving education and resources. Some people decide that they no longer want to use and want to work toward abstaining and not using, and some don’t.”

With the grant funds, Quinn was able to hire Carpenter as well as a recovery-support coordinator and other team members.

Together, they have put together a system to “find patients,” said Quinn, noting that, before creation of the ACS, many would essentially fall through the cracks.

“Lauren became really good at figuring out which patients we should look at, and we started finding our patients and going to them, often intervening even before a consult was sent,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s important because people would be leaving the hospital; if you were using opioids or were addicted to opioids, in particular, and didn’t get that, you would feel really, really sick, and if your withdrawal wasn’t being treated, you would probably be leaving.

“So we’d introduce ourselves and let people know why were there,” she went on, adding that, by and large, patients were not used to such a “proactive and impactive” approach to their care, and would have questions about what they could do for them.

What they can do is listen and begin a discussion about what happens next, said Carpenter, who walked through what might be a typical case.

“Someone will come into the ED, and I’ll get notified that this person is there and that they are in withdrawal,” she explained. “At that point, I will meet with the person, gather a history, assess their withdrawal, and then I’ll get Maria involved. I’ll talk with the ED provider, Maria, the addiction consult … Maria will meet with the patient, give recommendations, and order appropriate medications to treat their withdrawal. And when someone is actually on the med floor, we’d start the discussion of ‘what do you want to do from here?’”

As Quinn noted, the course varies with the patient. Often, those at the ACS will connect them to opioid-treatment programs, including two in Holyoke, if they are not already in a program, or connect them with a recovery coach while they are in the hospital.

“Not everyone’s goal is abstinence,” she said. “Our goal is not to cure them; our goal is to treat them with dignity and respect, and that includes treating their withdrawal. It includes giving education and resources. Some people decide that they no longer want to use and want to work toward abstaining and not using, and some don’t.”

When asked how those at the ACS measure success, Quinn said it depends on what how the patient would define that term.

“For some people, having air in their lungs is successful,” she told BusinessWest. “Anyone who leaves here feeling that they’ve been treated well … that’s a big success for me.”

 

Impact Statement

As he talked about Quinn and those she works beside at the CCC, Hamel stressed the present tense.

He is still working with these individuals at the CCC, and they are still making a huge impact on his recovery. He’s not sure they, and especially Quinn, understand just how much of an impact. So, he made it clear.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” he said, adding that these individuals are more than healthcare providers, but are, in many respects, friends and even family.

“They want to make a difference — it’s not just about an f-ing paycheck,” he said in conclusion. “That’s where I get a little passionate and emotional; two years ago, I wanted to kill myself, and now…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, but didn’t really have to. The pause explained not only the journey from where he was to where he is now, but why the Addiction Consult Service is truly a Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Chief and Physician, Baystate Noble Hospital Emergency Department

He Has Devoted His Career to Improving the Community’s ‘Safety Net’ Net’

Leah Martin Photography

Dr. Sundeep Shukla, or ‘Sunny,’ as most everyone calls him, has always felt at home in the emergency room, and he has never really wanted to work anywhere else.

There is a fast pace and decidedly unpredictable nature to the work, he told BusinessWest, noting that each day, and each hour, are different from the one before and the one after. But there are many more reasons why he has chosen to spend his career in this setting, the most important being the ER’s important role, both to the hospital in question and to the community it serves.

“The emergency room is the safety net for all patients,” Shukla explained. “Many patients do not have access to healthcare; we feel that the ER can provide care to anyone who walks through the door, regardless of whether you have insurance, regardless of your background; we’ll see anyone who walks through our doors, and I’m proud to say that.”

But Shukla has done more than work in the ER. Indeed, throughout his career he has devoted time and energy to bringing new efficiencies, better ways of serving patients, and, yes, better ways of doing business to the ER, especially in his current role as chief of the Emergency Department at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield.

And he brings what would be considered a somewhat unique background to this assignment. In addition to his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri and his medical degree from Manpial University in Karnatka, India, Shukla also earned an MBA, with an emphasis in medical management, from UMass Amherst in 2017.

He has used all these degrees, as well as his hands-on experience in the ER, to help improve service, efficiency, and quality, and reduce wait times and what are known as ‘walkouts’ — people who come to the ER but leave before being seen, for whatever reason.

“Having earned that MBA, I was able to reconfigure how I look at things in my brain. Before, it was all medicine-related, but by doing the MBA, I was able to focus on flow and how we could improve certain processes to make an impact on the total visit.”

“Having earned that MBA, I was able to reconfigure how I look at things in my brain,” he told BusnessWest. “Before, it was all medicine-related, but by doing the MBA, I was able to focus on flow and how we could improve certain processes to make an impact on the total visit.

“At Baystate Noble, we do small thinks like put a greeter in the waiting room so when patients come in there’s someone they can talk to, someone they ask questions to; they round, they give patients blankets or small things just to make them feel appreciated,” he went on. “We also strive to push our nurses and docs to really bring patients in when they come into the ER; they don’t sit very long in the waiting room.”

As a result of such initiatives, Noble’s ER has made great strides during Shukla’s tenure. The unit has dramatically increased patient-satisfaction scores, for example, while also gaining certification as a geriatric ED, well-suited to serve the needs of older patients in the community.

The sum of these efforts has earned Shukla the Healthcare Heroes award in the highly competitive category known as Emerging Leader. And he is worthy of that designation, not only for his work in the ER, but also at Baystate Health (he is on the system’s board of directors), in the community (he sits on the nonprofit People’s Institute and also coaches youth soccer and baseball), and even on the ice.

Indeed, Shukla is one of the team physicians for the Springfield Thunderbirds, and was with the team through its exciting run to the Calder Cup finals last season.

He described that work as fun and rewarding — adjectives he would apply to every aspect of his work in medicine and administration.

 

Degrees of Improvement

Shukla was born in England and came to this country with his family in 1980. Early on, he said, his father, a professor of Pharmacology at the University of Missouri, and mother, a school teacher, impressed upon him the importance of not only education, but service to the community.

He achieved both while serving as a volunteer at the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics while in junior high school, work he described as a learning experience on many levels.

“During the summer, I went there every Tuesday and Wednesday and spent eight hours each day volunteering in different parts of the hospital,” he recalled. “It was then that I realized that this was my true calling because I really wanted to help people and really wanted to make a difference.”

After graduating from medical school, he became a resident at Baystate Medical Center with a focus initially on general surgery. But at the advice of some friends who implored him to consider emergency medicine because he seemed a natural for that kind of work, his career outlook began to shift.

Dr. Sundeep Shukla, seen here with his son, Deven

Dr. Sundeep Shukla, seen here with his son, Deven, is one of the team physicians for the Springfield Thunderbirds, one of the many ways he is involved in the community.

“I did some shadowing, I did some shifts in the ER, and eventually I went through the process of applying to be an ER resident,” he said, adding that he quickly fell in love with that setting — again, not just because of the fast pace and each-day-is-different aspect of the work.

“Not everyone has access to healthcare, and I’m a big proponent of health equity because I feel everyone should have the same access to healthcare as your next-door neighbor,” said Shukla, who, before coming to Noble, served as associate medical director in the Emergency Department at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. “When patients some come to my ER, I treat them with respect, I treat them exactly how I’d want to treat my family members, and I try to everything I can to make sure their health is better when they leave the ER.”

Elaborating, he said many people are coming to the ER on the worst day of their life, whether they’re having a stroke, a heart attack, or other medical problem, and it is the job of the ER doctor to “step up and help those patients.”

“It’s our goal to help lift them up and help them feel better,” he went on. “And in terms of mindset, you have to be able to function on the go and multi-task many different things, because there so many problems that are detail-oriented: the lab or CT scan, whether you have to stitch someone up, give different medications … there are all these processes you have to follow, and with every visit, there’s quality involved, and you have to meet certain metrics.”

Despite the fast pace and the constant flow of new patients, Shukla said he makes it a priority to truly connect with his patients.

“I always try to make a connection with my patients because, if I’m able to make that connection, whether it’s with a sports team that they like or a restaurant that they enjoy or some type of hobby they like, I feel like we can relate much better, and they can trust me. They just met me just a few minutes ago, so it’s really important that I build a trust and a relationship with them so that when I give them advice or we have what’s called ‘shared decision making,’ we can come with a good plan together. That’s why I’ll always spend the extra minute just to know them a little better.”

“They just met me just a few minutes ago, so it’s really important that I build a trust and a relationship with them so that when I give them advice or we have what’s called ‘shared decision making,’ we can come with a good plan together. That’s why I’ll always spend the extra minute just to know them a little better.”

Shukla currently works at all the hospitals in the Baystate system — Baystate Medical Center, Baystate Wing, and Baystate Noble — and became chief of the ER at Noble in March 2020, just as the pandemic was reaching Western Mass.

In each setting, and especially at Noble, he has been consumed with not only treating patients and making those important connections, but improving the overall experience.

“We try to look at the entire process — from when a patient walks into the waiting room all the way to when they go home,” he explained, adding that little things, such as having a greeter in the ER and having nurses, doctors, and other care providers working collaboratively so that patients don’t have to repeat their history and answer the same questions over and over again, often add up to big improvements in service, patient-satisfaction ratings, and statistics such as those concerning walkouts.

“The most dreaded word that most people see in emergency medicine is walkouts, which is basically a person who registered but wasn’t actually seen,” Shukla said. “That’s a problem throughout the United States, so we work really hard in the Baystate Health system to bring those numbers down. Even one patient walking out troubles us.”

Meanwhile, throughout his career, and even more so during COVID, he has put considerable emphasis on outreach and educating the community, with the goal of helping people make better, smarter choices about their health and well-being.

Indeed, he’s a frequent guest on area radio stations and has penned articles for several media outlets, all with the goal of creating a better-informed community.

“If people are educated, they can take care if their health better,” he said, adding that such efforts took on greater importance during the height of the pandemic, when the public had more questions — and needed more answers — and trust was a huge factor.

“We had a lot of COVID issues to contend with, but we also had to build up trust in the community,” he said, “because a lot of people were concerned about the ways people were contracting COVID, how they would protect themselves, the vaccines … there were many thongs we had to educate people on, and we did a lot of outreach for that.”

 

ERing on the Side of Caution

Overall, Shukla, as chief of the ER, assumes a role that blends medicine with administration, and, with his background and MBA training, he can bring a unique perspective to the table.

“Not many physicians go back and get a degree like an MBA; most of us go to school for a very long time as physicians, so not a lot of us go back,” he explained, adding that he enjoys both sides of the equation — business and especially medicine.

“It’s important for me to be well-rounded and understand how things are run,” he said, adding that he took a marketing class in 10th grade and since then has always been fascinated by business and management. “I really enjoy business, and so there’s the budget/financial aspect that I really like in administration, because I feel I can look at spreadsheets and Excel sheets in a different way than I did a few years ago before I earned my MBA.

“I understand the budget and the finances a lot more than I used to,” he went on, “and also how I can cut costs and improve efficiency in the ER, whether it’s flow in the ER or how I can reduce the cost of staffing or increase staffing to help show a return on investment.”

Going all the way back to when he was volunteering at the University of Missouri Hospital as a junior-high student, Sunny Shulka has known that he was destined to be in a profession — and a place — where he could help people.

That profession turned out to be healthcare, and the place is the ER, or the safety net, as he called it, which is now more his home.

For his efforts to continually improve that safety net, make it stronger, more welcoming, more comfortable, and better able to serve all those who come through its doors, Shukla is certainly an emerging leader, and truly a Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Chief Operating Officer, MiraVista Behavioral Health Center

This COO Empowers Team Members and Leads by Example

Leah Martin Photography

 

Mark Paglia was a wrestler at Cathedral High School and later at American International College.

He said the great thing about wrestling is there is “no one-size-fits-all method that leads to success.” But there are several qualities, traits, and habits that wrestlers possess. “They trust themselves and count on their teams to train together to get better. They aren’t afraid to try new things. They are disciplined, grateful, focused, detailed-oriented, and able to adjust.”

These are qualities, Paglia told BusinessWest, that positioned him well for his current role as chief operating officer at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, and the myriad challenges that have come with that assignment.

While working for Mercy Medical Center and its parent company, Trinity Health Of New England, Paglia served in several different roles, including executive director of Behavioral Health. He would sum up his tenure this way:

“I became the ‘project guy,’ the ‘turn-around guy,’ where I would be asked to go into departments or services that were really struggling both from a regulatory side or the financial side and turn them around,’” he said.

He was given a number of difficult assignments in that vein, such as leading efforts which led to the successful redesign of the methadone maintenance treatment program, resulting in two-year licensure with the Department of Public Health; leading efforts to open the new Clinical Stabilization Services unit; stabilizing redesign throughput for behavioral-health patients in Mercy’s emergency room; and leading the Outpatient department from a state of uncertainty to being fully licensed and financially viable. Ultimately, he was charged with winding down behavioral-health services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital when Trinity Health Of New England made the difficult decision to close them in 2020.

As noted, these experiences, including his wrestling prowess, helped steel him for what has been his most stern career challenge, but also the most rewarding one: opening a new behavioral-health hospital, MiraVista, at the Providence Hospital site in April 2021 — in very little time, in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of a nationwide nursing shortage and general workforce crisis, and at a time when the need for behavioral-health services was soaring due to COVID and the many ways it impacted people of all ages.

“I really find myself leading from behind, where I screen, recruit, and hire exceptional people, identify what the goals of the organization are, invite the individuals to participate, and identify what their passions are — what they believe in — and then empower them to go.”

But his efforts to open MiraVista’s doors under such difficult circumstances and then put it on a path to accreditation and expansion of both inpatient and outpatient services only partly explains why Paglia has been chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2022 in the Health/Wellness Administrator category.

Another key consideration is the manner in which he manages — and has managed throughout his career.

He calls it ‘invitational leadership,’ which, as that name suggests, aims to ‘invite’ employees and all other stakeholders to succeed. It involves sending positive messages to people, making them feel valued, able, responsible, and worthwhile.

“I identify goals for the organization and goals for the various departments, and then invite the individuals responsible for that work to participate and own the work,” he said while explaining what this practice means to him. “Through that, I really find myself leading from behind, where I screen, recruit, and hire exceptional people, identify what the goals of the organization are, invite the individuals to participate, and identify what their passions are — what they believe in — and then empower them to go.”

Summarizing thoughts expressed by team members at MiraVista, Erin Daley, chief Nursing officer and herself a Healthcare Hero in the Emerging Leader category in 2017, wrote in her nomination of Paglia:

“His impact is garnered through his compassionate and inclusive leadership of clinical and operations teams; we find Mark, more often than not, behind the scenes working with the team and individual staff members to make them as effective and productive as they can be. Universally, team members remarked that Mark inspires them to do their best work for patients and for each other because he makes them feel their contribution is valued and an essential part of the process. Simply put, he listens. He engages people and integrates ideas, and this is what distinguishes him as a hero; his impact has longevity and grows exponentially through others.”

Such sentiments explain why Paglia will be taking the stage at the Log Cabin on Oct. 27 to be recognized as a Healthcare Hero. More importantly, they explain why he has emerged as a true leader within this region’s healthcare sector.

 

Taking the Lead

Paglia took what would be considered a non-traditional path to his current post with MiraVista.

Indeed, after earning a degree in business management at AIC, he went to work for a flat-glass manufacturing company. Along the way, he was asked to coach wrestling at Minnechaug High School, a role that made him realize how much he liked working with young people and helping them develop.

Mark Paglia, seen here with several team members at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, practices what is known as the ‘invitational’ style of management.

Mark Paglia, seen here with several team members at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, practices what is known as the ‘invitational’ style of management.

That experience inspired him to go back to school to earn a teaching degree. He would eventually land a job in Connecticut working in a day-treatment program for youth with behavioral-health issues.

“I was really drawn to the kids, but I felt like I didn’t have enough time with them in the school setting,” he told BusinessWest, adding that these sentiments led to another rather sharp turn on the career path, this one taking him to a job as director of the Adolescent and Family Services Department at the Gándara Center’s main office in Springfield.

“I think that’s where I found my passion for caring for those who are in need,” he explained. “And that’s where I started to understand business management and performance management, and that’s where I learned the invitational model of empowering people; that was the foundation for my career.”

Fast-forwarding somewhat, Paglia said he spent nine years at Gándara before becoming program director for the Brightside Treatment Center, part of the Sisters of Providence Health System, in 2009, and later became director of Outpatient Services – Behavioral Health at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, and then executive director of Behavioral Health for Mercy Medical Center and its affiliates, including Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, Brightside, and behavioral-health services on the Mercy campus.

“I’m blessed to work with some of the most passionate, committed, extraordinary leaders … it’s a joy to come to work every day.”

While he was in that role, Trinity Health Of New England made the difficult decision to close Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in early 2021, leaving a huge void in services available to the public.

Seeking to fill that void, Health Partners of New England acquired the property with GFI Partners with the intention of bringing back inpatient psychiatric services and a compliment of substance-use programming. And it turned to Paglia to get that difficult job done.

Recalling those days and, ultimately, the reopening of that facility, Paglia said the sum of his previous experiences certainly helped him overcome a number of hurdles, adding that he was essentially starting up a new business, starting with the hiring of staff.

The first priority was the methadone clinic, which served 600 patients and needed to remain open, and did, with the transition from Trinity Health Of New England to MiraVista, sister facility to TaraVista Behavioral Health Center in Devens, taking place at midnight on April 20. What followed was a ramping up to open an adult inpatient psychiatric unit, he went on, adding that this was achieved 10 days after the acquisition, with a second unit added in June, followed by a detox unit and then an adolescent inpatient psychiatric unit, a clinical stabilization service unit, and other substance-use addiction services.

From left, Mark Paglia with Erin Daley, chief Nursing officer; Erica Trudell, director of Nursing for Inpatient Behavioral Health Services & Education; and Alicia Morel, Talent Acquisition specialist.

Overall, MiraVista has expanded inpatient bed capacity from 36 at opening to 101 today. This includes 50 acute-care psychiatric beds in separate units for adults and adolescents, 30 detoxification beds in its acute-treatment unit for substance-use disorders, and 21 beds in post-detoxification for individuals transitioning to outpatient care. And it is staffing up for the opening of another unit, a substance-use program. Meanwhile, planning and preparation continue for the opening of what Paglia called the most challenging unit — a child psychiatric facility — with an anticipated opening date of February 2023.

Overall, MiraVista has gone from one employee, Paglia, to roughly 350 team members in just over 16 months — again, in the middle of a pandemic and a workforce crisis. In a word, he described this as an “extraordinary” accomplishment, adding that “we are midway through our journey to hire the very best staff to reach an expected 650 employees.”

Equally impressive, he said, is the number of visits from the Joint Commission on Healthcare Accreditation that the facility and its team have endured on its way to accreditation.

“Typically, an organization has one visit every three years for their accreditation,” he explained. “Because we had different lines in different units open at different times, we had four surprise Joint Commission visits where they did a complete audit and survey, and I’m incredibly proud that we passed all four with deeemed status, which gives us the opportunity to qualify for our CMS-contracted services with Medicare and Medicaid, which is a difficult achievement. To do all that in one year is pretty extraordinary.”

“I picked up quickly a long time ago that when someone is passionate about what they’re doing, they have their own internal motivation to be successful.”

He credits all that MiraVista has achieved to date to the team of leaders he has assembled.

“I attribute a lot of it to the leaders that we were able to bring in to create the foundation for this organization,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m blessed to work with some of the most passionate, committed, extraordinary leaders … it’s a joy to come to work every day.”

 

Shared Mindset

One of the goals of invitational management is to make all members of a team feel the same way, Paglia explained, adding that he strives to accomplish such sentiment through active listening, getting employees involved, inspiring them to assume a sense of ownership in the operation, and making sure those in every position know they have an active role in the success of the company.

MiraVista Behavioral Health Center

MiraVista Behavioral Health Center is appropriately lit up for September, which is Recovery Month.

“I picked up quickly a long time ago that when someone is passionate about what they’re doing, they have their own internal motivation to be successful,” he said, adding that one of the goals for him and other leaders is to match this passion with career opportunities that will enable those individuals — and the company — to grow.

While doing all that, he also likes to bring fun into the equation. In fact, it’s a big part of the success formula.

“We plan for fun,” he said, adding that an ‘engagement committee’ he established has launched several initiatives that team members can take part in together, from a Halloween party to a recent barbecue and cornhole tournament; from an ice-cream social to fitness challenges.

The cornhole event and ‘mismatch day,’ where employees wear outfits that do not match, don’t explain why Paglia is an effective leader — or a Healthcare Hero for 2022 in the Administrator category.

But they are part of the explanation.

There are, in fact, many parts to this equation, but the result is an engaging administrator who has taken the lead at MiraVista — in every sense of that phrase.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Director of Medical Oncology, Sister Mary Caritas Cancer Center, Mercy Medical Center

This Physician Provides a Needed Blend of Science and Humanity

Leah Martin Photography

 

On one wall of Dr. Philip Glynn’s office at the Sister Mary Caritas Cancer Center, sharing space with some diplomas and a few other photographs, is a framed, signed picture of Glynn standing beside Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

Glynn was instrumental in bringing Mukherjee to Springfield several years ago for a talk at CityStage, and prevailed upon the author, and fellow oncologist, for a photo that would become a treasured keepsake.

As he talked with BusinessWest about his career and being chosen as the Healthcare Hero for 2022 in the Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider category, Glynn gestured toward the photo — but really Mukherjee and his widely acclaimed book — on several occasions.

He did so to indicate everything from his great fondness for the book and general agreement its author on the progress made to date to the promise of great advancements in the future, to the fact that cancer, treating patients diagnosed with it, and providing them and their families with an all-important support system has in many ways defined his life and career.

Indeed, for more than 35 years now, Glynn has been at the forefront of cancer treatment in this region, touching the lives of several generations of area residents, and in many different ways — but mostly by providing quality of life, however it is to be defined by each patient, a subject we’ll return to later.

“It’s such a challenging balance — the human side and the science side. We are all disciplined to make sure that we stay abreast of the science side — that’s our fundamental responsibility, and it all starts with knowledge; there’s no substitute for that. How you integrate that into what patients need on a daily basis … that’s the art of it.”

While he is being honored as a Healthcare Hero in the Provider category, Glynn could be a recipient in almost every one of the others, with the notable exception of Emerging Leader, which would have been an apt description a few decades ago.

He has been an effective administrator and leader, having been instrumental in creating a comprehensive oncology program at Mercy that rivals anything that can be found in much larger cities such as Boston and New York.

Meanwhile, he has been innovative on many fronts, from the telehealth program he piloted in 2017 that allows Mercy cancer patients to get a second opinion on treatment from physicians at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, to his leadership role in creation of a new palliative-care unit that at Mercy that take the name of one of Glynn’s patients, the late restaurateur and serial entrepreneur Andy Yee.

He would certainly draw consideration in the Community Health and Collaboration categories for his work in this region to not only treat cancer but work in concert with others to diagnose and prevent it. And the sum of his many accomplishments would make him worthy of the Lifetime Achievement honor.

Dr. Philip Glynn, seen here with Oncology Nurse Manager Cynthia Leonard

Dr. Philip Glynn, seen here with Oncology Nurse Manager Cynthia Leonard (left) and Stephanie Palange, RN, has spent his career guiding patients and their families through their cancer ‘journeys.’

But he is being honored in the Provider category because this is what Glynn, who is certified in medical oncology, palliative care and hospice, and internal medicine is perhaps most noted for — being a provider, of not only direct care, but also information, guidance, and, on many occasions, inspiration to fight the most difficult fight of one’s life.

He is described as a fierce advocate for his patients and a great listener who enables patients and their family members to be heard. Glynn said that what begins when individuals hear that they have cancer is a journey, one that often tests them in ways they could not have foreseen or imagined, and he is there with them for every step of that journey.

Overall, he described oncology as an intricate, all-important blend of science and humanity.

“It’s such a challenging balance — the human side and the science side,” he said. “We are all disciplined to make sure that we stay abreast of the science side — that’s our fundamental responsibility, and it all starts with knowledge; there’s no substitute for that. How you integrate that into what patients need on a daily basis … that’s the art of it.

“The other thing that’s really important is that you don’t give treatment for hope. You give treatment to help people live longer and better.”

“And that’s where the greatest satisfaction comes in,” he continued. “When you sit down with someone and say, ‘here’s what we’ve got, here’s the science that will take care of this disease, here’s the limits of the science for this disease’ — that communication with the patient, with the family, brings you to the point where they’re comfortable with the plan of action.”

Making patients and families comfortable, in every sense of that term, is why Glynn is certainly worthy to be called a Healthcare Hero.

 

A Compelling Story

As he offered BusinessWest a tour of the Caritas Center, Glynn talked with recognizable pride in his voice about what has been accomplished at that facility.

Formerly a provider of radiation treatment, it is now a true cancer center, he said, noting that it now includes a large treatment space with more than 30 infusion bays, an oncology pharmacy, laboratory space, and other facilities. Overall, the center provides care that may include cancer surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and clinical trials that provide patients with access to new treatments.

In many respects, the expansion and evolution of the cancer center is the culmination of a career spent in oncology, one that was inspired by many factors and several role models.

Early on, however, Glynn wasn’t sure if he was a good enough student or if he would work hard enough to pursue a career a health career.

Two summers working as an orderly at an Appalachian hospital in West Virginia while he was attending Boston College eventually convinced him that he did.

“The second summer I was there, I was hooked. I said, ‘this is what I want to do,’” he recalled. “It was a great experience; it all become something that I wanted to be part of.”

Glynn earned a degree in psychology at BC, attended Columbia University for pre-med, and earned his medical degree in Italy after failing to gain admission to schools in this country (and learning Italian). After residency at St. Raphael Hospital in New Haven, he completed a medical oncology fellowship at Baystate Medical Center.

Initially, he had visions of becoming a primary-care physician in a rural setting, but during residency, several role models in oncology steered him toward that specialty. He went into private practice, first in Agawam and then Springfield, while also serving as director of Medical Oncology at Noble Hospital and the Noble VNA and Hospice Service.

In 2012, he joined Mercy Medical Center and the Sister Caritas Cancer Center as director of Medical Oncology. In that role, he wears many hats and is responsible for all aspects of the program, including cancer prevention, screening, diagnosis, state-of-the-art treatment and services, counseling, and rehabilitation. He also assists with the implementation of new initiatives, such as cancer survivorship, navigation, community outreach, and clinical research and clinical-trial participation.

He is also a provider, seeing 20 patients a day on average and guiding them through their own individual journey that generally begins with three basic questions regarding their cancer: ‘what is it?’ ‘how much is there?’ and ‘what are you going to do about it?’”

Obviously, the answer to that last question has changed most profoundly over the course of his career.

“I couldn’t have imagined it when I started; it’s changed that much,” Glynn said, gesturing toward the picture on the wall and how Mukherjee had carefully and effectively chronicled the advancements. “Seventy years ago, we did gruesome surgery, and then we had gruesome surgery with radiation, and then you added in chemotherapy. But now we’ve learned about cell biology and what drives cancer cells, so we look at genes, potential immunotherapy, a host of options; it’s absolutely exceptional.”

His ultimate goal is to bring to each patient an improved quality of life, which, as noted, varies with each case.

“If you come in, an oncologist sits down, describes to you what you have, and says, ‘this is not a curable disease; this is lung cancer that has spread to the bone,’ or ‘this is colorectal cancer that has gone to multiple different organs; you do not have a curable disease. Then, what becomes critically important is to give a treatment that is going to ideally shrink the tumor and help someone live longer and better,” he explained. “You need to avoid treatments that are going to make the treatment worse than the disease. Someone may come in with bad disease, but they’re not terribly symptomatic with it … you don’t want to give them a treatment that’s going to be terribly debilitating if you can’t give them some kind of promise that they’re going to live longer from it.

“On the other hand, if you take the other end of the spectrum, the 22-year-old kid with an advanced testicular cancer … that kind can be cured,” he went on. “You have the conversation with him and say, ‘look, the next several months are going to be hell, but you’re going to get through it, and you’re walking away. That quality of life is a quality of life you’re giving a promise to — ‘you’re going to be OK,’ as opposed to the quality of life of ‘this isn’t curable, but we’re going to make sure you’re as comfortable as you possibly can be.

“The other thing that’s really important is that you don’t give treatment for hope,” Glynn continued. “You give treatment to help people live longer and better.” All this brings him back to that integration of humanity and science that he spoke of earlier, a balance, he said, which is at the very heart of effective oncology care.

There are many aspects to this equation, he added, with one of the most important, and sometimes the challenging, being communication and providing information.

“And there are times when it gets really hard,” he explained. “We live in a world that’s packed with information. Some of it’s good, and some of it’s not so good. Patients come in with very unrealistic expectations, and that becomes a very challenging conversation.”

For that reason, he brings patients to his office, positions them in front of his computer, and directs them to websites he considers reliable, with much of the rest he described as ‘storytelling.’

He said patients — and, often, family members — want and need to know about everything from prognosis to the toxicity of treatments; from their therapeutic options to recovery time and what recovery will be like.

“But it’s also important to let them know that we’re going to have a support system there for them,” he explained. “There is going to be a doctor available 24/7.”

Throughout his career, Glynn has been that doctor, there for early-morning and late-night phone calls to make sure patients are heard, and staying with them often well beyond the end of treatment, regardless of outcome.

 

The Plot Thickens

Returning once again to the photo on wall, Glynn said he believes the best message of that book is the promise of the future.

“He [Mukherjee] says that we probably won’t cure cancer, and I find that sensible,” Glynn noted. “After all, we don’t cure diabetes, we don’t cure heart disease, and we won’t cure cancer.”

But there will be new advancements, new and better ways of screening, preventing, and treating the emperor of all maladies, he said, adding that, while his career is winding toward its conclusion, the oncologists who follow him will have new, previously unimagined tools with which to carry on the fight.

And they can certainly draw inspiration from him.

Glynn may not have written the definitive biography of cancer, but he has authored a remarkable career, one marked by treating patients with respect and dignity, handling the heavy burden of their care with grace and humility, and providing that critical blend of science and humanity.

And that makes him more of than worthy of the title Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Health and Human Services Commissioner, City of Springfield

Public Health Has Become Her Life’s Work

Leah Martin Photography

When then-Mayor Michael Albano invited her to take on the considerable challenge of directing Springfield’s Health Department and Human Services Department as one entity and oversee that consolidation effort, Helen Caulton-Harris was caught somewhat off guard.

She didn’t know Albano, was not active in his campaign for the corner office, and was not expecting any invitations to join his administration.

So when the request came, she had to think about it for a while, but eventually said ‘yes.’ But certainly not with the expectation that 26 years and two mayors (including the current office holder, Domenic Sarno, who has had the job for 14 years) later, she would still have that title on her business card.

“I certainly didn’t see this as something that I would be doing two and half decades later,” she said, adding that she has stayed in this post for several reasons, but especially because she loves not only the work, but also her ability to make a real difference in the community, and also because there is still considerable work to do.

And there are always new and different challenges to meet, not the least of which is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has tested Caulton-Harris and her department in every way imaginable. It has also been a learning experience on many different levels, as we’ll see, and one that has provided some valuable lessons on how things can be done better and more efficiently.

“The way in which our public-health community has shifted because of the pandemic is that we’ve learned to work together,” she told BusinessWest. “We understood that we had to collaborate and coordinate, and that we must share information. We’re no longer working exclusively in silos; we are working across the public-health venue.

“The way in which our public-health community has shifted because of the pandemic is that we’ve learned to work together.”

“Every two weeks, we have a session with all of our partners to talk about our outreach, lessons learned, and best practices,” she went on. “So those things are part of what has happened as far as COVID-19 is concerned — our communication strategies have become more concrete.”

Caulton-Harris is the 2022 Healthcare Hero in the prestigious Lifetime Achievement category, and she has truly accomplished quite a bit in her career, especially this current chapter.

Overall, she has been an advocate, a true believer in the power of information — she preaches education — and a leader who has taken problems head on and achieved notable progress in areas ranging from teen pregnancy to infant mortality; from care for the homeless population to policies limiting smoking in public places; from substance-use disorders to violence prevention.

There are always new challenges, she said, adding that, today, there are many that she and her department are addressing as the landscape continues to change and evolve.

“Today, we’re dealing with the legalization of marijuana; cannabis is legal, but we still need to educate people about it,” she noted. “Also, gaming and problem gambling. We also have an opioid crisis, which is different than other substance-abuse matters because of fentanyl and the cheap way in which individuals are getting their products and how it escalates and has such an impact on our young people and our communities as well.”

Helen Caulton-Harris has tackled many different public-health issues

Helen Caulton-Harris has tackled many different public-health issues over the years, from teen pregnancy and infant mortality to violence, drugs, and HIV/AIDS. Leah Martin Photography

While there have been many accomplishments during her lengthy career, she considers the biggest to be the merger of the Health and Human Services departments into one entity.

“They should not be seen as separate — they flow together,” she said with clear conviction in her voice. “I describe public health as a social-justice movement rooted in science. And Human Services really is about social justice.”

For all that she has accomplished during her life and career, and for the manner in which she has worked to improve the health and well-being of all those living, working, and doing business in the City of Homes, Caulton-Harris is a true Healthcare Hero.

 

A Life’s Work

When asked if she misses the regular weekly press briefings that came to symbolize the early months of the pandemic, Caulton-Harris flashed a wide smile and said simply, “not really.”

Those briefings, which also featured Sarno; Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health; and Dr. Robert Roose, chief administrative officer at Mercy Medical Center, were conducted to keep city residents informed about was happening and what to possibly expect next, and provide up-to-date statistics concerning cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and more.

She doesn’t miss them because they came to symbolize the very worst days of the pandemic in a city that was hit very hard by COVID. But also because, while Caulton-Harris, as noted, preaches the importance of information and education and still makes regular appearances on TV, she prefers not to be in front of the camera. Instead, she would rather be working behind the scenes, advocating of behalf of area residents and providing a voice for those who struggle to make to make their voice heard.

It has been that way since her early days in the broad realm of healthcare, working with women on the issue of reproductive health, a subject which has, to a large degree, come full circle with the recent Supreme Court vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (more on that later).

“I would talk to them about the choices as far as pregnancy, whether that was to continue the pregnancy, terminate, or adopt,” she said. “So very early on in my career, I became an advocate.”

Later, while working at what is now the Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center, she was influenced by several role models, especially African-American nurses, who showed her that there were career paths for young people like her.

“I got an opportunity to see what the possibilities were for my own career,” she said. “There were individuals from my community who were making a difference in the lives of others.”

“I did not believe it was going to go on for two and half years — we’re still dealing with the pandemic today. Early on, we thought it might be a month or two, but it continues to be a pervasive virus that we’re dealing with.”

In 1994, Caulton-Harris would become executive director of the Area Health Education Center at Springfield Technical Community College, one of six such facilities in the Commonwealth, a role that enabled her to work with young people who were interested in careers in healthcare.

“I got to mentor and nurture them in a way that was very special to me,” she said, adding that, while she was in that post, she was approached by Albano about being the first commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Recalling that conversation she had with the mayor about this opportunity that doubled as a stern challenge, she said it focused on why the departments should be merged and how that should be undertaken, but also how such a merger could help address the emerging health issues of that day.

And there were many of them, she recalled, citing a sky-high teen-pregnancy rate, an equally alarming infant-mortality rate, HIV/AIDS, violence, and drugs, among others.

And it was that conversation that prompted her to leave what was a good position and step into one that would be challenging on many levels but also one that would enable her to impact lives and make a difference in the community.

“I was not quite clear on the politics of the position,” she admitted. “For me, I filtered it with the fact that I really can make a difference in the city by putting policies in place that would stay as a foundation moving forward.”

And that is exactly what she has done.

 

Learning Experiences

While tackling the many challenges that impact health, Caulton-Harris and other city leaders were confronted by the pandemic, which in some ways defines her career, but also sums up her straight-on approach to issues affecting the public.

“The pandemic was something that I was not prepared for and could not have foreseen as something that I would have to deal with,” she told BusinessWest. “I don’t think anyone thought we’d be dealing with a pandemic like we did in 1918, but here we are, 100 years later, dealing with a global pandemic that was devastating the world.

“Very early on, it was clear that this was devastating — our hospitals were overrun with COVID patients; our community was devastated. The Black and Brown communities in the city of Springfield probably got hit the hardest in terms of livelihood and being able to work, so we knew that staying home from some jobs simply wasn’t an option for some people. So it was all-consuming; I lived COVID-19 education every day, and I continue to do that.”

The seriousness of the virus was one issue, Caulton-Harris went on, adding that the degree of difficulty in coping with the situation was compounded by information from state and federal agencies that was often lacking, inconsistent, and at times quite confusing.

“In the early part of the pandemic, we were told that masks were not necessary, and then we were told we needed to mask up,” she recalled. “We did not have vaccines, so education and working with the public became critical. It was my lived public-health experience that enabled me to take on the pandemic. I did not believe it was going to go on for two and half years — we’re still dealing with the pandemic today. Early on, we thought it might be a month or two, but it continues to be a pervasive virus that we’re dealing with.”

As she noted, the COVID experience, if you will, has generated improvement in how those involved in matters of public health communicate, collaborate, and work together to serve the community.

As an example, she cited the work of a collective that came to be known as the ‘VAX FORCE.’

“This was a combination of physicians, community members, researchers … there were 15 individuals who were appointed by Mayor Sarno to be part of this VAX FORCE,” she recalled. “We met to put strategies in place to be able to work with the public, and that manifested itself in vaccination clinics that we had in the North End, the South End, Mason Square, Indian Orchard, and other neighborhoods. We were very intentional about the fact that we had to meet people where they were, and we used all of the expertise of the individuals on the VAX FORCE to come up with a strategy to market and make sure we were hitting all the various communities that we needed to hit.

“That, to me, was a very important strategy, and one that we put together in a way that was different than what we would have done had we not experienced the pandemic,” she went on, adding that this will be the blueprint for how to do things moving forward.

 

The Next Chapter

When asked what might come next for her as she nears retirement age, Caulton-Harris opted to borrow some words used recently by tennis star Serena Williams, who eschewed the term ‘retirement,’ and instead said that she will be ‘transitioning,’ or ‘evolving.’

Caulton-Harris said she will likely be doing some of the same, noting she is working on a book, a personal history of sorts, that she started maybe a decade ago.

“It’s going to be about the journey that I’ve had, from the public-health perspective, but also the personal side,” she said. “I think it’s important to be able to talk about the experiences and let people know the human side of who we are.”

Some would say she’s already written the book, the one about how to be a true leader in public health and make a difference in the community. The one about how to be a Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

Stressing the Fundamentals

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E,

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, announces plans for Hooplandia at a press conference staged last month.

Mark Rivers acknowledged that a lot of things have changed since he and officials at the Big E and the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame first announced that the region would host a giant three-on-three basketball tournament to be called Hooplandia.

Indeed, that announcement came late in 2019, just a few months before the arrival of COVID-19, which would eventually cancel large-scale events of all kinds and put plans for Hooplandia on ice — for 2020, 2021, and then 2022.

But what hasn’t changed, said Rivers, a marketing and programming consultant to the Eastern States Exposition who has also worked with the Hall of Fame on tournaments, is that what he calls the ‘fundamentals’ are still in place.

“Fundamentally, and probably most importantly, the idea going in, even in 2019, was to create an event that would be around for 40 years or more, just like in Spokane. So if you’re looking at creating an event that’s a 40-year event, it doesn’t get stale after a few years — it’s still a grand idea and still a great proposition for the region.”

“Three-on-three basketball is still very, very popular, and Springfield is the birthplace of basketball,” he told BusinessWest, as he explained, succinctly and effectively, why those who conceived Hooplandia are still bullish on this concept and are proceeding with a tournament set for late June 2023.

If anything, conditions are even better, he said, noting that three-on-three basketball has only become more popular as a sport — and a competition (more on that later).

John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, agreed, noting that, while it might have been easy to walk away from the event given all the challenges and uncertainty moving forward, the vast potential of the concept led them to stay the course.

The cover of the March 2, 2020 edition of BusinessWest

The cover of the March 2, 2020 edition of BusinessWest announced Hooplandia. That was just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down the state and put Hooplandia on ice for what will be three years.

“Everyone stayed with it, and that’s very encouraging,” he said. “To have all those entities — the Big E, the city of West Springfield, Mark Rivers — step up and be as committed, if not more, after a couple of years is a very positive thing.

“Everything is lined up for a great event,” he went on. “It just took a little longer to get there.”

In fact, it will be roughly four years from the date it was first conceptualized until the whistle that starts the first game on June 23, 2023. But everyone involved is sure it will be worth the wait.

Turning back the clock, Rivers said planning for Hooplandia began in early 2019. Inspired by a huge tournament in Spokane, Wash. called Hooptown USA that brings tens of thousands of people to that city every June, Rivers conceived of a concept that would unite the Big E and the Hall of Fame in an endeavor that would capitalize on the soaring popularity of three-on-three basketball and bring the game to the area where the sport was invented.

The March 2, 2020 issue of BusinessWest featured Doleva and Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, standing on either side of a poster promoting Hooplandia. The headline read: “Nothing but Net: Hooplandia Has the Makings of a Legacy Event.”

Just a few weeks later, the state was in lockdown. A few months later, it was clear to everyone that there would be no Hooplandia in 2020. And as the pandemic persisted and subsequent surges continued to hit the nation and the region, the tournament was scrapped for 2021 as well.

And while the situation improved somewhat that year — enough for the Big E to make a much-anticipated comeback after being idled for 2020 — there were too many uncertainties and not enough time to put a tournament in place for 2022, Rivers said.

Young players get a taste for 3-on-3 basketball

Young players get a taste for 3-on-3 basketball at the press conference announcing the Hooplandia event set for June, 2023.

“We thought we could do it in 2021, but there was still a lot of overhang related to crowd gathering and big events,” he said. “And with Hooplandia, you need almost a year’s run-up, because you open up registration six months prior and mobilize your whole organization, and we couldn’t predict what June 2021 was going to look like. Then, we get into 2021, and we just didn’t have enough time to get it organized for ’22; and once you commit, you commit, and we were fearful about putting a lot of time and resources into this and having to pull the plug again.”

But through all of that, no one involved in Hooplandia had any thoughts of giving up on this concept.

That’s because of those fundamentals, he went on, adding that what was true in those early days of 2020 remains true today — Hooplandia does have the makings of a legacy event.

“Fundamentally, and probably most importantly, the idea going in, even in 2019, was to create an event that would be around for 40 years or more, just like in Spokane,” Rivers explained. “So if you’re looking at creating an event that’s a 40-year event, it doesn’t get stale after a few years — it’s still a grand idea and still a great proposition for the region. It’s not like three-on-three basketball went away or Springfield is no longer the birthplace of the game. Those things didn’t change.”

Essentially, organizers are picking up where they left off, said Cassidy, with expectations that the 2023 event will draw 1,000 or more teams (4,000 players) across a number of categories — from youths to veterans; from those in wheelchairs to what would be considered professionals in this sport — and that it will grow over time to draw several thousand teams and someday rival Spokane’s event in terms of size and prestige.

“Spokane is the benchmark because that is an economic driver — it’s an annual event that brings tens of millions of dollars to the local economy. To bring in 1,500 teams and grow that every year to 10,000, that’s a big initiative, but it’s not an unrealistic goal.”

The original plan was to mobilize the grounds of the Eastern States, play a handful of games at the Hall of Fame, have both organizations work together on marketing and promoting the event, and conduct some outreach to basketball organizations and teams throughout the Northeast, Rivers said. And, by and large, that is still the plan.

If anything, he went on, three-on-three basketball is probably even more popular than it was when Hooplandia was first conceived.

“It’s now an Olympic sport, it’s now an international sport with national teams representing their countries in international play, and there’s more and more tournaments around the country that are focusing on this caliber of basketball,” he explained. “So it’s become a little more common, and I think we have a great opportunity to be a leader in that segment.”

Doleva agreed.

“No one has stepped back from that, and I guess that’s the big thing,” he said. “No one has said, ‘let’s do this on a 25% scale.’ It’s all hands on deck.”

Elaborating, he said local organizers have Spokane as a target, with a goal of seeing Hooplandia approach and even exceed that scale when it comes to everything from the number of participating teams to the impact on the local economy.

“Spokane is the benchmark because that is an economic driver — it’s an annual event that brings tens of millions of dollars to the local economy,” Doleva told BusinessWest. “To bring in 1,500 teams and grow that every year to 10,000, that’s a big initiative, but it’s not an unrealistic goal.”

Hooplandia will actually be staged the same weekend as the festival in Spokane, but organizers don’t see it as competition for that event.

“We’re 3,000 miles away,” Doleva said. “We see this an opportunity for people from the Midwest east to come to Springfield and play in a tournament where they might not have gone all the way to the West Coast — and you have the allure of the Hall of Fame.”

These are more of the fundamentals that prompted organizers to take Hooplandia from the drawing board to reality more than three years ago. And they are the fundamentals that have prompted them to stay the course — and stay on course — through more whitewater than anyone could have imagined in early March 2020.

As Cassidy told BusinessWest and all those assembled at a recent press conference to announce the new date for the tournament, “it’s game on for 2023!”

 

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

Cover Story Sports & Leisure

Looking Sharp

Anneliese Townsend

Anneliese Townsend

 

“Never attempt to catch an axe.”

That’s one of a handful of rules printed above the targets in each of the 12 lanes at the Agawam Axe House. And while that’s just good common sense, said Anneliese Townsend, founder and co-owner of this intriguing business, this reminder is there for a reason.

“You would think that would be pretty obvious, but, in fact, it’s a natural instinct to put your foot out and try to stop something coming at you, so we have to remind people that it’s an axe,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, since she opened the doors in January 2018, no one has tried to catch an axe.

But many have tried to throw one.

Indeed, this unique enterprise, said to be the first of its kind in New England, the only one in Western Mass., and one of just six currently operating in the state, has seen, well, a sharp rise in interest since it opened, and the numbers — of both participants and revenue — continue to grow.

The venue has welcomed a wide range of constituencies, from companies large and small that are looking for a new and different kind of team-building exercise (a large contingent from LEGO was in recently) to birthday, bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (axe throwing has become popular among women, as we’ll see); from leagues that compete weekly to individuals, many of them professionals, who are looking to blow off a little steam and rid themselves of some stress.

There are many days when Townsend will see all of the above.

“It’s absolutely massive, and it’s getting bigger every day,” she said of the sport of axe throwing, which she was introduced to while on a trip to Montreal with her boyfriend (and now business partner), Bob Manning.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’” she recalled, “and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

the Burn Battle

The Agawam Axe House hosts a number of leagues and fund-raising events, such as the Burn Battle, which raises money for the American Cancer Society. Participants in last year’s ‘battle’ are seen here. The 2022 edition is set for Oct. 2.

They went to such a facility, but because they were with Manning’s children, they could not partake — it was an over-18 activity, and for obvious reasons. But Townsend was certainly intrigued, and upon returning to Western Mass., she did another Google search, this one to find axe-throwing venues near Agawam.

The closest one she found was in New Jersey. Instead of driving there, this entrepreneur — she’s been involved with an ice-cream shop and some other ventures in this community — eventually decided to open her own facility.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’ and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

And from the day it opened, it’s been a hit. Or, as participants in this activity might say in this sport, it has stuck.

Business is brisk, and as the sport gets more exposure — from ESPN 8 or from the many who have already tried it — Townsend expects it will only continue to grow in popularity.

When people try it, they find that it’s not nearly as hard as it might look, and it has become a proven stress reliever — at a time when many are having issues with stress, for one reason or another.

“We have a lot of doctors from Noble Hospital [in Westfield] who come in,” she said. “They’re the most stressed people out there.”

This writer tried it, and, after a few throws to get a feel for it and stop trying to ‘flick the axe,’ as Townsend put it, managed to stick a few. Hundreds of other people have done the same, and that’s why Agawam Axe House is more than on target with its business projections.

For this issues and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with Townsend about the sport — and business — of axe throwing, and why she believes this is anything but a fad.

 

Gaining an Edge

When asked about axe throwing, or hatchet throwing, which is a more accurate description of the implement being used, as a leisure activity, Townsend described it as “a Canadian thing,” meaning that is where it started and is perhaps most popular.

She said urban axe throwing became a sport — and a business — in 2007 with the opening of Backyard Axe Throwing, or BATL, founded by Matt Wilson. It has grown from there, and there are now hundreds of venues across Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe, and elsewhere, with more opening their doors every year.

Indeed, Townsend, a native of Australia whose parents still live there, said she keeps urging them to open an axe-throwing business in Sidney. They haven’t, but others have, much to her consternation.

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House show off their axes, and their enthusiasm for the increasingly popular sport.

There are now actually two bodies governing the sport and promoting it on a global scale — the International Axe Throwing Federation (IATF), which the Agawam Axe House operates under, and the World Axe Throwing League (WATL).

Overall, the sport is catching on at many levels, everything from tournaments, including the U.S. Open, staged by the WATL — which took place in July in Minneapolis, with the finals airing on ESPN — and the International Axe Throwing Championship, which took place in June, to amateurs picking up the sport in places like the Agawam Axe House.

As for the business of axe throwing … getting off the ground was relatively easy, said Townsend, explaining that she acquired the location, secured the necessary permits (a liquor license was sought initially but not granted), and found insurance — a necessary but expensive item in this business sector, to be sure — through a company in Chicago that specializes in writing policies for axe-throwing establishments.

And, as noted, things got off to a fast start, and the company quickly built up some momentum.

But COVID brought things to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020, as it prompted the closing of all indoor sports facilities, said Townsend, adding that she and Manning eventually gained permission from the town to operate a few lanes outdoors, enabling the business to survive until restrictions were fully lifted in the spring of 2021.

Since then, business has been steady, with healthy amounts of new and repeat business, with both being vital to the success of any sports-related business.

Visitors to the Axe House, which now also boasts ‘foot bowling’ — bowling with a football — can use ‘house’ axes or bring their own, although it must meet certain specifications, especially with the size of the head and the material for the handle; it must be wood to control the amount of bounceback.

Many who partake, especially those in leagues, do own their own axes, which typically run for $80 to $90 — much more than a hatchet off the shelf at a hardware store would cost — and some go for as much as $200 to $300, with customized handles.

“That’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

But otherwise, the sport is very affordable, with lanes renting for $25 per hour, per person.

Townsend said axe throwing is growing in popularity for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it really is much easier than people think and doesn’t take any real strength, agility, or athletic ability in order to excel. It’s been called the ‘great equalizer’ by one facility owner interviewed by USA Today. And Townsend agreed with that assessment.

“The reason many people don’t try it is because they assume you have to be strong, you have to be able to throw it fast, you have to have some throwing ability,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than one could imagine; people come in every day and say, ‘I’ll never be able to do it,’ and four or five throws later, they’re sticking it.

“It’s all about where you stand — I can make anyone stick it,” she went on, adding that instruction for first-timers is part of the package. “And that’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

What’s more, you can do this yourself or in groups of all kinds — leagues, a gathering of co-workers, those bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (Townsend had two of them scheduled for the approaching weekend when she talked with BusinessWest), and fundraising events.

These include the upcoming Burn Battle, the second annual women’s tournament, slated for Oct. 2, that will raise funds for the American Cancer Society.

“Girls from all over New England and far away as New Jersey and Philadelphia come and throw and compete,” she said, adding that one of the bigger surprises thus far is how popular the Axe House, and the sport, has become with women. She estimates that perhaps 65% of customers are women. She’s not exactly sure why, although she has some theories.

“I think many women know that this is women-owned; the assumption, when you hear ‘axe throwing,’ is that it’s going to be a gentleman teaching you how to throw axes. I think that women find out it’s me, because I’ve been on the radio a few times, they’re much more comfortable coming in and trying it out,” she said. “Also, it’s an outlet — for everybody, not just women.”

Looking ahead, Townsend said there are no immediate plans to add additional locations or expand beyond Agawam. The immediate focus is on growing the business there and continuing to build the customer base by promoting the sport in any way she can.

 

All You Could Axe For

As for some of those other posted rules, they include “never run with an axe,” “no trick shots,” and “do not hold the axe by the blade.”

There is another rule — participants must wear close-toed shoes (again, for obvious reasons). Some show up not aware of this stipulation, said Townsend, adding that the Axe House has shoes (Crocs, actually) for rent.

“We call them shoes of shame, for obvious reasons — you weren’t smart enough to wear close-toed shoes throwing sharp objects,” she joked, adding that fewer people have to rent them these days, yet another sign that people are becoming aware of this activity and what it’s all about.

Suffice it to say this business venture is paying off, and that participants are not only sticking it, but sticking with it.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Meetings of the Minds

Korey Bell says Vistage has acted like a board of directors

Korey Bell says Vistage has acted like a board of directors for small companies who don’t have such a body, and has helped with some important issues.

 

Korey Bell had an issue.

It hasn’t been entirely resolved, but he’s making some real progress, thanks to some other business owners he was able to bounce things off.

The issue concerns pricing of the services provided by his company, Westside Finishing, which, despite that name, is based in Holyoke (yes, it started in West Springfield). More specifically, Bell noted that he held the line on prices, despite inflation and soaring costs of labor, material, and just about everything else, while almost all his competitors had raised theirs. He had questions about what to do and when, but needed a sounding board, like a board of directors.

And he had one in the form of a group of area business owners and managers — many of them in various stages of leadership transitions — called Vistage. This is a global entity with chapters across the country that total more than 23,000 members. The group now serving Western and Central Mass., led by business consultant Ravi Kulkarni, is in its infancy stages, having been formed in the spring.

Bell, the second-generation CEO who took over Westside Finishing from his father a few years ago, was one of the group’s first members. He credits the others in the room with being good listeners, solid providers of advice, and, perhaps most importantly, peers who will hold him accountable when he decides to move forward with something.

“We all do things differently, and that’s a refreshing perspective,” he said. “I may be thinking of attacking a problem one way, but at the meeting, some of the other members are able to ask the questions to get you looking at the problem in a different light. You might come into a meeting with a plan, and by the time you leave, you might have turned that plan on its head, but you’re more comfortable with the plan you came up with with the group then you were with your own.”

“You might come into a meeting with a plan, and by the time you leave, you might have turned that plan on its head, but you’re more comfortable with the plan you came up with with the group then you were with your own.”

Will Maybury, chief financial officer at East Longmeadow-based Maybury Material Handling, agreed. Maybury, son of company president and CEO John Maybury, is poised to take the helm at the company in a few years (there is no firm timetable) and he joined Vistage to help prepare him for that moment and learn from those who already have the title he aspires to.

“Where I saw the biggest value for myself is the growth opportunity the group provided me as someone coming into the CEO position,” Maybury said. “I’m able to surround myself with people who have been in the role and get an outside perspective, while also giving myself some personal growth and networking to help me transition into the role.”

Steve Graham, owner of Toner Plastics in East Longmeadow has been a Vistage member for more than a decade now. He’s not a member of the local group — instead he travels to Boston for meetings there — but is a firm believer of the organization’s power to bring minds together to address common problems and issues, and often help create answers.

“You have an opportunity to speak with other people who are in similar positions of leadership at their companies — entrepreneurs, owners, executives,” he said. “And having an advisory board of sorts, or a board of directors, which is what Vistage boils down to for many of us, is extremely valuable.

William Maybury, now in the process of succession planning

William Maybury, now in the process of succession planning

“You sometimes get reinforcement of an idea that you’ve been thinking about, and it’s just enough to push you over the edge to pull the trigger,” Graham went on. “And sometimes … you get a different view of the problem or the issues that you’re seeking to solve, and it pushes you in another direction; it’s extremely motivating for me.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with members of the local Vistage group about what they gain from participation, and how the monthly meetings have helped them become better leaders at a time when managing a business, large or small, has become ever-more challenging.

 

That’s the Idea

As he talked about his group and how and why it was formed, Kulkarni told BusinessWest that there was a clear need for such an entity in Western Mass., where there are few groups of this type focused on bringing young CEOs from diverse industries together around a conference room table.

Those that do exist are mostly regional, with Boston being the closest meeting place, and have requirements for membership that ultimately exclude many of the small businesses in this region. Vistage requires companies to have at least 25 employees and annual revenues of at least $5 million, which brings more area businesses into the mix, he said.

As for how it works, Kulkarni said it’s rather simple — when you put a dozen or so high-performing business executives in a room, these meetings of the minds have enormous potential for creating not only meaningful dialogue about the issues of the day — and there are many of them — but give and take that leads to problem-solving.

“You sometimes get reinforcement of an idea that you’ve been thinking about, and it’s just enough to push you over the edge to pull the trigger. And sometimes … you get a different view of the problem or the issues that you’re seeking to solve, and it pushes you in another direction; it’s extremely motivating for me.”

Elaborating, he said the hallmark of Vistage groups is something called ‘issue processing,’ a structured, thorough approach to helping members think through the dynamics of a challenge.

“It forces you to push beyond your assumptions and get to the real issues,” Kulkarni explained. “That’s critical to understanding and evaluating your options before making a decision and taking action.”

Such was the case with Bell and his issue with pricing and whether to increase his, which we’ll return to later. As he talked about it, Bell said that while Westside Finishing, a powder-coating operation that handles products ranging from cabinets to hand-dryers, has grown exponentially since his father started it as a one-person show and now boasts 65 employees, it is still, in most all respects, a small company.
“We’re not to the size where I would have a formal board of directors that I, as the president or CEO could lean on, bounce ideas off of, or help me with strategizing and planning for the future growth and development of our business,” he explained. “The members of Vistage are all people who have similar, high-level experience in running and managing a business, but at the same time, they have different backgrounds, very similar to what you would find on a board of directors.”

While Vistage is open to business owners and managers at all stages of their careers, Kulkarni said it is especially beneficial to those going through transition, be it in leadership or ownership.

Such was the case with Dave Boisselle, senior vice president of Operations for J. Polep in Chicopee, which has gone from being family owned to being owned by a large conglomerate, National Convenience Distributors. It’s not a small change, he told BusinessWest.

“When you’re sitting in the room and you’re talking corporate, it’s much different from family,” he said. “Family is family; everyone knows what they have to do, and they can talk to each other a certain way. Corporate is all professional, so you choose your words wisely and explain things in much more detail. It’s a much different structure.”

As for his transition to leadership of his company and how Vistage will ease that process, Maybury said he intends to be a sponge and “soak up as much as he can” at the monthly meetings with the goal of being more ready to take the helm. He said he benefits from being in a room where people at different points in their careers and different business situations, can thus provide different perspectives.

“Some people in our group are getting to the end of their careers and want to pass on some knowledge,” he explained. “I’m at the beginning, and some are in the middle; everyone is different, and that brings a lot of perspective to the table.”

Overall, Vistage provides value to members by bringing leaders of diverse businesses who are facing common issues and challenges together in a room to share what are usually different thoughts and approaches to those matters.

Ravi Kulkarni

Ravi Kulkarni says the Vistage group he leads is diverse and looking to add new members from different sectors of the economy.

“People do things differently in their businesses — they have different ideas,” said Graham. “They may have different ways of financing their business that you haven’t considered, for example, and you make some friends.”

Ryan Clutterbuck, president of Pace Engineering Recruiters in Quincy, which specializes in finding artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicle and high-performance and quantum-computing engineers, and another member of the local Vistage group, agreed.

“It’s beneficial to have a group of people that you can share ideas within a safe environment, where they’re willing to give you direct feedback,” he told BusinessWest. “You can’t always run your ideas by people below you, so you need a group of peers who can give you honest and direct feedback, and that’s what I get out of Vistage.”

Such feedback is what Bell sought, and received, when he brought his ‘issue’ to the group a few months ago.

“This year has been the busiest year in company history — we’ve set four sales records from January up until now,” he said while setting the stage for the discussion that ensued. “The issue brought to the group was ‘I’m busier than I’ve ever been, my margins are pretty good, but I feel that I may be leaving something on the table … because a lot of competitors had gone up 10-fold from what I’d done as far as price increases since COVID started.’

“I wanted to make sure I was charging a fair-market price for the service that I’m offering and make sure I’m not leaving a lot of meat on the bone,” he went on, adding, without going into much detail about his actual plans, that members of the group were able to help him answer those critical questions and others that were brought to the table.

“You can’t always run your ideas by people below you, so you need a group of peers who can give you honest and direct feedback, and that’s what I get out of Vistage.”

This is the essence of issue-processing, said Kulkarni, adding that members ask clarifying questions and, by meeting’s end, have the member in question much closer to moving beyond asking questions and acting. And once this action is taken, these same group members will follow up and hold the members accountable for the actions taken, again, similar to the way a larger company’s board of directors would.

Boisselle agreed.

“When it comes to issue-processing, first members listen and then they ask questions and ultimately give suggestions,” he said. “And you start changing your perspective on how you’re going to do things; asking the questions gets you to start thinking, then the advice comes, and then you connect everything together and decide how to move forward.”

Clutterbuck brought his own issue — one of scalability and the personal mindset to accompany such possible growth — to the group and came away with the feedback he was seeking.

“I’d gone through the roller-coaster of ‘are you building to scale or are you building to get to a certain level and then sustain?’” he said. “So, I brought an issue to the table that was related to more my personal mindset of what should I be doing from a target standpoint and a growth standpoint that’s going to beneficial for both the company and the family and making sure I’m not burning out on either end.

“It certainly helped me reset and get back to the original plan that I had developed for the business and the direction I wanted to go in,” he went on as he recalled this issue-procession session. “It was a good conversation to have, because there’s no one else I can have it with.”

 

Meeting Expectations

Moving forward, Kulkarni said his immediate goal is to recruit more members — “we’re looking for those who are hungry, humble, and smart” — and bring the number of business leaders in the room closer to 12, the desired sweet spot.

Doing so will bring more voices to that table and more processing of critical issues facing area business owners and managers.

These company leaders do not have their own board of directors, but they can share one. And this is the essence of Vistage, summed up effectively and concisely by Clutterbuck.

“They say it’s lonely at the top; I don’t necessarily agree with that, but you don’t have a lot of sounding boards,” he said. “It’s not like you can bring these conversations to your employees or people within your organization because they’re deeply personal. This is a good group of people to have real conversations with.”

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Getting Employees in the Game

 

Linda Dulye

Linda Dulye

Linda Dulye calls them ‘spectators.’

That’s the term she uses to describe employees who, well, are not in the game, as they say in the sports universe. Instead, they’re watching it from the sidelines. They’re not engaged, and they are not part of the solution, said Dulye, the former journalist turned corporate communications specialist and change-management agent turned entrepreneur who started Dulye & Co. in 1998 to help leaders and their organizations cultivate magnetic cultures where people want to stay and grow.

The Pittsfield-based company, which counts Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Cigna, and other global companies on its client list, helps guide these firms to achieve a ‘spectator-free’ workplace through meaningful connections, open communications, and mutual respect.

“If you’re paying people to show up, put a badge on, and complain all day, all they are … are spectators,” she explained. “And spectators don’t add depth. If you’re going to just leave them on the benches watching, that’s a bad business strategy. Your goal is to be spectator-free, have them down on the field helping you move forward and score.”

Such sentiments have always been important to the success of any organization, large or small, she told BusinessWest, but they are even more critical in this time of profound change in the work environment brought on by the pandemic and related forces.

“This has been the most dramatic change I’ve ever experienced in my consulting career,” Dulye said, adding that, at this critical time, communication and engagement have never been more important, but they have also never been as challenging.

Overall, she said companies large and small have historically waited until a time of profound change, or crisis, before addressing issues such as culture, communication, and engagement. Her simple message is not to wait.

“Let’s not wait for a crisis,” she said. “Let’s be pre-emptive; let’s realize that everything in building a spectator-free workplace is a great business strategy, not just when something catastrophic has happened.”

While helping companies become more connected and engaged — two words she used very early and quite often as she talked about her work — Dulye has also committed herself to helping the next generation of leaders thrive in an ever-changing work environment.

“If you’re paying people to show up, put a badge on, and complain all day, all they are … are spectators. And spectators don’t add depth. If you’re going to just leave them on the benches watching, that’s a bad business strategy. Your goal is to be spectator-free, have them down on the field helping you move forward and score.”

Indeed, she created the Dulye Leadership Experience (DLE), which offers year-round developmental and networking programs (such as an upcoming program on cryptocurrency) and, especially, an intense two-day retreat that, after two years of being a virtual event, will again be in-person in early November.

Applications are currently being accepted for the conference, and 45 individuals from different business sectors will eventually be chosen to attend the retreat, which “is a not a conference,” she said with considerable emphasis in her voice. Instead, it is more of an immersion, where young people hear from experts, who stay for the entire weekend, on various subjects with the goal of improving vital skills and stimulating networks for career and life success. The accent, as it with Dulye’s business-consulting work, is on collaboration and connections.

The DLE is a nonprofit endeavor funded by Dulye, who said she created it because there has always been a strong need for such programming, and that need has also been magnified given the changing landscape in business.

“I invest quite a bit in this because I believe in philanthropy,” she said. “And I believe in helping others see — and seize — their best.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Dulye about entrepreneurship, the leadership experience she created, changing dynamics in the workplace, and, especially, about how she helps companies convert employees from spectators into engaged team players.

 

Dulye Ink.

Looking back on her life and career, Dulye said she had several important role models and mentors, starting with her parents, who were both entrepreneurs.

Her father ran a chain of small newspapers in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley, while her mother started a commercial printing business, a field that was totally dominated by men at the time.

“When you grow up in family business, or businesses, you learn every facet of a business,” she said. “You also learn that you get paid last, and you learn that employees are what enable you to go to college — my parents’ employees enabled me to go to college — and you learn that every single person is vital; it doesn’t matter what their title is.

Linda Dulye says the Dulye Leadership Conference has evolved over the years

Linda Dulye says the Dulye Leadership Conference has evolved over the years, but its mission remains unchanged — to help young people gain the skills and confidence needed to thrive in an ever-changing workplace.

“I got my hands dirty, and I got humbled by both my parents,” she went on. “I never had cushy jobs, and I had to earn my promotions; I never wanted to be the kid that was the boss’s kid. I learned how to love work, and that’s important; I love what I do, and my parents loved what they did.”

Growing up, she worked in both businesses, starting with her mother’s shop when she was 8. By age 13, she was writing obituaries for her father’s papers “back when writers wrote the obituaries, not the funeral homes,” before moving on to the police beat and other assignments.

Meanwhile, her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to go where women traditionally didn’t go, job-wise, certainly inspired her throughout her career.

“My mother was a novelty — there weren’t a lot of women business owners at that time, and I learned a lot from her,” she recalled. “Most of the industries I was in were male-dominated, and I learned how to express my views in a confident way and how to form relationships with people who were going to be very judgmental of me, because I’m the token female out there, so I have to prove myself a little bit more.”

But there was something else she took from her mother that stayed with her through all her various career stops and especially when she went into business for herself.

“She could look at a cloudy sky and always find that patch of blue,” Dulye said. “And it was finding that patch of blue every day — in your work, in your life — that stuck with me. Sitting in rooms where people would ask me when I was going to be serving the coffee, even though I was part of the leadership team at the table, was pretty typical — but I always looked for that patch of blue.”

Dulye didn’t want to go back to either of her parents’ businesses after graduating from Syracuse University, so she went to work for a daily newspaper in suburban Philadelphia called the Bulletin. Her real ambition, she told BusinessWest, was to be a sports journalist, but at the time, the field was mostly closed to women, so she stayed on the news side, while maintaining a love of sports that can be seen in the terminology she uses and references to getting employees into the game and off the bench.

Fast-forwarding a little, Dulye, seeking a better-paying profession, eventually segued into corporate communications, starting at Drew University while earning her master’s degree. With a desire to work for large corporations, she went to work for GE in Pittsfield and later New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

She joined the company in the late ’80s, at a time of dramatic downsizing, a period that provided several critical learning experiences she would apply later in her career.

“There’s was lots of learning about culture, about people, about effective leadership, about communication — you were communicating some of the toughest messages ever,” she recalled, adding that she worked for tough bosses, including Jack Welch, who were “ahead of their time in many respects.”

As GE was in the process of selling its aerospace division, she moved onto Duracell, then Allied Signal and Public Service Electric and Gas.

She made a number of job changes at a time unlike today, when such movement is expected and even appreciated by many of those doing the hiring, because she wanted to be in different environments, experience different organizations, and learn from different leaders.

“I wanted to experience different cultures and leadership styles and get smart in different industries,” she said. “Even though I knew family business, I wanted to learn global business.”

Eventually, after growing tired of lengthy daily commutes to work, she decided to go into business for herself, essentially to pass on to business leaders what she had learned while working for her parents, but also while working in corporate America.

“I knew what companies needed most,” she explained. “They needed people to help their leaders connect with the front-line folks, to help explain change, to help get people motivated, to move forward with goals. With all the work I had done, I wanted to focus on leadership communication and employee engagement.”

 

Connecting the Dots

As she talked about her business and the value it provides to clients, Dulye focused on that word ‘engagement,’ its importance in the workplace, getting people to be part of the team in question, and having them help leadership run the business.

Which brings her back to the importance of having a spectator-free work environment, which businesses appreciate, even if they know they need help to achieve such an environment.

The key, she said, is to give employees the opportunity to get on the playing field.

“My mother was a novelty — there weren’t a lot of women business owners at that time, and I learned a lot from her. Most of the industries I was in were male-dominated, and I learned how to express my views in a confident way and how to form relationships with people who were going to be very judgmental of me, because I’m the token female out there, so I have to prove myself a little bit more.”

“Which means you have to share information, you have to be open to their ideas, and you have to involve them in making decisions on how the business needs to move forward,” she explained. “Otherwise, you’re going to have spectators; that means really stopping, listening, and having conversations, not presentations.

“Presentations do not build relationships; conversations build relationships,” she went on. “That’s what leaders, more than ever, need to do. “Leaders say, ‘I don’t have time’ — and I understand, time management is a massive challenge. However, if you don’t have time to help your people understand what’s going on and why and you think it can be done better, then you’re losing out on the greatest resource you have to help you improve as a business — and as a leader.”

Finding time and becoming spectator-free is obviously challenging, said Dulye, adding that it almost always requires adjustments in culture and leadership dynamics, with a hard focus on upgrading people skills, processes, and practices that ultimately create what she calls a “connected organization.”

Providing critical help with this complex assignment through tools such as its Engagement through Action Planning Process has enabled Dulye & Co. to grow and consistently add new clients over the years, she went on, adding that there have been times — the Great Recession of 2008 was one of them, and the early months of the pandemic was another — when even the largest corporations cut back on consultants.

And it was during what became a very slow period for the company in the fall of 2008, when the company lost 80% of its work, when Dulye found a patch of blue and conceived of what would become the Dulye Leadership Experience.

“In my consulting work, I was noticing that the new grads coming into the businesses really weren’t prepared to integrate well,” she recalled. “They were very smart in their technical majors, but they’d gone from a bubble of being able to pick their friends, being able to hang around a lot of people their own age, and being able to know when there was a test because they would get a syllabus and knew what to read, to showing up and not knowing anyone, and being in a hodgepodge, diverse team that they didn’t pick, with people having all kinds of issues going on that are very different generationally. They need to form relationships and strong communication bonds, and they need to know how to sell themselves and their ideas.”

The DLE, originally established in partnership with Syracuse University, was created as a philanthropic, nonprofit organization to help undergraduates cope with all that and successfully transition to the workplace.

But like any successful business, it has responded to change and evolved over the years.

Indeed, when Dulye moved to Western Mass. in 2017 to re-establish her home and business, programming shifted to attract, develop, and retain young professionals in the Berkshires. And with the pandemic and the dramatic changes it has brought to the workplace, the DLE shifted again, to virtual programming that escalated in frequency and variety and succeeded in attracting a more diverse professional network that now stretches from coast to coast and beyond, she told BusinessWest.

“We started moving and creating new programming every single week to connect people, which means connecting people from all over,” she explained, adding that an alumni group was established, and programs like a ‘breakfast club’ and chat initiatives were created to involve more individuals at a time when technology allowed that to happen.

The DLE soon added workshops on a variety of topics, from public speaking to time management, to provide more and different learning experiences, most of them inspired by polling and questions like ‘what are you struggling with?’

This shift can be seen in the latest offering, an ownership workshop titled “Demystifying Cryptocurrency,” slated for Sept. 20. The one-hour, virtual conversation will feature nationally recognized experts Paul Farella and Alexandra Renders of Berkshire-based Willow Investments, who will discuss, among other things, what blockchains are and how they work, the impact this technology can have on business and society, and the risks and opportunity that exist in this realm.

This workshop is an example of how the DLE works to educate and inform, while helping emerging leaders succeed in a business world where change is the only constant, Dulye said.

As for the upcoming annual retreat, it is, as she noted earlier, an immersion in every sense of the word.

“It’s three days in the Berkshires — you stay at this compound; you don’t come and go like at a conference where you go to a 9 o’clock session and then hit Starbucks at 10 and go back at 11,” she explained. “Once you come in on Friday night, you can’t leave until Sunday, at all, and you need to stay fully engaged with everyone there.”

There’s that word, engaged, again.

Summing up the retreat, Dulye said the goal, the mission, is to get participants to “learn like mad and get out of their comfort zones,” and it has been this way since she first launched the initiative in 2008.

 

Bottom Line

Flashing back a half-century or so, Dulye remembers when her mother took what was a huge risk at that time and invested heavily in a Goss Community press to take her commercial printing enterprise to the next level.

“People would come into her business from all over the world to look at this press,” she recalled. “I have no idea how much she probably put on the line from our family finances and going into debt — although my father had to sign for everything, because women couldn’t do that then. That, I remember, was groundbreaking.

“And I wanted to experience a lot of groundbreaking events in business,” she went on, adding that she certainly has. But, more than experience them, she’s been part of them, through her work as a consultant, but also through creation of the Dulye Leadership Experience.

In both realms, she’s focused on facilitating success in a changing workplace and, as she said repeatedly, helping business leaders create a place where there are no spectators.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

When Westmass Area Development Corp. and its board of directors went all in and acquired the massive and environmentally challenged Ludlow Mills complex in 2011, Jeff Daley said, they did so with the understanding that they were embarking on a long and difficult journey.

But they probably didn’t know how long and just how difficult.

Indeed, the process of transforming the former jute-making complex into a mixed-used property and destination has come complete with a number of challenges, many of them related to simply making various parts of the complex ready for redevelopment, said Daley, the executive director of Westmass since 2019.

But, in many respects, the Ludlow Mills redevelopment initiative has turned a critical corner, he noted, adding that much of the work to ready specific buildings and the property as a whole for development has now been completed, and the focus, increasingly, is on development.

“We’re certainly at a turning point, where we’re focusing our efforts on redevelopment as opposed to staying afloat and cleaning the site — it was a very dirty site back when they first bought it,” he told BusinessWest, referring to asbestos and ground contamination. “And there’s still a lot of cleanup left to do, but the focus is shifting from preserving and investing in the cleaning of the site to continuing that cleaning, which we need to do, but also looking now toward projects that we can invest good dollars in and get good returns from.”

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge. And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

That is certainly the plan, and the hope, with Building 8, or what many refer to as the ‘clocktower building,’ because it is home to the town’s most recognizable landmark.

With some imaginative financing assistance — Westmass will actually be taking an equity stake in the project — Winn Development will soon proceed with an initiative to transform the property into a 96-unit housing complex with retail on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, a $1 million project to put a new roof on Building 11, the largest structure on the campus, is underway, with the goal of facilitating development of that 480,000-square-foot property into another mix of housing and commercial businesses, and perhaps a parking garage as well.

Also, work is nearly complete on Riverside Drive, a new road that winds along the Chicopee River, which will connect the front of the property to the undeveloped acreage at its eastern end. Another road, hopefully to be funded with a MassWorks grant (word on the application should be received in the fall), will be built into that property, greatly facilitating its development, said Daley, noting there has been a good deal of interest expressed in that property due to a shortage of developable land in the region.

While the Ludlow Mills complex is certainly the dominant business story in Ludlow, there are other developments of note, starting in Town Hall. There, discussions continue about whether and how to change the community’s form of government, said Marc Strange, the recently hired town administrator.

“Officials are considering a mayoral form of government or a town manager/town council format similar to what exists in East Longmeadow,” said Strange, who served previously as director of Planning and Economic Development in Agawam and also as a selectman in Longmeadow, noting that the town has certainly outgrown its current format with five selectmen, a town administrator, and town meeting.

Karen Randall

Karen Randall says the business started by her father 60 years ago, has grown and evolved, just as Ludlow has.

“That’s a pretty big lift, and the town needs to be on board with it,” he explained. “For now, we’re chipping away toward that goal and making small, incremental changes to get everyone working in the same direction.”

Meanwhile, the community is looking to fund improvements to the downtown area that greets those as they come over the bridge that links the city to Indian Orchard, said Strange, adding that, while Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, it is always looking to build on this base.

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge,” he said. “And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Ludlow, a community that is a developing story in every sense of that phrase.

 

Growth Patterns

As she talked with BusinessWest outside the main entrance to Randall’s Farm, the business that her father started with what amounted to a vegetable stand, Karen Randall reflected on how much this enterprise — and the town of Ludlow itself — have changed over the past 60 years.

“None of this was here,” she said as she swept her hand in front of her and pointed out the many businesses now located along Center Street. “Ludlow has grown, and we’ve grown with Ludlow.”

Elaborating, she said the town benefits from its location — off turnpike exit 7 and near a number of growing residential communities, including Wilbraham, Granby, Belchertown, and others — and from its own growth; it has seen a number of new residential developments in recent years that have brought many young people to what was an industrial town that grew from the Ludlow Mills complex.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful, in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

Randall’s Farm has certainly benefited from the growth in and around Ludlow, she said, adding that it draws regular, daily traffic from those living in the community, but also steady traffic from those an exit or two down the pike.

“We have customers from within a 20-mile radius,” Randall said, adding that business has been solid this year, and she is expecting the fall, the busiest time for this enterprise, to be very busy as the region continues the two-year-long process of returning to normal from the pandemic and its many side effects.

The pandemic and its aftermath have brought changes at Randall’s — it has discontinued many of its entertainment-related endeavors, including a corn maze and workshops on various subjects — and challenges, including the workforce issues that have impacted businesses in every sector.

Overall, the pandemic has been for Randall’s what it has been for many business ventures, she said — a valuable learning experience.

“COVID taught us a lot of lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and it’s taught us that we can adapt quickly to whatever was coming down the pike,” she explained. “We didn’t miss a beat; we had the same issues that everyone else did — some people may have retired sooner, while others stopped working sooner during the first months of the pandemic, but we persevered, and I think we become stronger because of what we learned.”

Heading into the busy fall season, Randall’s, like other businesses, continues to face workforce challenges — there are some days when it does not have a donut maker, for example — but Randall believes it will be ready. The biggest challenge may be climate, specifically a lack of rain and its still-unknown impact on pumpkins, apples, and other crops grown locally.

“We’re hiring front-line people — we think we have the donut-making issue squared away — and we’re getting ready,” she told BusinessWest. “And we’ll see how this drought effects the season.”

planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills

Crews work to create a parking lot for the planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills, one of many new developments at the complex.

Overall, Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, said Strange, adding that one of the town’s goals is to improve infrastructure and make the Center Street corridor more attractive and even more of an asset.

Which brings him back to that area, technically the community’s downtown, that greets people coming over the bridge from Indian Orchard. The town will apply for a Community Compact grant to develop a broad economic-development plan that will encompass that area and others in the community.

“There’s some successful businesses in there, but we also have some empty storefronts,” he explained. “Our Memorial Park is there, and that’s where we’ll have Celebrate Ludlow. I think there’s a foundation for something special by way of economic development in that corridor.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful,” he went on, “in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

 

Run of the Mills

There should be some shovels hitting the ground soon at at Ludlow Mills, which has certainly been the focal point of development in Ludlow over the past decade. Indeed, continued progress is being made in what will be at least a 20-year effort to put the various spaces — as well as 40 acres of developable green space — to new and productive use.

Running through recent and upcoming developments, Daley started with Building 8, a long-awaited project that will bring another residential complex to the site after the highly successful renovation of Building 10 into apartments; there is now a lengthy waiting list for units in that property.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,002
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.99
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of Government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

The plan calls for apartments on the upper floors and a mix of retail on the first floor, Daley explained, adding that a coffee shop or sandwich shop would be an ideal use given the growing numbers of people living and working in the complex or within a few blocks of it. That growing population could inspire other types of retain as well, he added.

“We can’t overlook the fact that, once those apartments are done, there will be 160 units right in that vicinity, with an average of two people per unit. That’s a captured audience of more than 300 people to support small businesses; there might be a doctor’s office or lawyer’s offices, for example.”

To make the project happen in these times of inflation and soaring construction costs — an overall 28% increase in the projected price tag for this initiative — Westmass needed to get creative and take a “sizable equity investment” in the project, Daley said. He didn’t say how sizeable, but he did note that this step was needed to keep this project on track.

“It made the project go, and we really want to see the project go — for the town of Ludlow, for the mills, and, selfishly, we want to see that first floor activated so we can generate some revenues from retail and commercial businesses,” he explained.

As for Building 11, the next major target for redevelopment, a mix of housing and commercial retail would be ideal, he said, adding there will be options when it comes to what type of housing might be seen.

“There’s certainly a need for independent living, there’s a need for care living, dementia living, those types of facilities,” he said. “But also for more market-rate housing.”

Overall, the Ludlow Mills property is well-positioned for development, Daley said, adding that everything in its inventory, from commercial and industrial space to raw land, are in demand.

“We have a lot of interest in not only the land, but everything,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s not a lot of inventory out there — for commercial properties or green space. Our property is flat and mostly dry, so it becomes pretty attractive for development.”

As Daley said, Ludlow Mills has been a longer and more difficult journey than anyone could have anticipated when the property was acquired in 2011, but an important turning point has been reached, and a new chapter in this story is set to unfold.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Urban Pioneers

Colin D’Amour says the planned downtown store is unlike anything Big Y has created before

Colin D’Amour says the planned downtown store is unlike anything Big Y has created before and is, in many respects, a pioneering endeavor.

 

Big Y Foods will soon begin the process of transforming the former CVS location in Tower Square into its latest market. The chain has been operating for nearly 80 years now and has expanded its footprint well beyond its roots at that now-famous intersection in Chicopee where the converging roads formed a ‘Y.’ But this venture is something completely different in terms of scale — and just about everything else.

 

In many respects, the new store that Big Y is planning for the space in Tower Square formerly occupied by CVS constitutes pioneering — for the company and the city.

Indeed, what is proposed, a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket in an urban setting — the heart of downtown Springfield — hasn’t been tried before, as far as anyone knows. And it certainly hasn’t been tried by Big Y, the chain of supermarkets started by brothers Paul and Gerry D’Amour in 1936.

“To the outside observer, they see us operating supermarkets and say, ‘this is just a smaller format,’” said Colin D’Amour, senior director of Big Y Express and point person on this project. “But it’s really a completely new venture for us, everything from distribution to operations to trucking … we’ve never operated a downtown, urban-format market before, so there are a whole lot of unknowns for us.”

So while there is a great deal of anticipation and excitement about the company’s plans — downtown Springfield has been a food desert for decades now, and the need for a supermarket in that area has long been a recognized need — there is also a great deal of uncertainty about just how this will all play out.

So much so that determining just what constitutes ‘success’ at this new and decidedly different location is a difficult assignment.

“We are flying the plane as we build it in many respects,” D’Amour explained. “We know how to operate a supermarket, and we’re constantly tweaking that model, but when we open a new store, we have a very good idea of what success in that store will look like and what we need to do to achieve it. With this model, we’re trying to be a lot more flexible, even from our design standpoint.

“To the outside observer, they see us operating supermarkets and say, ‘this is just a smaller format.’ But it’s really a completely new venture for us, everything from distribution to operations to trucking … we’ve never operated a downtown, urban-format market before, so there are a whole lot of unknowns for us.”

“We don’t fully know what our lunch business is going to be like in the area; we don’t fully know what our after-work, prime-time, rush-on-the-way-home-from-work business is going to be like,” he went on. “We’re trying to build in some flexibility that’s going to allow us to adapt, once we do open, to what the customers’ needs are.”

Overall, this story is an intriguing one on a number of levels. For starters, there is the obvious need for a grocery store being filled. Meanwhile, the recruitment of Big Y marks another imaginative reuse of space in Tower Square by owners Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, who previously landed the YMCA of Greater Springfield and White Lion Brewery, among others, as tenants. And this new development was made possible by federal COVID-relief funds, making this is an example of how those monies have been put to work by the city to improve specific neighborhoods, including downtown (more on that later).

For now, the plan is to have the store open by next spring, said D’Amour, adding that there are some challenges to meeting that timeline, including supply-chain issues that make getting needing materials and equipment, like shelving, somewhat of an adventure.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new  Big Y market in Tower Square.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new
Big Y market in Tower Square.

As for the store itself, it will feature most of the same departments as a typical Big Y World Class Market (there will not be a pharmacy), but, obviously, a smaller volume of items.

As for customers, Big Y believes it will draw from several different constituencies, including those living downtown, those working in both Tower Square and other surrounding office buildings, those coming to Tower Square on other business, such as daycare services at the Big Y, and others.

“We think there’s going to be a good mix,” he noted. “Tower Square is a pretty robust facility, and there are a lot of people who work there who may be living in Springfield or commuting from outside the city who may be looking to grab something after work for dinner or grab something to help fill the fridge, and it saves them a trip to a traditional supermarket. There’s also a good number of residents that live right downtown as well. We think there will be a healthy mix.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked at length with D’Amour about how this concept came together and why the initiative represents pioneering on a number of levels.

 

Location, Location, Location

D’Amour said Big Y has been looking at downtown Springfield with an eye toward possibly opening some type of store there for some time now.

“It’s fair to say that it’s been decades,” he noted, adding quickly that, while the company hasn’t been actively pursuing something all that time, it has long understood that there is both need and opportunity involved with such an undertaking.

“We’ve had a very long, positive relationship with the city of Springfield, being headquartered here, and we’ve got a great relationship with the mayor’s office,” he went on. “So there’s just been a constant dialogue about what opportunities are there.”

“We’ve tried to take little bits of what we like from some different markets out there. But we think downtown Springfield is a bit unique, and we think that we understand the Western Mass. customer and the Springfield customer, and we’re trying to blend our brand with what we’ve seen other folks do in other environments and come up with something we think will work in this setting.”

Matters moved beyond the dialogue stage thanks to a number of puzzle pieces coming together, he went on, noting that the first was the location that became available when CVS vacated its longtime home in Tower Square for a location about a half-mile south on Main Street.

“The new owners of Tower Square came to us with this opportunity — everything just came together at the right time,” said D’Amour, noting that the company not only recognized an opportunity, it was prepared to take full advantage of it. “We were able to pull it together and make it work.”

Prepared, yes, but still moving into what would be uncharted territory for this company — and many supermarket chains, for that matter. Indeed, the location would be in the middle of the city’s downtown, with no on-site parking and certainly no loading dock.

The new market will serve people who work in the office towers

The new market will serve people who work in the office towers, as well as residents who live downtown.

These unknowns, along with uncertainty about just how much traffic this site will generate, made it enough of a risk that the project required an investment from the city, said D’Amour, adding that this investment has come in the form of $1 million in federal COVID CARES Act funding.

“That funding allowed us to answer some of those unknowns,” he said. “It solved some unsolvable challenges around distribution and issues like that, and it allowed us to see a pathway to a financially viable market in this location. I don’t think we would have been able to get there — what with rising construction costs and trying to figure out an entirely new model — without that federal money.”

Elaborating, he said the traditional Big Y model, one seen across this region and now far beyond, into Connecticut, Central Mass., and now Eastern Mass., is the suburban World Class Market, usually in a larger shopping center, with acres of parking; the company just unveiled its latest plans to build a store in Middletown, Conn. The Tower Square store is a much different model, one that, as noted, comes with a large supply of unknowns.

“There’s nothing close to this in terms of the urban setting, and there’s nothing close to this in terms of size,” he said. “This is maybe one-fifth the size of one of our traditional supermarkets. Obviously, all of our stores are unique in size and layout, but this is certainly an outlier.”

Thus, the team at Big Y has looked at models that would be considered similar in other urban markets, including New York and Boston, as well as some smaller cities in upstate New York, he said, adding that the chain is essentially creating its own model with this initiative.

“We’re having supply-chain challenges everywhere, and we’re working through them as best we can, and we think we’re doing a pretty good job with it.”

“We’ve tried to take little bits of what we like from some different markets out there,” he explained. “But we think downtown Springfield is a bit unique, and we think that we understand the Western Mass. customer and the Springfield customer, and we’re trying to blend our brand with what we’ve seen other folks do in other environments and come up with something we think will work in this setting.”

The plan, as noted, is to offer most of what would be found in a traditional Big Y market, he said, adding that patrons can do what he called a “full shop” at the downtown location, with fresh meats, bread, produce, and other items, just not in the variety to be found in the larger-model store.

Work has yet to begin on site, he said, but the plan is to open the store late in the first quarter of next year, and he believes that timetable can be met, despite those aforementioned challenges, including construction lead times and simply getting needed materials and equipment.

“Supply chain continues to be a challenge, both from a construction standpoint as well as from a product standpoint,” D’Amour explained. “But it’s nothing we’re not tackling, like everyone else in this late-pandemic, post-pandemic world, whatever we’re calling it these days. We’re just continuing to try to find innovative ways around it and fill our stores.

“With respect to this Tower Square downtown location, it’s really no different than what we’re tacking in all of our stores,” he went on. “We’re having supply-chain challenges everywhere, and we’re working through them as best we can, and we think we’re doing a pretty good job with it.”

 

Food for Thought

As D’Amour noted, it is difficult to make projections for the planned new market, and equally difficult to get a firm grasp on just what will constitute success.

But in an area that has been devoid of anything like this for as long as anyone can remember, there are great expectations and high hopes that the new store will be an important addition to the mix in Tower Square and the central business district as a whole.

In short, there is a good deal of anticipation about what’s in store for this location — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Community Spotlight Cover Story

Community Spotlight

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage soon to take shape in the city’s downtown.

‘Good traffic.’

That’s the phrase used by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — who acknowledged that it is somewhat of an oxymoron — to describe traffic that is, well, positive in nature.

This would be traffic generated by vibrancy, by people coming into a city from somewhere else; traffic indicative of progress, as opposed to insufficient infrastructure, poor planning, or both.

Springfield saw quite a bit of this ‘good traffic’ prior to the pandemic, said Sarno, noting that it was generated by concerts at MGM Springfield’s venues, Thunderbirds games, conventions and college graduations at the MassMutual Center, special gatherings like the Winter Weekend staged by the Red Sox in early 2020, or any combination of the above. Sometimes, a random Friday night would be enough to generate such traffic.

And after two years of relative quiet in the wake of the pandemic, the ‘good traffic’ is starting to make a comeback, as is the city as a whole, said Sarno, Springfield’s longest-serving mayor, with 14 years in the corner office, adding that there is promise for a whole lot more in the months and years to come, as pieces to a puzzle come together — or back together, as the case may be.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

These pieces include everything from a resurgent Thunderbirds squad, which made it all the way the AHL finals after taking a full year off due to COVID, to new housing, including the long-delayed renovation of the former Court Square hotel; from a casino in comeback mode, buoyed by the promise of sports gambling, to the return of the Marriott brand downtown after more than $40 million in renovations to the property in Tower Square; from new restaurants and clubs on Worthington Street to a new parking garage soon to rise where an existing structure is being razed.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods. I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

The “state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly parking garage,” as Sarno described it, will be part of a larger development in the area around the MassMutual Center, an initiative aimed at bringing people to that site before, during, and perhaps after events (more on that later).

The city still faces a number of stern challenges, many of them COVID-related, said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, citing such matters as the impact of remote work and hybrid schedules on downtown office buildings, an ongoing workforce crisis that has impacted in businesses in all sectors, and the pressing need to redevelop vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

But he, like the mayor, sees progress on many fronts and, overall, a pronounced recovery from a pandemic that hit the city very hard.

“We’re seeing many positive signs that Springfield is making its way back from the pandemic and the many challenges it created,” said Sheehan, who cited, among many yardsticks of momentum, a long line to get a table at Wahlburgers during a recent visit. “And we’re seeing these signs not only in the downtown, but the neighborhoods as well.”

Sarno agreed. He said that, over his lengthy tenure as mayor, the city has coped with a number of challenges and crises, from the June 2011 tornado to the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. But COVID has been different, and it has tested the city and its business community in many different ways.

“It’s been a difficult two years; the pandemic threw everyone a huge curveball,” he explained, adding that city leaders were trying to respond to an unprecedented health crisis while also making good use of state and especially federal money to help small businesses keep the lights on.

“My team has been tested, and, true, it’s been through a lot of disasters before,” he went on. “But this was like shadowboxing — it was surreal.”

COVID isn’t over, and challenges for small businesses remain, but in many respects, the city can get back to business, and it is doing just that.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Springfield, its ongoing bounce-back from COVID, and, yes, the return of that ‘good traffic.’

State of the City

It was affectionately known as the ‘dog and pony show.’

That’s what some called an annual gathering, orchestrated by the city in conjunction with the Springfield Regional Chamber, at which officials gave what amounted to a progress report on the city, with a large dollar amount attached to all the various economic-development and infrastructure projects — from MGM Springfield to the renovation of Union Station to the reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct — that were in progress or on the drawing board.

The city hasn’t staged one of these sessions in several years, mostly due to COVID, said Sarno, but one is being planned, probably for early next year. And there will be quite a bit to talk about, he went on, hinting at new developments at sites ranging from Union Station to the former Municipal Hospital on State Street, while offering what amounts to a preview of that gathering.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

And he started with the new, 1,000-space parking garage, which he and Sheehan anticipate will be much more than that.

Indeed, plans for the site include ‘activation’ — that’s a word you hear often when it comes to properties in the downtown — of a surface parking lot next to the present (and future) garage, and, overall, creation of an atmosphere similar, said the mayor, to what is seen at Fenway Park in Boston on game nights.

“Bruce Landon Way will be activated, and many times, it will be shut down,” said Sheehan, adding that the current surface lot, and Bruce Landon Way itself, will become extensions of the MassMutual Center.

“They can have their events literally flowing out to Bruce Landon Way, creating much more activation within the downtown,” he explained. “And it will be utilized for pre- and post-event programming.”

Elaborating, he said the current surface lot will be public space that the Convention Center Authority will lease out for various kinds of functions, bringing more people downtown.

Meanwhile, a new entrance to the MassMutual Center will be added at the corner of State and Main streets, providing the facility with two points of entry and, with this new addition, what the mayor likened to a “Broadway marquee,” a much stronger bridge to MGM Springfield and other businesses south of the arena.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself,” said Sheehan. “And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

That new entrance may help spur development of several vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the MGM casino, said Sarno, adding that requests for proposals to redevelop these properties, now under city control, will be issued soon.

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield, says the facility was designed to reflect the history and culture of the city.

These developments, coupled with the ongoing renovation of 31 Elm St., the former Court Square Hotel, into market-rate apartments due to be ready for occupancy in roughly a year, are expected to create more interest in Springfield and its downtown within the development community, said the mayor, noting, again, that needed pieces are coming together.

These pieces include housing, which will create a larger population of people living in the downtown; restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, a broad category that includes MGM Springfield, restaurants, and the Thunderbirds; and a vibrant business community.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself. And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

Individual pieces coming into place include not only 31 Elm, but the recently opened housing in the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street; some new restaurants and clubs on and around Worthington Street, including Dewey’s Lounge, the Del Raye, and Jackalope; and the planned new Big Y supermarket, which will address a recognized need in what has long been recognized as a food desert.

Staying Power

Then, there’s Tower Square and the Marriott flag that has been returned to the hotel several years after it was lost.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the two years worth of renovations to that hotel and planned reopening of the facility, Dinesh Patel showed off finishing-touch work in several areas, including the lobby, the fitness center, the pool room, and some of the meeting rooms.

He also opened the door the large ballroom, revealing a training session for dozens of the more than 180 people expected to be hired before the facility opens its doors. Like most of the renovation work itself, conducted at the height of the pandemic and its aftermath amid supply-chain issues and soaring prices for many products and materials, the hiring process has been a stern challenge as qualified help remains in short supply.

But for Patel and partner Mid Vitta, whose work to reclaim the Marriott flag — and reinvent Tower Square — earned them BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2022, it has been what amounts to a labor of love. The two saw an opportunity in the once-thriving but then-challenged retail and office complex in the heart of downtown, and have made the most of it, finding some imaginative reuse of many spaces. These include the recruitment of the YMCA, which has brought its childcare and fitness-center operations, as well as its administrative offices, to Tower Square. It also includes that new and decidedly different kind of Big Y store in space formerly occupied by CVS.

As for the hotel, which will open in time for the induction ceremonies for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, Patel said the timing is good for the property to come back online.

“Gas prices are coming down, and people are traveling again,” he said. “They want to get out and go places; we see a lot of pent-up demand.”

As he offered a tour of the nearly-ready facility, Patel noted the many nods to Springfield, its history, and its culture, from the basketball-themed art in the fitness center to the wall coverings depicting blueprints of noted inventions that happened in Springfield (from the monkey wrench to rail cars) to the many photographs of ‘old Springfield’ found on the walls of the stairs leading to the meeting facilities on the sixth floor.

“We wanted to tell the story of Springfield,” Patel said. “And we tell that story all through the hotel.”

Increasingly, that story is one of progress and recovery from COVID, not only in the downtown, where much of the interest is focused, but in many other neighborhoods as well, said both Sarno and Sheehan, noting that neighborhood plans have been developed for many different sections of the city that address everything from sidewalks to lighting to beautification, with gathered suggestions then forwarded to an ARPA advisory committee.

Overall, new schools and libraries are being built, infrastructure improvements are being undertaken, and businesses continue to be supported as they face the lingering effects of COVID through initiatives such as the Prime the Pump program, which provided grants of various sizes to businesses in need.

The city has received nearly $124 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to date, and it has distributed more than $50 million, including $4 million dispensed in the seventh round to date, earlier this month. Those funds went to small businesses, new businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, housing, capital projects, and direct financial assistance to households and seniors, said Sarno, adding that that the basic strategy has been put that money to use in ways where the impact can be dramatic and immediate.

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area is one of the highlights of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield.

“The majority of the monies that have been distributed have really helped a lot of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” he explained. “It’s a very eclectic mix, from mom-and-pop businesses to larger ventures to direct assistance.”

There have been efforts in the broad category of workforce development as well, he went on, adding that businesses of all kinds continue to be impacted by an ultra-tight labor market, just as many are starting to see business pick up again.

Overall, there have been more than 30 meetings conducted with residents and business owners in attendance, said the mayor, adding that these listening sessions were staged to gain direct feedback on how federal COVID relief money can best be spent in Springfield.

Identified needs and challenges range from workforce issues to childcare to transportation, said Sheehan, adding that what has come from these sessions is dialogue, which has often led to action, on how the city can collaborate with other groups and agencies to address these matters. And it has been a very fruitful learning experience.

“It created an opportunity to look at things differently,” he noted. “And I do think it has caused people to look at how we can work collaboratively to solve some pretty significant problems.”

Bottom Line

To motorists who are stuck in it, there is really no such thing as ‘good traffic.’

But while drivers don’t use that phrase, elected officials and economic-development leaders certainly do. As Sarno told BusinessWest, good traffic is a barometer of a city’s vibrancy, a measure of whether, and to what degree, a community has become a destination.

For a long while, Springfield didn’t have much, if any, of this ‘good traffic,’ and then, in the 18 months or so before COVID, it did. The pandemic and its many side effects took much of that traffic away, but there are many signs that it’s back and here to stay.

As the mayor said, the city is starting to get its mojo back. 

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

Features Special Coverage

Pivot Move

 

Mike Yates, left, and Ray Berry

Mike Yates, left, and Ray Berry agree that expansion into Amherst is a common-sense move for the company.

 

When asked how he would eventually become business partners with Marcus Camby, the former UMass and NBA star, Ray Berry, founder of White Lion Brewery, leaned back in his chair as if to indicate it was a bit of a long story.

It starts with Travis Best, another former NBA player who made his first headlines while playing for Springfield’s Central High School. It was Best who put together several annual Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend events, including a post-induction gathering. Following the opening of White Lion’s downtown Springfield operation just over a year ago, Best was looking to include the company in the festivities — and did.

Indeed, Best and Berry would collaborate with the city on a block party on Bridge Street during enshrinement weekend — the same weekend, it turned out, that UMass Amherst would be honoring Camby, Julius Erving, and John Calipari with statues in their honor on campus. Best and Berry decided to reach out to Camby to see if he wanted to co-host the event in Springfield, which he did.

“Marcus was all in — he was already in town, and he was excited to be part of what we were doing,” Berry recalled. “We shut down Bridge Street, rolled up the garage doors, and had some entertainment; it was our first grand event at our brick-and-mortar spot. At one point, I think we had 700 people between the brewery and the block-party environment. It was a beautiful evening downtown.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Camby became more than a little impressed with the White Lion operation and Berry’s status as one of the very few minority brewery owners in Massachusetts — so much so that he attached his name to an IPA produced by White Lion. And later — we’re moving very quickly now, but will go back and fill in some detail in a bit — when Berry was presented with an opportunity to expand his footprint and bring the White Lion brand to Amherst with a location in the heart of downtown, Camby agreed to come in as a partner.

The venture will be called White Lion Brewing Amherst, and will be based in a location that has been making headlines in recent months — 104 North Pleasant St., home to the recently opened Drake, a live-event venue that is already fulfilling its vast promise as a destination for music lovers from across Western Mass. and far beyond.

The White Lion taproom will be located just below the Drake in space that was formerly the High Horse restaurant and, before that, Amherst Brewing, where Mike Yates served as head brewer — before working behind the bar at High Horse.

He now has that same title at White Lion, so this new venture amounts to going home for him.

And with that perspective, he believes the White Lion brand is in the right place at the right time, and with the right business partner.

“It will feel good to be back there. It’s a great little town — I love Amherst,” Yates told BusinessWest. “I think this is going to be a big hit here. Since Amherst Brewing left downtown, there’s no brewery in the downtown area. This is essentially a tourist town — every year you have a new crop of students coming in and parents looking for a place to go for lunch or dinner, and a brewery is always a good option.

“I think this is going to be a big hit here. Since Amherst Brewing left downtown, there’s no brewery in the downtown area.”

“Combine that with our partnership with Marcus and our establishment’s reputation here in Springfield as a prominent player in the brewing business, and I think it will be a big win,” he went on. “I think they hit a big home run with the Drake — that’s what Amherst sorely needed — and we will be another big piece of the puzzle.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how this new venture came together, and what it means for Amherst — and White Lion.

 

What’s Brewing?

Berry told BusinessWest that he recently took part in a panel discussion before a convention of craft brewers at the Samuel Adams facility outside Boston.

The subject being addressed by the panel was satellite facilities, and, more specifically, when and under what circumstances they should be considered.

Summing up his remarks, Berry said he told them, “from a business lens, if the situation if right, and you’re not over-leveraging yourself, it could make sense for that brewery’s respective business model.”

That is certainly the case with this new location in Amherst, he said, adding that it makes sense on a number of levels. “Amherst is a great town. It’s a natural fit for White Lion and its progression.”

So much so that the Amherst Business Improvement District and other stakeholders, diligently trying to replace the lost Amherst Brewing operation, initiated talks with Berry back in 2019, by his recollection, about bringing his brand there.

He listened, but back then, he was devoting almost all of his time and energy to opening his brewery and taproom in the former Spaghetti Freddie’s location in Tower Square, a project that would eventually be slowed — as in slowed — by COVID-19 and its profound impact on construction and the larger renovation efforts at Tower Square.

When that location was well on its way, Berry and Amherst officials essentially picked up where they left off.

“They kept in communication — the conversations would come and go,” said Berry, adding that he eventually went to Amherst to look at some spaces there, including the former High Horse/Amherst Brewing location, which was attractive, but far more space than he needed. Consumed with opening his Springfield location, he put the Amherst project, if it could be called that, on pause.

Marcus Camby has already attached his name to an IPA

Marcus Camby has already attached his name to an IPA, and now he will take his involvement with White Lion Brewery to a higher level as a partner in the Amherst venture.

And it stayed there until, by coincidence (again), Camby was back in Amherst for event. While there, he and his business agent were inquiring about the “space across from Antonio’s Pizza” — the Amherst Brewing space.

That conversation started a dialogue between the two about what whether that location was available and what could be done with it, conversations that got more serious over time, prompted more visits to Amherst, and eventually spurred consideration of not the Amherst Brewing site (because it wasn’t exactly available at that time) but one just down the street, owned by the same party.

But then, the space under the Drake did become available, and the parties involved made an important pivot — yes, that’s a basketball term — back to 104 North Pleasant St.

With that backstory now complete, Berry and Yates have their focus on the future, one they believe holds a great deal of promise, because of the community, Amherst, the specific location, and what White Lion can bring to the table.

“From a White Lion lens, this makes total sense, and for a number of reasons,” Berry said. “For starters, the Drake is iconic. What they’re trying to do on that second floor is a game changer for the downtown Amherst community. To be below that music venue has a number of benefits, from a business perspective.”

“To be on the Main Street corridor in downtown Amherst has a number of benefits from a business lens,” he went on, adding that, while Springfield and Amherst are vastly different in terms of size, he sees many similarities in their downtowns and the work done by the two communities’ business improvement districts and efforts to bring more vibrancy to their respective downtowns.

“We see the many benefits that come with being in the heart of downtown Springfield, and we see the benefit of the partnership and the work that our own Business Improvement District does day in and day out, which includes special programming with White Lion,” he went on. “And the leadership at the Amherst BID has a similar fabric relative to their approach with downtown Amherst; they encourage and participate and facilitate and coordinate outdoor programming, special events, and business-improvement initiatives. Based off of what we’ve witnessed and knowing what they’re doing, it made total sense to be right in the heart of downtown Amherst.”

What also made sense, he said, was to meld the White Lion brand with the brand that Camby has developed, especially in the community where he originally made his mark a quarter-century ago.

“Amherst is a great town. It’s a natural fit for White Lion and its progression.”

Berry said preliminary design work is underway, and the Amherst facility should be open for business by the end of December, in time for the winter semester of classes at UMass and other area schools.

The facility will be a taproom, restaurant, outdoor social space, and a small pilot, nano-brew house — the main production will still be in the Springfield location — one that will allow for what Yates called “one-off” experimental ales.

“It will be a smaller scale — probably a three- or five-barrel brew system, which will allow us to spread our creativity wings a little and try some things that we couldn’t afford to do on a large scale like we have here in Springfield,” he explained. “It will be fun; I’m excited. Springfield’s great, and Springfield’s coming along, but it will be great to do a little bit of both.”

 

Draught Pick

Summing up his thoughts on the two communities where White Lion will have a presence, Berry said Springfield and Amherst have “similar bones.”

By that, he meant they’re trying to achieve the same things in their downtowns — specifically the establishment of an eclectic mix of businesses that complement one another and, together, create a destination.

White Lion has become a key piece of this puzzle in Springfield, and Berry is expecting the same in Amherst, especially with his new business partner attached to the project.

Together, they’ll be making a full-court press in a town where Camby is synonymous with success.

 

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

Cover Story

High Flight

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy and his AHL Finals jersey.

The Springfield Thunderbirds soared to new heights during the 2021-22 season, making the playoffs for the first time in their existence and taking Springfield to the championship round of the playoffs for the first time in three decades. As the franchise enters what will be an abbreviated offseason, it does so with momentum and a championship-caliber team to sell to a more engaged fan base, and management is laser-focused on taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Within the pantheon of ‘good problems to have,’ specifically in the world of professional sports, it doesn’t get much better than this. Although, yes, it does get a little better.

Indeed, after a lengthy playoff run that took the team to within a few wins of a Calder Cup, the Springfield Thunderbirds are looking at a short offseason — as in two full months shorter than the norm.

That’s a problem, said team President Nate Costa, because there’s a lot to do before the 2022-23 season starts, from season-ticket sales to scheduling promotions to lining up special guests and programs. But it’s a good problem, obviously, because of everything that happened during those aforementioned two months and what they mean to this franchise, and this brand, moving forward.

What happened, said Costa, is that the Thunderbirds, the franchise that brought pro hockey back to Springfield in 2016 after a brief time without a team, became “the talk of the town” during that playoff run. Elaborating, he told BusinessWest that the team took a huge leap forward in terms of visibility, prominence, and, yes, relevance. It always had a core of solid fans, but it hadn’t truly arrived. Until this spring.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened,” he told BusinessWest. “All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

The team took this huge step forward in large part because the team seized a huge opportunity during the playoffs to capitalize on the 11 extra games and the excitement generated with each passing round by promoting the brand in every way imaginable, from ceremonial posters and rally towels handed out at the home games to extensive social-media coverage of the team’s run to the Eastern Conference title and the brink of a Calder Cup.

The challenge — and huge opportunity — moving forward, as Costa said, is to build off this hard-earned momentum, and this is what management will be doing in this abbreviated offseason.

Thunderbirds

The extended playoff run gives the Thunderbirds a short offseason, but in the larger scheme of things, that’s a good problem to have.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds,” he noted. “We’re in a good position to take advantage because we’ve laid a really solid foundation that we can build on.”

Looking back on a memorable season, one that earned the T-Birds Team of the Year honors (the President’s Award) from the AHL, Costa said it happened because many pieces fell in place and because all the various players — from the local ownership group that provided the needed resources to a parent team, the St. Louis Blues, that “understands the value of winning at this level,” as he put it, to the players and management — did their respective jobs.

Overall, he said the deep playoff run was and is validation of everything that management and ownership have done to not only bring hockey back to Springfield but to generate interest in hockey and build a successful brand.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened. All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

“It’s been a huge validation, not only for me personally, but for the owners, who stepped up for the city, made a big investment, and did it the right way,” he said. “To be able to get the Eastern Conference championship and do something that hadn’t been done in 30 years … that’s pretty special.

“Getting to the playoffs is really important to the development of these players; these guys are getting extra games, they’re getting extra high-pressure games … that all means a lot to development,” he added. “The really cool thing is that there is lot of continuity between last year’s team and this year’s team, which is a testament to the Blues — they’re bringing back a lot of guys.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Costa about the season — and postseason — that was, how the team made the most of that unique opportunity, and how it intends to build on all that was gained during the 2022-23 season and beyond.

 

Banner Year

One of the many items on the to-do list for Costa and his team this offseason is to order a ‘2022 Eastern Conference Champions’ banner to hang in the rafters at the soon-to-be-renamed MassMutual Center.

Costa said research revealed the name of a company in Waltham that makes such banners for a number of professional sports teams, and preliminary talks with that outfit will commence soon.

Thunderbirds fared well

While the playoffs are not a ticket to guaranteed financial success, the Thunderbirds fared well, selling out each of its three games in the Finals.

“We want to do it right — to go the company that does this for everyone,” he said. “I want to get their input — I want to get some direction on how to design this the right way, because it’s going to live in our rafters for a long time.”

Finding a company to make a banner for the rafters was about the last thing on anyone’s mind during a very challenging start to the 2021-22 season, said Costa, adding that this past year was a stern test on many different levels.

For starters, the team was starting up again after deciding not to play during the 2020-21 season, when COVID was at its height and the AHL was playing a shorter schedule with a host of restrictions and, for the most part, no fans. This meant assembling a team of employees (with many returnees from before COVID) and re-engaging with a fan base.

But mostly, it meant dealing with a pandemic that kept coming in waves and was still very much a disruptive force, especially for businesses dependent on bringing large numbers of people together in closed spaces.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds.”

“It’s been a long year,” said Costa, putting heavy emphasis on that word ‘long.’ “We dealt with a lot of ups and downs; there were a lot of challenges. Groups were essentially non-existent because schools weren’t doing anything, and we were living in a real COVID world for half the year. January and February were some dark months where we still wearing masks and there were potential capacity limitations … we were dealing with that all year, and it was a really taxing and challenging environment to work through. It was exhausting.”

While dealing with these challenges, the Thunderbirds, thanks to a solid mix of established veterans and emerging prospects, established themselves as not only a playoff contender (23 of the league’s 31 teams would qualify for postseason play for the 2021-22 season following some changes to the format), but as a frontrunner. Indeed, the team forged its way near the top of the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference and stayed there for the bulk of the season.

By the spring, the team’s consistently solid play made a playoff birth likely, and then inevitable, giving Costa and his team a chance to start planning — as much as any organization can plan a playoff run, even with a bye in the first round, which the T-Birds earned by finishing second overall in the Atlantic Division.

Indeed, the playoffs are to be taken one series — and, in many respects, one game — at a time, he said, adding that, while a playoff run can benefit a team’s bottom line, there are many additional expenses, especially travel and logistics, and some challenges when it comes to ticket sales, including the loss of all-important group sales.

playoff experience different

Nate Costa says one of the team’s goals was to make the playoff experience different for the fans and the players, with rally towels and banners like this one.

“Every series is like a mini-season, the way we market it and the way you go through the process, because you don’t know what’s going to happen; it’s all dependent on your performance on the ice. At the beginning of the run, we wanted it to make it feel different and feel separate from the regular season, and so, from a marketing perspective, we put together an entire campaign around the playoffs,” Costa explained, including a hashtag slogan — Fly, Fight, Win! — that was a nod to the Air Force. “It was completely different from what our regular-season marketing campaign was.”

 

Winning Formula

Such marketing efforts included everything from lawn signs to new signage around the arena to stickers placed in the windows of downtown businesses, as well as that hashtag. They were a necessary expense, but ones with a very uncertain ROI.

“You can do all that planning and do all those things, and then get knocked out in the first round,” Costa explained. “We were really fortunate that we got to go all the way to the end, but every round you have to redo the schedule, get tickets up on sale, set the pricing on tickets, get the tickets sold, getting marketing in place and buying the advertising — and it all happens within a week.”

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year. I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.”

And there are no guarantees that a playoff run will be a financial success, he said, noting that some teams in the playoffs — including the Chicago Wolves, who triumphed over the T-Birds in the Calder Cup Finals in five games — played before crowds that were far from sellouts, and one of the playoff teams from the Western Conference, Stockton, was averaging just over 1,000 per game.

“At this level, though tickets were in demand, you still have to grind, and you still have to have relationships with people in the region to try to move tickets,” Costa said. “And if you’re not prepared to do that at this level, you’re not going to succeed.

“The first two rounds are really challenging, and teams traditionally break even or lose,” he explained. “But you maximize those opportunities to build momentum for future rounds, if you can get there, and that’s what we did.”

Overall, the Thunderbirds did well with playoff ticket sales, he went on, noting that each of the three Finals games hosted in Springfield was a sellout (6,793 seats), and the earlier rounds averaged more than 5,000, with some games coming on weekdays and even Mondays.

Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

There are many benefits to an extended playoff run, including merchandise, such as this ‘Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

But beyond ticket sales, Costa said he saw the playoffs as an opportunity to build the Thunderbirds brand, and he invested heavily in many different initiatives.

For starters, he made sure all three of the team’s media members went to every playoff series to cover the Thunderbirds for social media.

“From the beginning, I wanted to feel like a pro hockey team, and that means getting photography, video, and social media on the road,” he said. “That’s what separates us from a lot of AHL teams; not many teams in this league are willing to invest in this stuff. But I think it’s important for perception of the brand.

“If you can do the little things like that, if you can let the players feel like real pros, then the fans, by extension, the people who are following your brand, can also feel that, and that gives you a lot to sell,” he went on. “The playoffs, to me, was all about maximizing the opportunity.”

 

Setting Sale

As he talked with BusinessWest, Costa was wearing a ‘Calder Cup Finals’ pullover. At one point in the proceedings, he paused to show off the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy, named for former AHL President Richard Canning.

These are just a few of the symbolic ways in which he and his team are still living in the moment, if you will.

But in most other ways, the team is putting its deep playoff run behind it and moving onto next season. Indeed, Costa made a point of referring to the 2021-22 campaign as ‘last season,’ and to 2022-23 as ‘this season.’

Which brought him back to the ‘good problem to have’ he mentioned at the top.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said of the shortened offseason, noting that it’s too short for everyone involved — players, many of whom will be back with the team, as well as coaches and administrators.

But from a business perspective, and most all other perspectives, it certainly beats the alternative — another season with no playoffs.

“I’m going to take the playoff run and everything that came with it over a longer offseason,” he said, adding quickly that some, but not all, of the page-turning work that comes after a year’s final game is over had to wait until the playoff run ended.

The mission now is to make up for that lost time, and Costa and his team are now forging ahead with the plans for 2022-23. The schedule has been officially released, which means the team can now start slotting in everything from annual events to who will sing the national anthem at each game.

And, as he mentioned, there is momentum to build on, and it is already showing up in season-ticket sales; by mid-July, the team had more than 1,150 season tickets sold for the coming season, a jump of nearly 100 from last year, with more than 200 still to renew and a projected 80% of those coming back. That means the team is looking at perhaps a 30% increase in season-ticket volume.

And that should be just one area of growth, he said, adding that, overall, a short offseason isn’t beneficial only because of what it means about last season.

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year,” Costa explained. “I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.

“Early on in the year is typically really hard for us,” he went on, adding that the team is competing with pro and college football and other sports as well. “But coming out of this, I think we’re going to have a lot of momentum. We don’t really hit our stride typically on the business side with big crowds until December, when people really start to turn the page and think hockey. This will help us early in the season; we’re going to come out of the gates strong.”

As the team continues its budgeting for the coming year, it will be aggressive as it sets goals for ticket sales and revenue because of last year’s success, Costa said, but it will also look for new areas in which to grow and improve, on both the revenue and expense sides.

“It’s just the maturation of the business,” he explained. “We’re in a healthy place now, and it’s all about how we take advantage of our momentum. When we took this over, it was obviously exciting, but there wasn’t a ton of value built up in the brand, and now we’ve gotten to the point where we have some value built into the brand, and we have to take advantage of that.

“Now, we have a winning team to talk about and a championship-caliber team,” he went on. “And that just adds to everything that we’re doing, and it makes our job easier.”

 

Soar Subject

Summing up the playoff run that was, from both a personal and professional perspective, Costa said it was, in a word, “special.”

“It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my career,” he said, noting that the team won the Eastern Conference title exactly six years from the day the new franchise was announced. “I’ve been in pro sports for more than 15 years now and had never gotten to that point — it was fulfilling on many levels.

“And that’s one of the things I hammered home with our staff. I said, ‘I know it’s exhausting, and I know we’re working extra games, but this doesn’t happen every year,’” he went on, adding that, when it does happen, a team has to take full advantage of the moment — and the momentum created by that moment.

And he and his team are fully committed to doing just that.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Pedal to the Mettle

Monson Savings Bank’s birthday celebration

Monson Savings Bank’s birthday celebration

Monson Savings Bank has been commemorating its 150th birthday in many different ways, from a time capsule to assembling and donating $15,000 worth of bicycles to several area charities. Through all these efforts, the bank is celebrating its continuity and its commitment to a community that is now much larger then when it took its first deposit back in 1872.

Dan Moriarty called it a ‘trial run.’

That’s how he referred to his 60-mile bike ride, which he also called the ‘Tour de Branches,’ on July 17, during which he visited all seven Monson Savings Bank (MSB) locations — five branches, the headquarters, and a loan center — on a trek that took him from Monson to East Longmeadow, with stops along the way in Ware, Wilbraham, and Hampden.

Moriarty, the bank’s president and CEO, said this was a tuneup for a ride two and a half times that length, a number that is significant because 150 is also the number of years the bank is celebrating this year, and the ride, still very much in the planning stages, has now become a poignant part of the celebration.

Dan Moriarty’s ‘Tour de Branches’

Dan Moriarty’s ‘Tour de Branches’ helped him prep for a 150-mile ride as part of Monson Savings Bank’s birthday celebration

“My goal is to raise money to give to a local charity … I’m thinking I could ask for per-mile pledges from friends, family, customers, and businesses,” Moriarty told BusinessWest, adding that the charity is still to be determined. “I’m guessing no other bank president belonging to a bank older than 100 years has done this.”

He’s probably on very safe ground with that statement. Not many bank presidents pedal such distances, although he’s certainly comfortable doing so having competed in several Ironman triathlons, where participants cycle 120 miles while also swimming 2.4 miles and running a full 26.2-mile marathon. And, more to his point, there simply aren’t many banks that can boast about being around for 100 years, let alone 150.

And that, more than anything else, is what MSB is celebrating this year, said Mike Rouette, executive vice president and chief operating officer, noting that this longevity, this stability — not only the same bank, but the same name since Ulysses S. Grant was patrolling the White House — is rare in this era of ongoing mergers and acquisitions.

bank employees buried a time capsule

As part of the 150th birthday celebration, bank employees buried a time capsule filled with a number of items reflective of 2022.

It is reflected, he said, in a borrowed slogan that the bank has adopted: ‘Never forget who you are and where you came from; it’s an important part of you that you will find strength and peace from.’

“It’s short, and it’s sweet, and it says a lot about us,” Rouette noted, adding that, while the bank has grown and expanded its presence within the region, it remains loyal to the principles on which it was founded in 1872.

Moriarty agreed.

“I think it takes a strong sense of loyalty to the legacy of the organization to hang on for that long,” he said. “As we know, in this area, some long-lasting institutions decided to go a different route and either merge or combine. It starts with the organization and how it feels the future can be laid out for a bank that’s been around a long time; if they feel they’re not going to make it, they look to a different situation or combination. So far, we’re not committed to looking in a different direction.”

Moving forward, he said the bank “has a lot to talk about” at its upcoming annual meeting and strategic planning sessions in September, from where, when, and how to expand geographically to anticipating where technology is going and how to maximize it to better serve customers.

“We had very big ideas, and I’m happy to say that we made most of them happen — and very successfully.”

“It’s all about delivery systems, customer service, where we’re physically going next, which means market analysis and possible branch expansion,” he explained. “We’re going to do it in a controlled and managed method.”

 

To a Higher Gear

While Moriarty is, indeed, a veteran of Ironman triathlons, it had been a while, seven years by his estimation, since he had taken part in one of those competitions. Thus, he admits to being a little sore after that 60-mile trial run.

“It was a reality check when I came off the bike that day,” he explained. “I said, ‘whoa … that was 60 miles; I have to do that twice plus another 30 miles.’ This will be a good challenge for me; there was about 3,500 feet of climbing for one loop — that’s like going up half of Mount Washington.”

Monson Savings Ba

Monson Savings Bank has retained its original name and home city for 150 years, a rarity in the banking world.

He’s presently training with long-time friend and Ironman coach Kevin Moloney, who took the 60-mile ride with him. He’s also mapping out a course, one that will essentially take him on the 60-mile loop twice, with an additional loop, totaling 30 miles, tacked on.

As he said, it’s a work in progress when it comes to planning the ride, choosing a beneficiary, and filling in other details. And this ride will, as noted, will be a capstone — along with a formal gala in September to be attended by employees, board members, and plus-ones (total guest list of … you guessed it, 150) — to what has been a full year of activities marking the bank’s milestone.

Recapping them, Caitlin O’Connor, vice president and Marketing officer, said there has been a wide variety of events and programs, from the burying of a time capsule to the commissioning of a painting of the bank’s first president, Charles Merrick; from a traveling historical display featuring antique currency to monthly $150 cash prizes; from the placing of a marker where the original bank building stood at the corner of Main and State streets in Monson to several build-a-bike initiatives, whereby bank employees have assembled and donated $15,000 worth of bicycles to several nonprofits in the area, including I Found Light Against All Odds, Educare Springfield, and the South End Community Center.

“We had a ‘Cheers to 150 Years’ event starting on March 19 to really kick things off; that’s was an employee event and the starting point,” O’Connor told BusinessWest. “And from then on, it just grew and took on a life of its own. We had very big ideas, and I’m happy to say that we made most of them happen — and very successfully.”

Collectively, these events and programs have punctuated the bank’s place in the community — literally, as with the marker placed at the original bank location, but also figuratively, as a community bank that is very much involved in the cities and towns where it has locations, and the region as a whole, Rouette noted, adding that the 150th anniversary has been a great vehicle for making introductions, forging new relationships, and reinforcing existing ones.

“What a great way to walk into a nonprofit that you’re hoping to bring into the bank or a commercial or residential customer,” he said of the celebration and everything that it conveys about the bank, its history, its stability, and a future that will look very much like the present and the past.

“It’s an opportunity to give them your story — who you are, what you’re about, and your overall legacy,” he went on. “People want to do business with people that have been around, that are part of the community — not just here today and gone tomorrow, but institutions that are truly the cornerstone, the bedrock of the area.”

 

The Ride Stuff

That word ‘area’ has taken on new meaning for MSB since its last major anniversary — its 100th, in 1972 — and especially since 1998.

It was during that year that the bank opened its first location outside of Monson, a branch in Hampden. Five years later, a third branch was opened in Wilbraham, and new locations were added in Ware in 2103 and East Longmeadow in 2020. During that same memorable year, MSB’s Loan and Operations Center moved to a state-of-the-art facility in Wilbraham.

‘Build a Bike,’ where employees assemble bikes and donate them to area charities

The 150th celebration has featured a number of programs and events, including ‘Build a Bike,’ where employees assemble bikes and donate them to area charities, in this case, I Found Light Against All Odds.

With these moves, the bank is now serving a much broader area and becoming more involved in the region’s unofficial capital, Springfield, and serving a broader demographic mix of commercial and residential customers, said Dina Merwin, senior vice president and chief risk and senior compliance officer for the bank.

“We’ve well beyond the towns in which we have branches, and so we recognize that we want to reach all potential customers in our market,” she explained. “We recognize also our desire to include financial inclusion in reaching all potential customers in our market, whether that cuts across lines of income levels, race, ethnicity, and any other basis.

“Many of our recent events were focused in the Springfield area,” she went on, “while we continue to support and celebrate all the communities in which we are committed. We also recognize that there have been some demographic shifts in our market area in age and different types of population, so it’s important for us to recognize that and make sure we’re inclusive in all our efforts.”

While the area being served by the bank has changed, the name over the growing number of doors hasn’t, said Moriarty, noting that his institution, unlike many others, has chosen to keep the name of the community where it began as part of the brand, as well as that word ‘Savings.’

“I think the recession will be short and challenging, but I think Monson Savings and other banks are positioned well to weather, manage, and help customers through this period.”

“We’re going against the grain on that in some respects,” he noted. “Mike and I met with the board of directors during a strategic planning session, and we feel that the reputation that the bank has built the past 150 years does mean something, and we believe it’s recognizable in the community. We want to leverage that from a standpoint of legacy — Monson itself, where it all began — and then ‘Savings’ connoting security and trust, even though we feel we are a commercial player in the market.”

Indeed, while celebrating its 150th anniversary in all those ways mentioned above, MSB has also been carrying on with business, said Moriarty, noting that it has been a solid year in many respects, despite a sagging economy, with continued growth in commercial lending and, overall, a $30 million increase in total assets, bringing the bank near the $650 million mark.

“We’re working to strengthen existing relationships while also fostering new ones across the board, from individuals to businesses,” he said. “We’re trying to help them navigate where this challenging environment is going.”

On the commercial-lending side of the ledger, an already competitive landscape has become even more so as rates start to edge up, said Rouette, adding that many businesses are being more cautious amid general uncertainty about where the economy is headed and, overall, a decline in confidence.

“You’re seeing a bit of a slowdown, especially as people hear of the inflationary environment we’re in,” he went on. “People are pushing back potential projects that they have; maybe they were going to start in the third quarter or fourth quarter of this year, and now they’re saying, ‘let’s pump the brakes a little bit and possibly look at next year and see where we land from a rate standpoint and with the economic environment.’

“We had a great first and second quarter,” he went on. “But when you’re out talking to customers, you can hear the apprehension and cautious tone of voice that business owners are using right now.”

Moriarty concurred, and noted that a recession is now more likely than not, in his opinion, and this will add to the many challenges business owners and managers are currently facing.

“I think the recession will be short and challenging,” he said, “but I think Monson Savings and other banks are positioned well to weather, manage, and help customers through this period. And once the Fed gets control of inflation and the employment market evolves a little bit, we’ll see some improvement.”

Looking ahead, and toward creation of a new strategic three-year plan for the bank, Moriarty said a number of topics will be considered, including the need to be more “customer-centric versus product-centric,” as he put it.

“That means that we have to make sure we’re creating frictionless opportunities and delivery systems that make it easy for customers to manage their banking,” he explained. “That includes digital banking; we know we have cutting-edge products now, but we know things are going to change drastically in the next three to five years, so we have to make sure we’re positioned to give those offerings to our customers.

“Artificial intelligence will come more into play in the next three to five years,” he went on. “The usefulness or the quickness with which we can do data analysis of what our customers have and what they need will be important. Customers want to have things at their fingertips; they want to maximize and analyze their financial situation and be able to look forward and make good decisions.”

As for possible geographic expansion, Moriarty said there are many possibilities, and he’s not ready to talk about any of them.

He did say that the consensus among experts in the industry is that the recent pattern of consolidation within the sector will continue, leaving opportunities for smaller, community banks like Monson Savings.

“We feel that we benefit from other mergers and acquisitions because we’ve been around for so long, and we know that where there’s shakeup, there’s also opportunity,” he said. “We’re going to keep an open mind to that.”

 

Going the Last Mile

Returning to the subject of his planned bike ride, Moriarty joked that now that he’s started to talk about it, he’s pretty much committed to doing it.

He’s training two or three times a week with Moloney and looking at a number of options for which charity or charities (probably the latter) he will be fundraising for.

It’s been a while since he’s taken part in an Ironman competition or even a marathon — he’s run in several of those as well, including Boston a number of times. But he said it’s like … well, riding a bike. Not really, but close.

In any case, like the institution he now leads, he’s proven that he’s in it for the long haul — as in the very long haul: 150 miles for him, 150 years for the bank.

They’ve both put the pedal to the mettle.

 

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

Education Special Coverage

Grade Expectations

Michelle Schutt says that, while it may seem like Greenfield, Mass. is a long way from Twin Falls, Idaho (3,160 miles, to be exact), it’s really not.

At least when it comes to the issues and challenges facing the institutions that now comprise the top lines on her résumé — College of Southern Idaho (CSI), where she was vice president of Community and Learner Services, and Greenfield Community College (GCC), where she started just a few weeks ago as the school’s 11th president — and their overall missions.

“There are many similarities between these communities,” she explained. “There’s a high number of first-generation college students, people who are hungry for educational opportunities, definite need within the community … they are very much alike, which lends itself to the applicability of what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to do the future. I’m a big believer that education opens doors and changes family trees, and that we can all be educated.”

Schutt comes to GCC with a résumé that includes considerable work in the broad realms of student services and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she said this will be one of the main focal points at GCC.

“If we’re going to recruit and retain students,” she told BusinessWest, “we’ve got to take into account their entire experience because often, it’s not the academic rigor or even the finances that keep them from succeeding; it’s the social-capital issues of how they’re maneuvering through life.

“COVID definitely exasperated the social needs of our students,” she went on. “But they were always there.”

Regarding diversity, she said this issue is often looked at through the lens of ethnic diversity — and that is certainly part of it. But there are many aspects to this matter, some more visible than others, and they must all be considered at institutions like GCC.

“If we’re going to recruit and retain students, we’ve got to take into account their entire experience because often, it’s not the academic rigor or even the finances that keep them from succeeding; it’s the social-capital issues of how they’re maneuvering through life.”

“It’s a little cliché, but this is a bit of an iceberg topic,” she explained. “There are the physical things that we notice about each other, and then there’s the 90% of the iceberg that’s below the water line; you really need to get to know someone before you can fully understand how they, too, are diverse.”

Schutt told BusinessWest that, after more than 20 years of work in higher-education administration — work that had taken her from St. Cloud, Minn. to Hanover, Ind., Laramie, Wyo., and then Idaho, she considered herself ready to be a college president, and began looking to apply for such positions.

This recognition didn’t come overnight, she said, and it was actually several years after the then-president of CSI asked her to consider that position before she considered herself truly qualified and ready to take the helm at a campus.

She said she looked at a few opportunities that presented themselves — there have been a number of retirements and shifts in leadership in higher education (as in other sectors) over the past few years — but soon focused her attention on GCC.

Schutt said the school — which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary — and its mission, the area it serves, the team in place, and the institution’s prospects for future growth and evolution all appealed to her.

Her immediate goals are to become acquainted with the school, its staff and faculty, as well as Greenfield and the broader area served by the college.

Looking longer-term, she said she wants to properly position GCC for a future where enrollment will be even more of a challenge than it is today, and where students’ ‘needs,’ a broad term to be sure, will only grow.

“Nationally, we’re heading for an enrollment cliff,” she said, adding that 2025 is the year when already-declining numbers are expected to reach a new and more ominous level. “We have to ensure that we’re offering what people need and what people are looking for; we have to take a look at what we’re doing in workforce and in community education and what we’re doing with credit-based courses, and align those with good outcomes.”

 

Course of Action

As noted, Schutt brings to GCC a résumé dominated by work in student services, with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

At the College of Southern Idaho, where she started in 2015, she held several positions, starting with associate vice president of Student Services, then vice president of that same department, and, starting just last year, vice president of Community and Learner Services.

“If they’re stressed about some sort of insecurity or some issue related to childcare or transportation, it’s really difficult to focus on calculus. That’s where student affairs and student services come in — to educate the entire student.”

She lists a number of accomplishments, including a sharp rise in enrollment for the 2020-21 school year; steady increases in Hispanic student enrollment, from 17.8% in 2015-16 to 26.3% in 2109-20; and improvement in the graduation rate from 20% in 2016 to 34% in 2020.

But she believes many of her most significant gains came in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Indeed, Schutt noted that, in helping CSI become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HIS), she recruited and hired bilingual staff members for each area of Student Services, spearheaded CSI’s first HIS Week, lobbied the board of trustees for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, developed and offered a program called Parent College in both English and Spanish, established the Gay-Straight Alliance student group, and advocated for and hired the school’s first full-time veterans’ coordinator.

Prior to CSI, she served as director of Student Affairs at Penn State University’s campus in Scranton. As a member of the school’s senior administrative leadership team, she was engaged in strategic planning, policy development, and problem solving.

She said that she gravitated toward work in student services (she also teaches) because of its importance to the success of not only students but the institution in question. Summing it up, she said such work falls into the realm of student success and making sure they can get on — and stay on — a path to achieving their goals, whatever they may be.

“It’s about ensuring that their housing and food and social integration and mental health and physical health are all taken into account as it relates to their journey,” she explained, “because all of those things play a factor in their academic success.

“If they’re stressed about some sort of insecurity or some issue related to childcare or transportation, it’s really difficult to focus on calculus,” she went on. “That’s where student affairs and student services come in — to educate the entire student.”

When asked what she liked about this aspect of higher education, she said there are many rewards that come with it, especially those derived from helping students clear some of the many hurdles to success.

“I love that we’re able to help each and every student achieve their goals, and that we are looking at them as individuals, as humans, and not another person in a seat, and that we’re educating the whole person.”

“I love that we’re able to help each and every student achieve their goals, and that we are looking at them as individuals, as humans, and not another person in a seat, and that we’re educating the whole person.”

Looking to take her career in higher education to a higher plane, Schutt looked at several job opportunities, but eventually focused on the presidency at GCC because of what she considered a very solid match.

Compatibility was revealed the initial interview, conducted via Zoom, and then reinforced at a day-long, in-person session, during which she met and took questions from several constituencies, including faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders.

“There is a shared set of values that focuses on students and recognizes the importance of community integration for a community college,” she said when asked what she came away with from that day’s experiences.

“When I came to campus, it was validating to meet people who truly care about students,” she went on. “And that was conveyed in every group that I met with; that was conveyed by the students — that they felt they were cared for. And those things are really important to me; you can’t make that up. And the end of the day, if you don’t care about students, the students know that.”

 

School of Thought

As noted, Schutt will bring a deep focus on the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion to her new role, noting that, while she has always had an appreciation for these matters, it reached a new and much higher level through her experiences teaching English and social justice.

“I was teaching in the evening, when we had the greatest diversity of students,” she explained. “And to understand the general college-student experience was really eye-opening to me and made me a better administrator.

“That’s because, as a vice president, you see the highly successful students, or the students who were in great despair, who may not persist no matter how we helped them,” she went on. “To see the 40-year-old mom coming back to school, the 16-year-old dual-credit student, the student with limited English acquisition, the working dad … all those people coming together in one class really opened my eyes to the immense diversity in who we educate in community college.”

At CSI, Schutt said, it became a priority for the school to become a Hispanic Serving Institution, and the many steps taken to achieve that status became learning experiences on many levels. And, ultimately, they helped enable the school to better serve all its students.

“We worked really hard to make sure we were understanding the Hispanic student experience and that we were ensuring equitable outcomes and inclusionary practices,” she explained. “There were always critics who would say, ‘you’re focused on Hispanic students only.’ Well … no, we were making all our practices and policies better for all of our students.

“We worked very hard to get designation, but along the way, we also worked on broadening our understanding and awareness of all students,” she went on. “I lobbied in front of the board of trustees for more gender-neutral bathrooms and started a food bank and made sure we had a full-time veterans’ coordinator. Those are things that improve opportunities for all our students.

“When we’re taking about equity, we’re making sure that everyone has the same opportunity,” she continued. “But how they get there may look very different, and the inclusion component of it is celebrating those differences, and there’s a lot of work to be done — in the field, in society — and Greenfield isn’t any different.”

Elaborating, she said it’s one of her goals to soon have an administrator focused specifically on diversity, equity, and inclusion, a broad realm that, as she said, goes beyond ethnic diversity and to those matters below the tip of the iceberg.

“DEI here might look at educational attainment, it might look at poverty and wealth inequities, it may include LGBTQ identities — there’s diversity everywhere,” she said. “We can’t say, ‘we all look the same here in Greenfield or in the Pioneer Valley, so there is no diversity.’ Diversity is everywhere; it just may not be as obvious.”

 

Class Act

Looking ahead, Schutt said she’s looking forward to filling her calendar with meetings with local officials and members of the business community as she works to gain a broader understanding of the community served by the college.

She’s also looking forward to the fall, and a projected increase in enrollment as the school looks to fully recover from the pandemic and its many side effects, as well as the coming year, an important milestone for GCC as it celebrates 60 years of growth and change.

Mostly, though, she’s looking forward to continuing what has become, in many respects, her life’s work in student services and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As she said, if schools like GCC are to successfully recruit and retain students, they must take into account their entire experience. And this will be the focus of her efforts.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Mayor William Reichelt

Mayor William Reichelt says West Springfield is making significant progress on many of the goals he set when first elected in 2015.

While the country will be celebrating its 250th birthday in 2026, West Springfield will mark that same milestone two years earlier.

And the planning for what will be a huge party is very much underway, said Mayor William Reichelt, noting that a committee has been put together, chairs of that board have been selected, and a dialogue will soon be launched with town residents to determine how, where, and in what ways they want to observe that birthday.

And while two years will go by quickly, especially with all this planning and execution to handle, this community that operates as a city but still calls itself a town could look much different by the time the big party kicks off.

Several of its major roadways, including Memorial Avenue and sections of Route 5, will be redone or in the process of being redone (hopefully the former, said the mayor as he crossed his fingers — figuratively, anyway) by then. There will be some new businesses on those stretches — Amherst Brewing is moving into the former Hofbrauhaus property, for example — and some of them well before 2024. And there may actually be some cannabis-related ventures in this town that has thus far said ‘no’ to this now-booming industry; a critical City Council vote on the matter took place on July 18, just after this issue of BusinessWest went to press, and Reichelt, who backed a measure to permit the licensing of such establishments, was confident that he had the requisite six votes for passage.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast.”

“We’re in a much different place than we were four years ago, when it was 8-1 [against],” he said, adding that the measure would enable businesses to be located on large stretches of Riverdale Street, the preferred location among those in that industry.

And there is a chance, albeit a slight chance at this point, that the massive power-generating plant near the rotary at the Memorial Bridge may disappear from the landscape it has dominated for decades. Indeed, it has been decommissioned, and its owners are deciding what to do with the property.

“We’re in discussions now about what remediation will look like; I would like to see a clean site so another developer can do something with it, but we’re still in the talking stage,” Reichelt said, adding that the community is looking closely at what happened with a similar but larger property in Salem that is being redeveloped.

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons, features an eclectic mix of businesses and will soon add a restaurant.

But enough about what might and might not happen over the next two years. For now, West Springfield and its mayor are making progress on many of the goals he set down when he was first elected in 2015, including infrastructure, new schools and additions to existing schools, attracting new businesses, and creating what he called a “walkable downtown” with plenty of attractions.

Early on, he said he wanted to create ‘another Northampton.’ “But people have this weird dislike of Northampton, for some reason, so now, we say we want it to be like West Hartford,” Reichelt noted, adding that his community is certainly moving in that direction with initiatives ranging from a walking trail and improved infrastructure along the historic town green to the reinvention of 95 Elm St.

Formerly home to United Bank and still known to many as the ‘United Bank building,’ the three-story office complex is now home to a mix of businesses, and a new restaurant will soon be added to that mix.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on West Springfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

 

Party Planning

Returning to the subject of the 250th birthday party, Reichelt said the wheels are in motion for that celebration, and some pieces are starting to fall into place.

That list includes a special commemorative 250th birthday beer to be created by Two Weeks Notice Brewing, which set up shop in West Springfield several years ago and has established a firm presence in the community; no word yet on just what this brew will be or what it will be called.

Meanwhile, old documents and photos are being collected, and a commemorative history — a significant update to one produced for the 200th birthday in 1974 — is being planned, said Reichelt, adding that there is preliminary talk of staging an event similar to the Taste of West Springfield that was put on for many years by the community’s Rotary Club.

“We’re talking about bringing something like that back, maybe with a food truck festival on the common,” he said, reiterating that planning for the 250th is still very much in the early stages.

And while this planning continues, officials are making progress on a number of different fronts in the community, everything from the planning of infrastructure work on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale Street to determining how to spend roughly $8 million in ARPA funds (other infrastructure projects are at the top of that list) to contemplating what might be done if that massive power plant actually comes down.

Reflecting on that list, and his first six and half years in office, Reichelt, now one of the longest-serving mayors in the region, said he’s learned during his tenure that it often (always?) takes a long time to get something done, and, as a result, communities and those who lead them must be patient and perseverant.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast,” he told BusinessWest. “Projects that I started talking about back in 2016 … we’re just starting to get funding for and breaking ground now.”

As an example, he pointed to the last remaining piece, the restaurant at 95 Elm St., something he’s been pursuing for years and an element he believes will be a nice compliment to what already exists on that street — a few restaurants, the Majestic Theatre, and a bagel shop already at 95 Elm — and make the area more of a destination.

Hofbrauhaus

At top, the town common now boasts new walking paths. Above, the former Hofbrauhaus property will become a new site for Amherst Brewing.

It’s also taken some time to make the planned improvements to the green area, which now boasts new traffic lights, improved intersections, and a half-mile loop for walking and other uses, said the mayor, adding that a similar upgrade is planned for Elm Street.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it,” he said. “We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Meanwhile, there are ambitious plans on the table for improving the full length of Memorial Avenue, from the Route 5 rotary to the recently widened Morgan Sullivan Bridge. The $25 million, state-funded project is slated to commence next April, and it will take two years to complete.

Significant work is also planned for Route 5 (Riverdale Street) and specifically the stretch north of I-91, said Reichelt, adding that the broad goal is to redevelop that section of the street, which has always been far less popular with retailers than the stretch south of the highway.

“There’s this perception … businesses have no desire to be north of the I-91 overpass,” he said. “They all want to be between the overpass and East Elm connection, where are no vacancies.”

As for the aforementioned power plant, it is very early in the process of deciding what its fate will be, said Reichelt, adding that, if all goes well, the community could have 10 acres of land right off Route 5 and Memorial Avenue that could be redeveloped for a number of uses. There is a landfill next door, so there are some limitations, he noted, but industrial, commercial, and infrastructure opportunities exist, including a connection to the rotary so that motorists can go both north and south from Agawam Avenue.

 

What’s Down the Road

But much of the attention is now focused on cannabis-related businesses, that July 18 vote, and what will likely happen if that measure passes.

At present, the only business allowed in West Springfield for cannabis-related ventures is to advertise their products and services on billboards along the highways that run through the community. That will change, of course, if the measure passes, as the mayor predicts it will, and he expects West Side to be an attractive mailing address for such companies.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it. We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Indeed, Reichelt said he no longer uses the phrase ‘crossroads of the region’ to describe his community, preferring ‘retail capital of Western Mass.,’ a nod to the many regional and national retail heavyweights — from Costco to Dick’s Sporting Goods to Home Depot — that have located stores in the community.

The traffic that drew those major retailers should also attract cannabis businesses and especially dispensaries, he added.

Reichelt noted that he believes that there is sufficient momentum to get the measure passed, and there may be more with the recent 3% increase in property taxes, the town’s first in several years. Indeed, he said the tax revenue generated from cannabis-related businesses and its potential to help prevent another such increase in rates may help incentivize the council.

“It’s four years later, and the landscape has really changed,” he said. “You hear a lot of the same legalization arguments that you heard back in 2016, but that argument was settled in 2016 — it’s legal in Massachusetts now. To think that it’s not in town is … not based in reality. There are signs on Riverdale and Westfield Street and Memorial Avenue pointing to the different places you can buy marijuana outside of town; look at the tax money that’s leaving here.”

While the July 18 date was one to circle, there’s another key date fast approaching — Sept. 16. That’s the kickoff to the Big E, which will take another big step this year to returning to normal — as in 2019 conditions.

The fair was canceled in 2020, and while it was staged in 2021, it did not have a full lineup of entertainment, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, adding that, for 2022, it will be all systems go.

Much of the entertainment has already been announced, he said, noting that Lynyrd Skynrd will close the fair this year. Meanwhile, there will be a number of new attractions and events — including an opportunity for fair attendees to communicate with those at the International Space Station — and even food items, including noodles, vegan offerings, and full-sized donuts.

Cassidy said advanced ticket sales are running well ahead of the pace for last year, which was a near-record year for the fair, and other strong years. “People don’t even know what what the fair is going to offer, but they’re already supporting it by buying tickets, sometimes nine months in advance of the event,” he told BusinessWest. “And that provides a great deal of emotional support for those of us who run the place because we know that our patrons care about the organization.”

But while projections are certainly good for this year, he will watch closely what happens at several other state and regional fairs set to open in the coming weeks.

Indeed, one wildcard could be gas prices, which, while they’re coming down, remain historically high and could deter some families from driving long distances for entertainment.

 

Bottom Line

Reflecting on why this city still calls itself a town, Reichelt recalled that the vote to change the charter and convert from town government to city government was close — as in very close.

“They decided when they wrote the town charter to maintain the ‘town’ name to maintain that town feel,” he said, adding that many people have approached him and said ‘Will, it doesn’t feel like a town anymore.’

Such sentiments lead him to believe that maybe, just maybe, by the time West Springfield turns 250, it will not only operate a city government, but call itself a city.

If so, that will be only one of many potentially significant changes that will take place between now and then in a community where there is always movement and the landscape is, well, a work in progress.

 

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

Cover Story

A Developing Story

 

architect’s rendering

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new courthouse, apartment complex, and marina for Springfield’s riverfront.

As he talked about the many real-estate development projects he’s been involved with over the years and how they’ve come to the drawing board and then off it, Peter Picknelly said simply, “they develop … and then they happen.”

That was a very simple explanation for what is often a very complex process, especially with some of the projects he and his team at the OPAL Real Estate Group have taken on over the years, many of which have involved public-private partnerships and have taken years, if not decades, to become reality.

What he meant was that each project starts with a concept, or a vision — the marriage of a location or an existing building with a new use, or uses, often with higher goals, such as sparking additional development in a given area or neighborhood, or bringing new life to dormant, sometimes historic properties.

This has been the case with many projects in the OPAL portfolio — from the transportation and education center in downtown Holyoke to the conversion of the former Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton into luxury apartments, to a similar but much more complicated effort to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing.

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront, and especially the stretch north of the Memorial Bridge, is an untapped resource and the ideal location for a new courthouse.

And this is the same general formula being applied to the most ambitious project yet undertaken by Picknelly and his team at OPAL Real Estate — the transformation of land on Springfield’s riverfront, north of the Memorial Bridge, into a home for a new Hampden County courthouse and, perhaps, an apartment complex and marina, a concept that comes with a price tag just under $500 million.

Plans for this concept were unveiled at an elaborate press conference last month, with Picknelly and others, including Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, touting the proposed project as a potential economic catalyst for both the riverfront and Springfield’s North End.

And as a solution to what has become a huge health hazard in Springfield — the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse, which has been beset with problems ranging from mold and ventilation issues to alarming reports of employees getting sick and in some cases dying of cancers and other diseases linked to environmental concerns.

Indeed, a recent report by the state Trial Court’s Environmental Advisory Committee, made up of courthouse employees, said the courthouse is linked to more than 50 cancer diagnoses and five employees who have died of ALS.

Headlines announcing these reports and the state’s ongoing efforts to clean and perhaps renovate a building that people don’t want to go in — the Hampden Registry of Deeds and the district attorney’s office have relocated staff out of the building — prompted those at OPAL to create that vision that was announced last month, said Picknelly.

“It’s pretty clear to me that there is something wrong, very wrong, with that building,” he said. “There are 25,000 people who have been diagnosed with ALS; five have died in one building! That’s an amazing number. And 60 people have some form of cancer? We need a new courthouse, and anyone who cares about Springfield would have that on their radar.”

But there are very few spots in the city that can accommodate a new courthouse. Picknelly says he has one — or can assemble one.

The land in question has been considered for everything from a casino to a site for a UMass Springfield campus to the possible home for a minor-league baseball stadium. But it remains undeveloped and needs a spark to become a real asset for the city.

The proposed courthouse, a true public-private endeavor, could become that spark, he said, adding that this project, if it comes to fruition — and there are many hurdles to clear, as we’ll see — could lead to additional development along the riverfront and in the North End.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities,” said Picknelly, who called the Court Square initiative a ‘legacy project,’ and believes the same term could be applied to the courthouse endeavor. “We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at Picknelly’s impressive development track record and how this latest project would become an intriguing next chapter.

 

Right Place, Right Time

Picknelly said OPAL is an acronym, with those letters starting the names of his four children — Olivia, Peter, Alyssa, and Lauryn.

Over the years, it has become synonymous with large-scale, often difficult projects that often involve public-private partnerships. The Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center on Maple Street in Holyoke, which houses bus services on the ground floor and Holyoke Community College’s Adult Learning Center on the upper floors, is one example, while the Court Square project, which boasts an array of partners, including the state, MGM Springfield, Winn Development, and OPAL itself, is another.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities. We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

Picknelly said that he and his team at OPAL look for development opportunities across the region, often responding to requests for proposals for specific buildings and properties, as in Holyoke and Court Square, but often by being proactive, sometimes with property owned by Picknelly or Peter Pan.

Such is the case with the existing Hampden County courthouse and the need to find a solution to the ongoing health problems there.

Picknelly and his team at OPAL first became involved with the goal of perhaps finding a temporary home for the courthouse to be used while the existing property is cleaned and renovated. But amid the headlines about illness and death and the high costs of making the building safe, the thought process shifted to finding a permanent solution in the form of a new home.

“The more you looked into it, the worse it got,” he said. “So we asked, ‘where can you build a new one and keep it in the downtown area?’ Because this is important to Springfield.”

The solution that presented itself is the 14.5-acre parcel on the riverfront owned by Picknelly — as well as an adjoining parcel owned by the Republican Co., which is the planned location of the new courthouse; Picknelly is seeking to purchase that parcel.

The land owned by Picknelly is currently home to Peter Pan’s Coachbuilders repair and maintenance facility as well as a number of billboards, which are generating some revenue from lease deals.

As noted earlier, it has been considered for several different uses, including a baseball park — several different proposals for such a facility have been forwarded over the years. And Picknelly said UMass Amherst considered the site before it eventually located its downtown Springfield campus in Tower Square. It then became part of the parcel pieced together for a proposed Western Mass. casino, which was eventually built in the South End.

While the site has remained mostly idle, it has always had vast potential to bring life and business not only to an attractive stretch of the riverfront, but to the North End of the city, which has Union Station, but has long needed a catalyst that can attract different kinds of development.

A new courthouse could be that catalyst, said Picknelly, adding that, while such facilities are generally not thought of as economic development, they are worthy of that description, and for many reasons.

Start with the number 1,600. That’s how many people typically visit the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse on a daily basis — or would visit it if they were not afraid to venture inside, said Picknelly, adding that this kind of visitation, which includes those with business in the courts, court employees, jurors, and lawyers, could spawn different types of development, from restaurants to office buildings housing lawyers who want to be close to the courthouse.

“Your development is literally right on the water. Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

“I don’t think people realize how much activity a courthouse brings to a community,” he said. “It’s an economic-development driver.”

Ultimately, Picknelly believes the courthouse and apartment complex can do for the riverfront north of Memorial Bridge what the Basketball Hall of Fame complex has done for the area south of the bridge — in short, make it a destination.

“Before the Hall of Fame, there was essentially nothing there,” he said, referring to the collection of industrial properties that stood where the Hall is now. “Now, you have restaurants and vibrancy … the courthouse can do the same for the north side of the riverfront.”

It could potentially do even more, he went on, because on the south side of the bridge operating railroad tracks stand between the Hall of Fame and other businesses and the river itself. That problem doesn’t exist on the north side.

“Your development is literally right on the water,” he noted. “Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

While the proposed site — and the project envisioned for it — makes sense on many levels, said Picknelly, a number of pieces need to fall into place, especially at the state level.

 

Courting Opportunity

At present, the state and its Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) is still weighing whether to renovate the existing courthouse or move into a new one; a deep cleaning of the facility is currently underway.

Sarno and Picknelly have both questioned the wisdom of investing what could be hundreds of millions of dollars in a building that has reportedly been linked to serious illness and death.

“We think cleaning it is great, but ultimately, a new courthouse is needed in Springfield,” said Picknelly, adding that there are several options moving forward for the project and this parcel, with the best, in his view, being the property developed by OPAL and then leased by the state.

“It would be much faster if that was the chosen route,” he told BusinessWest. “Just the procurement process for securing the land would take two years; we can have shovels in the ground quickly. Ultimately, we believe the project can be done, start to finish, in four years.

“Right now, they’re talking about cleaning the building and renovating the current building — that will take seven years and probably cost $200 million when you factor in the cleaning of the facility and what they would have to do to move to the courts to a temporary facility for several years. That’s 70% of building new, and even if you do clean it, people are going to be very reluctant to go into it.”

former Court Square Hotel

OPAL Real Estate has become part of a number of ambitious public-private development initiatives, including the ongoing work to transform the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate housing.
Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Picknelly noted an additional benefit to building new is that Springfield gains an additional development site — the current courthouse location, in the heart of downtown and across State Street from the MGM casino complex.

If the courthouse moves to the riverfront, you then have that property to be developed for some other activity,” he said. “There are all sorts of opportunities; it’s great land that could be developed for other public purposes.”

When asked to give a timeline for the courthouse project, Picknelly said there are many factors that will play into if it happens and when it happens, from whether the current administration wants to address this problem or pass it on the next one, to how quickly DCAM can study and then weigh the costs and benefits of building new versus renovating what currently exists.

But he expects something — he’s not sure what — to happen within the next year, because of the severity of the health concerns in the current courthouse and the need to find a solution.

Much of his development activity over the past few decades falls into that category of ‘finding solutions,’ and this would certainly be another legacy project for the portfolio.

It is a developing story — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Building on a Solid Foundation

Matt Flink was recently named president and CEO of Appleton Corp., the real-estate and property-management arm of the O’Connell Companies. He brings with him considerable experience in this field — and the football field, as a coach. He intends to lean on both as he takes the helm of the company with a solid foundation and opportunities for growth in a number of established niches.

Matt Flink enjoys going to the office every day.

But he especially likes Thursdays. That’s the one day of the week when all employees at the O’Connell Companies are asked to be in the office, with most of them working remotely at least a few of the other four days.

“I love Thursdays — all my friends are there, my colleagues are there — there’s a sense of energy and a liveliness and a vitality that I don’t necessarily get the other days of the week,” he explained, before adding a large-sized ‘but.’

“It’s not about me and what I want, it’s about what’s in the best interest of the company and the best interest our employees,” he went on, adding that remote work is popular, it has become a benefit — and an expectation — at O’Connell, and, as he put it, “the work gets done.”

This same dynamic is playing out in businesses large and small across the region and across the country, and that’s just one of many issues and challenges Flink is facing as he takes the helm at Appleton Corp., the division of Holyoke-based O’Connell Companies that provides property-, facility-, and asset-management services, along with accounting and financial services, to managers and owners of commercial and residential properties across a wide swath of New England.

“We can’t get caught up in old-school thinking that says, ‘it’s always been this way, so it has to continue to be this way.’”

He now presides over a portfolio of managed properties that includes everything from several transportation centers, including Springfield’s Union Station, to the Springfield Technology Park, retail shopping centers, medical offices, and industrial properties. It also includes a number of residential properties, including senior-living facilities.

The broad goal moving forward, said Flink, who was named successor to the now-retired Paul Stelzer last month, is to maintain and grow that portfolio and specific niches within it, such as those transportation centers. There are now several in the portfolio, including 12 in Connecticut, he noted, and the company will aggressively work to build on its track record of success in that realm.

As for the phenomenon of remote work and what it means to office properties here and elsewhere, Flink said property owners and managers, including Appleton, must be imaginative and open to alternative uses for those facilities, because he just doesn’t see things going back to the way they were.

“We can’t get caught up in old-school thinking that says, ‘it’s always been this way, so it has to continue to be this way,’” using that phrase to describe both the office setting and remote work, and how property owners should be looking to fill their spaces.

Flink brings more than 30 years of experience to his new role, a diverse résumé that includes work in Illinois, Colorado, Florida, and 10 years with O’Connell, during which he has served in various roles, including director of Capital Project Management.

 

He intends to tap that reservoir of experience, which includes work in construction, real-estate development, property management, and sales and leasing, while leading O’Connell to what he expects will be continued growth in an evolving, highly competitive marketplace that is acting and reacting in response to a number of forces, everything from shifting dynamics in the workplace to a still-changing retail landscape to the aging of the population and the need for more senior housing.

He also intends to borrow from his experience coaching youth football, especially when it comes to management and helping team members “understand that they’re probably even better than they think they are,” as he put it (more on that later).

“This opportunity with O’Connell gives me an opportunity to bring all that experience to bear in one location and participate in leading not only what we do Appleton, but in the larger effort that we make with our parent company, the O’Connell Corp.,” he said. “To me, it’s the most logical place for me to land at this point in my career.”

 

Space Exploration

The Appleton Corp. is approaching its 50th birthday, said Flink, noting that it was launched in 1974 by the O’Connell Companies, a Holyoke fixture for more than 140 years now. The larger corporation also includes Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, a large regional general contractor; Western Builders; the O’Connell Development Group; and New England Fertilizer Co.

Appleton is the property- and facility-management company in what Flink called a “vertically integrated stack.” Appleton manages commercial properties, industrial buildings, warehouses, educational facilities, and multi-family housing properties, including many that are subsidized, especially to senior populations, although some are market-rate.

“We manage properties that we own,” he explained. “But we also manage a lot of properties for third parties that own buildings; we do a lot of management of facilities owned by government entities, such as the technology park and the rail stations.”

It’s a diverse portfolio, as he noted, and it includes everything from an Amazon ‘last-mile’ facility in Holyoke to a biotech research facility on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. There are some established niches the company has developed, he said, adding that senior housing has long been one of them.

“The things that I learned about coaching my players transfer so wonderfully to our life at the office. I learned that I can’t coach every player, and every employee, the same way; people respond to different types of motivation, different types of stimulation.”

Meanwhile, transportation-facility management has become another niche, he said, adding that there are unique qualities to managing such properties, including the “interface between the public and private,” as he called it.

“Springfield’s Union Station is a perfect example; you have users of the bus facilities here — the PVTA, Peter Pan, Greyhound — and you also have Amtrak and CT Rail bringing people in on the tracks overhead, and all the people using those facilities circulating throughout the concourse,” he explained. “At the same time, you have several businesses that function there, so you have private folks parking in the garage, walking through the concourse, grabbing something at Dunkin’ Donuts, and then going upstairs.

Springfield’s Union Station.

Matt Flink says Appleton has developed a solid niche managing transportation centers, including Springfield’s Union Station.

“Maintaining safe conditions, clean conditions, secure conditions, is an important element in managing those types of facilities,” he went on. “For us, it is a niche market, and one we will continue to pursue.”

Moving forward, and from a strategic perspective, Appleton is focused on two key areas — business development and continuous improvement of the service provided to customers.

Overall, Flink said he has inherited a strong foundation and healthy portfolio from Stelzer, so he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, just maintain and build what is in place, with a focus on people and giving them the tools they need to succeed.

“It comes down to keeping our current portfolio stabilized, looking for continuous process improvements along the way, making better use of technology to better serve our customers, and making better use of technology so we ourselves can become more efficient,” he said. “And, at the same time, continuing other lines of our business and, as with those transportation facilities, looking outside of our traditional windows of opportunity. I think we’re well-positioned and well-placed to do that kind of work.”

the Springfield Technology Park.

The Appleton portfolio includes a diverse mix of properties, including the Springfield Technology Park.

As he goes about all this, he will call on not only previous work experience — and there is plenty of that — but also time spent coaching, especially football, at both the youth and high-school levels.

“The things that I learned about coaching my players transfer so wonderfully to our life at the office,” he said, by way of explaining how his work on the sidelines has shaped his management style. “I learned that I can’t coach every player, and every employee, the same way; people respond to different types of motivation, different types of stimulation.

“Some just need me to sit and listen to them and hear them and not even comment much, but just know that I’m hearing them,” he went on. “Some want a really deep and intense dialogue and to take a deep dive into the issues, and want me to act as a sounding board and really spend time devoted to solving problems or envisioning problems and coming up with mitigation strategies. As much as anything, I’ll be a coach trying to help each of our employees find a better version of themselves every day, with the goal of being a little better today than I was yesterday. And tomorrow, I really hope I’m better than I am today.”

 

Changing Dynamics

Returning to the subject of the office market and what will happen moving forward, Flink said there are many unknowns when it comes to this issue, and it will certainly take some time for the market to fully shake out.

By that, he meant everything from whether office workers will return and when — some are back, but across the country, many are not back or are working in hybrid arrangements — to how properties might be repurposed if they are not used for offices moving forward.

It’s a complex matter, he said, using the O’Connell family of companies as an example of how businesses managed to get work done, and done well, during the pandemic with almost all employees working remotely.

“For 475 days, plus or minus a day or two, we were essentially shut down in our corporate offices with just a few of us there,” he recalled. “What we learned in that period of time is that we can do that very successfully. We can allow people to work at home, we can give them the time they need to attend to things in the middle of the day, but all of us got our work done; we paid bills on time, we responded to requests for proposals on time … we did everything we needed to.

“Our experience in that space is similar to what we’re seeing around the country in that space,” he went on. “The pandemic forced people to rethink how they deliver their work product, what vehicle they use to deliver their work product; at the same time, there began to be a demand, a desire, to stay home once the pandemic eased up and people could return to their office space.”

This concept of remote work has turned into a benefit, he told BusinessWest, much like a 401(k), a vacation, or health insurance. And there is an expectation for it among job seekers and existing employees alike.

These factors have collectively reduced the demand for office space, he went on, adding that there are a few cases within the Appleton portfolio where tenants, specifically large call centers, have contracted substantially.

In one case, space was successfully backfilled, largely with government entities, Flink noted, adding that this may prove to a blueprint for many properties moving forward.

“Repurposing some of those commercial spaces for other user groups is going to be important,” he said. “Going forward, owners and managers of commercial real estate, at least for the short term, and maybe for the long term, depending on how the market responds to this concept of remote work, are going to be clever in how they look at various user groups.”

Imaginative reuse has been the watchword in retail for some time, he went on, noting that, as more shopping is done online, there has been less need for bricks-and-mortar facilities. Larger properties such as indoor malls and strip malls have adjusted by repurposing space for bowling alleys, laser tag, trampoline facilities, and more. Meanwhile, the cannabis industry has had a profound impact on the commercial real-estate landscape, absorbing large amounts of different kinds of spaces, from old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton to storefronts in many communities to a portion of the Springfield Newspapers building.

“Whether it’s that [cannabis] or seeking government entities where you may have looked to place a private tenant before, all this speaks to the need to be clever and really think outside the box and be open to other possibilities in that commercial marketplace,” said Flink, noting that the tech park at STCC is an example of this dynamic. A large call center has moved out, but over the next few years, he expects those spaces to fill back to something close to pre-pandemic levels.

 

Goal to Go

Getting back to football coaching and how it influences how he manages people, Flink summoned that often-used saying — among coaches and business owners alike — about people needing to give 110%.

“You don’t have to be a math major to know that this is literally impossible — you can’t give more than 100%,” he told BusinessWest. “What it comes down to, whether you’re coaching young athletes or spending time with senior-level executives on our staff, is redefining for people what their true capacity is. Very rarely do we operate at our true capacity; we’re blocked at times by our own negativity or the negative thinking of others. But we’re all capable of being more than we think we are, and helping people to understand where their 100% exists, and how they can live in a world that touches on that more often, is something that I’m passionate about.”

That’s one of many passions, and lessons, from past experiences that Flink will bring to his challenge, one that, as he said, is the logical place for him to be.

 

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

Cannabis

The State of the Industry

Michael Kusek

Michael Kusek says the cannabis industry is in what he calls “a first bout of growing pains.”

“Our first bout of growing pains.”

That’s the phrase Michael Kusek summoned after being asked to describe the state of the cannabis industry in the Bay State more than five and a half years after its start.

“We’re still very much in the early stages of this industry,” said Kusek, who launched the quarterly publication A Different Leaf, with the subtitle ‘A Journal of Cannabis Culture’ to essentially chronicle this business and tell the many stories that define it. “It took over a year to sell the first billion-dollars-worth of cannabis, and then it took eight months to sell the second billion. Those billions are going to come faster; the market isn’t shrinking, it’s just being spread out over more locations.”

Elaborating, he said the numbers of dispensaries and other kinds of businesses is growing rapidly and profoundly, and soon — how soon remains to be seen — there will come an answer to the question ‘how many of these is too many?’

“Competition has come to the market — quickly,” he explained. “In some places, dispensaries that were the only game in town — those that had first-mover advantage — are no longer the only game in town. That has come quickly as the Cannabis Control Commission has become faster and more efficient at licensing businesses.”

Meanwhile, there will soon be more competition from other states, including New York and New Jersey, which will likely have their first dispensaries by the end of this year, developments that will certainly impact regions like the Berkshires. And there will be companies based in other parts of the country that will want to enter this state and likely partner with existing ventures to do so, he said, adding that all these factors go into that phrase ‘growing pains.’

Overall, the state’s cannabis business continues to grow, evolve, and influence the regional economy in many different ways, said Kusek, listing everything from the profound impact on commercial real estate, with dozens of formerly vacant or underutilized properties finding new life as homes to different kinds of cannabis businesses, to the introduction of new kinds of ventures, such as home delivery (see related story, page 20) and social-consumption sites, to the infusion of tax revenue from these various ventures.

And the stories in the latest edition of the publication — the Spring 2022 ‘Cannabis and Culture’ issue — speak to all this. They punctuate how the industry is evolving and influencing the region, and how there are many subplots to the larger story. Indeed, there’s a piece about how the cannabis industry can help cities and towns like Holyoke revitalize their economy. There’s another piece, in the ‘how-to section’ where experts talk about communicating with children about cannabis use. And then, there’s a story about entrepreneurs Phillipe and Ashlan Cousteau about their new line of “ocean-infused” cannabis products.

The past several issues and the one coming next provide more insight: winter 2021 was the ‘medical issue,’ while fall 2021 was the ‘annual’ (the third) ‘Edibles Issue.’ The summer issue, meanwhile will be the first devoted to ‘cannabis travel and tourism,’ said Kusek, noting that he’s always wanted to do one of these, but couldn’t until COVID subsided sufficiently.

“This is the first summer we thought we could do travel and tourism,” he said, adding that the issue will include pieces on traveling with cannabis — what’s legal and what isn’t, according to the Transportation Safety Administration; cannabis spas; and a broad piece on just what is cannabis tourism.

“There’s two ways of looking at it,” he explained. “People are going to destinations where there is cannabis, and that’s why they’re going there, places like Jamaica, where they may be able to visit a cannabis farm. Or, if people are traveling in California, they may want to visit dispensaries — like a brewery tour; cannabis becomes the destination.”

While cannabis is certainly changing the local and national landscape — literally and also figuratively — the overarching questions are: ‘what’s next?’ and ‘how big can this industry become?’

In a candid interview, Kusek, whose magazine is now national in scope but still pays close attention to what’s happening in this region and the Commonwealth as a whole, provided some perspective on the state of this emerging sector and what we can expect in the months and years to come.

 

Where There’s Smoke …

Kusek said there has been considerable change in the landscape since the cannabis industry was born in 2016, and also since BusinessWest last spoke with him, just as he was launching A Different Leaf in the summer of 2019.

Perhaps the biggest change, and this has led to more competition, has been quicker action on the part of the CCC when it comes to issuing licenses.

“Early on, the commission was taking their first tentative steps toward licensing, and licensed very slowly, from 2018 on,” he explained. “They were not licensing dozens a week; it was in the single digits. And that created some tension within the pool of people waiting for licenses, and there were many kinds of businesses within that pool of applicants — locally grown companies, businesses coming into Massachusetts from other states — MSOs (multi-state operators), and a pool of applicants under the social-equity provisions of the law.
“The state was not speedy in granting licenses, and you had a fair number of businesses who burned through their capital waiting for licenses. It’s not like opening a restaurant, where you find a space, and you rent it, and you go to the town and you get your food permits and then you acquire a liquor license; it could take a while, but it’s not that long a process,” he went on. “With cannabis, early on, you had people who had to rent a storefront, because you needed a license to get the host-community agreement with your town. There are people I talked with who had their host-community agreements and had rented a building, and they never opened their doors til three years later.”

He said there are more than a few examples of entrepreneurs who burned through their money, with an emphasis on their money, because one cannot get bank financing for such businesses, because cannabis is still illegal federally. But the situation is improving, he noted, and this is leading to more ventures opening their doors, thus changing the competitive landscape, at least in some communities.

Indeed, there are several cities and towns where cannabis has a huge presence and large impact on the local economy — Holyoke, Northampton, and Easthampton are on that list — and others where it has little if any, such as West Springfield, where a moratorium on such businesses still exists. Many lie somewhere in the middle, he said, adding that their status depends largely on how ‘friendly’ these communities are to the industry.

The varying degrees of friendliness leave entrepreneurs with some choices, said Kusek, adding that they may choose to wage a more difficult campaign to locate in a community where there are few such businesses, or choose to join the growing number of players in communities like Northampton.

“Do you try your luck with the city of Springfield and burn through all of your money on rent, or do you go to Northampton, where you can get a host-community agreement and hopefully get through the state process much quicker, and at least get your doors open?” Kusek asked rhetorically. “You may not make a dollar, but you might make 50 cents.”

Another interesting dynamic was the state’s willingness to grant licenses to dispensaries, but not to the cultivators that would provide product to those facilities, said Kusek, adding that over the past few years, it has essentially caught up, meaning that there is now both more competition and more product.

“In the fall and winter of 2021, I had more than a half-dozen phone calls from people asking me if I knew where they could buy flower — if I knew anyone who had cannabis flower to sell wholesale,” he explained. “I don’t grow cannabis, I don’t sell cannabis, I write about cannabis. But the marketplace was so tight, and people were having such a hard time finding product, they were calling people like me looking for product. That has stopped happening.”

And that is just one of the many developments contributing to the growth and evolution of the industry, adding that as the sector emerges here, takes root in other states, and becomes more national in scope and reach, there will be many fronts to watch.

These include the ongoing debate about whether to make cannabis legal on a federal basis, what Kusek calls “the next big shoe to drop,” because of the huge implications of such a development — on everything from inter-state commerce to use of the banking system and all those ramifications — should it come to pass and how it might come to pass.

“There are lots of competing and complementary interests helping to develop legislation, and there are advocates for smaller businesses who don’t want this legislation to be dominated by MSOs or Big Tobacco, or InBev, or whoever else wants to get into the cannabis industry when it becomes federally legal,” he explained, adding that it will be a very complicated process to take the regulations put in place by the three dozen or so states that have legalized medical or adult-use cannabis, and overlay that with federal policy. “They don’t want the federal regulations to squash small business, and they don’t want federal regulations to squash social-equity provisions at the state level.”

Overall, he said this White House has not made legalizing cannabis a priority, and he does not expect that to change anytime soon, although he certainly leaves the door open to that eventuality.

 

Joint Ventures

In the meantime, the local landscape continues to change, with new businesses, new business types, such as delivery and social-consumption sites (which Kusek predicts will be the next ‘big thing’), brands developing their identities, businesses identifying customers, and much more.

Kusek said these are all contributing to growing pains, which, overall, are a good thing to have. They convey that a sector is expanding and evolving, so much so that the growth and evolution are creating issues, and, in his case, things to write about it.

There will be no shortage of such things for the foreseeable future, which is good for Kusek, and very good for an industry that is, in most all ways, very much in its infancy.

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